It wasn’t until we showed up at Sean’s mom’s house in Littleton, Colorado that we realized just how bad we smelled. The first thing I noticed as we biked into the subdivision Sean grew up in was how good the entire place smelled. I could tell that a lot of people in Heritage Village use scented fabric softener and dryer sheets. It smelled like half the dryers in the subdivision were running when we arrived. The neighborhood had a sweet smell–like a thick, warm, clean towel fresh out of the dryer. It smelled like Spring Dew, or Alpine Meadows, or Fresh Rain. Dryer sheet names all seem to nod to the pleasant smells of nature, but of course dryer sheets smell nothing like real nature.
Real alpine meadows really do smell wonderful, but the smell would be hard for even the best chemists to ever recreate. And that’s because when you’re way up high on a mountain, part of what is novel is that you’ve left most man-made smells behind–like car exhaust and dryer vents. It’s hard for me to describe what an alpine meadow actually smells like, but the words fresh and clean definitely come to mind. Which is probably why the dryer sheet manufacturers claim that their products smell like alpine meadows.
Now, the real truth is that living in nature for several months doesn’t feel fresh and clean most of the time. After leaving Seattle in early May, we slept outside probably 50 or 60 nights. We were outside constantly. We slathered sunscreen on multiple times a day and put DEET on at night to preserve our sanity from persistent and abundant mosquitoes. We would go four or five days without showering. One night, near Seeley Lake, Montana, I got almost no sleep because I was sure there was a bear outside our tent.
We were near the Bob Marshall Wilderness, an area considered one of the most wild places in the lower 48 and earlier that day we almost ran into a black bear cub on the road. The cub was terrified of us–and I was terrified of it’s mother (which we fortunately never saw). The experience reminded us to be vigilant about bears. Later that same day, we stopped at a convenience store along a desolate, but incredibly scenic road, to ask about where the closest campsite was with a bear box that we could store our food in.
Outside the store, a quintessential Montana man pulled up in his Ford 250 pick-up. He had calloused hands, sun-streaked hair, sturdy boots, dirt stained jeans, and a classic red and black plaid wool shirt. He gave us a look of mild disapproval and seemed impatient when I asked him if he knew of a good place to camp nearby. “Well, look around. You can camp anywhere you want.”
It was true. There was almost no human development, just a road, trees, mountains, rivers, and wildlife. We then clarified our question and explained that we would feel better at a campsite with a bear box, since we heard that the Seeley Lake area is teeming with bears. He didn’t say anything back for a few agonizing seconds. “You people own a pistol?” he said with serious concern in his voice.
He didn’t need to ask. He knew we didn’t own a pistol, much less have one with us on our bicycles. He could tell that he had the power. We had no cell phone signal, a bad map, some visible concerns about the local large fauna, and no pistol. He wanted to help us, I could tell that, but he wanted us to feel foolish and unprepared first.
Eventually, he took a deep breath and drew an imaginary map on the palm of his hand to a camping spot a few miles down the road where he thought we would find a bear box and “a shitter too.” “You’ll know you’ve found it when you see the shitter.” He kept repeating the directions, sure that we would get lost.
He didn’t seem to appreciate our words of thanks as we prepared to ride off. He just sauntered into the store shaking his head and then looked back at us. “You folks should get a pistol,” were his parting words, full of insinuation that if we were mauled by a Grizzly bear in our sleep that night it would be our own damn fault.
There is currently a heated debate throughout communities located near Yellowstone National Park in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming about whether Grizzly bears should be removed from their listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A delisting would legalize the limited hunting of Grizzly bears; currently it is a federal crime to kill an endangered species, unless you are defending a human life. A big source of controversy is related to both how we define what a healthy population is–as well as the methods used to count the bears. While in Wyoming, I read about a recent study published by a University of Colorado Environmental Studies professor arguing that the Grizzly bear comeback is overstated. The population isn’t rising dramatically, rather humans are spending more time counting the bears.
“It’s a pretty standard thing in all of wildlife biology and conservation biology that if you triple the amount of time you’re looking for some rare species, it’s likely you’re going to see more of them, just because you spend a lot more time doing so,” explained professor Daniel Doak.
Regardless of how much and how fast the Grizzley bear population is rising or not, it requires a lot of responsibility to camp in bear country during the spring and summer months. You really don’t need a pistol, but you do need to be vigilant about storing your food in a bear-proof manner. (Hanging your food from a tree really should be a last resort; bear boxes and canisters are much better.) Bears (somewhat like people) get addicted to calorie-dense human foods and it’s almost impossible for them to go back to bark and berries. There is a reason for the saying, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
While we were in Yellowstone, a family at the campground we stayed at left food out while they were gone sightseeing for the day. A black bear cub came into their campsite and started eating the accessible food. Obviously, other campers were alarmed when they saw the bear. The Park Ranger was called and eventually they shot and killed the cub. They put the bear on a stretcher and walked right by our tent with him.
There are a lot of reasons people don’t like spending time outdoors, and the fear of encountering a bear or other large animals probably adds to that. In the parts of the US we cycled through, we needed to be especially vigilant. But, living out of a tent in wild places can be a really rewarding experience–whether you are biking, hiking, or kayaking–and for me it is worth it. The simplicity is freeing. No one tries to sell you anything. The impulse to want for things you don’t really need is quieted or goes away entirely. Occasionally, you get bright pink lighting storms as after dinner entertainment. The lifestyle is implicitly healthy. Conversations and relationships take on a new, deeper dimension after prolonged stints in the outdoors. If you are lucky, you might see wildlife (like a Grizzly) from a safe distance. And, after you get home a hot shower and clean clothes (especially if they smell faintly of imitation Alpine Meadows) feels luxurious.