Thursday, May 6, 2010

Bearly Started

I came across this video today and couldn't help but think about Mark.  If you've been reading this website long enough, you may remember his immediate bear encounter on the John Muir Trail last summer.  Out here within spitting distance of the Atlantic Coast, bears aren't much of a problem.

So when I hear bear stories, I immediately think about one of the few even virtual encounters I've had with a bear - the greatest book about thru-hiking ever written: A Walk In The Woods, by Bill Bryson.  Bryson, at the time a pudgy, ex-pat travel writer recently returned to the U.S. from England, decides the best way to reintroduce himself to our country as a 40 or 50-something year old (if I remember correctly), is to hike the Appalachian Trail.  Not just part of it, but the whole thing.  A childhood buddy, pudgier and more ill-prepared, thinks it will be a great idea to come along, too.  Hilarity ensues.

One of the pleasures of this book and Bryson's equally entertaining follow-up about a drive around Australia (In A Sunburned Country), is his wild imagination about the dangers he will face on his adventures.  Everything from bears, to spiders, to carnivorous birds, to rogue currents, in Bryson's rich mind, become outrageous fears of the sort that keep kids awake at night, imagining noises in their closets.  I'm no Bryson, so I can't vividly describe (or over-analyze) the dangers Mark may face on the PCT, but for those not faint of heart, I can at least highlight a few!

Since Mark is starting in the Anza-Borrego Desert, I thought I'd focus here.  Obviously it's a desert, and we all know about heat and dehydration.  So I decided to research some of the critters that could be following Mark, or stalking him as it were, as vultures circle eagerly overheard.

Anza-Borrego, a simple Google search will betray, is a place popular with wildflower enthusiasts.  Wildlife, on the other hand, isn't quite the same draw.  Why?  Maybe because instead of cute and cuddly deer, bear, and fuzzy squirrels, it's full of ugly reptiles, poisonous snakes, deadly insects, and creepy crawlies.  And God blessed these babies, in constant battle for scarce desert resources, with the weapons to win.

Tarantulas, rattlesnakes and scorpions?  Got 'em.

Stinging bees?  Got 'em.

Black widows?  Got 'em.

Assassins?  Yes.  Even assassins.

At least the stink bugs are happy.

One thing I noticed looking at these photos, is that each kind of critter, whether breathing or creeping, is nearly invisible against the desert background.  So these are only the ones we can see!  Who knows what else is out there?

A long time ago, I was in the middle of nowhere in Colorado, lying in a tent with Mark, just after the sun went down.  Occasionally, wolves calling on a ridge high above us pierced the dark night's quiet.  It was my first real camping trip, so for me, ignorance of any dangers was bliss.  Mark, as he told me later, thought this trip was one of the most stressful he had been on since he, a long-time camping veteran, was attuned to all potential dangers.  Our cousin had dropped us in a wilderness area a couple days before and wouldn't be back for several more so we were completely on our own.

Mark had a tendency to let his imagination run wild once the sun dipped below the horizon.  As the wolves called once more, Mark turned to me and said, "Can you imagine if we opened the tent and saw these wolves off in the distance walking towards our tent.  Then walking a but faster.  Then trotting...and suddenly in a full sprint coming right at us?!"  I agreed, that would be a bit frightening.  Something out of a bad horror movie.  No happy ending.

Now imagine, instead of noisy pack of wolves, it's a surprise scorpion in a shoe or a mute spider slowly, stealthily swinging down from the top of the tent on an unseen thread of silk, its red hour glass belly inches from your nose...!

As chilling as that sounds, these dangers are just part of what makes camping and these long hikes a rush.  If we wanted to sleep in a soft bed away from the spiders and scavenging coyotes, we'd stay home.  Instead, the critters are just part of what makes nature so fascinating and exhilarating.  Mark will face many, evolving obstacles and dangers on a trail that encompasses hundreds of miles, dozens of environments, and the full gamut of temperate zones.  The variety of challenges are what make a trip like this an epic achievement.  And overcoming these same challenges will also contribute to what will make logging that last mile so meaningful.  In the grand scheme of a hike of this magnitude, what's the occasional dangling spider or slithering snake, anyway?


  1. Engrossing, informative, creepy and funny!
    The wolf bedtime story gave me a chuckle.

  2. Michael, it's funny the things we remember. I don't remember the wolves, but I do remember being worried about the dead trees falling on the tent.

  3. I do remember your commentary on Widow Makers. Small details like this were completely beyond my expertise at that point. Another dilemma I remember: what is the better choice - setting up our tent a clearing away from trees that could come down in a storm, or closer to the trees to reduce the chance of a lightning strike on the tent? I recall we chose putting the tent in the clearing the first time, which caused a lot stress during loud t-storms. The second site, we opted for closer to the trees, which caused a lot of stress during loud t-storms. In the end, we survived both options, so we'll never know which was the better choice!