Monday, July 17, 2017

Chapter 21— The Goddess

* * * In the meantime, encouraged by my shrink, Nema, with whom I reconnected as soon as I returned to America, I enticed Merrie to join me in another backpack. Lindsey agreed to drop us at the trailhead on her way to Yellowstone.

In the car, I regaled friends with plans to defeat the irrational fears plaguing my life in the previous few months in Australia. I promised to think for myself intrepid rather than rely on the well-chewed concepts of my anxious self.

Merrie and Lindsey, in the spirit of friendship, listened patiently to promises while urging me to trust intuition and strength.

Lindsey was headed north to Bozeman, Montana, where she enrolled in a class studying birds of prey as part of her Masters Degree at Montana State University located near Yellowstone. Her route north passed our trailhead.

Stubby pinion pines replaced angsty desert creosote along the mountain highway climbing to the trailhead just south of Bishop where we would once again begin a trek. Joyous lungs breathed the sun-roasted fragrance of desert sage along the switch-backed roadway carrying us from five to eight thousand feet as Lindsey asked, “What do you think the excitement will be this trip?”

The engine lumbered and then slowed as we climbed. Merrie answered, “We’ve taken care 
of everything. We have plenty of food and snow levels are reasonable. The stream crossings ought to be easy. Even Demi should make it without falling in.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” I hated to admit fallibility. 

As we pulled into the North Lake trailhead, memories of a previous visit to this spot formed a backdrop to the usual nervousness I suffered at the beginning of any trip into the backcountry.

Merrie quipped, “I can feel your panic, Demi. Stop here, Lindsey and we'll unload.”

Neatly arranging the car away from the bubbling mountain stream, Lindsey turned off the overheated engine. Needing to stretch our legs after being cramped in the little Subaru for five hours, we tumbled out of space shared with our chauffeur’s vacation paraphernalia and two forty pound packs. I dragged stuff onto the gravel and turned to give Lindsey a hug.

Shocked by the view over her shoulder, I exclaimed, “Merrie, Lindsey, Look!”

There sat a brand new BMW minus a passenger door window. Torn aluminum candy 
wrappers and shattered safety glass littered the ground.

“Oh gheeze. They’ll be surprised when they come out of the mountains.”

“Some folks need to learn the hard way,” Merrie declared as she re-checked the passenger 
seat to claim all her stuff. Aren’t you glad you’re not parking here, Lindsey?” 

“No shit!”

I laughed. “Thanks for the lift. I hope Yellowstone is full of wild animals. You might even take a few of these bears hanging around this trailhead with you. They’d enjoy meeting their grizzly cousins.”

“Yeah. Right. I saw what they did to that white Ford soft-top parked at Whitney Portal a couple of summers ago. Who would drive a convertible to a known bear habitat? The bears opened it like they carried can openers in their pocket. Whew! Well, I’ll see you guys. Have a safe journey. Enjoy yourselves.”

In the midst of a huge hug, I thanked Lindsey. “Driving us here is a great gift.”

“And how will you get back to Mereview, Demi?”

“We’ll hitch a ride to Bishop, take the Owens Valley bus to Lancaster, and then Metro link 
home. Sam’ll pick us up at the station.”

“Hope you manage a shower on the way or those other passengers will be giving you an entire car all to yourselves.”

“Come on. We’re sweet! No smelly backpack gonna go home with us.”

“Sure.” Lindsey turned the car downhill and disappeared around a switchback on her way to 
eight weeks in her version of paradise.”

I strapped the black bear canister that looked like a small plastic beer keg to the top of the pack. “So far the bears still haven't figured out how to open these? At least our food’ll be safe.” 

Merrie grabbed three or four freeze dried dinners from a grocery store shopping bag she had taken from the Subaru and stuffed them into the bottom pocket of her pack.

“Ready?” She pointed upwards towards the granite boulder ridges of the high Sierra. “Today we only have to climb to the pass.”

Anticipation slowly replaced distress. I slid into the heavy backpack. 

