فصل 11

کتاب: قدم زدن در جنگل / فصل 11

فصل 11

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  • زمان مطالعه 34 دقیقه
  • سطح خیلی سخت

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Wow here’s a thought to consider. Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week. For 93 percent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car. On average the total walking of an American these days–that’s walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls–adds up to 1.4 miles a week, barely 350 yards a day. That’s ridiculous.

When my family and I moved to the States, one of the things we wanted was to live in a traditional small town–the sort of place where Jimmy Stewart would be the mayor, the Hardy Boys would deliver your groceries, and Deanna Durbin would forever be singing at an open window. Perfect little towns are not easy to find, of course, but Hanover, where we settled, comes close. It is a small, typical New England college town, pleasant, sedate, and compact, full of old trees and sunny steeples. It has a broad green, an old-fashioned Main Street, a handsome campus with a settled and venerable air, and leafy residential streets. Nearly everyone in town is within a level, easy stroll of the post office, library, and stores.

But here’s the thing: hardly anyone, as far as I can tell, walks anywhere for anything. I know a man who drives 600 yards to work. I know a woman who gets in her car to go a quarter of a mile to a college gymnasium to walk on a treadmill, then complains passionately about the difficulty of finding a parking space. When I asked her once why she didn’t walk to the gym and do five minutes less on the treadmill, she looked at me as if I were being willfully provocative. “Because I have a program for the treadmill,” she explained. “It records my distance and speed, and I can adjust it for degree of difficulty.”

It hadn’t occurred to me how thoughtlessly deficient nature is in this regard.

At least in Hanover she could walk if she wanted to. In many places in America now, it is not actually possible to be a pedestrian, even if you want to be. I had this brought home to me the next day in Waynesboro, after we had gotten a room and treated ourselves to an extravagant late breakfast. I left Katz at a laundromat (he loved doing laundry, for some reason–loved to read the tattered magazines and experience the miracle of stiff, disgusting clothes emerging from big machines fluffed and sweet smelling) and set off to find some insect repellent for us.

Waynesboro had a traditional, vaguely pleasant central business district covering five or six square blocks, but, as so often these days, most retail businesses had moved out to shopping centers on the periphery, leaving little but a sprinkling of banks, insurance offices, and dusty thrift stores or secondhand shops in what presumably was once a thriving downtown. Lots of shops were dark and bare; nowhere could I find a store at which to get insect repellent. A man outside the post office sugested I try Kmart.

“Where’s your car?” he said, preparatory to giving directions.

“I don’t have a car.”

That stopped him. “Really? It’s over a mile, I’m afraid.”

“That’s OK.”He gave his head a little dubious shake, as if disowning responsibility for what he was about to tell me. “Well, then what you want to do is go up Broad Street, take a right at the Burger King, and keep on going. But, you know, when I think about it, it’s well over a mile–maybe a mile and a half, mile and three-quarters. You walking back as well?”

“Yeah.”

Another shake. “Long way.”

“I’ll take emergency provisions.”

If he realized this was a joke he didn’t show it. “Well, good luck to you,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“You know, there’s a cab company around the corner,” he offered helpfully as an afterthought.

“I actually prefer to walk,” I explained.

He nodded uncertainly. “Well, good luck to you,” he said again.

So I walked. It was a warm afternoon, and it felt wonderful– you can’t believe how wonderful–to be at large without a pack, bouncy and unburdened. With a pack you walk at a tilt, hunched and pressed forward, your eyes on the ground. You trudge; it is all you can do. Without, you are liberated. You walk erect. You look around. You spring. You saunter. You amble.

Or at least you do for four blocks. Then you come to a mad junction at Burger King and discover that the new six-lane road to Kmart is long, straight, very busy, and entirely without facilities for pedestrians–no sidewalks, no pedestrian crossings, no central refuges, no buttons to push for a WALK signal at lively intersections. I walked through gas station and motel forecourts and across restaurant parking lots, clambered over concrete barriers, crossed lawns, and pushed through neglected ranks of privet or honeysuckle at property boundaries. At bridges over creeks and culverts–and goodness me how developers love a culvert–I had no choice but to walk on the road, pressed against the dusty railings and causing less attentive cars to swerve to avoid me. Four times I was honked at for having the temerity to proceed through town without benefit of metal. One bridge was so patently dangerous that I hesitated at it. The creek it crossed was only a reedy trickle, narrow enough to step across, so I decided to go that way. I slid and scampered down the bank, found myself in a hidden zone of sucking grey mud, pitched over twice, hauled myself up the other side, pitched over again, and emerged at length streaked and speckled with mud and extravagantly decorated with burrs. When I finally reached the Kmart Plaza I discovered that I was on the wrong side of the road and had to dash through six lanes of hostile traffic. By the time I crossed the parking lot and stepped into the air-conditioned, Muzak-happy world of Kmart I was as grubby as if I had been on the trail, and trembling all over.

