Chapter 20- Bear Trails

Continued from my journal of June 2008, walking from D.C. to Pittsburgh while learning the gospel of John by heart.

We get up at dawn and eat breakfast.  I  already packed the night before to save time, because today I want to gather all the daylight hours I can just for the walk.  At seventeen miles, it is the longest hike Chester and I have done. I stir through milk and raisin bran to ensure a raisin gets in each spoonful while I listen to the radio weather forecast: cool and partly cloudy.  Looks like great weather for a long hike in the summer.

We leave at 7:00 a.m. and  ten minutes later reach the Ohiopyle parking area where we leave my car.  Then we drive another thrity miles or so to Connellsville where Rick is dropping me off.  Logistically, by parking my car off at the nearer point and starting the trail at the farthest point, it will take less time this morning, and I can get on the trail sooner. Although it  means that  I will walk “backwards” today (away from Pittsburgh towards D.C.),  another advantage of this plan is that I will finish up in a tourist friendly town.  Ohiopyle caters to those braving the wilderness: kayakers, rafters, bikers, rock climbers, campers and, finally, hikers.  Best of all, in Ohiopyle  there is even an ice cream place right next to the trail, and I am already counting on rewarding myself with something deeply chocolate.  Once full of ice cream, which I will relish while sitting in the park by the river, I will only have a short drive back to camp after this very long day.

I have known this would be the hardest day ever since I began planning this walk a year ago, but the most difficult part is something I did not count on: Rick won’t be waiting for me at the end.  After he drops me off, he is driving to D.C. to pick up our daughter-in-law at a conference.  They won’t be arriving back at the campsite until midnight or later.  I am too stubborn (that trait keeps reappearing) to admit to him or anyone else what I am most nervous about today.  Who will know if I am late?  Who will come on the bike and encourage me for the last few miles?  To whom could I send a “help” message?  Intellectually I know I can do this; after all, I completed thirteen miles a few days ago.  I have prepared hard for this.  Except for the problem of  unreliable cell phone service, I have everything I need: extra  food, water, socks, rain gear (just in case), flashlight (in the wildest just in case), and now, with an early morning start, plenty of daylight.  So I’m off, and I wave a determined, cheerful good-bye while inside I feel about as tough as jello.

The truck drives away.  It is 8:00 a.m. and church bells are chiming nearby.  Chester and I walk along the backs of buildings and past parking lots, following the old rail trail out of town toward the state forest and into an isolated river gorge.  There will be no roads out until I reach my car seventeen miles upriver.   But the bells sounding at my back remind me of the blessings and prayers of all my friends and family who have been cheering me on the whole way.  A few are probably praying at this moment.  As I begin my walking prayer, I chide myself for momentarily forgetting that Christ is walking before, beside, above, beneath and behind me too. How does that hymn go?  And have I so easily forgotten, as the gospel of John puts it, that the shepherd calls us sheep out and leads us to good pasture?

The river rushes high, trying to swallow all the thunderstorm water that has collected during the night. We pass noisy stream after stream, tumbling cascades, and little waterfalls pouring off cliff faces.  Any possible water way that exists has sprung into action, gushing downhill into the Youghiogheny basin.   Although the waters crossing under (or over) our trail seem to be clear and fresh, the river below is brown.  I am reminded of walking beside the raging, muddy Potomac over a month ago.

About an hour into the walk, a man jogs past me with earphones and an antenna sticking up over his head.  I guess the technology is necessary to get any reception in this wilderness river gorge, but it looks strange and humorous.  Ten minutes later, however, he comes walking back.  With an anxious voice, he informs me and another biker, who is just passing by at the moment, that he spotted a bear around the bend.

The biker goes on ahead; if faced with a bear, he has the bike’s speed on his side.  But what will I do?  There is nothing and no one back in Connellsville for me to go back to.  My only means out of the wild today lies in the same direction as the bear.  So I fish my whistle out of a pocket in the pack.  (Rick teases that I pack for every kind of circumstance.)   Then I try to remember any guidelines for hikers meeting a bear.  Don’t turn and run.  Talk, shout, make noise, and, if necessary, walk away backwards.  I figure that Chester will make a barking fuss which the bear would want to get away from. In that case, my hardest challenge could be for the leash to hold back Chester’s sixty charging pounds.

A few minutes have passed and the biker has not returned.  I suspect that the bear has long gone, wanting to avoid humans as much as I want to get around him.  When I reach the spot where I can see around the bend, there is no sign of anyone, least of all a bear.  I watch Chester for signs that his part-hound instinct is kicking in, but he seems to be smelling nothing.  Feeling rather alone in the largeness of the woods, I start singing for my benefit as much as to scare away big, hidden creatures.  I bind unto myself today.…My eyes keep searching the bushes….by power of faith, Christ’s incarnation….It sure would be kind of nice if Jesus would suddenly appear, wouldn’t it?  I look up the hillside into the rhododendron….his bursting from the spiced tomb….Chester’s hunting nose still seems oblivious to any bear….the virtues of the starlit heaven….

And now I hear a loud snapping branch up the hill….the flashing of the lightning free….Soon Chester’s ears perk up and he intently sniffs the air.  I keep singing….the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks….We round another bend, and I see something dark in the distance on the edge of the path.  I think I see it move, and it is shaped like the rump of a bear sticking out of tall grass….the stable earth, the deep salt sea….I walk tentatively forward, keeping an eye on Chester to see if his scenting radar picks up anything….around the old eternal rocks.…As we get closer, it turns out to be only a black boulder!  I laugh. I remember the time the disciples were afraid.

When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum.  It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come.  The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.  When they had gone three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.  But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”  Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.  (John 6.16-21)

At a bench beyond the boulder, we sit and pull out carrots to munch.  Yes, Chester likes carrots too.  I remember the native American wisdom of Chief Dan George:

If you talk to animals they will talk with you and you will know each other.
If you do not talk to them you will not know them.
And what you do not know, you will fear.
What one fears one destroys.

(The Best of Chief Dan George, p.32.)

I look down the trail both ways, and since no one is coming to think me strange, I call out to the bear and give him our greetings, like Chief Dan George taught us, and like Jesus did with the disciples in the boat.  I tell the bear that Chester and I are just passing through and don’t want to disturb him.  We hope he has a peaceful and safe life and finds lots of good berries to eat.  I thank him for letting us walk in his territory and tell him that we are on our way upriver and won’t be back.  That done, good to our word, we pack up our snack and leave any listening bear behind.

Fourteen miles left to go with the goal of learning John 15 by heart today.  But first I dig deep in my pack for the words to  my bear-scaring hymn (yes, I do bring everything), words attributed to St. Patrick:

I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever, by power of faith, Christ’s incarnation,
his baptism in the Jordan River, his cross of death for my salvation,
his bursting from the spiced tomb, his riding up the heavenly way, 
his coming at the day of doom, I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself today the virtues of the starlit heaven,
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray, the whiteness of the moon at even, 
the flashing of the lightening free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, 
the stable earth, the deep salt sea around the old eternal rocks.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, 
Christ in hearts of all who love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. 

                                                                               (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #450)