I was hiking a five-day loop — alone — in the Rocky Mountains when I rounded the switchback and saw a large body on the trail ahead. It had brown fur with a cinnamon tinge that was draped across dense, humped back muscle. A broad head lifted and I could see the dish-shaped muzzle was catching my scent. I knew bears. This was a grizzly. For the first time during my hike, I wasn't alone.
A young woman hiking alone in the mountains sounds dangerous. In the pre–cell phone era maybe it was, but I'll stop short of calling it foolish. By that time in the mid-1990s, I was a competent rock climber and versed in mountain travel. I'd decided to strike out on my own. Maybe I thought that the trip might prove my newfound independence, but trying to press logic on my 21-year-old self was likely impossible. As I remember, the idea popped into my head. And then, just as suddenly, I hoisted on my backpack, tied a bandana over my braid, and set off for higher altitudes.
The bear stood on the trail next to a clump of brush. Though my experience was mostly with black bears, I knew I didn't want to catch it by surprise.
"Yo bear, yo!" I shouted the common refrain used to warn bears of human presence. It came out more like a thin yodel. I glanced around for signs of cubs, as mother bears with babies are known to be more aggressive. With her fur-lined ears catching the sun, the bear slowly turned her head toward me and then looked away. My thoughts turned to my pack. It was filled with food for the remaining days. My hand went to the belt of my pack at my hips. I unclipped it.
The bear must have heard the click because she lazily turned her head to look. I let the pack drop on the ground to detach myself from any source of extra interest. Keeping up my weak yodeling, I took a step backward and backed up along the path until I was at the switchback. Another step and I moved back around the bend. I was now in the trees and standing beside a jack pine. The problem: I could no longer see the bear.
Realistically, the riskiest part of my trip was probably driving to the trailhead over the high mountain pass in my old van. She was blue and I called her Lou. I'd had her brakes checked but doubted that we could stop on a dime, or even a hill. Lou had issues with radiator fluid. She didn't like it much and always wanted to leave it behind. We pulled up to the trailhead of this hike filled with relief that we'd made it. As I got my pack and supplies ready for the hike, I assumed that the hard part was over. Perhaps that's why I didn't even flinch when I saw the warning sign about grizzlies at the trailhead.
I did think more of the sign, however, as I stood, now packless and unable to see the bear, leaning up against the jack pine. It had lost needles in the lower half, which left places to grab hold. I barely remember climbing. Judging by the scratch marks that I later found on my arms and legs, I didn't let much get in my way. I got as high as I could and found a branch thick enough to sit on. From there, I looked out hoping to catch sight of the bear, but the brush obscured my view. I knew a black bear could easily scramble up after me, but that the tree probably wouldn't support the weight of a grizzly. A male can weigh between 400 and 600 pounds, and a female maybe half that. Either way, my choice of tree might stop a grizzly from climbing, but a creature with that much power could easily give the trunk a shake and have me on the ground in seconds. I was under no illusions. If that bear wanted to come after me, climbing a tree would only buy time.
So what did I do? I only saw one real choice. I sat in the tree and sniveled. It wasn't a proud moment. I only had time to think of my shortcomings. What was I doing? Why had I come to grizzly country alone? Why, of all the trees in the world, had I chosen an especially scratchy one with a thin trunk?
Now, as a novelist, my days sometimes feel like I did in that tree. I often feel exposed and alone. I get scared. I invite my characters to climb up with me and watch what they do. This is what it felt like to write my new novel, The Bear. It's about two children lost in the wilderness. The older girl takes care of her young brother. Putting her in that situation felt scary, but it also meant that I got to see how she worked. And why. It's a way to understand what's inside.
But I couldn't snivel in that tree forever.
"Yo bear," I called as I landed back on the ground with a thump. I'm not sure how long I stayed up in the tree, but it may have been around two hours. I crept back around the corner and saw my pack lying on the trail. It was untouched. I walked to it and looked out. No bear. Where was it? I scanned up and down the meadow. No signs. I had a choice. Retrace my steps or keep going?
I was just two days into a five-day hike. There was a bear... somewhere. She hadn't come back down the trail. She was probably ahead, but she may have gone somewhere down below. The bear had showed no signs of aggression. In fact, other than my tree climbing, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I was never actually safer in the tree. Running back to my van Lou came with dangers too. I strapped on my pack and kept hiking through the meadow. The day was magical and I found spectacular things in the high country.
I remind myself of that moment of decision as I take more risks in my writing. I know enough now to go with a companion in grizzly country, but I need to keep wandering out alone. Even though I know there are bears.