The Kmart, it turned out, didn’t stock insect repellent.

So I turned around and set off back to town, but this time, in a burst of madness I don’t even want to go into, I headed home cross country, over farm fields and through a zone of light industry. I tore my jeans on barbed wire and got muddier still. When finally I got back to town, I found Katz sitting in the sun on a metal chair on the motel lawn, freshly showered, dressed in newly laundered attire, and looking intensely happy in a way that only a hiker can look when he is in a town, at ease. Technically, he was waxing hisboots, but really he was just sitting watching the world go by and dreamily enjoying the sunshine. He greeted me warmly. Katz was always a new man in town.

“Good lord, look at you!” he cried, delighted at my grubbiness. “What have you been doing? You re filthy.” He looked me up and down admiringly, then said in a more solemn tone: “You haven’t been screwing hogs again, have you, Bryson?”

“Ha ha ha.”

“They’re not clean animals, you know, no matter how attractive they may look after a month on the trail. And don’t forget we’re not in Tennessee anymore. It’s probably not even legal here–at least not without a note from the vet.” He patted the chair beside him, beaming all over, happy with his quips. “Come and sit down and tell me all about it. So what was her name–Bossy?” He leaned closely and confidentially. “Did she squeal a lot?”

I sat in the chair. “You’re only jealous.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, I’m not. I made a friend of my own today. At the laundromat. Her name’s Beulah.”

“Beulah? You’re joking.”

“I may wish I was, but it’s a fact.”

“Nobody’s named Beulah.”

“Well, she is. And real nice, too. Not real smart, but real nice, with cute little dimples just here.” He poked his cheeks to show me where. “And she has a terrific body.”

“Oh, yes?”

He nodded. “Of course,” he added judiciously, “it’s buried under 220 pounds of wobbling fat. Fortunately I don’t mind size in a woman as long as, you know, you don’t have to remove a wall or anything to get her out of the house.” He gave his boot a thoughtful swipe.

“So how did you meet her?”

“As a matter of fact,” he said, sitting forward keenly, as if this was a story worth telling, “she asked me to come and look at her panties.”

I nodded. “Of course.”

“They’d got caught in the washing machine agitator,” he explained.

“And was she wearing them at the time? You said she wasn’t real smart.”

“No, she was washing them and the elastic got stuck in the spindle thing and she asked me to come and help extract them. Big panties,” he added thoughtfully, and fell into a brief reverie at the memory of it, then continued:. “I got ‘em out, but they were shredded all to hell, so I said, kind of droll like, ‘Well, miss, I sure hope you’ve got another pair, because these are shredded all to hell.’ “

“Oh, Stephen, the wit.”

“It’ll do for Waynesboro, believe me. And she said–now here’s the thing, my grubby, hog-humping friend–she said, ‘Well, wouldn’t you like to know, honey.’ “ He made his eyebrows bounce. “I’m meeting her at seven outside the fire station.”

“What, she keeps her spare underpants there?”

He gave me an exasperated look. “No, it’s just a place to meet. We’re going to Pappa John’s Pizza for dinner. And then, with any luck, we’ll do what you’ve been doing all day.

Only I won’t have to climb a fence and lure her with alfalfa. Well, I hope not anyway. Hey, look at this,” he said, and reached down to a paper bag at his feet. He brought out a pairof pink female underwear that could fairly be called capacious. “I thought I’d give them to her. As a kind of joke, you understand.”

“In a restaurant? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Discreetly, you know.”

I held up the underpants with outstretched arms. They really were quite arrestingly jumbo-sized. “If she doesn’t like them, you can always use them as a ground sheet. Are these–I have to ask– are these this big as part of the joke or”Oh, she’s a big woman,” Katz said, and bounced his eyebrows again happily. He put the pants neatly, reverently back in the bag. “Big woman.”

