Month: March 2022

Bear in the Woods

My son Erik and I walked along the Appalachian Trail in relative silence.  We had never been a talkative pair.  I had explored over a hundred miles of this expansive trail in day hikes, and though I loved talking with thru hikers as they strode by, I had no desire to do the entire trail.  I just wanted to spend one overnight on it, to face my fear of darkness in the woods that had plagued me since childhood.   Shoulder and neck issues along with intermittent bouts with sciatica, reduced the amount of weight I could carry.  I accepted my limitations and made a plan.  For my sixtieth birthday I asked Erik to accompany and assist me on an overnight hike on the trail.  He readily agreed, and now, six months later, here we were – in the Shenandoah Mountains in late June. 

We spent the morning zip lining through the woods – an extra added surprise – and then devoured burgers at a local diner.  Next, we stationed the cars at the hike’s beginning and end points.  Our boots did not hit the trail until mid afternoon – in heat and humidity beyond anything I had experienced in my northern New York climate.   The approach was through an open field, under a sun that steadily ate away at my endurance.  We moved slowly and Erik waited calmly each time I ducked under a small bush to grab a few inches of shade.  I struggled to inhale air so laden with moisture it felt like I was under water.  I had real doubts that I could make the first mile, even without the backpack that Erik had already relieved me of.  My heart pounded against my chest as I gulped down water and inched up the incline.  When we finally reached the ridge the temperature fell with the shade and the trail leveled out a bit – small measures of relief that pushed my feet forward.   A couple miles later we perched on two large boulders to drink more water and rest briefly.  Suddenly Erik sprang to his feet “What?” I asked – and he pointed down the trail –“Bear!” 

Thirty seven acres of woods had surrounded my childhood home, but the unknown threats lurking in the shadows had halted my steps into them – even with my two brothers by my side. My father entered the woods every day, culling the trees that provided our livelihood from its depths.   When dad spoke, his words were often as rough as the bark that clad the logs his chainsaw felled.   Silence became my tool to cut through the air of anger that resided within our home.  One day bears arrived in those woods, transplanted from their overpopulation in the Adirondack Mountains a few hours away.  Stories of bears entering back yards where small children played, of sightings by the mailman just down the road, along with the one told by my mother after she, my two brothers and I were herded together by our quivering dog in the blueberry lot, made my small heart race.  Even before their actual arrival, bears had chased me into my nights, with teeth bared and claws extended, my screams unable to escape as I woke in terror.  The fear of bears kept me away from the woods well into adulthood, until I hesitantly joined a group of friends on a hiking trip.  That day I felt the power in pushing my body upward, to the top of a mountain that revealed a view like none I had ever experienced.  I discovered quiet and peace amongst the trees.  It was the first of many hikes to follow, and my fear of the woods started to abate – in the daytime.

Now, not 30 feet away was a huge black bear.  Adrenaline rushed through my limbs, ready to do whatever needed to be done.  Without a thought I found myself standing between the bear and my son – my mother bear kicking in despite the fact he was over a foot taller and 70 pounds of muscle stronger.  “What do we do?” I sputtered.  “Mom, we’re just going to walk back the way we came for a little bit.” he responded calmly.  As we started moving away the bear lumbered into the heavy brush surrounding the trail.   We stopped, waited and listened.   The sound of the bear breaking through the woods dulled with distance.  Cautious feet led us slowly forward, past the spot where the bear had stood, and then sped up to put space between us and it.  Our eyes jumped from tree to tree as we scurried on.

   To be continued……

A Mountain With No Summit

Lynn and I have planned to meet today for a short hike. I am in my car after dropping off my husband to pick up his car following a friend’s retirement party at a golf course last night. I drop and run because I want to get on the road. The phone rings and I recognize Lynn’s number and answer it through the car’s audio system. But it is not Lynn. It is the guy she has been dating that I have met two or three times, but do not know well. He hesitates briefly, then says Lynn’s son has been in an accident. An urgent “Is he all right?” pops out of my mouth without even thinking. He responds in a matter-of-fact tone that makes me feel like an idiot for asking: “No, he’s dead.”

I screech to a stop, fortunate that no one is behind me, and veer onto the shoulder of the road. “What? What do you mean!? But….” And then the reality starts to bubble from my gut: “No, no no no no…” and hits my brain like a baseball bat. As I sob, unable to speak, he says, “just wanted to let you know she won’t be coming today.” I murmur something and he hangs up. I feel like I want to get out of my car and run, fast, somewhere, anywhere, and leave reality behind. My thoughts refuse to focus on anything- Lynn, her son, driving, sitting, what part of my body should move next, where to go from here, who to call, what to do with the intense emotions that are threatening to make my head explode. I sit still for a while, then burst into a flurry of “no’s” again, then sob and sit some more. Finally, I call my husband and am thankful he answers. He is still at the golf course, not far away. I blurt out the news and he hurries to where I am. I am unsure of my ability to drive, but there are two cars and little choice. He follows close behind as I move ahead slowly, telling me to pull off if I have trouble driving.

