So there I was in the wilds of New Hampshire cutting up some vegetables for dinner - yams and some baby cabbages if you must know - and the fire was snickering peacefully, and all the trees across the wide valley were stirring about conversationally, getting in a last bit of gossip while daylight remained. I looked up, and shadows were stretching right across the meadow, and the air was suddenly cold.
It struck me at once that I was alone in the wilderness, far from any roads, houses or anybody in particular, and the sun was about to dip behind the hills and drown me in darkness. Nonetheless, I realised that I always felt better far from our modern human life; everything out here simply felt more real, I suppose you could say. I’d been living among and around people for years without pause, and was absolutely soaked in a mostly imaginary (and terribly serious) world of women and men. Here, alone, with my silent canine companion, the human fantasy wafted away into the mountains.
Chloé, never aloof when food is being handled, came scuttling around my legs, hoping that I might drop something.
“Get away, ye menace,” I growled, but I threw her a whittled-down lump of yam because she may be a black-hearted fiend but she’s also very cute.
When we met she was an inmate of a D.C. animal shelter, and convicted of numerous offenses including one count of Chewing on Furniture, and another of No Longer Being a Puppy. She was a seven-month old juvenile delinquent, but I saw promise in this sooty-coated, shaggy creature, so I decided to give her a home. I guess it’s because I’m a kind-hearted bloke, and also because I’m completely out-of-my-depth when it comes to determining the character of dogs.
You know, when an Australian man finds himself alone, at night, in the New Hampshire woods, in the company of a surly dog of unwaveringly negative views of the placement of the campsite, his mind will drift to the topic of bears.
If you were to ask a child to define the qualities of a monster, she will supply you with these inevitable features: round, scowly eyes, big sharp bitey fangs, razor-like claws and a gigantic fur coat. This, of course, neatly describes the average, suburban Mother-in-Law.
But it also describes the average North American bear. So let’s admit it: bears are monsters. No, not monsters - horrors. Horrors which resemble your average suburban Mother-in-Law while being able to out-run and out-climb all of us. The fact that bears are called ‘bears’ and not ‘The North American Horror’ is merely a sign of how utterly out-to-lunch Americans are in this day and age.
In Australia we have crocodiles, and they’re monsters too. The fact that I’m writing these words is all the proof you need to know that I am adept at avoiding the thirty-foot salt-water crocodiles that prowl my native lands (which is why the diet of Crocodylus porosus consists mostly of tourists) but for all my talent at avoiding those creatures, I’m damned if I know anything about avoiding bears.
Anyway. I started to do that whole ‘mental rehearsal for a bear attack thing’. Which I only do because I’m a man. Ladies, in case you haven’t been paying attention, all men stockpile contingency plans.
For instance: are you in a scrape with a spider? I can help you with that, and with only the barest minimum use of fire.
Are you being mugged by a kangaroo? You need a peanut butter sandwich. Kangaroos have a weakness for peanut butter sandwiches and having one in my pocket saved my life once.
Are you being menaced by a shark? Don’t panic, I’m from the tropics and I’m here to help. Wait for the shark to get up close and bash it in the nose with your fist. Do it as hard as you can manage under the circumstances. Trust me, there are people out there who have belted sharks in the face and lived to tell the tale. Of course, there’s a distinct likelihood that you are going to die of fright before you manage to cuff the shark on the snout, and frankly, I think anyone who can muster that much moxy in the face of so many teeth is probably an outlier among the general population. Look, I’m glad they survived - I’m just saying that, when you think about it, there might have been something wrong with their brains in the first place. I mean, who has that much presence of mind? Crazy people. And maybe they just survived because Evolution was feeling sympathetic that day. I don’t really know.
As I was saying, I know what to do if set-upon by a shark but what would I do if brow-beaten by a bear? I supposed that, apart from panicking, I could just use a passing tourist as a body-shield. That’s what we do back home in Australia. But I was alone in these woods. The problem perplexed me.