So I dined alone at a place called the Coffee Mill Restaurant. It felt a little odd to be without Katz after so many days of constant companionship, but agreeable as well, for the same reason. I was eating a steak dinner, my book propped against a sugar shaker, entirely content, when I glanced up to find Katz stalking towards me across the restaurant, looking alarmed and furtive.

“Thank God I found you,” he said, and took a seat opposite me in the booth. He was sweating freely. “There’s some guy looking for me.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Beulah’s husband.”

“Beulah has a husband?”

“I know. It’s a miracle. There can’t be more than two people on the planet who’d be willing to sleep with her and here we are both in the same town.”

This was all going too fast for me. “I don’t understand. What happened?”

“I was standing outside the fire station, you know, like we’d agreed, and a red pickup truck screeches to a stop and this guy gets out looking real angry and saying he’s Beulah’s old man and he wants to talk to me.”

“So what did you do?”

“I ran. What do you think?”

“And he didn’t catch you?”

“He weighed about 600 pounds. He wasn’t exactly the sprinting type. More the shootyour-balls-off type. He’s been cruising around for a half hour looking for me. I’ve been running through backyards and crashing into clotheslines and all kinds of shit. I ended up with some other guy chasing me because he thought I was a prowler. What the hell am I supposed to do now, Bryson?”

“OK, first you stop talking to fat ladies in laundromats.”

“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.”

“Then I go out of here, see if the coast is clear, and give you a signal from the window.”

“Yeah? And then?”

“Then you walk very briskly back to the motel, with your hands over your balls, and hope this guy doesn’t spot you.”

He was quiet a moment. “That’s it? That’s your best plan? That’s your very best plan?”

“Have you got a better one?”

“No, but I didn’t go to college for four years.”“Stephen, I didn’t study how to save your ass in Waynesboro. I majored in political science. If your problem was to do with proportional representation in Switzerland, I might be able to help you.”

He sighed and sat back heavily with his arms crossed, bleakly considering his position and how he’d got himself into this fix. “You don’t let me talk to any women again, of any size, at least until we get out of the Confederacy. These guys have all got guns down here. You promise?”

“Oh, it’s a promise.”

He sat in edgy silence while I finished my dinner, swiveling his head to check out all the windows, expecting to see a fat, angry face pressed against the glass. When I had finished and paid the bill, we went to the door.

“I could be dead in a minute,” he said grimly, then clutched my forearm. “Look, if I get shot, do me a favor. Call my brother and tell him there’s $10,000 buried in a coffee can under his front lawn.”

“You buried $10,000 under your brother’s front lawn?”

“No, of course not, but he’s a little prick and it would serve him right. Let’s go.”

I stepped outside and the street was clear–completely empty of traffic. Waynesboro was at home, in front of the TV. I gave him a nod. His head came out, looked cautiously left and right, and he tore off down the street at a rate that was, all things considered, astounding. It took me two or three minutes to stroll to the motel. I didn’t see anyone. At the motel, I knocked on his door.

Instantly a preposterously deep, authoritative voice said, “Who is it?”

I sighed. “Bubba T. Flubba. I wanna talk to yew, boy.”

“Bryson, don’t fuck around. I can see you through the peephole.”

“Then why are you asking who it is?”

“Practicing.”

I waited a minute. “Are you going to let me in?”

“Can’t. I got a chest of drawers in front of the door.”

“Are you serious?”

“Go to your room and I’ll call you.”

My room was next door, but the phone was already ringing when I got there. Katz wanted every detail of my walk home, and had elaborate plans for his defense involving a heavy ceramic lamp base and, ultimately, escape out the back window. My role was to create a diversion, ideally by setting the man’s truck alight, then running in a contrary direction. Twice more in the night, once just after midnight, he called me to tell me that he had seen a red pickup truck cruising the streets. In the morning, he refused to go out for breakfast, so I went to the supermarket for groceries and brought us both a bag of food from Hardees. He wouldn’t leave the room until the cab was waiting by the motel office with the motor running. It was four miles back to the trail. He looked out the back window the whole way.

The cab dropped us at Rockfish Gap, southern gateway to Shenandoah National Park, our last long stretch of hiking before we ended part one of our big adventure. We had allotted six and a half weeks for this initial foray and now it was nearly over. I was ready for a vacation–we both were, goodness knows–and I longed to see my family, beyond my power to convey. Even so, I was looking forward to what I hoped would be a climacticamble. Shenandoah National Park–101 miles from top to bottom–is famously beautiful, and I was eager to see it at last. We had, after all, walked a long way to get here.

