It’s the night after Christmas and I’m taking Pearl, my brother’s ninety-five pound German Shorthaired Pointer, for a walk through the dark Pennsylvania woods surrounding my parent’s house. The reason my brother’s not walking his own dog is because he and his wife have already returned to New Jersey with my infant nephew in tow. Since it was the little tyke’s first Christmas, my brother’s SUV was crammed with so many presents, luggage, and obligatory baby equipment that there was no room for the poor dog. (And will some one tell me why parents of infant children insist on caravanning more supplies than Napoleon did during his Winter vacation in Russia?) To be a nice guy, I offered to take Pearl home with me the next day.
As Pearl and I range through the woods, I keep my eyes peeled. This morning I found two sets of bear tracks in the snow alongside my parent’s garage. To avoid wildlife interference, the local residents lock up their trash. The bears probably smelled the remains of my family’s Christmas dinner through the garage’s concrete walls and decided to investigate. From the depth of the paw prints they left in the snow I could tell they were big, heavy bears. Surprised at my woodsman’s skills? Just call me Natty Bumppo.
As I listen to Pearl crunch the snow beneath her paws I look up at the night sky. One of the things I love about coming to my parent’s house is seeing the stars. Their grandeur unobscured by the jealous brightness of big city lights, the constellations and clusters shine with a radiance you’d never glimpse inside Central Park. Sadly, tonight’s sky is overcast and a light rain is starting to fall. No stars today.
Suddenly I hear a crash in the woods. Pearl stiffens and points toward the sound, Even though she’s a completely spoiled house dog, the hunting instinct entwined in her DNA remains intact. And even though I’m a completely spoiled rotten urbanite, I have something permanently etched into my DNA too – the fear of being a late night snack for something much bigger than I am. My hand automatically reaches for the folding knife clipped to my back pocket. Then I realize if I’m about to face down a bear, the knife’s three inch blade would probably just annoy it.
As I stare into the malevolent darkness I half remember some advice I heard from a self appointed wilderness guru on the Discovery Channel – the worst thing you can do is run from a bear. They may look pokey, but the average bear can run down an Olympic sprinter so don’t even try. And don’t climb a tree either. That’ll just turn you into meat on a stick. The best thing to do, I remember the hirsute Grizzly Adams wannabe saying, is to to stand your ground. Yell. Throw rocks. Roar. If you don’t the bear will think you’re prey and gobble you up. Then again I was drinking beer when I was watching that program so I might’ve gotten some of the details backwards. What ever happened to playing dead? Right now I’d give my left nut for a .44 Magnum.
I do stand my ground, however. Not out of any wilderness survival strategy mind you – just good old fashioned scared shitless paralysis. Pearl stares at dark spot in the woods where the unknown danger lurks and emits a low growl. Pearl’s a big dog with sharp teeth. Maybe she’ll fight off the bear as I run for the safety of my parent’s house. If I lose Pearl, however, I’ll have to deal with my sister-in-law’s wrath. She’s loves Pearl like a second child. Hmmmm. I think I’d rather face the bear.
Of course, there’s no bear. After a long minute, a white tailed deer erupts from the bush and makes a rapid egress from the area. Now that they’re moving, I can see an entire herd of deer moving underneath the darkness. Pearl’s straining on the leash, eager to give chase. I smile to myself. Just a bunch of harmless Bambis. Not very terrifying.
Pearl and I emerge from the woods and walk up my parent’s driveway. My foot slips on an icy patch and suddenly my out of shape middle aged body is hurled into the air. As I involuntarily look up at the overcast night sky, I see a star peeking out from behind the clouds. It’s very pretty. Maybe it’s a planet. Venus perhaps? My astronomical moment of Zen comes to a halt when I land flat on my back and all the air is expelled from my lungs with a violent whoosh.
My entire body hurts. I can’t breathe. As I lay on the ground helpless a horrible thought enters my head. NOW THE BEARS WILL GET ME! As I wait for my lungs to start processing oxygen I can see my parents moving around inside their house. Wouldn’t it suck to be disemboweled by a hungry predator within sight of safety? Ugh.
Pearl, sensing something’s wrong, lays down next to me. Her muscular and warm presence is reassuring. In the back of my mind I know a bear would think twice about attacking with her around. The dog licks my face and, after a minute, I get some air into my lungs. As I lie on the ground I run a self diagnostic. I didn’t hit my head, all my fingers and toes wiggle, and even though my back hurts like hell, it doesn’t hurt to breathe. No broken ribs.
I lay still for a few minutes and successfully avoid crying like a little girl. Eventually my strength returns, I get up, and Pearl and I walk back inside my parent’s warm house. When I tell my mother what happens she makes a fuss and, within minutes, I’m wrapped in a blanket drinking whisky in front of a roaring propane fireplace. Pearl’s lying next to me on the couch, apparently unaffected by our little adventure. I give her a pat on the head. Rain starts pelting the large window that takes up the entire front of the house. I stare at the woods and sip my drink.
Natty Bumppo my ass.