Merrie nonchalantly lifted hers. “I’m kinda glad we don’t have any males along to tell us how it’s done, aren’t you?” I adjusted shorts and tugged on the cuffs of a well-worn long sleeved shirt. In a full
brimmed hat protecting the back of my neck from the high altitude sun, I once again paraded as the clotheshorse with plenty of gear, prepared for any emergency.

Merrie, who collected goodies from second hand shops, looked like she just strolled off the stage at the Grand Ole Oprey. Straw hat with flicker feathers attached and red polka dotted neckerchief, pink hiking shorts, an indigo chambray long sleeved shirt, and hearty hiking boots with different colored laces completed her wilderness attire.

Steadily we moved through the easy switchbacks leading to Piute Pass. An hour later at the first stream crossing, surrounded by grey-green low growing manzanita, I looked up startled to see a shabby looking fellow, a twin to my father to whom I had not spoken in over twenty years, resting between a huge boulder and a mature white barked fir. His pack littered with neck scarves and loose straps and his short, lean shadow in the mid morning sun reminded me of all the men I promised never to invite into my life.

Nervous, mumbled greetings passed between us as I continued upward on the evenly graded trail on either side of which ridges of granite littered with ponderosa blocked the sun.

As minds will do when the body is engaged in habitual patterns, mine filtered through an immediate antagonism that flared upon spying the lifeless fellow near the stream. For too many years I had been responsible for the well being of adult males. Although I loved my chosen profession as a teacher, I spent the previous forty years care-taking males who needed special attention. This old man reminded me of all the nasty, negative guys whom I most disliked.

By lunchtime, we found ourselves shaded by a stand of douglas fir around a small lake. Merrie rummaged in her pack and headed towards the inflow to refill her water bottle.

Already feeling the effects of the change in altitude, I collapsed near the shore to munch a trail bar and some dried fruit. Obsessive, I continued an interminable interior tirade against sallow old man who pretended to be mature males.

“What is it, Demi? You seem distracted. Lighten up. It's a glorious day.”

“The old guy we passed down below is driving me nuts. Can't get his image out of my mind. What's he doing up here? People like him don't belong in the backcountry. He could be a stalker.  Certainly came a long way to intercept what started out as a sunny day.”

Merrie moved on. “Give the man a break. He actually looked innocuous. Didn’t seem much interested in us.”

Sighing, I reclined against the rocky outcrop. Images of men whom I couldn’t trust festered in an over active imagination; an alcoholic father, a variety of male principals and department chairmen who relied on me to make them look good in their career, and Sy whom I thought I couldn’t trust, gathered themselves around smoldering irritation.

Merrie, with her hiking sticks at the ready, quipped with a smile, “upwards, woman, upwards!"

Muttering, I slipped into my pack and continued a resolute advance. In the midst of an interior dialogue, I thought, “I don't seem to be able to rise above this co-dependent psyche nor my anxiety about men.”

I sorely sought recovery from a debilitating habit. I may have been having lunch at ten thousand feet, but I returned to ground zero in terms of social development.

I enjoyed being in the mountains with Merrie and admired her ability to take care of herself. We had, over several years, reached a balance in our wilderness relationship where we claimed independence but, at the same time, we were available to one another.

She acted as teacher. In her company I first identified tiny azure sky pilots at Whitney's Trail Crossing, flowers blooming at thirteen thousand feet. As well, she pointed out golden eagles swooping on tiny furry critters in the high meadows. I loved being able to name the denizen of the wilderness and owed most of my knowledge to her.

Following the long ‘s’ switchbacks, I admitted to myself that after an investment of fifteen years in therapy, not to mention uncounted hours of tears and frustration, I'd hoped to have reached the point where I could see a weak-willed male in distress and simply walk on by, neither frightened nor disgruntled.

I wanted to trek with Sy, who loved this miraculous mountain range, who knew how to pitch a tent and prepare a delicious meal on a camp stove. Oh, I wanted to snuggle into his warmth on a cold wilderness morning again.

Fantasy ceased as we stopped for a rest on the upper shores of Piute Lake. Standing on a sandy ledge, Merrie snapped a photo of the shimmering turquoise water framed by afternoon light. “I think we ought to spend the night here.”

“You tired?” I asked.

