On Love and Black Bears
“Black Bear, Black Bear, what do you see?”
“I see a sweaty girl, looking at me.”
That’s the start of the new edition of the popular children’s book. It’s a collaboration between myself, the Black Bear, and the Black Bear Cub that I saw while hiking today in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and we are anticipating it will hit shelves sometime in November, 2018. I imagine the next line of the book will be about the Black Bear’s inner turmoil and whether she thought she should give me CPR or eat me. I was too tired to care as I sat on the rock and stared at the bears, who stared right back and licked their lips. To be fair, I was pre-salted with sweat.
If you know me, you know that climbing things is how I like to torture and then later brag about myself. Sometimes it’s volcanoes and last year around this time, I tackled and complained about what I will hence forth refer to as a moderately easy trail to a waterfall, that non-the-less made my lungs burn and my legs turn to jello. In my defense, I was new to Virginia, and I just always thought people were bullshitting when they said Ohio was “really flat”.
This hike I decided to do on a whim. I woke up and was lying in bed watching a documentary, as one does on a lazy Sunday morning, and I decided I needed to disconnect, technologically speaking. I picked a trail that would be well travelled, in case I fell down a cliff. I wanted to be sure to be found within a reasonable amount of time, plus I’m vain and if did make it to the top, I wanted to be sure there would be someone there to take my picture. I’ve been living in the hills of Virginia for awhile now and I don’t gawk as much anymore when someone suggests say, taking the stairs, for example, so I figured that this qualified me for a bit more strenuous of a hike. I chose “Sharp Top” because later when I told my friends I figured it would sound pointy and dangerous. Plus , “Sharp Top” sounds a bit like “Shock Top”, and while it’s a terrible beer, I like beer.
About .4 miles into the hike I had already texted my friends that I was thinking of quitting and that I was possibly dying. I had underestimated the steepness of what 1,227ft elevation gain really meant. A family of hikers passed me as I sat on a rock and listened to Whitney Houston, hoping she would bring me inspiration. They climbed like mountain goats, legs tanned to the color of Werther’s candies, with the line of definition down the side I thought was only drawn on in cartoons. I stood up after they passed, inspired both by their agility and Whitney telling me that it was “not right” but that it was “okay”.
I climbed another .2 miles and met the mountain goat family again. They were sprawled across a pile of boulders, panting and sweating, the mother goat complaining to her husband that he had misled them. They asked me if I knew how much further we had to go. I told them that according to my watch, we hadn’t made it halfway yet, and I trucked ahead, pretending to be awesome, and strong, with cartoon muscle legs the color of Werther’s candies. I had pants on so, they wouldn’t know otherwise.
About .2 miles later I was sprawled across a boulder myself, panting and sweating, and staring at a Black Bear and its cub. I sipped on my Camelbak*, barely moving my lips and not taking my eyes off the bear. It seemed to have sympathy for me, though who wouldn’t. I looked like a pile of dirty laundry with a sunburn.
Then all of a sudden from somewhere near my toes I heard, “YOU DID IT!” and I snapped up to attention. There was a tiny little girl standing at my feet dressed in a pink sundress and those white patent leather shoes with the buckle. The kind you wear with white socks with the lace top. “YOU MADE IT HALF WAY!” She screamed. I waved my arms and reached out, trying to quiet her, spinning around to see how long we had until the bears ate us. Then as quickly as she had appeared, the little girl was gone, and her brother was running after her. He stopped just long enough to stare me dead in the eyes and say “You’re REALLY red.” He wasn’t wrong. I turn a dark crimson at the mere thought of physical exertion, and/or red wine. I blinked as he trotted off, turning back around, unable to find the bears. I wasn’t sure if I was grateful or sad that they had disappeared. If they had eaten me, I wouldn’t have had to continue climbing upwards.
The hike stayed consistently steep, and the hikers coming down consistently exhausted. They said things like, “It’s really hard” and “You only have about 15 more flights of stone steps to go” and “If you’ve made it this far, there’s no point in turning back now”. I found their exhaustion surprisingly comforting, like maybe I wasn’t a completely worthless hiker. A man and a woman wearing her baby skipped by as though they were born on the mountain. The man had just one, single, solitary bead of sweat on his brow (just for show) and the woman’s hair still held its curl in her perfectly positioned ponytail. The baby wore little Nike hiking shoes, despite its inability to stand, and its smile stretch from ear to ear, exposing one tooth, and two rows of gums. I might have turned around if it hadn’t been for that little, perfect, baby-wearing, family, but my competitive side got the better of me. If they could make this climb with one bead of sweat and wearing a baby, I could make it with a gallon of sweat and wearing no baby. That’s just math.
After what seemed like ages, I made it to the top. The reviews were wrong about there being lots of crowds, in fact as I came around the last flight of stone steps, three men and a baby (you can’t make this shit up) waved me past saying “It’s all yours, sugar”. I would have been offended by the pet name from a stranger, but given my state, I couldn’t protest.
I closed my eyes for two seconds, allowing myself to relax before taking in the reveal. As I opened my eyes, I let out a long, audible, “Fuuuuuuuuuuck” as I took in the view, immediately followed by “It smells a bit like piss”.
“It really does,” someone chimed in from behind me.
Having thought I was alone at the peak, I about pissed my pants from surprise, noting that as a possible reason for it smelling like pure human urine, and then immediately apologized for my language as the two young teens giggled and asked me to take their photo before they descended down the hill. After that it was, for realz, just me for the next 30 minutes. Left to stare, wonder, and sweat profusely, in the solitude of my own stench.
It’s really hard to leave a place like that when you finally make it. Especially as a photographer at heart. You imagine another angle, another photo, another moment you might catch. Not just for you, of course. What if there is another lone hiker about to arrive? What if there is a couple hoping to meet a hiker willing to take a shot of their moment together? What if there is a bird, hoping to “Strike a pose, strike a pose, vogue, vogue, vogue”? I can’t imagine what it takes to get someone to start heading down Everest, though of course it is significantly less comfortable up there, so that may be key.
I left, reluctantly. On my way down, I ached because I have the knees of an 80 year old man but I ran into some deer as they crossed the path. This was followed by two lizards, and hawk, and now I’m pretty sure I’m Snow White.
I was fully prepared for the descent to be easy, based on all the hecklers I passed going up. Turns out that’s probably only true if you’re coordinated. I only fell 3 times, though, and thanks to the fact that my stepmom and father were always trying to get me into ice skating when I was little, I’m really great at falling. I fell the most spectacularly in the spot where I had previously seen the bear on my ascent, and somehow pulled a muscle in my right boob on the landing. I will be very impressed if that is the injury that lingers the longest.
As the trail evened out, and my sweat started to dry into a sexy, white, crust of salt on my face, I began to feel rather proud of myself. Well that, and like I was maybe dying and needed to find the bear so it could call 911 for me.
But mostly I felt proud of myself.
As I crested the last hill, a generally adorable couple passed me, their clothing pressed clean and their hair coifed nicely.
“We’re almost there right?” the first gentleman joked his partner playfully punching him in embarrassment.
“Yea….” I laughed, “un poco más.“
*Thank all that is heavenly, and all that is Amy Wagoner for my Camelbak. I would have died a slow, sad, death on that trail without your gift my dear. And we all know I would have never spent the money on myself.