When I awake, it is so cold that my cheeks are numb; all around me the night is thickly black under a starless sky. The sound comes again—metal on rock. One of our cook pans is being moved at the fire pit. A marmot, I think, and lie listening; squirrels and chipmunks aren’t big enough to move a pan like that.
Then another noise. I listen with strained attention, trying to identify it. Either it is the sound of my partner Jeri unzipping her sleeping bag or—and my scalp tingles—or it is the sound of claws dragging across canvas.
Stealthily, a little at a time, I turn over on the ground inside my bag until I lie facing Jeri. Encased in her mummy bag, she lies turned away from me. Fast asleep.
There is another scratching noise, loud in the night.
I turn over again, slowly, as quietly as possible, and when I am lying on my right side I unzip the top of my bag and reach a careful hand out into the cold to close it around the flashlight. I direct the light at our backpacks, propped against the log near our feet, and flick the switch.
Looking straight at me in the circle of light are two yellow eyes in a dark furry head. The animal is hunched over from behind the log, its massive forelegs wrapped around my pack.
The light does not frighten it. It goes on ripping at the side pocket of the pack, pulling things out the hole it’s made.
My body is paralyzed for a few moments, while my mind leaps back to a conversation with some campers in Junction Meadow. “Make noise,” they had advised, “Yell. Jump up and down. Beat on pans. Only don’t mess with a female bear who has cubs.”
That information sucks me fully into the moment. No way to know if this is a daddy bear or a mommy bear! I tilt on a knife edge, adrenaline sharpening my senses, yet hearing from some far-off place my own voice objecting, How I wish this were not happening.
But I can’t just lie here and let the animal take our food! Something instinctual, territorial, leaps up in me; against all reason and backcountry wisdom, I am ready to protect our supplies.
Keeping the flashlight on the bear’s furry bulk, I sit up, unzipping my bag farther, and I start to yell—a karate yell, from the diaphragm, deafening, terrifying. But all that comes out of my tight throat is Eeeeeeep, eeeeeeep.
The creature goes on looting my pack. I keep moving backwards as I try to yell, until I’m practically sitting on top of Jeri in her sleeping bag. She grumbles and rolls away. I’m torn, wanting to shake her awake, but afraid to turn my back to the bear.
Yellow claws pull a chocolate bar from the frayed hole in the canvas. The small shiny eyes watch me, the enormous furry shoulders hunch tighter around the pack.
I struggle upright out of my warm covering and dance in my thermal underwear on top of my sleeping bag, shouting Hup, hup, hup!
Amazingly, Jeri is still curled in her sleeping bag. What the hell’s wrong with her? Why doesn’t she get up to help me?
I leap and stamp and throw one arm out like a pump handle, my yell getting louder now.
The little eyes watch me warily as the claws pull a bag of trail mix from the hole and stuff it in the mouth, spilling peanuts and sunflower seeds down the front of the pack as the plastic splits.
I jump in the cold air, knees jerking up and down, shouting Yow, yow, yow! A quick glance behind shows me Jeri unzipping her bag. At last!
Out comes a tampon. The animal shoves it in its mouth, bites into it, and one half is left dangling like a cigar butt down its chin.
What’s going on? Here I am, dancing like a madwoman and screeching not eight feet from this creature and it just continues with its midnight snack. “Throw something,” they had said in Junction Meadow.
All I have is the flashlight. I pull back my arm, aim, let fly.
It sails toward the bear and bounces off its head just above the eyes, spiraling up to send a beam of light looping crazily in the darkness.
The bear stops all motion, stunned. And in that instant I know I have made a terrible mistake. The great body rears up clumsily off the pack, hesitates, and I look around for a place to run to. Anywhere! Up the nearest tree—no. It can scramble up after me. Out through the underbrush in the dark—but surely it can move faster than I. The creek is too far down the slope. There is no place to go.
This is the pivotal moment, when I turn and look back into the gaping mouth of time. Everything holds still: There is no escape, no negotiation, no petition, no one to save me. The bear teeters there on tense hind legs. Could it be as paralyzed as I? Or perhaps not frozen at all but only taking its time to decide what it will do?
LATER I LISTEN to Jeri’s explanation, while the bear stalks us and we scramble to build a fire with the few spindly sticks on the ground. She tells me each of the thoughts that had passed through her mind as she lay there almost asleep, each one giving her an excuse not to act, or confusing her, until the final moment when she saw the light spiral crazily in the darkness and thought it was a space ship landing, or someone with a flashlight stumbling down upon us. Jeri is an artist, with a sometimes eccentric imagination; usually I am charmed by her fancies—not tonight. But perhaps there would have been nothing she could have done if she had tried to help. My anger at her sputters and dies.
