Mangy beasts with an insatiable taste for man-flesh lumber toward me, and while I have tried to prepare for everything, I am not ready for this: grunting, huffing rogue bears crashing through thick woods, 200 feet due east, picking up speed, closing fast. I can’t see them, because it’s late in the day, and cloudy. And I can’t hear them, because their ravenous rumbling is drowned out by the rushing of a raging river, along whose eastern banks I collapsed, sweating and gasping, just 15 minutes ago. To the south stretches a nearly impenetrable maze of canyons and thick forest; to the west, the angry river, frigid and deadly. Eight long, steep miles to the north, the trailhead; and 60 miles miles beyond that, Portland, Oregon. Actually, I’m not certain that the impenetrable forest and canyons don’t lie to the north, and that I didn’t hike in from the south, which would mean the bears would be lumbering from my west, and the river would be roaring due east. I have never possessed a very good sense of direction.
“This is bad,” I mutter, as I hunker next to a pine tree (or spruce; I can’t tell the difference), squinting into the darkening woods, wondering if it would be more painful to be eaten alive, or to freeze to death in the icy water to my west. Or east.
“This is very bad,” I say. I’m virtually alone, with virtually nothing other than my clothes and a knife and a piece of flint fastened to a piece of elk horn my older brother gave me before the trip. “I bought it at a hippie survival shop 20 years ago,” he said. “They told me it worked.”
“I’m doomed,” I whimper into the dark. I hope the bears don’t hear me. “I’m hopelessly doomed.”
A few months earlier, I was sitting around watching a guy bite the head off a wriggling trout while I shoveled mu shu chicken into my mouth and debated whether later that night I would surf the internet for new information on old girlfriends or work over a pint of Chunky Monkey (or both!) when I had one of the more stupid ideas of my stupid-idea-infested life. I decided it would be fun to watch a year’s worth of Man vs. Wild (the television show starring the fishhead-biter) and Survivorman (starring a shorter, chunkier, balder, more dolorous guy who is Canadian) in the course of a couple of weeks. Also, First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone as Johnny Rambo, who lives mostly in caves. Then, armed with whatever knowledge about fish-eating and shelter-building and general survival I had gleaned, I would enter the wilderness myself, armed with only a knife and a piece of duct tape, or whatever those guys took when they entered the wilderness.
Then I actually watched another episode of Man vs. Wild and one of Survivorman. “I’m hopelessly doomed,” I thought. “I’m so hopelessly doomed.”
Dusk has turned to darkness, the bears are moving, and the temperature has dropped. Somehow, I have managed to build a fire. Emergency matches helped.
Peering into the flames, I say, “It looks beautiful here, but looks can be deceiving,” which is what Bear Grylls, the star of Man vs. Wild, said in the Sierra once. Then I say, “There’s a fine line between a land of paradise and a land of nightmares,” which Les Stroud, the star of Survivorman, said another time, in Costa Rica. Talking like Les and Bear makes me feel better. Actually, talking in general makes me feel better. This is why, when I first became aware of the rogue bears, instead of taking evasive action, or making loud noises to scare them away, I said, “Those are creatures that have developed an insatiable appetite for man-flesh.” Saying words like “insatiable” and “man-flesh” has always cheered me. “Infested,” too. I don’t know why. Saying “rogue” makes me happy, whether “rogue bear” or “rogue wave” or “rogue elephant.” When I was young and terrified–which for me covers ages zero to 18–while other boys were learning knots and perfecting the art of rubbing sticks together to make fire, I was memorizing words like “arch-fiend” and “juggernaut,” thrilling myself with the delicious feel of “puny earthlings” and “hopelessly doomed.” Now, in the peril-infested, unforgiving wild, I see the terrible error of my ways. I should have memorized less, taken shop class more. No matter how much I say, “I’m hopelessly doomed,” nothing changes. I haven’t eaten in six hours. (That’s a long time for me; I tend to snack.) I have no drinkable water. And no place to sleep. I’m virtually alone, in a deep, forested river gorge. Night falls. The man-flesh-eating creatures circle. I’m hopelessly doomed. But really.