At Rockfish Gap there is a tollbooth manned by rangers where motorists have to pay an entrance fee and thru-hikers have to acquire a backcountry hiking permit. The permit doesn’t cost anything (one of the noblest traditions of the Appalachian Trail is that every inch of it is free) but you have to complete a lengthy form giving your personal details, your itinerary through the park, and where you plan to camp each night, which is a little ridiculous because you haven’t seen the terrain and don’t know what kind of mileage you might achieve. Appended to the form were the usual copious regulations and warnings of severe fines and immediate banishment for doing, well, pretty much anything. I filled out the form the best I could and handed it in at the window to a lady ranger.

“So you’re hiking the trail?” she said brightly, if not terribly astutely, accepted the form without looking at it, banged it severely with rubber stamps, and tore off the part that would serve as our license to walk on land that, in theory, we owned anyway.

“Well, we’re trying,” I said.

“I must get up there myself one of these days. I hear it’s real nice.”

This took me aback. “You’ve never been on the trail?” But you’re a ranger, I wanted to say.

“No, afraid not,” she answered wistfully. “Lived here all my life, but haven’t got to it yet. One day I will.”

Katz, mindful of Beulah’s husband, was practically dragging me towards the safety of the woods, but I was curious.

“How long have you been a ranger?” I called back.

“Twelve years in August,” she said proudly.

“You ought to give it a try sometime. It’s real nice.”

“Might get some of that flab off your butt,” Katz muttered privately, and stepped into the woods. I looked at him with interest and surprise–it wasn’t like Katz to be so uncharitable–and put it down to lack of sleep, profound sexual frustration, and a surfeit of Hardees sausage biscuits.

Shenandoah National Park is a park with problems. More even than the Smokies, it suffers from a chronic shortage (though a cynic might say a chronic misapplication) of funds. Several miles of side trails have been closed, and others are deteriorating. If it weren’t that volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club maintain 80 percent of the park’s trails, including the whole of the AT through the park, the situation would be much worse. Mathews Arm Campground, one of the park’s main recreational areas, was closed for lack of funds in 1993 and hasn’t been open since. Several other recreation areas are closed for most of the year. For a time in the 1980s, even the trail shelters (or huts, as they are known here) were shut. I don’t know how they did it–I mean to say, how exactly do you close a wooden structure with a fifteen-foot-wide opening at the front?–and still less why, since forbidding hikers from resting for a few hours on a wooden sleeping platform is hardly going to transform the park’s finances. But then making things difficult for hikers is something of a tradition in the eastern parks. A couple of months earlier, all the national parks, along with all other nonessential government departments, had been closed for a couple of weeks during a budget impasse between President Clinton and Congress. Yet Shenandoah, despite its perennial want of money,found the funds to post a warden at each AT access point to turn back all thru-hikers. In consequence, a couple of dozen harmless people had to make lengthy, pointless detours by road before they could resume their long hike. This vigilance couldn’t have cost the Park Service less than $20,000, or the better part of $1,000 for each dangerous thru-hiker deflected.

On top of its self-generated shortcomings, Shenandoah has a lot of problems arising from factors largely beyond its control. Overcrowding is one. Although the park is over a hundred miles long, it is almost nowhere more than a mile or two wide, so all its two million annual visitors are crowded into a singularly narrow corridor along the ridgeline.

Campgrounds, visitor centers, parking lots, picnic sites, the AT, and Skyline Drive (the scenic road that runs down the spine of the park) all exist cheek by jowl. One of the most popular (non-AT) hiking routes in the park, up Old Rag Mountain, has become so much in demand that on summer weekends people sometimes have to queue to get on it.

Then there is the vexed matter of pollution. Thirty years ago it was still possible on especially clear days to see the Washington Monument, seventy-five miles away. Now, on hot, smoggy summer days, visibility can be as little as two miles and never more than thirty. Acid rain in the streams has nearly wiped out the park’s trout. Gypsy moths arrived in 1983 and have since ravaged considerable acreages of oaks and hickories. The Southern pine beetle has done similar work on conifers, and the locust leaf miner has inflicted disfiguring (but mercifully usually nonfatal) damage on thousands of locust trees.

In just seven years, the woolly adelgid has fatally damaged more than 90 percent of the park’s hemlocks. Nearly all the rest will be dying by the time you read this. An untreatable fungal disease called anthracnose is wiping out the lovely dogwoods not just here but everywhere in America. Before long, the dogwood, like the American chestnut and American elm, will effectively cease to exist. It would be hard, in short, to conceive • a more stressed environment.