In the underbrush twenty feet from us we hear the stealthy padding of feet. I see the branches shudder, a furry snout poke through; yellow eyes flash, reflecting our fire.
Jeri and I move in a circle, trying to keep the bear on the other side of the fire pit from us. Desperate to feed the flames, I pull a brochure out of my pack, rip out the glossy photos of cheerfully smiling Tibetan monks, crumple the reassuring words of a dharma talk, roll up the article about the Western man who has created a Buddhist institution. These I stuff under the twigs, nudging them against the little tongues of fire. The paper flares up, the small branches splutter. This brochure brings an image of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whose teachings I have been reading. Would he recognize the space where my mind is floating? Would he reel in my mind like a scarf twisting in the wind, smoothing it and wrapping it around his fingers, or would he simply smile, nodding in approval as I flutter out here?
The minutes pass, black night reigns outside our circle of light, the noises from the weeds stop, then start again. The creature moves around us like a planet circling the sun of our fire, waiting its chance to move in close.
Perhaps I am going to die—and in such dramatic fashion. Who could have predicted this for me—the earnest Buddhist practitioner, newly embracing meditation, reading texts, sitting day after day, secretly hungering for the breakthroughs pointed to in some Zen books, hinted at in Tibetan and Theravada texts. Probably Trungpa would find my predicament fortunate, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And if I were sufficiently cooked, I might have broken through in those few minutes after awaking, when I experienced absolute, adrenaline-fired clarity. I remember the story about the monk meditating in the forest who is attacked by bandits who threaten to murder him. He asks them to wait until morning to kill him so that he will have time to attain full enlightenment before he dies. They will do so, they say, on the condition that he guarantee he will not run away during the night. He picks up a big rock to shatter his leg bones so he cannot walk, and they agree to let him live a few hours more. Then he enters samadhi, and through diligent effort he is able to attain full liberation by morning light. (At which point the bandits kill him. I’m not reassured by this last detail.)
My stomach lurches as I see the lumbering dark form break from the bushes and pace deliberately toward us. I pick up a hiking boot and throw it. The boot strikes the bear on its side; the creature shows its teeth in an outraged growl but stops, peering at us. I see the indecision in its arrested pose. Jeri and I move to keep the flames between us and this animal.
The trip had started nine days before, in hot dry August, when we drove to Sequoia National Forest and set out hiking. We were on our way to Mount Whitney, determined to stand on its 14,500-foot summit and look out over the Sierras, down to the Mojave Desert.
That evening we had made it to Crabtree Meadow, where we were the only people. Normally we would have hung our food supplies high up on a tree limb, but in our eight days of hiking we had seen no sign of bear, and this night we let fatigue overcome our better judgment.
Now, awake and trembling from the cold, we endure the long grueling hours. Desperately, we throw small sticks on the fire to keep it going, while the force in the underbrush stays as stubbornly committed as we to the standoff. It comes near, it melts back into the bushes, we see its eyes gleaming out there among the leaves, then it seems to have gone, but it always returns. Circling us. Not until years later, in a book called Bear Attacks, did I read that once a bear has gotten hold of your supplies, he considers them his kill, and he will violently defend them from any being who may threaten them. So, the book advised, if the bear grabs your food, just back off and let him have it. Don’t try to scare him away, because he may attack you. Unwittingly, I had done the most dangerous thing anyone could choose to do!
But after the long slow passage of the night, finally a glow squeezes up above the surrounding peaks to lift the dark lid of sky. The bear must be as weary as we. It stops its lumbering. Legs firmly planted, it stands peering at us, then swings its head to look at the torn backpack, tilted against the log, pockets ripped open, then back at us. We meet the gaze of the bright little eyes. The moment goes on forever, as our pathetic fire crackles between us. Once more the bear glances at its interrupted meal. It shakes its shoulders.
Then, blowing a juicy snort from its muzzle, our tormentor turns and waddles off into the morning, brown shaggy haunches disappearing into the underbrush.
Jeri and I sit on the dirt beside the dying fire, watching the sky go from charcoal to dove gray to palest blue streaked with pink. I love the morning. Taking a deep breath, I silently thank the sun for returning. Then I thank the bear for leaving us to this exhausted empty space. My mind feels stretched beyond its margins, open to the dawn silence, the sight of a tiny twig immobile on a branch. I turn to look at Jeri, who returns my glance. We’re here: We made it through.
When finally the sun pops up over the dark shadowed rib of the mountain, I put my palms together to bow in reverential greeting.