Grizzly

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“It’s a grizzly. It must be a grizzly. Please don’t be a grizzly.” Thoughts fired in quick succession through James’s mind. Two hours earlier he started for a run just outside the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. James sat behind a desk most days answering email and phone calls, and he had to work a few extra hours that week. This was his chance to finally spend some time outside and get some exercise. He had moved to Colorado two years earlier, and loved living near the mountains. The trail he decided on cut through the woods, then carried him up and down several rocky hillsides. He was impressed by the landscape, but the trail was much longer than he had planned. He had already come across several picturesque viewpoints of mountain valleys to the west, and incredible peaks in the far distance to the east.  Imposing storm clouds had dominated throughout the day, so the crowds of hikers that he might have encountered along the path on a sunny day were absent on this particular, late-summer afternoon. He had only seen two other people on the trail so far.

James entered a portion of the trail that followed the course of a narrow creek through dense bushes – “Eight miles” his cell phone announced in an electronic voice. He was focused on the trail. As he entered a gradual curve of the trail a loud rustling shook the chest high bushes just to his right. A surge of adrenaline propelled him forward. The rustling continued and his mind immediately cycled through the possibilities of what might be on the other side of the bush. “Please don’t be a grizzly!” He quickly considered that he might actually be propelling himself directly toward the animal. He stopped suddenly and slid several feet over the loose rocks that covered the trail. The rustling ceased and James had to decide quickly: Stay silent and wait to see what might emerge from the undergrowth, or make a run for it…

James’s instincts told him to run, but he could not decide which direction to go. The breaking branches and commotion of leaves had not been enough to tell him exactly where the animal was or which direction it was headed. He did not know if he should run forward, or scramble backward. Instead, he remained quiet and stayed motionless. For several seconds there was silence. James did not breathe; he felt certain that making any sound would further endanger his life. Just beyond his arm’s reach the bushes suddenly parted and a large, brown mass darted across the path then continued through the undergrowth and crossed to the other side of the stream. He was relieved when he realized that it was only a deer, but he was still frozen in place for several more seconds. The animal was gone before James started to breathe again, and took his first step forward.

After the site of “the ambush” the trail turned to ascend another hillside. The adrenaline from the encounter with the deer made the next two miles seem easy. He laughed at himself and how frightened he had been. The comfortable ascent took a sudden turn, and the trail became a steep climb to a ridge that James hoped to be the highest point of the trail before it descended back to the parking area. His pace slowed as he made his way up the ridge and he eventually stopped running. The adrenaline was gone and the unanticipated distance of the trail had caught up with him. Still, he felt proud that he made it several miles further than he would normally run; he expected that his phone would signal “ten miles” shortly. There were still clouds overhead, but the sunset in the far distance was visible. A walk through the woods didn’t sound bad.

James reached the ridge and was happy to find an open, grassy meadow gradually sloping downward for what he felt certain to be the last few miles of the circuit. He started to think of how hungry he was, and how good it would feel to sit in his air-conditioned car when he returned to the lot at the trailhead. As he reached the edge of the meadow he laughed again at how frightened he had been when the deer jumped out of the bushes. There was movement across the meadow that caught his eye. He saw one of the distant tree stumps shift, then grow larger as it pulled itself out of the ground. It raised its head, and he recognized the figure of a bear moving toward him. It moved slowly for a few yards then started to advance more rapidly. To James’s credit, he identified quickly and accurately that it was not a Grizzly bear. Although the figure had brown fur, it was in fact, a Black Bear; slightly smaller than the average Grizzly. “The Black Bear is generally not aggressive, and will normally take great care to avoid humans completely”. James could not specifically remember when he had read that statement. He was frustrated that he did not have the guidebook with him for reference, but based on the speed at which the bear was approaching him he felt certain that the particular citation would not have helped. James turned to run, but only made it a few frantic yards before the bear reached him.

It was well after dark by the time James made it back to the trailhead. The clouds remained, adding to the blackness of the night, refusing to let the light of the moon and stars pass through. The sight of his car waiting for him in the parking lot began to pull him back to consciousness from a distant place. He moved instinctively along the gravel of the lot, and realized that he must look odd pulling himself across the ground for the last few yards before finally reaching his car. He reached up to open the door, but realized that it was locked. Where were his keys? Did he drop them on the trail, or during the attack…? It took him a moment to remember that he had placed them on top of the front tire so that he wouldn’t have to carry them with him on his run. He lowered himself back to the ground and crawled over to the wheel well. He felt around for the keys and was relieved to find them right where he left them. The dirt and debris of the trail and the parking lot stuck to his hair and face. He could only see out of one eye. He held the keys in his right hand, but had to switch them to his left in order to raise his arm high enough to unlock the door. The darkness prevented James from noticing the smear of red on the silver panel. The handle felt slippery as he made a concentrated effort to open the door. He finally gained a firm grasp on the handle, but the door wouldn’t open. He thought about trying the passenger side, but realized that it was his own body weight slumped against the door that prevented it from swinging open. This presented a new challenge for him, but James was determined to find the solution. He had no memory of the last portion of his journey from the meadow to the parking lot, but each movement that he made trying to get into his car took great determination and concentration. It took considerable effort just to keep his thoughts coherent.  James shifted, and sat in the dirt with his back against the car. As he tried to catch his breath a burning sensation began to grow and quickly spread throughout his body. It was a liquid pain that spilled from his shoulders down to his stomach, and was filling his legs. “It would be more comfortable in the car”, he thought. With that, James slid over and raised himself long enough to open the door. He pulled himself up by the seat cushion, then the steering wheel until he was finally able to turn and sit on the edge of the seat. His legs seemed to be working against him, no longer on his side or under his control, but he was pleased to see that he still had them both.  He reached out to close the car door, but started to lose his balance and nearly fell out onto the dirt again. The intensity of his pain continued to grow; his legs and arms were the worst, but his back and chest throbbed as well. Breathing was becoming difficult.  His eyes burned and he was covered in sweat… was it sweat?

James reached for the rearview mirror and angled it so that he could see himself. He did not recognize the swollen, dirty face that was reflected back at him. The bruising looked to be the worst on the left side, which explained why he couldn’t see out of that eye. There was a dark, slick substance that covered his hair on the right side, and ran down his neck and under his shirt collar. He was not sure if the ear was missing on that side, or if it was buried lost in the matted hair. He looked away.

Pain continued to surge through him in waves, and James finally came to realize that he would not be able to simply drive himself home. He felt for his phone, hoping that he might be able to call someone who could find him in time, but it was nowhere to be found. The next afternoon, the phone was discovered on the edge of the meadow by the startled hikers that first came across the site of the attack.  James summoned the strength to put the key in the ignition, but did not turn it. He switched on the headlights and the sign for the trailhead was illuminated just a few yards in front of him: GEM LAKE LOOP – 11.5 Miles. “At least it wasn’t a grizzly” was the last thought that passed through his mind before he closed his eyes.

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