There are two types of animals in this world: ordinary animals, and bears. Ordinary animals are things like puppies and raccoons and Five-lined Skinks– critters that people generally needn’t fear or even consider. If you’re a puppy, your thoughts involve chasing butterflies in the cutest, dizziest circles. Raccoons are preoccupied with garbage cans and defying natural selection by carelessly pacing the freeway. Five-lined skinks, like all lizards, are busy philosophizing about the corruption of global oil companies and the inevitable collapse of an economy whose only measure of success, they insist, is a decline in the cost of fuel.
Indeed, most animals are, by and large, cut from the stock of peace and virtue, but the bear? The bear has only one thing on his mind: he wants to tear you to pieces, feast on your innards, and slurp up your soul for dessert.
That’s why Daniel and I were a bit…well, apprehensive…when we came face to face with one of these bloodthirsty killing machines in the mountains of Virginia. Shenandoah National Park, a land as beautiful as its name (“daughter of the stars,” is one interpretation),is a roughly 200,000 acre jar of fresh air, and is the center hub of America’s black bear population.
Upon arrival, we met a friendly blonde park ranger who lived in a tiny wooden box between traffic lanes, from where she dispensed tickets that allowed cars to freely enter her domain. She told us there were three- or four-hundred bears roaming the area. This was thrilling to us.
But as night fell, the hope of seeing one became dangerously possible, and the old proverb about being careful what one wishes, rang its truest tone in our ears.
Daniel and I were on a quiet back road, lying in the bed of my little Nissan pickup. The skies threatened us with rain, so we had rigged an oversized tarp to drape across the length of the truck. This waterproofing mechanism also doubled as a mosquito net, and we were feeling completely secure beneath our plastic makeshift canopy–until it happened.
I was half asleep when the tarp began to rustle. It was soft at first, and then it began to pick up.
“Stop,” I scolded Daniel. Such a childish prank. I was almost asleep, too!
“That wasn’t me,” he responded with a gentle calm that embarrassed my defensive tone.
A weighty silence followed.
Years of knowing a person produces a natural discretion for the level of honesty present in voice tone.
I’ve known Daniel for over a decade, but this moment presented a lapse in discernment. I waited for him to crack a chuckle.
“Are you serious?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“I thought it was you,” he replied.
“I promise you, it’s not me,” came my answer.
He took my word for it, proving again who is the better friend.
A lump formed in my throat as he confirmed his innocence:
“Well, it’s definitely not me.”
The tarp shook again, sharply, and then settled down.
I believed him this time. This was no prank.
Images of fiercely jagged claws came ripping into our imagination. That bear wanted something, and we were caught in the middle of its craving rampage.
“Ok,” we thought aloud, trying to remain calm, “Did we forget to put anything in the cab?”
No. After we had eaten our chicken teriyaki, we’d thoroughly washed the pot and bowls and locked them inside the truck.
The tarp jerked again, in a burst of sweeping fury, and then relaxed.
“Ok, I have the key,” I said. “We have one shot to jump out of here, rip the door open and get in the cab.”
“No way,” Daniel reasoned. “Time is no factor against an angry bear!”
“Then we’re dead.”
Hearts beating wildly, we threw off the tarp and prepared to meet our fate.
The rim of the covering rolled down and our eyes locked into the foggy haze around us.
But everything was calm.
“That’s weird,” Daniel observed, his eyes studying the blackness.
No rustling, no retreating footsteps, and certainly no bear.
No, the night was as gentle as a wedding day.
We stared into space, trying to make sense of our situation.
Then a gust of the freshest mountain air scooped up the drooping edge of the tarp, rustled it fiercely, and quietly set it back down in place.
“Wow,” I said. “Quite a bear.”
The silence of humiliation followed, and we settled back down into place.
“What do you say we don’t tell anyone about this?” Daniel suggested.
“I think that’s a great idea,” I said. “Mum’s the word.”
But a good story’s a good story, and I never claimed to be the loyal friend.