Life is a Surprise

In rough times, the tendency is to hunker down, press forward, recognize the slope is steep, climb hard, just accept the unpleasantness – as if bad news were assured. We begin to expect it. But that is not really how life is. Change for the better is often about expectations. A surprise can be good.

Many years ago, convinced that America’s Western mountains and wildlife could not be that different from Maine, where I grew up, I found myself trekking between two ridgelines, into a glacial cirque, a kind of big bowl from which there is only on way out.

This was summer, and I expected a pleasant sojourn among into America’s “purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain,” nothing more. My first surprise was a good one, huckleberries everywhere, thicker than Maine blueberries at high season.

I had no sooner decided that Maine and Montana were the same, than a game warden on horseback appeared, as if from some storybook, Theodore Roosevelt sort. He stopped, we talked, and in parting he casually said, “Oh, be careful, there was a young male grizzly up here yesterday,” and he was off.

That was not the sort of surprise I had expected. The higher and deeper I got into this “no way out” cirque, with steep cliffs rising to right and left, then before me, the stranger I felt. The mind plays tricks.

My thinking went like this: Rocky mountain grizzlies are not docile Eastern black bears. They are dangerous. One was just here. There is only one way out of this bowl, how I came in. I did not see any bears. And how, in any event, do you “be careful” about a surprise grizzly at night?

Tent pitched, I thought I had been careful. I did not pitch it on huckleberries. I put food up in a tree 30 feet from the tent, and 15 feet up. Still, the brain will work on you, if you let it. All that good karma, that good sense of being fine and free in the Great Outdoors, was sideswiped by the phantom grizzly bear.

The more I tried to sleep, the less sleep came. What do you do if a grizzly comes at night? The Rangers never tell you. They say in daytime, ring bells, stay loud, bears will wander away. They say avoid carrion (dead animals) and a mother with cubs. They say, if attacked, curl into fetal position, submit, do not run.

But what, pray tell, do you do at night? The thought was just a pebble, but by roughly one o’clock in the morning, it was a boulder. We do not have grizzlies in Maine.

Suddenly, a wicked scream issued from deep in the cirque. It sounded human. Later, I learned this is what elk do on occasion, a show of manliness, curdling bugle at night. We do not have elk in Maine.

By three o’clock, the thought of encountering a grizzly, nowhere to go, in this little bowl of huckleberries got about as big as a Maine mountain, which is to say not as big as a Montana peak but big enough.

That is when I first heard him, a faint rustle high on the ridge, right above me, smack in the middle of the huckle field. I froze and listened. Slowly, big, heavy feet, carrying ca huffing, snorting thing descended the ridge until it was at my tent.

The idea of fear – living with unpleasant expectations, too much uncertainty, a sense that whatever came before is suddenly unimportant, and having to deal with what seems an impossible situation – is well represented by how I felt right then.

Wide awake, my mouth went dry, heart pounded so hard I thought it could be heard a mile away. He came to the back of the tent, I could hear him, sniffed and circled, then snorted. That nearly killed me.

Sometimes, despite being fine, you feel un-fine. Sometimes, even when logic says “do not panic, things work out, this was meant to be, God answer’s prayers” – you doubt. Sometimes, too, you just act stupid.

I did. Frozen there, I imagined this forest-filling grizzly suddenly coming through the tent wall, tried to imagine myself elsewhere, anywhere but here. I thought “I am invisible.” Only that was not so.

In time, he decided my orange was not worth the squeeze, tent not worth a paw slash, and wandered back up the ridge. This is where I got really stupid; when he stopped, I wanted him to keep going, so slid out the tent door in the blackness – and clapped my hands.

This is how fear, worry about what might happen, or being consumed by the present, can create insanity. Suddenly he was again interested in what lay at the bottom of the ridge, and I could hear him shuffling.

As he began to descend the ridge again, he accelerated, until I could no longer contain myself, and so decided to ride this terrible wave. I grabbed a flashlight and shined it straight at the young grizzly bear.

What do you think happened next? Of course, my night was ruined by fear, since I had allowed all this uncertainty, bad expectations, a rough time – to dominate my thinking. I expected the worst, sure of it.

My flashlight beam punched into the woods, chasing the sound of a now-ambling animal in the huckleberries, until it hit him, and reality hit me. All the ruckus was no bear, just a harmless deer. All my fear was for nought, all my heart pounding, just my “what ifs” overcoming me.

Lesson is this: Life is a surprise, and many surprises are ones we might like to avoid, re-do, or accelerate, but we do get through those too, and funny enough – when you least expect the best, it can appear. There is nothing like having a marauding grizzly, become an innocent deer.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman2 for AMAC.

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