Many years ago, in 1980, I hitchhiked across America with my then boyfriend. Bored with the Interstate, we headed west on Route 2. Our lifts were frequent, and they were informative, but the information was largely of a hair-raising nature. As we headed towards Minot, North Dakota, one driver exclaimed, ‘You’re going to MINOT? Are you crazy?! The people there will shoot you as soon as look at you. I wouldn’t be caught dead there at night without a gun.’
I was scared. ‘Brendan’, I said, ‘let’s take a detour. Let’s not take the risk.’
‘It will be fine’, he said confidently. ‘I’m sure it will be ok.’ He being 3 years my senior, and of the advanced age of 20, I went along with his decision. Nevertheless, we approached Minot in a state of trepidation.
Almost immediately, we were offered a lift. Our driver couldn’t have been nicer, and we made pleasant conversation until he learned that we were travelling all the way across the country. ‘But!’, he exclaimed, ‘that means you’ll be hitchhiking through Williston! It’s full of miners! They’ll kill you as soon as look at you!’
And then he added, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead there at night without a gun!’
‘Brendan’, I said, ‘do you really think this is a good idea?’
‘Yes’, he said, full of the self-assurance of youth.
And so we hitchhiked through Williston. Almost immediately, we were offered a lift by a pickup truck full of miners on their way home from work. Were they terrifying? Were they hell. They couldn’t have been nicer. We hopped in the back, and they offered us cold beer (Coors), and we began chatting. Things progressed smoothly, until we said we were heading to the Rockies.
‘But!’, they said, ‘you’ll be passing through Wolf Point! That’s Indian country, and it’s full of Indians!’
‘ They’ll kill you as soon as look at you’, they warned.
And then came the inevitable, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead there at night without a gun.’
‘Brendan’, I said, ‘is this really a good idea?’ (You’ll have gathered by now that I am a very anxious person). ‘It will be fine’, he said.
In Wolf Point we were given a lift by an old Blackfoot Indian, and he couldn’t have been nicer. As we drove towards the mountains, he told us what the reservation had been like when he was young. He told us how he used to ride his pony for miles across the hills, because, he said, ‘there were no fences back then’. We told him that we were planning to go hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and he was horrified. ‘There are grizzly bears there! They’ll kill you as soon as look at you!’ And then– I swear this is true– he said, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead there at night without a gun.’
More or less undeterred (50% of us was still breezily confident), we progressed to the Rocky Mountains. There, at the foot of the trail, was a large red sign saying something to the effect of ‘Here be grizzly bears’. More pertinently, the sign said, ‘The park is not responsible for MAULINGS and DEATHS’. It also instructed us that if we saw a grizzly bear, we were to climb a tree.
‘Brendan’, I said, ‘is this really a good idea?’
‘Yes’, he said, with un-contagious enthusiasm.
We bought bells for our backpacks, which are supposed to warn the bears that walkers are coming so that they (the bears) can scamper off into the woods out of the way. With our bells tinkling gaily, we headed up the mountain into the backcountry. We climbed for miles, higher and higher towards the Continental Divide, which is the watershed for the entire country. At last we arrived at a blue, blue lake, with cliffs rising sheer to the top of the Divide. The lake was drained by a large stream, and on the other side of the stream was a grizzly bear.
We looked at the bear. The bear looked at us. We looked at the trees which the park had advised us to clamber by way of escape.
They were waist high.
We were in alpine country, and there were no trees above 1 metre.
We considered our predicament, and we laughed. We laughed out loud, and it echoed across that glacial valley. The bear took one look at two hysterical young people, by now shrieking with laughter, and it ran off down the mountainside, its muscles rippling visibly under its fur.
We set up our tent, slung our food on a high wire out of reach of the bears, and climbed to the top of the ridge that makes up the Divide, and it was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. The ground was completely carpeted in alpine flowers– and we leaned out into the wind that came from the West, from the Pacific Ocean, and I will never forget that moment.
I’d like to say that I have been confident ever since this incident, but I have not. We spent the night huddled in our tent, scared out of our wits.
Two weeks later, two hikers were mauled to death by a grizzly bear in East Glacier.
The moral of this story (Americans always have to have a moral) is that in some situations you have nothing to fear but fear itself– however, you should be afraid of bears.
Be very afraid of bears.