When I was about seven, my family moved from Washington, DC to Bozeman, Montana.
That’s quite the change for a ripe young mind. And when you throw into the mix that my best friend at the time–who was pretty much my honorary big brother–had told me that Montana was an island in the middle of the ocean inhabited by cannibals, you can get a glimpse of how I felt about moving.
But once we settled in, I fell in love with our new home right away. I found a horseshoe on the lane next to our house, and once I was told it was good luck to find a horseshoe, well!! I knew I was set.
…Until we went to the museum. That was the day my fragile seven year-old psyche was positively shattered.
The museum in Bozeman is actually pretty well-known, as it houses world-famous paleontologist Dr. Jack Horner. If you don’t know who he is, rent “Jurassic Park” and watch the credits. We have the world’s first female T-Rex, and several other big-time paleontological finds.
As a small, aspiring intellectual on that fateful day in my seventh year, I had been impressed with our new museum–it was no Smithsonian, but it would do. I had been inside a real teepee, and had gotten to move a big metal thing back and forth while pumping make-believe gas from an old do-it-yourself gasoline pump. Those are pretty cool activities when you’re seven. I was stoked.
The last exhibit we would visit for the day was the temporary one, which changes every few months. As fate would have it, this season’s exhibit was on bears.
Bears are, no doubt, an important topic in Montana. They’re a part of life here. When camping, you have to store your food bag up in a tree. When hiking, you alwaysalwaysalways carry bear spray. Every Montanan needs to know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly, so they can act accordingly if need be. For all these reasons, educating the public is really important. Bear education has saved a lot of lives.
But this exhibit went beyond education.
In the corner of the last room, there was a looping tape of bear attacks.
It was the greatest mindf*ck my seven year-old self could have possibly encountered.
I watched in horror as an armless woman told the story of her attack, in which she mistook a black bear for a grizzly. You see, when dealing with black bears, you must jump and shout and try to scare them away; but when it comes to grizzlies, you have to get down on the ground and put your hands over your neck, with your elbows out, in hopes that it won’t be able to roll you over. So, when this woman rolled herself into a ball on the ground, the black bear assumed she had declared defeat, and proceeded to slowly eat off her arms.
Victim after victim told their gruesome stories, with occasional roars and screams for effect. I didn’t even cry; I was simply transfixed with terror.
Pale and shaking, I numbly walked out to the car with my parents, distracting myself from the certainty that a bear was about to pop out around every corner by mentally planning exactly how I would escape my second-floor bedroom if a bear ever came into it.
Since then, I’ve slowly regained at least a bit of rationality. But fears you develop during those formative years stay with you. Though I hike, backpack and ski, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still absolutely terrified of bears.
Most of the time, my interaction with bears isn’t even interaction. We rarely see them up at the house. For the most part, I see them in Yellowstone, and it’s always from a car with lots of other people around.
It’s when I’m hiking that the old fear kicks in. Most bear attack stories occur while the victim is hiking, and we just had that awful fatal mauling in the Park. (And all the ridiculously sensationalized reporting that went with it. Articles featured headlines like “Killer grizzly roams free in Yellowstone!” Well, Media, it may surprise you to know that ALL GRIZZLIES KILL THINGS. Yes, that’s right–every bear in Yellowstone is a killer. They may as well have titled the article “OHMYGAHIT’STHEBEARPOCALYPSE.”)
But, if I never bucked up & put my fear aside, how would I ever experience sights like this?
This weekend, I went for a hike into the Spanish Peaks with two friends of mine. We took the Pioneer Falls trail, which is about seven miles round-trip.
Before the hike, I was pretty nervous. I thought about doing a little research into bear danger in the area, or asking my friends (who know the area far better than me) what they thought the chances were that we’d see a bear.
Instead, I just decided to go with the flow.
(Thank you, Greece.)
The rewards for this decision were tangible… and spectacularly gorgeous.
On top of the big-picture scenery, hikes are all about the little things for me. The air is so fresh and sweet-smelling, and the sounds of birds such a lovely way to break the silence. There’s beauty all around, from your eye-level to your feet.
And then, of course, there’s the destination. If a hike isn’t one giant metaphor, I don’t know what is.
As we wandered back down the trail, I couldn’t help but reflect on the very nature of fear. It’s one of the single most overpowering emotions, and yet the rewards one reaps for overcoming it are often some of the most precious rewards we could possibly gain. As a Montana citizen, if I let my fear of bears rule my life, I’d practically never be outside.
And as a Montana citizen, outside is where I want to be.
At the end of the day, there was one last reward waiting for me:
Who knows if I will ever fully overcome my fear of bears. I don’t even really know what it means to “fully overcome” a fear. But in the meantime, I’m trying. Just like Big Scary Life Changes, learning to set aside one’s fears is another part of progressing as a whole human being.
What are your fears, how do you cope with them, and what do you gain as a reward?