“There are bears ahead,” he said. Or at least that’s what I think he said. I’ve never been very good at listening when I’m distracted, and I’m distracted often.
I was even more so when I was 10 and acting the part of a thru-hiker with my dad on a weeklong stint on the Appalachian Trail. This was a thing we did every summer. We would pick up where we had left off the year before and hike for a few days or a week — pretending we, father and daughter, were taking on the great wilderness — before calling my mom to come pick us up.
We’d tell stories to the other trail folk — “oh, the things we’ve seen” — all of them made up. There were tales of poison ivy woods so thick you’d come out with a rash on your eyeballs, of woodland ghosts, of abnormally large footprints. It made for good fun, but I’m doubtful it fooled anybody. It was easy to tell the difference between us and the true thru-hikers. The relatively thin layer of grime and dirt on our faces was one factor. Our low level of stench was the dead giveaway.
And here was this man in the mountains of North Carolina, one of the hairiest and smelliest I’d seen, only to be surpassed by his smellier and grimier father, telling us there were bears ahead. Or maybe he said there were woodland pirates ahead or the spotted hen who undoubtedly was patient zero for the chickenpox epidemic ahead. I couldn’t be sure. I was so distracted by the sight and smell of that father-son duo. But what I could be sure of was the look of terror on my dad’s face.
“Let’s turn around,” my dad said.
Turn around? That’s not how trail life worked. You didn’t change directions willy-nilly. Plus, there were bears ahead! I wanted to see them.
I ran ahead as my dad walked cautiously behind me. Five minutes down the trail, we found them — two black bear cubs playing just off the trail. My dad whistled for me to come back to him, but I wanted a closer look. So cute.
He called my name. Sternly. Dad was nervous, but why should he be? The cubs were much smaller than I was. They couldn’t hurt us. I just wanted to touch one.
I walked toward the cubs. My dad was frozen in fear. He kept whistling at me, calling my name in that specific manner that comes across as both a yell and a whisper. He was furious; this I could tell. But I could not tell why. Because the thing I didn’t understand at the time was that the mama bear, though currently unseen, was undoubtedly nearby and might not think twice about shredding an overcurious child openly defying her father into her own version of Carolina pulled pork.
We never did see the mama bear. We never did see another foot of the trail that year, either, because when I finally got back to my dad, he decided we were walking to the nearest town and calling my mom. There’s got to be trust on the trail — even if you’re only pretending to take on the long haul.
It wasn’t until years later, when I was 18 and spending the summer camping in Denali National Park, that I came to understand my dad’s fears. The nightly talks that the rangers gave about how to handle bear attacks were enough to ensure that the bears weren’t the only ones to you-know-what in the woods. There was talk of going up on your tippy-toes, arms outstretched, and screaming to scare a bear off. Talk of using bear spray, which is basically like throwing a fistful of fire ants into a bear’s eyes and hoping the wind doesn’t blow them back into your own. And if all else failed, there was the instruction to play dead while curling your body in the tightest ball possible; that way, with the bear swiping at you with his mighty claws and gnawing on you with his mighty teeth, you might have a marginal chance of protecting your vital organs. Happy hiking.
Last week, we went on a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park. Far in the distance, through a small scope, my nearly 5-year-old saw a grizzly.
“I wanna see it up close,” he said.
Parenting karma is real.
Katiedid Langrock is author of the book “Stop Farting in the Pyramids,” available at www.creators.com/books/stop-farting-in-the-pyramids. Like Katiedid Langrock on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/katiedidhumor. To find out more about her and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.