“No, but the trail ahead is barren until we reach the pass. In the morning we’ll be fresh.” “Ok with me, but I suspect your choice to camp here has something to do with my 
lagging behind.” The altitude here made breathing difficult. I moved slower than usual. 

Merrie, on the other hand, hiked like a mountain goat. She acclimatized rapidly. No incline seemed too difficult. Grateful for her consideration, I began to unpack the tiny tent while water boiled for dinner. Afterwards, we looked out over the mountains as the sun lowered scarlet behind the western ridgeline reflecting like LSD images off the shadowed fir and pine forests.

“It's better we take our time and enjoy this magnificence, don't you think?” Merrie posed with her arms outspread like the conductor of a huge orchestra. “Demi, do you think Lindsey will ever join us on a backpack?”

“I don't. Why d’ya ask?”

“Well, I've been paying attention to her more at coffee in the afternoons. She really likes you and I thought the mountains might be a place where she could enjoy herself. She'd love to spend the evenings sharing stories.”

“You jealous?”

“Oh, yeah!” Laughing, Merrie added, “She's a great storyteller. All your friends understand you love her. She's been your friend for a long time.”

“I’ve never met anyone as loyal or as intelligent. Kind of like you, but carrying a pack around the mountains isn't her thing,” I replied.

“Too bad. I can tell she wants to spend more time with you. She missed you while you traveled overseas.” As she talked, Merrie transferred the extra food she stuffed in her pack into one of our larger than life industrial weight black plastic bags.

“I suppose. I missed her when I was in Oz. I enjoy her companionship, but I’m such a bitch about having to baby sit people in the wilderness. It would be a full time job if she came with us. Besides, she and Agnes live together now. They seem committed to their relationship.”

“ They connected rather quickly,.” added Merrie.

“The Internet has given us all a new opportunity to meet folks we would never have known before. Too bad Sy and I didn’t quite make the grade.” I sighed.

“Demi, you guys aren’t finished.”

I stood looking out over the lake, the colors shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight, wishing she were right. But she wasn’t. 
Otherwise we would have been a three-some. I pushed the final stake of my tent into the earth, and walked back over to where Merrie unloaded her pack.

Stopping momentarily, she asked, “Do you trust on-line liaisons, Demi?”

“Probably not. There are some horror stories, but I’ve talked to a couple of folks who’ve been successful. We’ll have to keep an eye on Lindsey and see. I hope she takes care.”

“Speaking of taking care, we better find a place for all these extras.” She pointed to the stack of granola bars, freeze dried desserts, and sun tan lotion tubes.

“The bear proof canisters really don't hold much, do they?”
"I think this one is whiskey sized. We need a beer keg.” Merrie liked liquor allusions.

As dusk deepened, the two of us sat looking west towards the pink and lavender alpenglow.

“What did you do with the toothpaste?”

“Threw it into the trash bag.”

Gigantic ponderosas would have been perfect for hanging our food bag, but we passed the 
last of the big trees a half- mile down the trail. The highest tree in the area, only about twenty feet, grew near our campsite.

“Put all the strong smelling stuff in the bag; deodorant, fire starter, all of it.” Merrie was a concise instructor.

We tossed a rope up into the branches. It fell to the ground. Several attempts and lots of laughter later, we finally heaved the line accurately; it fell over the very tip of a branch fifteen feet above the ground and slid back. We tied the food bag to its end and hoisted the whole mess.

No matter how large they are, black bears climb. Therefore, we struggled until the bag hung from the very tip of a branch that wouldn’t hold the weight of both bear and food. Smiling at one another, we tied off the rope.

The temperature dropped on what promised to be a crisp August night. Merrie clapped her gloved hands.

“Glad there's so little breeze. You gonna sleep in the tent or in your bivvy?” I asked.

The bivvy bag looked like a cocoon into which Merrie stuffed her down sleeping bag before she crawled in and zipped up.

“Bevy. I love to watch the night sky ‘til I fall asleep.”

“Your choice. See ya in the morning. Stay warm.” We hugged and stood quietly for one last look at the starlit night sky before sliding into our sleeping bags.

