Tuesday, June 22, 2010

TST: Seventeen Black Bears Makes You Stronger

This story is about confronting my inner fear machine, the one that just won't let me rest. I was going to spend the week recounting my back country hiking experience in the Shenandoah. Perhaps the many details of that adventure are not meant for anyone but me. Maybe my new knowledge of what it feels like to experience close sightings of seventeen black bears over the course of five days cannot be conveyed in words.

Each day on the trail brought me closer to a mental breakdown, not because I couldn't handle the physical challenge, but because the repeated jolts of adrenaline and the hypersensitivity to my surroundings was overwhelming.

You see, I am naturally afraid of bears. But maybe it was the stories of violent bear encounters that gave me this fear. I was afraid because I wouldn't know what to do in the event of a mauling. When my cat was hit by a car and I had to retrieve him from the road I could barely lift him because something inside made me incredibly weak, like a bag of water.

For some reason I had to learn how to walk near many black bears on the trail without running, hiding, or fainting. I had to learn how to keep my cool. It was perhaps, the only thing to do. Just like laughter saved me from being strangled by a homeless man in the library, pretending that it was no big deal to stand next to a momma bear and her tiny cub was what saved me from being mauled.

I did not go to the Shenandoah purposely to view large, furry black mammals, but now that I'm home in my city, I have to say that it was a blessing. It is an amazing experience to overcome the kind of fear that turns your legs to water, heightens all senses and produces gallons of sweat. By day five, I really wanted to go home. We were not making any progress on the trails because every time we went out, there would be another family of bears. At one point we found ourselves surrounded by three bears behind us and one bear in front of us. Instead of running away like the first bear, the bears near the Corbin cabin simply recognized our presence as if we were butterflies. It is the most incredible experience to look at the face of a black bear and have it return the gaze without aggression. For some reason, we were able to walk by 17 bears without causing alarm. On our last hike, a one mile journey up a steep mountain, we passed seven. Families of bears living in rocky caves, grazing on bugs under fallen trees. The only way I managed to keep walking was by focusing on the back of my husband's shoes.

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