That Time I Stared Down a Bear

When my good friend Zach was planning his bachelor party, he did what I would’ve done. He decided to go on a camping trip to Big Bend National Park, instead of the typical guys night out. I had just returned from Pedernales State Park when he text me the invite, so I responded with the following image:

He laughed and was glad to see my excitement. After a few weeks of counting down the days, the time had finally come to pack our gear into the van and make the 6 hour drive through the Texas Hill Country. In addition to Zach and myself, there was Dan (Zach’s brother), Mike, Woody, and Ted. Although I wasn’t yet the seasoned veteran I am now, it was clear that I was the most experienced of the group when I climbed into a van filled with more bed pillows and beer than hiking bags and water. They looked at me in astonishment as I hoisted my lone 60 liter Deuter bag atop their pile of chairs, grills and camping stuff.

Like any other road trip, the drive out West was long and uncomfortable. The lack of space certainly didn’t make things any better. I spent the majority of the time studying the hiking guides and trail maps to make sure we were ready for the next day’s hike. We had chosen to hike the Pinnacle & Emory Trails, which make up the 10.5 mile, round trip path between the Chisos Basin campgrounds (~5,400 ft) and Emory Peak (~7,800 ft). I knew we had our work cut out for us.

The drive itself is not much to write home about. However, once you’ve left I-10 in the rearview, you can’t miss the allure. The hills and mountains, the desert sky, all create this beautiful aura. Serenity may not be the best way to describe it, but it’s the first word that comes to mind. As you get closer and closer, it’s easy to feel like you’ve broken through the universe’s time barrier. You’re in uncharted land now.

We finally arrived at the Chisos Basin Campgrounds and prepared our camp. Mike immediately started passing the beers around, but he was the only one who enjoyed a second round. During the drive, I’d made sure to stress the rigors of our hike and the dangers of dehydration to the guys. Seeing the peaks encircling the camp forced the group to come to terms with the task at hand. We confirmed our starting time of 6AM and headed to our tents.

I didn’t sleep much that night. I kept waking up to the sound of wind pushing through the brush around our camp. At least that’s what I told myself it was. I couldn’t help but imagine a hungry mountain lion prowling about the campground. The park has cautionary signs for both bears and mountain lions plastered across every sign, door and wall. It’s meant to ensure awareness of the park’s dangerous wildlife, especially for parents, but it also forces your imagination to make some space for these predators. Eventually, the cool desert air gave me the reprieve I needed to drift off.

When my 5AM alarm went off, I was quick and alert. Without disturbing the others, I left my tent to begin my morning stretch. Alone amongst the mountain ruins, I found peace in the solitude. After my stretch, I took a seat on a nearby rock to meditate and absorb the remaining night air. I gazed up at the moon as it slowly retreated from the chasing sun. It had set its gaze upon me, reluctant to face its future. I held onto its image before closing my eyes in meditation.

It was then, in my dark, silent state that I first saw it. It’s paws carrying the weight of a 300 pound, 7ft frame. It’s fur taking the form of a shadow, glistening underneath the moon. It’s yellow eyes fixed upon me. It’s slow, steady breadth showing confidence and intent. Of course, this was all in my mind. Merely a part of the journey toward stillness. My senses offering one last instinct of survival.

"Swiftly and silently, he floats away into the desert. I'm pretty certain that was real."

I counted down from 10. With every second, the bear took a step closer. And yet, with every second, the bear and my surroundings faded from view. As I focused, I felt beside myself. No thoughts. Just long deep breadths. My body loves this point of the meditation. Everything immediately begins to relax. Your shoulders fall further from your ears. Your hands feel weightless and your back and legs meet in alignment. This is my center and I stay for as long as my body and mind want.

Sitting on that rock, I could feel the air outside my body leveling with the air within. The moon light illuminating me. I’m hovering above the ground and when I open my eyes to the sky, I’m moving towards it. The mountains descend beneath me as the sky opens up. I’m ready. I open my eyes and find a white coyote startled by my sudden return. Swiftly and silently, he floats away into the desert. I’m pretty certain that was real.

