2:05 AM. Dismal Falls, Virginia
My dad woke to the sound of something rustling against the tent. Something big. It’s a bear.
Time slowed. My dad thought about life, his wife, and his son who slept beside him and who might die with him on this lonesome night at Dismal Falls. My dad is a man of action.
Hey!” he screamed. “Get out!”
He rolled onto his side and started punching the bear though the wall of the tent. His fists slammed into the thick animal, but the bear wouldn’t leave. I yelled, “Dad!” and his son’s voice gave him a surge of paternal strength. He gave the bear everything he had. “Git!” he shouted. “Get out of here!”
Earlier that day
It was summer and my Dad and I were on our annual section hike of the Appalachian Trail. One of my co-workers, Kyle*, joined us.
Our plan was to camp at the Dismal Falls campground. It was an arbitrary destination for us, but one with a grim history: A few years back, a crazy person shot two hikers who were staying there, wounding them. (The guy was subsequently caught and went to jail.)
When you’re hiking in the woods with family and friends you try not to think about that sort of thing, but sometimes it’s hard to think about anything else. I asked Kyle, “Remember that guy who shot those people at Dismal?”
“The Dismal Falls we’re hiking to?”
“They were just wounded,” my dad interjected.
We walked on in a heavy silence of three men waiting for the gallows. The mood was dark indeed by the time we arrived at Dismal Falls.
A knee-deep stream cuts through the camping area, leading to the namesake falls, a noisy 12-footer. We shared supper with another hiker, Bob, who required strong hearing aids to converse (and infrequently used them). After supper, Bob put in his hearing aids to shout-say he would “set up on the far side of this creek” and “see you guys in the morning.” Kyle pitched his one-man tent on the near side of the creek and Dad and I put our two-man 20 yards farther downstream.
Dad set up the sleeping gear while I bear-bagged the food. When I got back, I found him in his bag with the feet-end downhill. I reminded him that I like to sleep with my feet uphill so the blood drains out and they don’t become sore.
There was grumbling. It’s one thing to walk 14 miles in a day with 25 pounds strapped on your back—it’s another thing entirely to get back up when you’re already in your bag. So I changed tactics, asking if he had done his last pee. (Nobody wants to wake up in the middle of a good sleep just to go pee in the cold.)
There was more grumbling, but the seed was planted—he had to go. While he did his “safety pee,” I turned our bags the way I like them: feet uphill. He came back and didn’t seem to notice. The grumbling slowly changed to snoring.
Kyle woke shortly after 2 a.m. to hear four shouts in the Dismal darkness: “Hey!”
. . . “Get out!” . . . “Git!” . . . “Get out of here!” Then silence, the eternal rushing of water, and the roar of his heart. The Dismal Falls killer was back.
Kyle’s body prepped itself for fight or flight, loosening what could be loosened. The non-scientific community has a specific term for this condition: scared sh**less.
Kyle scrambled out of his tent and yanked down his white spandex thermals to meet his body’s response as best he could. He perched there, frozen in fear, as he strained to hear any clues as to the killer’s whereabouts or further intentions. But he didn’t want to die here, not like this. He stood, pulled up his spandex, switched on his headlamp, and waded barefoot across the creek. Bob might be dead, he thought. He swept his light across Bob’s tent expecting slash marks and blood. Nothing. Maybe Bob is OK.
“Bob?!” he called. No response.
Bob is dead. Kyle crept around the tent, inspecting each side with his light.
The tent was fine. Then it moved.
Something was hitting me in the ribs. Hard. I heard my dad scream, “Get out!” and he socked me again.
“Dad!” I yelled. My dad used to be a cop and even in his 60s he’s no softy.
“Git!” he yelled. I struggled to free myself from the mummy bag.
“Get out of here!” my dad screamed, punctuating each word with a fist. With one arm pinning me down, he turned and shouted over his shoulder, “There’s a bear!”
He must be dreaming. “Wake up!” I freed my hands and tried to block his punches.
My father hissed, “I am awake!” The wild whites of his eyes glimmered in the darkness. This was no dream.
My universe imploded—my father was insane. After a lifetime of love, it came down to one night in a tent. One of us would get out alive. The door was on his side. There was no choice: I had to fight.
I rolled into him with my body to shorten his punches. “There . Is . No. Bear.” I grabbed his wrist and pinned it to his body.
“Then what has my arm?”
His body relaxed.
“There’s no bear. It’s me.”
A short silence ensued as my world realigned itself along the familial axis.
“I guess you seemed like a bear.”
And then my dad started to chuckle. It was infectious. Turns out there’s a lot to laugh about once your dad stops trying to kill you.
“You can really hit,” I told him when I caught my breath.
“Sorry. I thought the door was on my left side.”
“I turned the bags around when you did your last pee. “
“I’m glad you didn’t get up in the middle of the night to pee out the door.”
He agreed. “You’re lucky I was just trying to kill you.”
“Do you think Kyle heard us yelling?”
“If he’s worried, he’ll check on us.”
After being shooed away by a very alive (and very annoyed) Bob, Kyle waded back across the creek and crawled into his sleeping bag. He’d lie there awake and uncertain as he waited for the dawn.
The next morning, Kyle asked if we heard any strange noises during the night. I smiled. “Nothing strange.”
“Really?” Kyle said, “I thought somebody was attacked.”
“Well. . . “