Legend of the Bear Slayer

A young hiker goes from zero to wilderness hero and back again in record time.

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My mother insisted that ladies prefer a man in uniform, so I wore my Boy Scout outfit to school on Fridays. Most days, girls looked in my direction zero percent of the time, anyway, so I figured the merit badge sash couldn’t hurt. If only there was a badge for love.

The thought was never far away, even on a trip to the Rocky Mountains’ Cimarron Range with nine other 13-year-old boys.

That day began with a bear wandering into our camp for breakfast. Being the first to spot the visitor, it was my duty to remember my training, spring into action, and bang the cooking pots together. I pretended like I knew how it was going to go, and the bear, also on script, moseyed off. Stories around the breakfast fire quickly evolved into a mythical saga. The cooking pots became my weapons. I had vanquished the beast.

Throughout our hike that day, the crew took five-minute breaks every now and then so as not to let the lactic acid build in our legs. Each time we stopped, we were leapfrogged by another crew, only to then pass them again on their break. Our new trail buddies had a decent-size group and a few people our age. But there was one detail that made them particularly interesting: They were girls.

Each time we passed the band of females, I glanced at one in particular. It was impossible not to. Her golden braids, Kansas City baseball cap, and freckled cheeks made her irresistible. I’m sure she hadn’t bathed in days but still managed to smell like oranges. She smiled and I smiled back.

The girls giggled each time we passed. When enough distance grew between the groups, the boys and I planned a future for this nameless angel and me. How many kids would we have? Where would we grow old together? Maybe she likes Nintendo? It felt like winning the lottery. No one guessed I would meet the girl of my dreams in the middle of a 100-mile hike.

Up ahead: a fork in the trail. Dread washed over me. She and I had come so far. Just as I expected, her crew was heading south. Mine was going north. It was too soon. In this moment, I felt the same tingle I’d felt the first time I laid eyes on her, all those hours ago. The best six hours of my life. I was not going to let her get away.

I summoned the memory of the bear fight from earlier that morning. I am king of that beast, master of these mountains. People don’t fight off bears only to let the perfect woman get away. You can do this. I swallowed to wet my mouth and yelled across the canyon toward the trail on the opposite side.

“Hey! Can I have your number?!”

This was it. Everything was out in the open. The birds stopped chirping, the frogs stopped croaking, even the wind stopped blowing. No one dared a whisper.

“Sure!” she yelled back.

I tore through my pack for a pen and something to write on while she cupped her hands around her mouth to yell the digits.

“One-eight hundred-IN-YOUR-DREAMS!”

It took a good 30 minutes for our crew to escape the sound of cackling girls. Then, as if on cue, it started to rain. My T-shirt got soaked as we rigged a tarp for cover. I rummaged through my pack to find the only dry layer left: my Boy Scout uniform.

If only I had been wearing it earlier.

RJ Thieneman is a writer in Los Angeles. He still sports the neckerchief sometimes.

From 2023

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