Orange haze was melting into the trees, I looked over the edge of the path as we walked in single file. Rocks and shrubs lay along the side and disappeared into the trees below. My boyfriend behind me, my sister directly in front of me, then my brother and his girlfriend were leading the way. We were hoping to make it to some lake to camp at for the night, but we had left late. Well, we left more than late. By 8pm the sun was setting, and we had only been hiking for a couple of hours.
Hiking in a national forest in bear territory at night is not recommended, but there we were one by one, making our voices louder as green grew thicker and eyes started glowing deep in the darkness. I kept pulling my backpack up onto my palms to brace my back from the weight, allowing my arms to do some of the work. As each of our feet hit the ground, small rocks and dirt fell loose and crunched underneath our steps.
My brother was very familiar with Teton National Park, it was his playground, his work space and his gym. He works every Winter at Teton Village, teaching kids to snowboard. On his days off, him and his buddies rock climb, hike or swim in the mountains. He was the one taking us on this backpacking trip, guiding us with what he could remember from the map he had made and then misplaced. He was so adamant about us having the proper gear and clothes. For example, forgetting a rain shell could result in getting wet if it rained and you would expose yourself to getting hypothermia. Backpacking can be an amazing experience, but it’s crucial to be completely prepared he had strongly warned us. And of course, he forgot his map. The rest of us were unfamiliar with this forest, so we had to trust that we needed to keep hiking into the night until we climbed higher away from the glowing eyes all around us.
My brother stayed in control guiding us and assured us that everything would be fine. Maybe he mostly believed that, but I think he also had to stay positive to keep us from worrying too much. My sister wasn’t too worried about scaring wildlife away, her eyes sparkled as she turned towards me. Just as she had hoped we would, we made out a large round face to our right. Call me crazy but people actually die out here and seeing glowing eyes near me was not something I was excited about.
My heart was beating fast, my chest felt tight. My boyfriend behind me picked up his pace, encouraging us all to go a little faster. He wasn’t too crazy about being at the back of the line, he half chuckled as he talked about being snuck up on. I thought about how to properly get down and protect your neck with your hands, or how to use the bear spray we brought with us. I hoped the bear or any of its possible companions nearby would just stare at us and stay put. Hopefully our loud voices were enough to keep the bear fearful of us, creating an illusion of our ability to be a danger to it. We kept hiking, a little faster than before yelling nonsense, forgetting our conversation. Up we went past the eyes and into the relief of darkness ahead.
Around 11pm the group was growing impatient, sleepy and hungry. We found a fork in our path with a sign showing the trails, miles and arrows to guide. We stopped to grab a snack and assess roughly how far we were from a possible camping spot. I dropped my bag and flopped onto a smooth surface of dirt. My body felt light after carrying so much extra weight for so long. My sister was sitting cross legged across from me passing out Clif Bars around the circle. We sat in silence for a few moments, breathing in the calm, the glowing in the sky, and crisp air. This moment was completely still.
There is something about feeling free. We didn’t need to say anything. I had never felt more connected to those around me and to my own existence. This is one of the last times I would feel that way for a while. At the time, it was so raw to feel the excitement of survival. There is something exhilarating and animalistic, surviving in the forest at night. We knew it wasn’t safe, the glowing orange eyes, bears had gotten too close for comfort. We had hoped that if we sang loud enough, they wouldn’t come near us. We hoped that if we kept ascending the mountain we’d clear their territory and sleep safely.
We eventually made it to a place to camp around 1 am. In the morning I woke to child-like sounds, in my half-asleep state I wondered if there was a family camping near us. Later I found out the noise was coming from marmots. I sat up in my tent with my arms stiff, encased in layers that stuck to my back from how much I was sweating. I started ripping off layers of clothes and unzipped the tent, letting in the day. I had no idea what our camp would look like as we had set it up in the dark the night before.
Small white sharp rocks covered the ground all around the base of my tent. Someone had already started a fire for breakfast. In front of me, were tall mountains, blue and green brightly hugged me from all around. I felt small yet so hugely apart of everything from the dirt to the trees that all seemed to go on forever. It was worth it, the stress and anxiety of the night. I originally felt that I was only a visitor in these mountains, but maybe I could be a part of it too like the bears. I had stared at the bear, into its eyes with fear as it did the same right back at me. The unknown is often what creates fear. There are dangers everywhere, even outside of a forest filled with wildlife. I had finally let go of my fear, I allowed myself to drift off to sleep and I awoke with the most amazing view.