Friday, July 11, 2014

Sleeping with Grizzlies


Anything from a bison to a deer to a wolf to an elk to a moose to a raccoon could have stepped on that twig, but in my hyper-alert state, fueled by the realization I no longer perched atop the food chain, the sound outside my tent only meant one thing.

This hiker was about to die at the claws of a hungry grizzly. 

Another twig snapped, closer than the first, and I began worming out of my sleeping bag. Although I'd tried to mentally prepare for this moment, knowing when I reached Yellowstone during my Continental Divide thru-hike I would share the forest with Ursus arctos horribilisthe ever so catchy and appropriate sounding scientific name for the grizzly bearno amount of studying Forest Service guidelines could have stopped the coldness that settled into my spine and worked its way to the back of my skull. Was I scared?

Damn right, I was scared.


The bear was circling my tent, no doubt an attempt to discern the best angle of attack. Trying to not make a soundas though I could hide from the bear there was a human inside the nylon shell sitting in the midst of his forestI opened my tent fly a quarter inch at a time. When there was enough room to poke a nose, two eyeballs, and a mini-mag flashlight out of the opening, I switched on my light and the thin brightness lit up the brush in front of me. I twitched the light to the right, to the left, all the while opening the fly more and more. Eventually, I stuck my shoulders out into the cool night air and scanned down the sides of my tent. 

"Huh," I said.

Maybe I had a chance of surviving after all. I took a deep breath and studied the moon with its pumpkin glow, behind it the sprinkle of stars so brilliant they seemed touchable



I twitched the flashlight toward the sound. A crashing in the brush, an animal running full tilt, and I tensed my vocal chords for a long, howling scream, figured I'd leave this world the same way I entered. The crashing sound continued, loud at first, then lower and lower as the animal receded into the nightscape. I sniffed the air, wondering how far bear breath carried on the breeze, smelled only the musk of an earth still damp from afternoon thunderstorms. 

And so it went that night, the animal sounds and my fear keeping me awake, a torture that grew more frustrating by the hour. The tenth time I stuck my head outside my tent, I realized I'd never complete my thru-hike if I didn't face down this fear. An Edward Abbey quote came to mind.

“If people persist in trespassing upon the grizzlies' territory, we must accept the fact that the grizzlies, from time to time, will harvest a few trespassers.”


I'd first come across that quote in a recliner in an air-conditioned room, far away from grizzly territory, and I'd endorsed Abbey's proposal with enthusiasm. Now that I was actually a trespasser, um . . . it was not so easy. Still, I knew that's exactly what I had to do.


I let out a long held breath and the coldness left my body. If a grizzly attacked me while I slept, so be it. 

The next morning, I woke weary but unscathed, ready to get on with my hike. While my fear of Ursus arctos horribilis still seethed under the surface, after all a grizzly can decapitate a human in one swipe, I was determined not to allow this emotion to have control over my life.

In the days that followed, my fear surfaced from time to time, always at night when I felt most vulnerable, but I never allowed my trepidation to drive me off the trail to the safety of civilization and I finished my thru-hike at the Canadian border on a cold fall morning. It was an amazing journey and one I would not have had if I hadn't overcome my fear.  

Tips for Beginning Writers

Fear of the empty page, fear of rejection, fear of workshopping, fear of not solving that troublesome plot point, fear of not getting the words right, fear of readers not liking your work, fear of a critic waking up on the wrong side of the bed, fear that your face looks fat in your author photo, fear that you left a typo in a Tweet or Facebook post, fear that no one will show for your readingname a fear and a writer will probably have it at one time or another during his career.
  • Fear of writing from the core is perhaps the most debilitating fear of all. I had this fear for the longest time, refusing to tap that place where the best and worst of me resides. The inner self, that spot tucked way down deep, is where truth hides, and the fiction of an author who runs from that nexus is superficial at best and stupendously boring at worst.
I had my reasons for avoiding my core–mostly I was afraid of what I'd find–but I was also hiding my true self from my parents. Religious to the bone, they would not approve of the stories I wanted to write, nor how I would write them, and I was fearful of their condemnation. (Turns out I was right, they won't allow my novels in their home, a story for another post.)

I wish I could write it took only one scared night to beat back my fear of this monster, when in fact it took more years than I care to remember. Each time I attempted to tap my core I felt naked and alone, and yes, very afraid. I eventually won that battle, though, and you can, too. Keep kicking and clawing and screaming, hell, turn into a wrecking ball if need be, but never give up and you will sooner or later overcome this fear.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
"Always do what you are afraid to do."
If you feel as though your writing growth is at a standstill, take a long look at your fears and follow Emerson's advice. Follow the trail into the wilderness, open the door to the locked closet, do what you're afraid to do and you will eventually break the bonds that constrict your writing.

What about you?

What are you most fearful of in your writing life? Have you overcome any fears? Do you have tips of your own?

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