As my girlfriend and I prepare for our first camping trip as a couple, I am determined to do something that has never been done before: I am going to use the skills I learned as a boy scout to impress a potential mate. At this point in our relationship, I am just as concerned with impressing Ann, as I am unclear about what traits are impressive.
I lead her through REI with all the confidence of an Eagle Scout unencumbered by that title’s requisite life experience. In truth I was a terrible boy scout and troop 140 lost little when I left years before I ever could have attained Eagle status. I was only good at two scouting activities: avoiding carrying the heavy bags and turning a pair of wet blue jeans into a DIY personal floatation device. The first is unimpressive and the latter is a tad too forward for a first camping trip.
Still, I was filled with an uncharacteristic machismo as I pointed out the difference between necessary equipment and frivolous luxury. Wicking underwear? Absolutely not, this is the wilderness, we’ll put on fresh underwear when we get back. A Swiss Army Knife with a bottle opener? Yes, of course yes, it has a bottle opener.
Ann picked out a packet of freeze dried hamburger stroganoff along with some other prepackaged camping meals. I looked at the price tag and scoffed. Let us not forget that Boy Scout Law declares that “a scout is thrifty”. I explained that this was a needless luxury, because Daniel Boon didn’t have freeze dried stroganoff and astronaut ice-cream when he discovered the Cumberland Gap. No, we would buy cans of soup for a fraction of the price. Ann put the offensive egg noodles back on the shelf and placed her trust in my Boy Scout knowledge.
A month later, equipped with several cans of heart healthy condensed soup, a tent designed for music festivals, and plenty of enthusiasm, we registered for our backcountry permit at the entrance to The Great Smokey Mountains. A friendly, mustachioed ranger with a map, a highlighter, and a cartoonish thick accent was all too happy to help us design our adventure. When he asked what sights we wanted to see, Ann and I quickly agreed upon mountain peaks and waterfalls. The ranger pointed out that those two phenomena exist at opposite elevations, but neither Ann nor I picked up on the significance of this seemingly mundane observation. Instead we looked at him with doe eyes and anticipatory smiles while waiting for his highlighter to illuminate our future.
As it turns out, our initial enthusiasm for backpacking rapidly diminished as our elevation increased. After several hours of hiking up a steep mountain path with 20 pounds of canned soup on our backs, we understood all too well why the ranger pointed out the fact that water falls down, while mountains climb upward.
We also learned that no can of soup, no matter how heart healthy, is worth its weight. We spent our first dinner on the trail craving freeze dried hamburger stroganoff. Ann, bless her heart, never said “I told you so”, but that could very well have been because neither of us had enough surplus breath in our lungs to say anything at all.
We moved with such unintentional stealth through the highs and lows of the great Smokey Mountains that we scarcely even registered one another’s presence. None of the parks inhabitants heard us either.
On our third day we were miserably marching through mud and the mountain’s namesake fog, when we both froze. Each of us pointed at something and then looked back at the other to discover that we were pointing at two different somethings.
We had unknowingly wandered in between two surprised bear cubs who obviously hadn’t heard us coming. They looked at us with cautious curiosity. We looked back at them the same way we would look at the adorable offspring of any overprotective, man-mauling mother.
After a moment of endless brevity, the bears scurried off. We didn’t wait to see if they were joining family. Instead we hurried, faster than we previously thought we were capable of hurrying, to our designated campsite, which was surrounded by signs reading “Danger: Bears Are Active In This Area” I tried my best to pretend that this meant a family of fun-loving, cuddly polar bears were playfully wrestling over the last can of Coke, but I couldn’t quite convince myself. Instead I took solace in the fact that everyone I had told about our trip to the Smokey’s, including a few Eagle Scouts, said the same thing: “I’ve never seen a bear.” Since anything times zero is zero, we had already seen more than 100 times as many bears as everyone I knew. I’m no Jamie Escalante, but I figured the odds of seeing more bears was very low.