Tucked in, lower back muscles groaning, the air of high elevation dried my lips. Reaching into the pocket of the tent, I whispered, “Damn, I packed the lip balm in the trash bag.”

Merrie's recorder echoed a lonely sound. Tears wet my eyes. I fantasized about romance with the Aussie. At the last therapy session, I’d talked with Nema about my inability to be successful in a romantic relationship. I agonized over the decision to leave Sy. I valued independence, but I hungered for his companionship, his silly jokes, a hug in the morning, a kiss before falling asleep at night. Sighing, I snuggled deep into the bag. As the recorder reached the end of the tune, I wiped an escaping tear and clapped softly. “Thanks, Merrie; you’re the bestest.”

** *

A mighty ripping startled me from a dream. Just as Sy’s fingers were about to massage my shoulders, I heard Merrie call, “Demi! Get out! You bear—scat! Get out of here! Demi!”

Suddenly wide-awake, I exploded from the tent. I shrieked, “Get away! Scavenger! Get outta here!” Faced with a huge creature, I immediately ignored all the rules about dealing with black bear - stand up, make yourself bigger than life, wave your arms. Instead I stumbled to the ground searching for something to throw.

Merrie, half in and half out of her bivvy, confronted a four-hundred-pound bear, Medusa and Athena rolled into one fabulously hungry ‘critur'. With claws longer than most folks' index finger and muscles bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger's at his prime, the bear, standing on her hind legs, tore a huge hole in the food bag hanging on the branch not nine feet away.

She settled onto all fours and rummaged in the goodies. Waving above the last freeze-dried chili that fell onto the ground, the torn black plastic swung lazily from the rope around the branch.

I scooted closer to Merrie. From our crouch we harangued and harassed until we were hoarse. The bear didn't budge, didn't even look in our direction. She found her Macca’s quick fix and enjoyed tearing into every tasty tidbit, wrappers and all.

Sparks flew as Merrie slammed her metal trekking pole on the granite rocks. Stridently, we shrieked. “Stop! No more, glutton. Go away! Get out of here!”

Throwing rocks towards the bear, terrified I might actually hit her, I screamed, “This food’s no good for you; get, scat, damn you, stop eating our food!”

We two raised a commotion any wild animal would find irritating. The bear munched chocolate bars, trail mix, dried blueberry pudding, chicken casserole, and all our turkey jerky followed by toothpaste and suntan lotion.

Then, she turned to face us. Standing in the midst of aluminum packaging and candy wrappers, her long scarred snout, huge shoulders, and muscular legs were outlined by the full moon.
We shouted; the bear stared unremarkably. At some point in eternity, the huge black beast turned, as bears will, by making a semi-circle of their long bodies and stepped off a boulder into

the darkness below.

Merrie and I looked at one another, stunned. The bear, satiated, receded into the darkness.

We, safe for the moment, admitted our food bag was as empty as a party piñata after the candies dribbled to the ground. We stood for the first time. I grabbed a headlamp and walked over to examine the mess.

“Demi, where's the cold bag? I thought I put it with the rest.”

With headlamps turned on, we scoured the darkness, looking for the tough white canvass bag we carried on every backpack.

I looked over the boulder from which the bear jumped. My headlamp picked up a reflection. “I think I see something white down there. I'll go check.”

I crept down the trail, around an outcropping the size of a small house. There lay the bag, intact. However, as I looked up at the top of the boulder where Merrie stood, outlined by the starry heavens and the full moon, I realized the top of the rock from which the bear jumped jutted out of the cliff at least eight feet above me.

I walked back to camp. “Well, we still have the food in our bear canisters.”

 “Demi, she could have killed us with one swipe.”

“She could have.” We hugged. We hugged for a long time.
“Why do you think it was a she-bear?”

“She's the goddess, Merrie, teaching us a lesson.”

“Ya think? I wonder; she looked like a bear to me. I ‘spose we ought to try and get some sleep. We can decide what to do in the morning. I don't think my nervous system will ever recover from this night.”

“You gonna sleep in your bivvy?”

“Yeah. I don't think your goddess is coming back. She's got a full tummy.” 

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