If all this sounds as if I go about overly-prepared for things then I want to assure you that it’s only in an internal sort of way; I’m not one of those impractical individuals who takes far too much luggage to the airport. Mind you, if an explosion goes off at the airport I’m that guy who backflips to safety behind the large fern with the concrete base that you didn’t notice because you were trying to seem normal-looking in front of the TSA agents.
It’s called situational awareness, I guess. Or hyper-vigilance, if you believe those funny brain doctors who try to make my heightened ability to survive all scenarios sound like some sort of mental disorder. Please. When doomsday hits, those brain doctors will be curled-up and gibbering on the floor while I’m racing down the highway singing Christmas Carols in the Lexus they used-to own.
So how do I do survive tricky situations? Sang-froid, baby. I like to keep the old emotions at an even keel. Play it calm in all things, that’s my motto. And ‘though I’m not one to boast, I can easily imagine myself working for a bomb-disposal unit, gently disarming explosive devices while listening to a bit of Rage Against the Machine on some headphones. In fact, the only reason I didn’t go in that direction, career-wise, is that I’d probably find myself thinking that so much explosive potential was going to waste, and that, combined with my general problems with authority, would see me detonating many more bombs than I ever disarmed. Great mushroom clouds would bloom up wherever I went and I’d be coming back to my boss each day sheepishly saying things like: ‘sorry, man - that one got away on me’. But secretly, between you and me, it would have been all deliberate, for the magical burning splendor of the thing.
If anyone ever asks you ‘but what is the sum worth of self-knowledge?’ remember that anecdote, and tell them: ‘well, in at least one case that I know about, it has prevented millions of dollars in property damage.’
What I’m struggling to suggest here in as nonchalant and unboastful way possible is that I’ve never been particularly neurotic, perhaps because I’ve never had the time nor money to nurture such an inclination. I went down the other road, the path less traveled, and became sane instead, and perhaps one might say, dangerously sane.
Anyway - while I’ve been ruminating about these various techniques I have for surviving the world time has moved on in her heedless way, disregarding both me and my habit of digressing about things. The forest is all astir. The sun tumbles behind the trees, the light drains away into nothingness and there you are in complete blackness. With a cool breeze and lots of twigs cracking for no particularly altruistic reason at all. It’s almost as if a lazy artist has come along and smothered the world in thick black paint. But is he lazy? Perhaps he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s rare, you might argue, but occasionally it still happens.
Naturally there was no moon in the sky. And, apart from a dense litter of stars far above, the world I inhabited had drifted away into another place, far away and forgotten, leaving behind only an alarming cacophony of forest sounds. Twigs snapping, branches stirring, creatures going to-and-fro, and another sound which I supposed could only be the growling tummy of a passing bear.
I’m not sure what that sound is, but one thing I can tell you is that Chloé is not here.
She’s not at my side. She’s gone. I call out to her and strain my ears, listening hopefully for that soft, mischievous step of her woolly feet. But I listen in vain.
This is the part of the story where it gets scary - for me, at least, not for you, because you weren’t there, fortunately, you’re just reading this and experiencing my misadventures vicariously. Which isn’t to say that I don’t know how to tell this story in a frightening way but your narrator is too well-disposed towards people in general, and fully appreciates that you already have enough worries of your own without me startling you with incredibly well-expressed anecdotes about bears.
But what can I do? I’m in a remote part of New Hampshire, it’s just turned completely dark, my dog is no longer at my side, and now there is all this talk of bears. Everything is getting very tense. What am I going to do?
Well, I wandered around lost in the dark for two entire hours and fell over some things, then my dog jumped on me out of the darkness and I nearly died of fright (I mentioned she keeps trying to kill me, right?). So I carried her back and locked her inside the tent, where we both stayed awake until dawn. The following day we went home and I gave her a new chew toy, which she sniffed once or twice and then ignored until I eventually gave it away to a friend.
Then I gave her a brushing. She’s a very shaggy dog and at one point she growled at me so I told her to stop. That night we both ate mushroom soup for dinner.