And yet here’s the thing. Shenandoah National Park is lovely. It is possibly the most wonderful national park I have ever been in, and, considering the impossible and conflicting demands put on it, it is extremely well run. Almost at once it became my favorite part of the Appalachian Trail.

We hiked through deep-seeming woods, along gloriously untaxing terrain, climbing a gentle 500 feet in four miles. In the Smokies, you can climb 500 feet in, well, about 500 feet. This was more like it. The weather was kindly, and there was a real sense of spring being on the turn. And there was life everywhere–zumming insects, squirrels scampering along boughs, birds twittering and hopping about, spider webs gleaming silver in the sun.

Twice I flushed grouse, always a terrifying experience: an instantaneous explosion from the undergrowth at your feet, like balled socks fired from a gun, followed by drifting feathers and a lingering residue of fussy, bitching noise. I saw an owl, which watched me imperturbably from a nearby stout limb, and loads of deer, which raised their heads to stare but otherwise seemed fearless and casually returned to their browsing when I had passed. Sixty years ago, there were no deer in this neck of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

They had been hunted out of existence. Then, after the park was created in 1936, thirteen white-tailed deer were introduced, and, with no one to hunt them and few predators, they thrived. Today there are 5,000 deer in the park, all descended from those original thirteen or others that migrated from nearby.Surprisingly, considering its modest dimensions and how little room there is for real backcountry, the park is remarkably rich in wildlife. Bobcats, bears, red and gray foxes, beaver, skunks, raccoons, Hying squirrels, and our friends the salamanders exist in admirable numbers, though you don’t often see them, as most are nocturnal or wary of people. Shenandoah is said to have the highest density of black bears anywhere in the world–slightly over one per square mile. There have even been reported sightings (including by park rangers, who perhaps ought to know better) of mountain lions, even though mountain lions haven’t been confirmed in the eastern woods for almost seventy years. There is the tiniest chance that they may exist in pockets in the northern woods (we shall get to that in due course, and I think you’ll be glad you waited) but not in an area as small and hemmed in as Shenandoah National Park.

We didn’t see anything terribly exotic, or even remotely exotic, but it was nice just to see squirrels and deer, to feel that the forest was lived in. Late in the afternoon, I rounded a bend to find a wild turkey and her chicks crossing the trail ahead of me. The mother was regal and unflappable; her chicks were much too busy falling over and getting up again even to notice me. This was the way the woods were supposed to be. I couldn’t have been more delighted.

We hiked till five and camped beside a tranquil spring in a small, grassy clearing in the trees just off the trail. Because it was our first day back on the trail, we were flush for food, including perishables like cheese and bread that had to be eaten before they went off or were shaken to bits in our packs, so we rather gorged ourselves, then sat around smoking and chatting idly until persistent and numerous midgelike creatures (no-see-ums, as they are universally known along the trail) drove us into our tents. It was perfect sleeping weather, cool enough to need a bag but warm enough that you could sleep in your underwear, and I was looking forward to a long night’s snooze–indeed was enjoying a long night’s snooze–when, at some indeterminate dark hour, there was a sound nearby that made my eyes fly open. Normally, I slept through everything–through thunderstorms, through Katz’s snoring and noisy midnight pees–so something big enough or distinctive enough to wake me was unusual. There was a sound of undergrowth being disturbed–a click of breaking branches, a weighty pushing through low foliage–and then a kind of large, vaguely irritable snuffling noise.

Bear!

I sat bolt upright. Instantly every neuron in my brain was awake and dashing around frantically, like ants when you disturb their nest. I reached instinctively for my knife, then realized I had left it in my pack, just outside the tent. Nocturnal defense had ceased to be a concern after many successive nights of tranquil woodland repose. There was another noise, quite near.

“Stephen, you awake?” I whispered.

“Yup,” he replied in a weary but normal voice.

“What was that?”

“How the hell should I know.”

“It sounded big.”

“Everything sounds big in the woods.”This was true. Once a skunk had come plodding through our camp and it had sounded like a stegosaurus. There was another heavy rustle and then the sound of lapping at the spring. It was having a drink, whatever it was.