Besides, the rain was coming down too hard and we were too tired to hike to the next available site. We spent the next forty five minutes in the pouring rain assembling the numerous parts of a tent that would have been perfect for a sunny Widespread Panic concert.
Once we were safely inside, Ann started crying. She confessed that she thought this would be fun, but that she was exhausted and scared. In turn I confessed that I was never a very good boy scout. Ann smiled through her tears and admitted that she had already figured that out. We agreed to hike back to civilization tomorrow and spend the rest of our vacation in family campsites, so we could leave our heavy belongings behind during carefree day trips.
That night, if you don’t count the time Ann woke up panicked that her fruit flavored lip gloss would attract bears or the time I woke up panicked that the tick on my leg was going to kill me, we slept with an incredible sense of calm. Until the gun shots. Once the shooting started we were pretty much awake.
That morning we were very happy with our decision to leave. We even smiled at the two rangers that walked by and explained that they were shooting rifles last night as part of some sort of nature experiment. I didn’t even tell them I was too terrified all night to leave our tent and pee. No, there was no need to complain. Everything was looking bright.
While brushing our teeth a doe walked out of the fog and slowly walked past us, close enough to pet. It was like the wilderness itself was blessing our decision to leave it.
After just fifteen minutes of hiking we stumbled onto Gregory Bald, a beautiful mountain top painted red with flame azaleas. It was the parks way of saying, ‘farewell Ann and Jeremy, come back soon after registering for one of REI’s free camping workshops.”
We were still exhausted, but there was a light at the end of our Smokey tunnel. Silently, like breathless, overburdened ninjas eager for Sensei’s home cooking, we turned a sharp curve on the trail. Suddenly, I was face to face with the last thing I wanted to see: a rather large, startled, adult bear who promptly lost interest in the berries he was eating.
We stared at each other. The bear, presumably deciding whether or not we posed a threat, and us completely understanding that the bear definitely posed a threat.
I immediately recalled the boycott survival guide for bear encounters.
Bear encounter step one: freeze. Check. I have no idea why anyone would continue moving forward in this situation.
Step two: if the bear moves toward you, slowly and quietly move backward. He twists his neck like a pro-fighter entering the ring. He raises his front paw and pounds the dirt in a single definitive step toward us. Shit.
I maintain eye contact with the bear while moving backward, and hope Ann is behind me doing the same. We retrace our steps around the bend until the bear is out of sight. I can still hear it moving.
Step three: fight for all you’re worth with everything you have. All I have is exhaustion and what seems like a ridiculous desire for astronaut ice-cream. I have no fight in me.
I proceed to the unstated step four: tell your girlfriend you love her and make her promise not to tell anyone that in the moments before you were mauled to death by a bear, you pissed yourself.
When I turn around, however, I don’t see surrender. Ann holds a dead branch in her right hand like a club, and the crook of her left arm is filled with rocks. She is determined that her last meal will not be low-sodium minestrone.
While my Boy Scout experience was disappointing at best, Ann’s natural survival instincts leave me in awe. Inspired, I unhook our shit shovel from my backpack and prepare myself to fight beside her. We stand side by side ready to defend ourselves from whatever apex predator might come our way. Still, it is likely for the best that the bear loses interest in us and runs off in the other direction.
I look at Ann in her warrior pose and know that despite my shenanigans, she would have been an incredible asset to Boy Scout troop 140. My own scouting days may have let us down, but I take comfort in knowing that behind this former Boy Scout is a great woman.
Jeremy Schaefer has shared stories behind mics and on trains all over Chicago and the Midwest. He’s appeared in This Much Is True, Adult Education, You’re Being Ridiculous, The Side Project Theatre’s Festival of Storytelling, Story Club, The IndyFringe Festival, and more. He’s also an improvisor with Laugh Out Loud Theater and International Stinger among others. He tours educational storytelling assemblies to K-5 audiences all around Chicago through Urban Gateways.