Lost in Yellowstone (Part 28)

Published 10:45 am Friday, November 19, 2021

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After crossing that cold, knee-high river that morning, I immediately entered into a deep, dark wilderness that was more like bear country than perhaps any we had been in. The early-morning hour, with a thick fog hanging in the trees, made it more so. Early morning is the right time, and this deep-wooded forest I was traveling in would be the best place. All morning long I kept my bear spray in my hand, ready, and I sang all the hymns I knew. I could see why Todd did not care to travel in the early hours, because, clearly, the chances of encountering a bear were greater at those cold and foggy hours of dawn.

For me, I’d already faced a Grizzly and had lived to tell about it – at least, I had for one night. I say that with a smile, because you wouldn’t think that somebody with my kind of ‘self-proclaimed’ confidence would feel the need to be singing more hymns than the bears lurking around could ever had hoped to hear in such an early-morning hour. In my defense, it is one thing to feel safe, but — like strolling through a graveyard at night — it doesn’t mean you still don’t want to whistle a little as you’re hiking through Grizzly-bear country. You know, whistle because you’re so happy. If a little whistling and singing have the added benefit of deterring a bear from coming out of the brush to eat you, then that’s all right, too.

I say I was ‘singing’ — More accurately, I was doing more humming that morning, because I remember that an ulcer had popped up on the back of my tongue, making it hurt to sing (I blame it on that ‘disagreeable’ dehydrated meal I consumed the night before). I figured the bears didn’t necessarily need the actual words to get themselves in the right spirit anyway. I am glad of it, because I was counting on them being totally in the spirit that morning. There is little doubt: We had a full congregation of bears within earshot of those early morning hymns.

Perhaps it was because my legs had an unexpected amount of strength those early hours, or because I realized that the end was in sight, I don’t know — but I was ‘chipper’ as I was humming my way along. I thought back to one of our conversations as Roy, Randy, Todd and I began making our way toward Yellowstone after our Sunday worship in Riverton, Wyoming. We hadn’t been in the car long before I decided to share my one bear story:

“All right, guys,” I had said, riding shotgun as we were getting onto Highway 26 West headed toward Yellowstone, “I have one bear story to tell, and that’s it.”

No one objected, so I continued.

“There was a man out in the wilderness hikin’ late one evenin’ when a big bear came out on him,” I said, not knowing the irony of it at the time.

“When the bear came out on him,” I continued, casting a glance back to see if Todd was listening from the backseat, “the man just started to run for all he was worth, but the bear was right behind him. The scared man ran up against a big rock and had nowhere to run so just started prayin’ right there. He had to pray fast because the bear was comin’ in a hurry.

“‘Oh, Lord,’ he prayed, ‘please make this bear that’s chasin’ me a Christian.’ About that time, with the big bear right there on him, the bear screeched to a halt, not five feet from him, then dropped down to his knees, put his front two furry paws together, and began to pray. The man, shocked, thought that was really a good sign, until he heard the prayer.

“‘Lord,’ the bear said with his eyes lifted up to heaven, ‘I wanna thank ya for the food I’m ‘bout to receive.’”

With that we laughed, me most of all, I think, and that was my big bear-story contribution during our two-hundred-and-eighty-mile journey that Sunday afternoon.

The four of us would have other good conversations on that four-hour trek. It was on that leg of the trip — in a section before we hit U.S. 287 North, the final stretch of the way — that Roy pulled out with his “No man crosses the same river twice” mantra. With the beginning of the hike now almost upon us, we had been talking about how it was a trip for a lifetime. You can easily imagine the scene being the opening clips of a movie, four friends driving to the heart of Yellowstone to see if a defining moment lay in wait for them there.