I don’t have details and the lack of concrete facts makes the news even harder to solidify in my mind. How can this be real? There seems to be a brick wall between reality and impossibility, and I am still on the impossibility side. I am afraid to call Lynn, afraid of what I will say or won’t say, afraid talking to her will make it real. I wait a few hours, make the decision that I will travel to New Jersey and book a room at a motel to be close by if she needs me. It is summer and the motels near the Jersey shore are all booked. I finally find a smaller chain whose name is familiar and book a room. Then I make one of the toughest calls of my life. I don’t remember if she answers or calls me back later, but we connect. I am sure this is already familiar on her end, repeating the tale every mother fears most. Does each repetition move another step along the road to ‘after’, when ‘before’ is gone forever? Her voice is hesitant, but calmer than expected. But that’s Lynn, always more concerned about someone else’s comfort than her own. Or maybe knowing if she cries, I will, or if I do, she will. We both keep our emotions level. Sometimes there is no other choice, no matter what is ripping you apart inside. 

I tell her I am coming down and have booked a room, that I must be nearby if she needs me, but that I do not need her to make me a part of this story. I quickly pack my things, with a frantic need to find the pictures of her son I know are in my photo stash. Our families have come together many times across the reach of our friendship, especially when we lived only a few miles apart. I remember visits to parks, an aeronautic museum, a haunted hayride, their vacation timeshare in Vermont in both summer and winter and the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream factory. We have seen each other’s children grow into adults, assuming we would share their tales for years ahead, that the end would not be until we ended.

I also need to pack for an overnight hiking trip on the AT in Virginia, scheduled for two days from now. My son is meeting me for my requested 60th birthday gift. I consider canceling, but know he has fit this into his busy schedule. I also urgently need to see him, be with him, and appreciate him as I never have before. It feels selfish, but I am desperate to make the connection that has just been so suddenly ripped from Lynn. The thought that it could have been my son goes through my mind over and over. Death has a way of removing the veil of complacency from the mundane actions of each day and thrusting them into the illumination of gratitude.

When I arrive at the motel, I notice there are few cars in the parking lot for this busy time of year, many older and battered. All the grass is brown, and the wind has blown bits of trash into corners. I scan the area as I locate the main desk to check in, but before I do, I ask the attendant if it is safe here. I expect him to say “Of course!” to keep my business. But he hesitates, asks if I am alone, and suggests I might want to look elsewhere. I am thankful for his confirmation of what I already sense. But I also know there is nowhere else available. Just as I am leaving, Lynn calls to see where I am. I don’t want to burden her with my problem, but also don’t know where else to look. I tell her the situation and she insists I come to her house to stay. This too is typical Lynn, the woman with an open door to the world, no matter what her own needs may be. I can’t come up with another choice, so become the responsibility I didn’t want to be. 

There are many people at her house when I arrive, both friends and family. Unexpectedly, there is also laughter. It doesn’t take long to understand that the laughter is a fragile guise for the pain everyone is feeling but unable to express without falling apart. I help at any opportunity that arises, cooking, running for food/supplies, anything to keep busy. After many have left, Lynn takes me to the spot where her son’s motorcycle collided with a SUV full of teenagers that made a last minute left turn in front of him. The story is unclear, will always remain unclear. Were drugs or alcohol involved in poor judgment? Who was at fault? Are details being omitted because of relatives in high places? The reality is, none of those answers will breathe life back into a son lost. 

My time with Lynn is dotted with talk and silence; tears and laughter; disbelief, resistance, and heartache. Much is also a blur. There are specific memories, like her distraught daughter entering the house and motioning me away as I go to hug her. I instantly understood. Like Lynn rushing into the arms of one of her son’s friends as I watch the pain erupt for a brief moment before going back into hiding. Like feeling out of place, yet honored, when she motions for me to join them at the funeral parlor to make plans. Like missing the funeral as I drive to meet my own son and knowing Lynn wants me to be with him. And most of all, watching the sea of faces filled with grief as deep as the joy of having known such a unique, exciting, caring young man that connected so easily with those around him. I realize that this may be the afterlife we all wonder about-the vivid imprint of a person’s life on the fond memories of so many others.