Buddha said: “There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth… not going all the way, and not starting.”
So, I have this dream. An idea really.
I want to take my motorcycle and ride all over the US. But all marathons start with a step, right? The other night at work I decided, somewhat on a whim, that two days off was enough to do a single overnight camping trip with Belle. (That’s what I named my motorcycle. That’s a different story.)
It’s probably important to mention that I worked a 12 hour night shift then slept only four hours before embarking on this adventure. This information might play in later on… just sayin’ 🙂
Anyway, I borrowed some backpacking gear and loaded her up with just enough stuff to do a single overnight. A 1-person backpacking tent, stuff sack sleeping bag, and blow up pad. I was going to stay in a state park, be able to buy firewood, and have restaurants I could ride to easily. So I packed a few snacks, a bottle of water and a jet boil camp stove for my one luxury – my travel mug French press, into which I pre-loaded the requisite amount of coarse ground Peet’s for my morning “needs”.
Here’s my gear:
That was it. Change of underwear and socks, extra shirt, minimal toiletries, a small flashlight and my laptop in a small backpack rounded things out.
My bike, “fully loaded” still only looked like this:
Unfortunately I had to change routes a couple times so the unforeseen stops put me at my campsite a little later than I’d hoped. It was nearly dark when I checked in, and my fingers were white and really painful. (I have circulation issues. Heated grips are on my list of must-haves for this bike) so I asked to be near the firewood station since I’d have to walk the wood back to my campsite.
They put me like, three sites away from the Welcome Center, and right behind the sheds that hold the firewood. It’s a heavily treed park with multiple loops so he gave me a map but it was a little confusing and I’d missed my dinner stop trying to get there before the ranger station closed. My plan had been to set up my camp, get my wood, then go grab dinner somewhere.
That’s not what happened.
Like I said, this was all borrowed gear so I set up this tent for the first time in the dark, on little sleep, after about four hours on my bike with frozen fingers. Initially I got the rain fly backwards, but that comes later.
Still, this is how close I was to other campers. And there was someone on the other side of those bushes as well.
Just a basic State Park campsite. Nothing primitive about it. It also had a fire pit and a picnic table.
So after setting up camp and tossing all my gear into this little one person tent I went to get wood and thaw my fingers. By the time I was done with everything it was pitch black and I had no desire to get back on the bike to go find dinner, so I started the fire instead, trying to get warm. I’d brought a few snacks, so I ate one of my two muffins, three cheese sticks and a couple slices of dried mango and called it dinner. That left one muffin and an apple for breakfast with my French press before I’d have to venture out for real food.
I sat by my little fire on what was left of the stack of wood (because I didn’t bring a chair) and pulled out my other camping essential – a metal flask of Belvedere with a squeeze of lemon.
I said camping, not roughing it!
I saved a couple pieces of wood (my chair) for a morning fire, spread the remaining logs and let them go out, and because it was cold and I was a little unsure of the way to the bathroom house and couldn’t find the map they’d given me, decided to pee on my fire to make sure it was out (first mistake – bears are attracted to the smell of excrement – especially the liquid kind).
Hey, there was no way I was pouring my one precious bottle of water on that fire. It was reserved for that morning French press. So, I climbed into my bed and slept a few hours, waking up at 4 am (did I mention I work nights?) because the moon was so bright I thought the sun was coming up.
I was hungry so I sat freezing in the tent and ate the apple I’d bought at a roadside stand on the way down (second mistake, bears love fresh fruit and have a sense of smell like seven times more keen than a bloodhound. Third mistake, never ever eat in your tent). I put some more clothes on trying to get warm, then got up and fixed the rain fly and tossed my apple core into the fire pit. It was too early to start the fire but I figured I could burn it in the morning. (fourth / fifth mistake – never have your garbage close to where you sleep, and… it turns out burning garbage is almost as big of a bear attractant as human pee. How do I know all these things? I read them here. Yes, AFTER the fact… duh!
So I’m sitting there, in my tent, reasonably warm, a little food in my belly, a full moon outside and typing away on my laptop, when I hear brush breaking in the bushes, and that characteristic bear noise – kind of a half grunt, half howl. Heavy footfalls padding the ground all around me. Big blowing and sniffing sounds circling my tent.
Let me just point out here that I could have thrown a rock and hit the 101 Highway, and I could hear the ocean from my tent. I certainly wasn’t thinking about bears. I mean – I hadn’t even left civilization!
I could hear one of them crunching on my apple core in the fire pit while the heavy breathing and circling continued on the other side of me.
I closed my laptop and froze. My heart was pounding, and if smelling fear is a real thing then these bears were getting a nose full! I realized at that moment that they were smelling the other muffin I still had in the tent with me (sixth mistake – never keep food in your tent). Right about this time I realized the threat was real.
I started realizing that I might actually die of stupidity.
I’m not sure how long they stuck around contemplating whether or not to go for that muffin, or my jugular, for that matter, but in a move of desperation born of sheer terror, I grabbed my full face motorcycle helmet and stuck it on my head. Then I wrapped myself in my leather jacket and curled into a ball, hoping that the most they could do was maul me, but maybe I could protect my vital organs.
I laid there like that, thankful that the helmet was acting like a brown paper bag, helping me with my hyperventilation, thinking “This is unbelievable. I’m actually going to die of fucking stupidity.”
I mean, I know that when you truly camp in bear country, there are certain precautions that you take. You hang your food and garbage at least 100 feet from your campsite and down wind, you don’t eat or have food in your tent, and you bring fucking BEAR MACE!
But I wasn’t in bear country. I was at the ocean, for God’s sake!
I didn’t have a gun, a knife, bear spray, nothing at all to defend myself with, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember at that moment whether or not I was supposed to make noise or be quiet, so I just laid there and tried to play dead and not breathe too heavy.
Eventually they went away, but there was no way I was getting out of that tent until it was daylight and I heard the other campers stirring. I laid there for almost three hours. I’m certain I dozed a bit here and there, but the adrenaline was hard to overcome, and if you’ve ever tried to sleep in a motorcycle helmet… well, let me just say, it’s not exactly comfortable.
When I finally got up and made my coffee and started the fire I could see the tracks and nose prints circling my little tent. A short walk to the ocean to calm my nerves and I realized what I hadn’t noticed while setting up my tent in the dark – on the other side of the wood sheds were the dumpsters for the entire campground. (Seventh and last mistake – never camp near the dumpsters)
So basically, I threw a big, dumpster diving after-party and invited the bears.
And now I that I’ve survived, I can laugh about it. The bear story has become infamous in my circle of life now. And I’ve learned some really important lessons about being prepared, and about never taking your surroundings for granted. If I’m going to travel alone these are lessons I probably needed to learn in a State Park surrounded by people, as opposed to the middle of nowhere, which could have ended very differently.
It wasn’t a perfect beginning, but then again, very few beginnings are perfect. I can tell you this much, it’s going to be one wild ride!
Do not wait until the conditions are perfect to begin. Beginning makes the conditions perfect.