Why you should care
Because this could be you.
The Great Smoky Mountains are one of my favorite places in the world. I used to hike the lush green woods with my dad when I was a kid. It was one of the few times his attention was focused on me. It’s a special place, one I had long wanted to hike with my wife.
But it had not been a good year. We had had misunderstandings, communication breakdowns. By the time I reunited with my wife in North Carolina after a work trip, I had gone through some hard weeks alone with my thoughts. I looked forward to camping together, calmly reconnecting. But resentment, anger and old frustrations poured out, from both of us. She walked far ahead, leaving me behind with a bum ankle and walking sticks.
Which didn’t concern me much. I stopped to soak in the ridgeline views. Tennessee on my left, North Carolina on my right. Layers of green that faded into navy blue and gray silhouettes as far as the eye could see.
By 6 p.m., we found a secluded spot and set up our tent together — backward. I said nothing. I didn’t want to correct my wife and risk an argument. Instead I gently suggested we start over, which worked. My wife went off to wash up, and I wearily crawled into our tent to doze off. It was dusk.
No sooner was I dozing than I heard running and panting.
“There’s a bear down there!”
[W]e found a secluded spot and set up our tent together — backward. I said nothing. I didn’t want to correct my wife and risk an argument.
“What? Where? Get in the tent, it’s OK.”
“I know it’s OK, I’m not worried.”
Darkness had set in by now, and sounds came from everywhere. Down the hill. At our toes. To my wife’s left. To my right, up by the hanging food bags. Even from behind our heads, in the 50 yards or so that separated us from a hiking shelter.
Heaving, hard breathing, scratching, snorting. It got closer. It stopped. It got farther away. Then, it was closer, in another direction.
“Did you hear that?”
“They’re all around us.”
The more I thought, the more I remembered the food and toiletries I had forgotten to string up: oatmeal with sugar, banana peels, juicy PowerBar gummies. I pulled our steel-tipped walking sticks inside the tent and passed my wife hers. I clutched my wife’s hand. Kissed her forehead, and clicked my headlamp light into the darkness to hook a tiny bag of supplemental items onto the pulley system. My wife and I held each other as the night grew colder. When we woke the next morning, the bears were gone.
But the next day we had to do 14 miles. And we had to push. I nearly exploded at the first comment about pacing less than a mile in, and we were walking apart again. I walked for miles, silently gazing at expansive mountain views in the crisp June air. It wasn’t until the descent that we started talking again, reminiscing about how we overcame the bears at night. Then it happened.
My wife turned a corner, shrieked and jumped back. A 250-pound black bear was staring her in the face.
“No. No,” she said as I moved forward. She carefully stepped back.
I went anyway. I needed photographic proof. As I slowly stepped toward the sharp turn, I thought, “What if the bear charges me?” Too late.
There it was: a bear, right in the middle of the walking path, about 15 feet away. I desperately smeared my sweaty fingers across my iPhone 7, trying to swipe the camera open, hoping this wasn’t the way I would go. Finally, I was able to snap two shots before the bear noticed and started toward me.
My wife and I desperately strategized. This was our way out, we had to get past the bear.
“We should charge him,” my wife suggested.
“What? No! Let’s go back, slowly, and make noise,” I suggested.
“OK, but not too much noise. I don’t want it to get angry.”
I clanked my walking poles together and wailed rhythmically.
“Not so loud!”
The bear lazily approached us again. We scrambled back.
“It smells the trash. Ditch the trash!” my wife said.
I untied the bag, dropped it, and we scrambled back up another 100 feet.
“Where’d you put the trash?”
“I dropped it.”
“In the middle of the path?”
“Yeah, that’s what you said.”
“Why didn’t you throw it in the woods?”
This went on for some time. We retreated to a large switchback. My wife rested on a rock, I took off my backpack. My wife hurled a peach into the woods, then persuaded me to toss all our remaining sunflower seeds. We positioned ourselves just above the switchback and waited, holding our breath.
Here it came, ambling along, one foot in front of the other, its shoulder blades alternately rising and falling. Its snout swayed back and forth along the center of the path.
The bear meandered over to the rock, hoisted its front paws up to where my wife had sat and sniffed closely. It wasn’t fooled. It was a campground bear. It was unafraid of humans, and it wanted more food. It turned toward us.
We backtracked 8 miles to avoid it, and stayed the night at a shelter to hike out on a different path the next morning.
It was a slog. We could barely see except for our dim headlamps. An orange outline of the sunset spanned our ridgeline hike. It was a beautiful scene. We walked very close now. We talked, we tried to cheer each other up. My wife’s feet were taped up, blistered and bleeding. My ankle was sore.
“It’s only 2 miles. Easy peasy,” I said.
My wife kept on. She was strong. She wasn’t complaining about my nature hike gone awry. We had nothing to argue about. We had returned to each other. She was the beautiful, lovely woman I had married and loved so much. When challenged together, we could make it 22 miles in 12 hours and avoid a bear.
We hiked out the next day, and later relaxed on my mom’s back porch with my family, with each other, drinking cold beers and telling our bear story. I let her tell it. I just smiled. I like the way she tells stories.