When I was eleven I went camping in Montana with my Boy Scout troop. It was a three-day drive from where we lived—three days in a bus full of Boy Scouts, every moment of which was painful. My only friend was the Scoutmaster, Wiley, who worked at the Fernald Nuclear Power Facility analyzing mutated animals and transporting them to undisclosed locations for release or termination.
Wiley was the only true Boy Scout among us. He was 27 and as far as we could tell, had never had a girlfriend. He was a lifer and if you spent enough time with him some of his wisdom would rub off on you. He taught me how to dry my jeans next to the campfire without burning them up and he showed me how to boil creek-water so it wouldn’t give me diarrhea. As long as I stuck with him, I knew I’d make it out of the woods alive. But part of his sagacity was letting us make mistakes for ourselves. This was an important part of our education in the wilderness and it was fine, as long as nobody got killed.
We pitched camp as soon as we arrived at the campsite, two of us to a tent. We stocked our tents with the standard Boy Scout provisions: Cheetos, Metallica tapes, and porno mags.
We were told to use unscented deodorant because bears were attracted to anything that smelled too pretty. We were also ordered to put all our food in the back of the Scout van because of the bears. Still, I knew everybody was eating in their tents, and I’d lay awake at nights wondering what it would look like to see a fat paw rip through a tent from the inside. I ate my Cheetos and waited.
Much of our time was spent sitting around camp, playing with fire and knives. Everybody had a pocketknife or, if your parents were lenient about the whole soldier-of-fortune-thing, a survival knife, and we passed the time sharpening them, whittling anything we could find, and trying to give ourselves tattoos by cutting lightly into our skin and inking the cuts with ballpoint pens.
My tent partner was this kid named Ryan. His dad was a lawyer who had a television commercial and who had recently caused a scandal by turning homosexual on Ryan’s family and taking off for Key West with one of his associates. Some of the kids would make jokes about it in secret, but Ryan was a tough dude and if you mentioned his dad’s new lifestyle he’d have probably punched you in the jaw. The first night we were in our tents Ryan and I stayed up late talking about KISS and The Clockwork Orange and out of nowhere he starts talking about his dad and says, ‘I once thought for five minutes that I was gay.’
There was a short silence and I said, ‘That’s OK dude.’
He was lying next to me with his hands propped behind his neck. He looked at me for a second then grabbed this knife he had next his bed and put it against my throat. I think it was his butterfly knife because he made this big flourish with it when he opened it. He said that if I ever told anyone what he had said, he’d kill me.
I had trouble sleeping for the rest of the night. The next day he seemed like his normal self. We never talked about his dad again and I never told anyone that he had thought he was gay for five minutes. I wasn’t taking any chances and I guess I felt a little sorry for Ryan even though he had put his knife to my throat.
The next day we saw our first bear. We were driving around in the Scout van and saw it tramping around in the bushes on the side of the highway. From the safety of the vehicle we took pictures of it with our disposable cameras.
‘He looks so gentle,’ some said. ‘Can we go get a closer look at him? Can we get out of the van and practice our bear calls?’
‘Don’t be fooled boys,’ Wiley said. ‘What you see there is a wild animal and there’s no telling how he would react to your invasion of his space. You have to remember that we scare him far more than he scares us.’
‘Then why can’t we go look at him?’ somebody shouted. His question was followed by a chorus of similar cries. Just then the bear rose up on its hind legs and threw itself against a fallen tree that was pushing against the fence that stood between the shoulder of the road and the woods. Silence and awe cut the chatter in the van as we watched the bear send bits of fence and rock tumbling toward the roadside where our van stood.
After shoving its weight down on the tree a few more times the bear climbed down and wandered back into the woods. Wiley turned around and looked at us from behind the wheel and said, ‘Just because he’s afraid of you, doesn’t mean he can’t eat you for breakfast.’
Besides instruction in first-aid and knot-tying, much of Troop 217’s time in the panoramica of western Montana was spent wandering freely amidst the mountains and lakes and forests of that fair state. We spotted moose and mountain goats, we found wild mushrooms, we speculated as to their psychedelic properties. Some of our group ate them to no apparent good or bad effect, except for Ryan who told us all he was ‘tripping balls’ and that the sky was melting. I hoped for his sake that he was lying. The sky there was so big and cloudless that, if it melted, you’d never be the same.
When we still had a few days left on the trip, we set out to climb up this mountain, walk down the other side, and take a loop back to our starting point. The trail was 20 miles long and we had to hike the whole thing before sunset. But when we got to the top of the mountain some kids decided to walk back down to the van and listen to their Walkmans. So only me and Wiley and a couple other kids ended up going ahead. Right away we were glad that we had because on the other side of the mountain was a beautiful blue lake surrounded by un-melted snow and frolicking mountain goats.
We ran down to the lake, half-expecting to jump into the water. But once we dipped our hands into the water we knew it was way too cold to swim. So we just stood there for a minute looking around at the goats and the snow and then into the center of the lake which, despite the clearness of the water, was impossibly dark, impossibly deep. We stood there staring into the center of that lake as if we were staring into our own graves. We’d all fall into the abyss sooner or later, whether it was at the hands of nature or one another. From that point on, no matter where we were, the possibility of bear attack was always with us.