I’m pretty sure I was smiling before I even woke up. Mountain air drifted into my cocooned hideaway, bringing with it the promise of a new day to explore. And blessedly, sunshine streaked through the treetops overhead, calling me out of my cloistered space and into the campsite. Heaven. And I couldn’t wait to get started.
I love to walk. It’s a crucial part of my mental health, and it might be a little bit of an obsession too. Most mornings start with a 3 or 4 mile walk or jog around the neighborhood. When I’m home, it’s a way to clear my head, pray, and organize my day. It’s where I think best. I love watching the little changes in the terrain each few days. The barren carpet of the woods in winter which slowly gives way to the first hints of green. By early May it’s all so lush and fragrant with honeysuckle it’s hard to recall the harsh brown of the ground just weeks earlier.
When I’m traveling, I eagerly anticipate striking out that first morning, on foot, to investigate. I’ve walked mountain paths in Wyoming and Washington state, beaches in South Carolina and Florida, and city streets from Manhattan to San Francisco, Barcelona to Sorrento. It’s the best first way for me to get a sense of a place. Experiencing a new spot, on foot, provides a unique view that planes, trains and automobiles, (and even bicycles) cannot match.
As yesterday ended with a rainy evening that allowed for just a hint of what lay beyond the campsite, I set out with anticipation to see what I could see from my sun-splashed mountaintop. I was not disappointed.
Near the entrance to the campground I discovered a trail to the amphitheater. As I approached from the rear, it was quickly evident that the whole wide world was its backdrop. The stage in the foreground seemed unnecessary as the view of the mountains provided enough entertainment of its own. A beautiful start to the day!
Walking away from the amphitheater, I heard scuffling in the woods – the kind of craziness that always sounds like Sasquatch is plowing through, but usually turns out to be a few psycho squirrels skirmishing through the trees. Not even bothering to look, I walked on past the perceived squirrel party. But then the racket escalated just enough to compel me to turn around. No squirrels. Not even close.
A large black bear was slowly clambering down an oak tree, breaking branches along the way with the weight of his ginormous paws. I felt like I was dreaming a little, or in the Hundred Acre Wood. Oh how I wanted to freeze and take his picture, watching him as he lumbered to the ground. But I didn’t. I turned tail and jogged back closer to where there would be people.
Wow, I thought. This is the BEST day! An amazing view and a bear. Even cooler, a bear in a tree! Thank you Lord for a great beginnings.
As I neared my site, I decided to explore the ridge just below the line of campsites. This was part of the Appalachain Trail, the enormity of which always captures my imagination. It thrills me anytime I can hike even a little stretch of it. I scrambled down the rocky path, anxious to walk along the vast sheets of rock that provided grand views of the remote and uninhabited valley below.
Within a hundred yards I came upon a flat expanse of slate-like stone, romanticizing that it would be a perfect spot to settle in and read for a while. Unbelievably, as I considered turning back for a book, I see another furry black friend rummaging through the laurel and scrub brush, looking for breakfast. Seriously? He was directly between me and my campsite. Should I be worried? Or more specifically, HOW worried should I be? Should I make a run for it? I quickly decide NO. He didn’t see me nor did he seem interested in anything other than scavenging. I determined to walk on, quietly, and leave him to his more important business. I clearly had this under control and was feeling pretty smug indeed. Big scary bear – whatever!
But . . . and before I share this last part I must digress a bit to say that God is ever-so-quick to put me in my place these days. The moment I feel in charge of my own destiny, that I have things more than under control, out comes the rug beneath me. Not YOUR ways, the message comes clearly. MINE. And so it goes.
I didn’t even enjoy one full minute of feeling in control of this bear-y situation. Not one minute. As I quietly and unsuspectingly moved on down the trail, around the bend that would take me back to the path and the safety of my campsite, I came face to face with what I am confident is the largest black bear in Virginia, not thirty feet in front of me, lumbering directly my way. The mountain itself may have been shaking each time a colossal paw hit the dirt. Well, that may have been my heart. I didn’t stay to find out.
The following is not proper protocol for bear sighting behavior, but I quickly considered my options. Back away slowly with my hands in the air? Scream and act like a crazed person? Turn around calmly and walk away? No no no. I ran like the wind. I ran like a 300-pound black bear was chasing me. I just prayed he wasn’t
Growing up I ran cross-country. Stamina I had in spades, but no speed. On the track I was slow as molasses. But not this morning. Usain Bolt had nothing on me for the next minute or so. I escaped back down the trail, terrified to look back, but oh so wishing I could have just watched him from a safe distance. He was so regal and sure of himself. So proud. After I was sure I had run far enough to not encounter scavenger #2 in the woods, I hung a hard right and burst into a campsite where three girls were calmly cooking breakfast over a healthy fire. They looked at me like I was the Sasquatch. I’m sure I looked and seemed ridiculous.
Somewhere between thrilled and terrified, I slowly made my way back to my site. Clearly it was time to pack up and get on the road. If nothing else happened today – heck, this week – I was good. Three bears in 15 minutes! With any threat of danger in the past, I recognized this for the amazingly cool thrill that it was.
Before long I packed up my self and my site and headed south along Skyline Drive, anxious to see what else this amazing morning could possibly bring.
The trees hung fresh with rain, sparkling in the now bright sunshine. Everything smelled crisp and clean. Yesterday had been a time of expectation. Today was clearly bringing joy in the morning. And yes, adventure called! Before I could drive 10 more miles, I encountered one more bear. This lady was just hanging out in the middle of road. Within a moment of my stopping, her twin cubs came bounding out of the woods to scurry across the road under her watchful eye. Day made.