I had not planned on being chased by a bear. It just happened.
It was a beautiful spring day. I work as a teacher, and both my teenage son and I were home for spring break.
“We should be outside,” I told him, as he texted his friends and watched videos on YouTube. The day before we had taken a nice walk together at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, a park near where I live in upstate New York. Surely he remembered our pleasant conversation—which is not always the case between a mother and teenage son—and surely he wanted to walk again.
He didn’t. I insisted, and we got in the car. He asked me to take him to a different park about 30 minutes in the opposite direction, but when we got there it ended up being too crowded. So I turned the car around and drove to Ward Pound Ridge. By the time we arrived, he informed me that he was not going to walk; he would just sit in the car. After a bit of negotiating, which is really a nice way of saying that we argued and I hurled threats, I convinced him to sit in the sun at a nearby picnic table while I walked the trail alone. At least he would get some sunshine and Vitamin D. The Yellow Trail was only 2.6 miles; I would be back in a little over an hour. I knew it was a bit reckless—a woman alone on a trail deep in a preserve could be dangerous. But if there was a yuppie on the prowl, I had pepper spray in my bag.
The thought of getting a break from a sullen teenage boy and the peace and quiet of the trail pulled me along. And as I walked I silently repeated a mantra. Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha [“Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail”]. I had once read that traveling Buddhist monks used this mantra for protection. In the beginning, I passed other people who were walking on the adjacent Red and Green Trails. But soon the Yellow Trail forked off to the left, and I found myself alone on the path.
As I walked by myself, I felt completely at peace. The silence was an oasis, especially after the argument with my son. I started to relax and really experience the sounds of the trail: the rustle of the leaves, the chirping of the birds, the scurrying feet of the squirrels. I started to think about how nature is a sanctuary—a perfectly peaceful place devoid of the suffering, fighting, arguing, and conflict of daily life. If I were to die on this trail, I thought, I would be OK with it. This could be the perfect place to die.
The Yellow Trail began to bend and wind some more, and I couldn’t see that far ahead of me. And then, as I turned the next bend, I saw it: a huge black bear in the middle of the trail, just a foot away. Our eyes met.
I’m dead, I thought. I’m going to be eaten. I turned, and I ran.
There is something about being chased by a bear that changes your perspective in the moment. The only thought that came to mind was that I needed to run. Every few paces, I would turn my head and look back. The first time I glanced back, the bear was chasing me. I fumbled in my purse for my pepper spray, but there were so many zippers and compartments that I could not find it. I could not remember where I put it. Run. Run. Run. My breathing became very labored; my asthma threatened to slow me down. But fear is a great motivator. A few more paces, turn; a few more paces, gauge how close the bear is. There were many bends, and sometimes I could not see the bear. Run. Run. Run. Look forward. Turn back. Gauge where the bear is. When my breathing was too labored, I walked quickly, and then, run, run, run.
When I thought I was far enough, I yelled: Help! But no one answered. Save your breath, I thought. Run, run, run. Oh, please do not let me be eaten. I don’t want to be eaten. I am going to be eaten. I am surely dead. An asthmatic, middle-aged woman cannot outrun a bear. Run, run, run. I could not see the bear anymore, but I knew I was not safe. I had to get back to where the trail forked and met up with the other trails, where there would be other people.
I finally made it to the fork, but I didn’t see anyone. I had a decision to make. If I went back on the Yellow Trail, I might cross paths with the bear again. But if I ventured further into the preserve on a different trail, I might meet the bear anyway, but deeper in the park, where I would never make it back. And if I was attacked, I would have no way to alert my son: my ex-husband had not paid the phone bill, so he could only text and listen to music.
I decided to go back on the Yellow Trail and kept scanning the area for the bear. I ran and walked, my lungs aching. I made one phone call that went unanswered. I was crying but left a message as best I could: Call my sister if you do not hear from me soon. I am being chased by a bear.
Run. Run. Run. I knew I was almost back. I saw a man and yelled at him as I ran by: “There is a bear on the Yellow Trail. Don’t take it!” The man kept walking, and I kept running. “What are you doing?” he asked me. “You are not supposed to run from a bear. The bear will think you are prey.” I kept running. “You are supposed to stand still, be respectful, and speak in a calm voice,” he said. “Thank you,” I said, still running. “Don’t go on the Yellow Trail.”
Finally, I made it back to the parking lot, but was immediately hit by another gut-punch of dread. My son was not where I left him. “Stephen! Stephen!” I screamed. What if he decided to meet me on the Yellow Trail? What if he had gotten on the trail in the opposite direction? What if he crossed paths with the bear? “Stephen! Stephen!” I screamed again. Then I saw him get up (still on his cell phone). He had moved to another bench. He was OK. “I saw a bear!” I told him. “I must warn people!”
A car pulled in and a family got out with two children and a small dog. “Don’t go on the Yellow Trail. I was chased by a bear!” I told them. I knew I needed to find the park ranger and warn any other people. I got in the car and started driving. I saw a man. “Are you the ranger?” “No.” He was waiting for his girlfriend, who was using the bathroom. “There is a bear on the Yellow Trail,” I said. His girlfriend left the bathroom. I told her too.
After five minutes of driving and searching, I found three Park Service workers. “There is a bear on the Yellow Trail,” I told them. “What did you do?” one of the workers asked. “I ran,” I said. “What did the bear do?” he asked. “It ran after me.” “Oh, that’s not good,” he said. “I think you need to put a sign up. I think you need to warn people. There are children on the trail,” I said and got in my car. I drove to the next town. I got tea. It took two hours for my breathing to return to normal. My son was very nice to me while he texted on his cell phone.
Seeing that bear was the most unexpected and terrifying moment of my life. I had been in frightening situations before, but there is something different about being chased by a bear. There’s no talking to a bear, no negotiating. The bear is bigger and faster—an entirely different species that plays by different rules.
In the dharma, we are taught to stay in the moment, to follow our breath, to be present. Thoughts come and thoughts go. On our cushion, in the safety of the sangha, the mind wanders. It moves from desire to pain to worry to fear. The mind is restless. But when you’re being chased by a bear on the Yellow Trail, the mind is completely in the moment. When a bear is chasing you, you’re not thinking about the next item on your to-do list or the bills that you need to pay. You’re not even worrying about your teenage son on his cell phone. There is run, run, run, and a few other essential thoughts: I don’t want to be eaten. Where is the pepper spray? If the bear gets me, I will bleed to death before anyone finds me. On the cliff between life and death, thoughts are very simple.
There is a truth about life that can be found when you’re in the present moment. If I had not been paying attention as I walked, if I had kept my head down, or if I had my earbuds in, I would have turned that bend and run into that bear. Fortunately, I saw the bear before it saw me, and I ran, and I survived.
Then again, perhaps the lesson here has nothing to do with the present moment at all. Even the great Mauryan Emperor Asoka had monks travel in pairs as they spread the dharma.
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