I realize it’s time to make breakfast. On queue, the guys withdraw from their tents and join me as we prepare to set off. I don’t mention the coyote.

The group is in high spirits as we gather our gear. We share a quick breakfast of avocado and tuna with crackers. Though no one slept admirably, the excitement of the challenge fuels us. Every member of the group takes a moment to survey the distance between us and Emory Peak. We know it’s at least 6 miles away, but it just seems so close. I tell everyone that’s the dangerous part. We’ll soon find ourselves angry and frustrated with the summit as it lures us into this game of hide and seek.

We come together for a group picture and begin our ascent. As we make our way to the trailhead, I find myself to be the only one hauling a hiking bag. It only has some snacks in the pockets, but it’s mainly carrying my 3 liter platypus and an extra 1 liter water bottle. Everyone else has either a small 1-2 liter camelback or water bottle with them.

Once on the trail, I see that they are taking advantage of their minimal load. We might as well be jogging up the trail. Since I’m at the rear, I attempt to slow them down with photo opportunities and pauses to take in the scenery. However, I know it’s useless unless I can go to the front and control the pace. About 3 miles in, I find my chance.

We come along this long plateau in the trail, which meanders through a miniature valley. To both the left and right sides of the trail are 15 ft ridges, filled with trees and tall grass. This is one of the more lush areas of the park and often has pools of water from afternoon thunderstorms. Our group decides to take a quick break, so I quickly make my way forward. I’m no more than 10 ft in front when I hear it. There’s a rustling in the brush on the ridge to the right of the trail.

As I stare up towards the sound, I quiet the group like an usher shushing noisy group. We go silent and wait. The rustling gets louder and a shadow appears. I’m hoping it’s just a deer, a really big deer, but as it begins to move, I know there’s no way it’s a deer. The bear pushes its way along the ridge, forcing the brush to bend or break upon it’s will. As he gets closer, I retrace my steps back to the group, never taking my eyes off the animal.

“No one move.” I tell them. The black bear is not a very big animal, relatively speaking. It doesn’t compare to the size and dominance of it’s grizzly cousins, but it’s still a huge animal in comparison to a 6 ft, 180 lb. human. The best way to handle such an encounter is to simply band together and make yourself look bigger, while shouting obscenities or positive affirmations at the bear. Point is to look big and be loud. Problem is that since we’re in this small valley, I’m afraid to make the bear feel trapped, which could incite it’s fight or die instinct. So we stay silent and together.

"He and I lock eyes and one thing becomes clear. There’s nothing else on this mountain except for us and the bear."

For what seems like an eternity, the bear stares at us from the top of the ridge, then begins to climb down. “Don’t move.” I reiterate. I’ve instinctively clasped my hand around my 4 inch Gerber. It’s not much, but better than nothing. The bear pauses half way down the ridge and lands his front paws on a tree stump. He and I lock eyes and one thing becomes clear. There’s nothing else on this mountain except for us and the bear. He’s breathing just like the bear I saw in my meditation. Slow. Steady. Focused.

Then, without provocation, the bear turns and disappears over the ridge. I maintain my gaze through my next breadth and then turn back to the group. I’m shocked to find that only Dan had stayed by my side. The rest of the group had begun their escape and were standing as far or further from us than the bear was during our stare down.

I give the guys a recalcitrant look, but I knew then that I had won them over. No more racing up this mountain. We weren’t out at the local park going for a stroll. We had to take our time and be aware of our surroundings. As we marched up the trail, we remained vigilant by yelling out frequent bear calls to help any hidden bears give us a wide berth.

Eventually, we made it to the top of Emory Peak, where we took greater appreciation of the journey and panoramic views afforded to us. In the end, we had an awesome experience together and one heck of a story to tell.

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