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Ruminations on the Bear

August 6/Day 20. Not a lot going on today, just tinkering, as once again I need to rest my injured foot. I ride my bike awhile, inspired by the long-distance bikers I befriended yesterday. I don’t comprehend how they manage, day after day, for weeks and months, carrying with them only the barest of necessities, never knowing where they’ll sleep that night. I guess it has to do with them being 40 years younger than me….

But meantime, let me tell you something I’ve been thinking.

I’ve been thinking about the news that a lone hiker was recently mauled by a grizzly in Glacier National Park, my next destination. Fortunately the man survived the attack, but he remains hospitalized. Since I’m traveling and hiking solo, I read the story with the most intense interest.

The incident is just one example of something I’ve occasionally brooded on since driving into the vastness of these mountains. How many solitary human beings, from pre-Columbian hunter-gatherers, to European explorers, adventurers, trappers, prospectors or simply the unfortunate lost, have been swallowed up by the mountain fastness never to be heard from again? How many human bones, with their accompanying wreckage of arrowheads, beads, tin cookware, coins, buckles, shovel blades, guns—the indestructible tools of man—lie yet hidden in some remote canyon or secluded alpine valley, undiscovered and forgotten by generations? How many wives and children never again saw a husband or father who set out for food never to return; how many lived out their lives without the consolation of knowing his fate?

Bears aren’t the only danger, of course. Yellowstone, uniquely, holds a special horror: the unsuspecting can crash in an instant through the earth’s crust and be dissolved below in pools of acid. Mountain men have for ages succumbed in solitude to broken leg, treacherous ice, avalanche, lion, or sudden storm that freezes them solid before they can shelter.

For example, a few years ago National Geographic published an article—you may recall it—about the body of a Stone Age man that was found by hikers high in the Italian Alps, preserved for thousands of years in solid ice. What was he doing on that mountain pass, alone? Where was he going, and what thought possessed him in his final moment? Who waited hopelessly for his arrival or return, or grieved for him?

The mountains can be a place of great desolation as well as ineffable beauty—perhaps the two are inseparable, I don’t know. But I’m certain that scattered throughout these Rocky Mountains lay the bones of the unredeemed, just as I’m certain that we’re all of us—every man, woman and child—mountain men, confronted with the absurd prospect of our own mortality. In the end, each of us must face the Bear alone.

This, Grasshopper, is the way of Nature, and the nature of the Way.

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