Sometimes, despite my best efforts, my mind wanders. I can only manage so many hours of hyper-vigilance before the tastes and sounds of the here and now are diluted by the curious voices of the nowhere and never that fill my head. Hunting helps, but even in those precious hours, I am not entirely immune. So it was that my body was deep in the Wilderness, and my imagination elsewhere on a walk of its own, when I saw the face. Or rather sensed the face, for as previously mentioned I wasn’t, at the moment, “seeing” much of anything. In fact, having sensed the face, locked my eyes onto it, stopped and involuntarily dropped into a partial crouch, I still wasn’t seeing it. I saw instead two big black eyes and a disembodied head floating between two trees. I stared at it, frozen in disbelief. Why was there a cardboard cutout of a cartoon face levitating 30 yards in front of me in the middle of the woods? What in the hell is…
Then it turned and hustled off through the brush.
“GO ON… you sneaky bastard… GIT!” I yelled after him, realizing as I did that it was only pointless bravado after such a dumbfounded delay.
He wasn’t a big bear, or particularly menacing. But he’d clearly known about me for some time before I could say the same. He’d been watching me slink along the intermittent game trail more or less straight toward him. And he hadn’t initially decided to clear out. I didn’t feel threatened exactly, but my daydreaming was done for the day.
Comfortably back in camp I tossed the experience around in my head a little. Prey animals I realized (and that describes almost all of them at some time or other) don’t get lost in their thoughts – at least not the ones that live to pass on their genes. Neither for that matter did our long ago ancestors. Twelve thousand years ago, the blink of a bear’s eye in mammalian evolutionary terms, Homo Sapiens, armed with sticks and sharpened stones, scratched out their living in this part of the world among not only mountain lions, gray wolves, black bears and grizzlies but also 11 foot tall short-faced bears, 500 pound American lions, sabre toothed cats, giant cheetahs, dire wolves and untold other monsters. I bet they had a pretty good idea of what was going on around them more or less every moment of their lives. Come to think of it, that awareness, however underutilized, must live on in me still today. Something after all, call it the spirit of my many times great Grandpa, had recognized the triangle pattern of black nose and front facing eyes for what it was, without any help from the conscious me.
Later still, conducting the shoulda, coulda, woulda review of our trip over the campfire, I began to take stock of our elkless four day expedition. I’d come to the mountains to take my place in the natural order of things, to actively and deliberately assume my position in the food chain. That my role might be anything other than alpha predator was little more than a toothless abstraction when I left the house. Things hadn’t worked out as planned. I’d be returning home empty handed in the morning. Thanks to the bear though, and his uncomfortable lesson, I wouldn’t leave the mountains without the exhilaration and humility that comes from conscientious participation.