I shuffled on my knees to the foot of the tent, cautiously unzipped the mesh and peered out, but it was pitch black. As quietly as I could, I brought in my backpack and with the light of a small flashlight searched through it for my knife. When I found it and opened the blade I was appalled at how wimpy it looked. It was a perfectly respectable appliance for, say, buttering pancakes, but patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400 pounds of ravenous fur.

Carefully, very carefully, I climbed from the tent and put on the flashlight, which cast a distressingly feeble beam. Something about fifteen or twenty feet away looked up at me.

I couldn’t see anything at all of its shape or size–only two shining eyes. It went silent, whatever it was, and stared back at me.

“Stephen,” I whispered at his tent, “did you pack a knife?”

“No.”

“Have you get anything sharp at all?”

He thought for a moment. “Nail clippers.”

I made a despairing face. “Anything a little more vicious than that? Because, you see, there is definitely something out here.”

“It’s probably just a skunk.”

“Then it’s one big skunk. Its eyes are three feet off the ground.”

“A deer then.”

I nervously threw a stick at the animal, and it didn’t move, whatever it was. A deer would have bolted. This thing just blinked once and kept staring.

I reported this to Katz.

“Probably a buck. They’re not so timid. Try shouting at it.”

I cautiously shouted at it: “Hey! You there! Scat!” The creature blinked again, singularly unmoved. “You shout,” I said.

“Oh, you brute, go away, do!” Katz shouted in merciless imitation. “Please withdraw at once, you horrid creature.”

“Fuck you,” I said and lugged my tent right over to his. I didn’t know what this would achieve exactly, but it brought me a tiny measure of comfort to be nearer to him.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m moving my tent.”

“Oh, good plan. That’ll really confuse it.”

I peered and peered, but I couldn’t see anything but those two wide-set eyes staring from the near distance like eyes in a cartoon. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be outside and dead or inside and waiting to be dead. I was barefoot and in my underwear and shivering. What I really wanted–really, really wanted–was for the animal to withdraw. I picked up a small stone and tossed it at it. I think it may have hit it because the animal made a sudden noisy start (which scared the bejesus out of me and brought a whimper to my lips) and then emitted a noise–not quite a growl, but near enough. It occurred to me that perhaps I oughtn’t provoke it.

“What are you doing, Bryson? Just leave it alone and it will go away.”

“How can you be so calm?”“What do you want me to do? You’re hysterical enough for both of us.”

“I think I have a right to be a trifle alarmed, pardon me. I’m in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, staring at a bear, with a guy who has nothing to defend himself with but a pair of nail clippers. Let me ask you this. If it is a bear and it comes for you, what are you going to do–give it a pedicure?”

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Katz said implacably.

“What do you mean you’ll cross that bridge? We’re on the bridge, you moron. There’s a bear out here, for Christ sake. He’s looking at us. He smells noodles and Snickers and–oh, shit.”

“What?”

“Oh. Shit.”

“What?”

“There’s two of them. I can see another pair of eyes.” Just then, the flashlight battery started to go. The light flickered and then vanished. I scampered into my tent, stabbing myself lightly but hysterically in the thigh as I went, and began a quietly frantic search for spare batteries. If I were a bear, this would be the moment I would choose to lunge.

“Well, I’m going to sleep,” Katz announced.

“What are you talking about? You can’t go to sleep.”

“Sure I can. I’ve done it lots of times.” There was the sound of him rolling over and a series of snuffling noises, not unlike those of the creature outside.

“Stephen, you can’t go to sleep,” I ordered. But he could and he did, with amazing rapidity.

The creature–creatures, now–resumed drinking, with heavy lapping noises. I couldn’t find any replacement batteries, so I flung the flashlight aside and put my miner’s lamp on my head, made sure it worked, then switched it off to conserve the batteries. Then I sat for ages on my knees, facing the front of the tent, listening keenly, gripping my walking stick like a club, ready to beat back an attack, with my knife open and at hand as a last line of defense. The bears–animals, whatever they were–drank for perhaps twenty minutes more, then quietly departed the way they had come. It was a joyous moment, but I knew from my reading that they would be likely to return. I listened and listened, but the forest returned to silence and stayed there.

Eventually I loosened my grip on the walking stick and put on a sweater–pausing twice to examine the tiniest noises, dreading the sound of a revisit–and after a very long time got back into my sleeping bag for warmth. I lay there for a long time staring at total blackness and knew that never again would I sleep in the woods with a light heart.

And then, irresistibly and by degrees, I fell asleep.

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