BOWEN COLUMN: Part 22: Lost in Yellowstone

Published 9:30 am Thursday, November 4, 2021

The Day My Grizzly Came Out

Thursday, July 15, 6 pm – Day 5

0 hours until the Grizzly

There’s something else that stayed with me from Hemingway’s tale. It is the reason that this story came to my mind that Thursday evening, just before the Grizzly.

As the old man out on that burning sea does all he can do to condition his mind to endure the agony that he was enduring, he thinks of images of endurance and perseverance to help him hold on, physically and figuratively. He thinks of images of lions walking peacefully on the beach, and he thinks of one of the greatest baseball players who ever played, a man who would go on to set an almost unbreakable record – a 56-game hitting streak – and, most of all, a man who played the game through the excruciating pain of a bone spur.

This resilient New York Yankee baseball player, this hero that gave strength to this tired old bad-luck fisherman was named Joe.

Joe DiMaggio – #5.

I smiled at the thought, at the irony of meeting a Mr. DiMaggio on my own journey, as I continued to walk with slow steps down the trail toward my own marlin.

The next visitor would be the most memorable. Mr. DiMaggio and his friend Lyons had gone on half an hour before, and I was back on the trail walking along slowly but steadily. I do not think I realized it then, but my legs had begun to regain some strength. I still moved deliberately; but my stamina was better, and my cardiovascular was remarkably good in this eight to nine-hundred-feet altitude.

I had begun to notice by this time that the fatigue in my legs seemed to concentrate on the left hip and the tendon that runs from the upper part of the hamstring up into the groin. I figured that was a result of having only one hiking pole and using it almost exclusively with my right hand. Now aware of that, I tried to use my left hand more. At that point, I realized that if I were going to have a muscle pop, or go out, it would be that one. Ironically, six months prior, I was doing some therapy and nursing that same tendon on the right side from the wear and tear from my recent basketball playing. I emphasize this because my mindset still was that the greatest of the dangers I faced was a muscle tightening, leaving me immobile deep in the wild and at the mercy of the wilderness.

The greatest danger was not a bear coming out on you – until it was.

As I think back, I understand the idea of ‘out of nowhere’ a little better now than ever before. I was moving on down the trail at my normal gait, not worrying at all about any creatures in this wilderness, focusing on taking one step at a time but also remembering to absorb the aura of the wilderness surrounding me.

I still had the immediate concern of finding Todd or some kind of campsite before dark.

I am not sure if I heard my eight-hundred pound friend or saw him first. It seems it all happened in a flash. Out of nowhere, thirty feet in front of me, perhaps a little more, this great brown bear emerged from the small valley in front of me, galloping hurriedly down the trail away from me. Immediately you found yourself in awe of this beautiful creature. Its body was a tan color, but the bushy hair down his back was bleach blonde, reminding me exactly how kids bleach their hair nowadays. My friend looked to be seven-hundred to a thousand pounds, and about six feet tall had he reared up.

He had a signature gallop. It was more of a plopping to me. His front two feet would lead, followed by his back feet, and the ground underneath him shook as he plopped hurriedly up the trail.

My first thought, curiously, was that the amazin’ blonde is going to be so jealous! She has longed to see a bear on our trips to the Smokies in Tennessee; but in the thirty-plus years we have gone there with our friends Coca-Cola Mike and Glory, she has never seen one. And here I am in the middle of the wild; and I not only see a huge blonde Grizzly but have one come out on me thirty feet away. Running away from me.

Then there’s another thought: What if he had run the other way. What if he chose to run at me, not away from me. He had known I was coming. They say they can smell you from a mile away. He saw, felt, and smelled me long before he jumped out onto that trail. I could not have seen him as I walked along, even if I had looked because there was a slight dip in the trail where I was approaching; and at the bottom of that dip was a little five-foot wide stream. I am sure my huge tan-and-blonde friend was drinking from the stream when I came up on him. He likely had walked down the trail I was on some minutes before to get water. I cringe to think that if I had gone another ten feet before he came out I would have walked right up on him drinking. That circumstance would have brought the world to a complete standstill.

I guess it did anyway.

The remarkable creature galloped away from me, and I just stopped in my tracks and admired him. The thought did come to my mind that this great creature only a few feet away could take my life right now, if that was what he had chosen.

He ran due north away from me for about twenty or thirty feet; and he stopped. He then turned sideways of the trail, facing west, or to my left, and looked back toward me. Standing sideways, my friend gave me a clear look at his length, his size, his breadth, and his beauty. I can see him now, as in a picture.

And then he just turned his head and looked back at me, standing fifty feet from him down the trail.

I immediately plopped down on the side of the trail. I did not know his intentions. He was a beautiful creature, but he was a deadly beast, too. He did not appear to have any purpose in a confrontation; but if he had a change of mind I would be in trouble. My life story would have ended at that very spot on the trail, and there someone would have found what he left. That realization was what prevented me from walking closer his direction to see him even clearer.

The only defense I had should he turn and head back in my direction was the bear spray in my bag. I needed to get it out of my bag; but I did not want to take my eyes off of him for a moment. This, I knew, was the greatest moment in nature I would ever have. So, with my eyes steady on my great friend, I began digging into my bag for my bear spray.

Just in case.

But I did something else, too.

I started talking to him, gently and friendly. I figured that was the best way to talk to a bear. I have teased since then that I talked to him the way I talk to the amazin’ blonde; and that is not entirely hyperbole.

I said, in as kind of a voice as I could muster, “Ah, my friend, you are a beautiful thing. You’re a sweet thing. You go on about your business, now. This is your turf, and I’ll be out of your way very soon. But, baby, you are truly amazin’!”

The entire time, he just stood there, gallantly, not moving, looking at me with the most curiosity. He was as curious of me as I was of him. And, besides, I am most sure he had not been sweet-talked before. That scene lasted a good thirty seconds, but it seemed an hour.

Ah, a singular amazing moment is frozen in time. If I could put time in a bottle, as the songwriter sings, I would put that one there. I would preserve that moment and revisit it over and over, as this great creature and I stared at one another, as friends, not as foes, eye to eye, each respecting the other.

For me, the great blonde Grizzly was my marlin, out in a vast sea, and he and I were brothers.