High above the San Gabriel Valley, a series of radio towers sits perched on Mount Wilson. You can see them from miles away, even at night when they blink red to warn off the planes from crashing into the mountains. There’s a road that winds through the forest. I used to take it every once awhile to go check out the observatory just past the radio towers. There’s also a trail that goes up there. From the start of the trail in Sierra Madre, it’s about 7 miles up, 7 miles down. I did it once, and on the trail I met a bear.
I didn’t expect to meet a bear on this particular hike. I thought it might be a possibility I would meet a bear, because bears are all over the foothills of Los Angeles. I’m not joking. The city of Monrovia has more bear encounters than any other city in the country. They don’t have garbage trucks there. They just have bears that annihilate dumpsters all over town. It’s crazy.
So I thought I might see a bear, because the Mt. Wilson trail is close to bear town, USA, and I planned accordingly by bringing an Allen wrench, constructer of all things IKEA and destroyer of bears. I also brought an ipod, some water, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and my camera for the hike.
Mt. Wilson is only about 6,000 feet high. Over the 7-mile trail, you climb about 3,000 of that in the first half mile. That’s possibly inaccurate on a literal level, but very truthful on a figurative one. It’s as if the mountain is saying, “Are you really sure you want to do this today?” The trail just starts, right off the road, and you’re climbing. Lungs burning, legs cramping, sweat pouring down the back kind of climbing. You don’t see a lot of casual hikers on the Mt. Wilson trail. It’s either people intent on getting to the top or runners training for marathons.
I got through that first section of the trail and entered into the long flat stretch in the middle. The trail opened up over a wide clearing. Far down below, I saw the 210 freeway snaking through the city. It looked like a silver river. I wanted to take a picture. So I got out my camera and that’s when I saw it.
The bear, lumbering right towards me on the trail.
A couple thousand things ran through my mind in a flash, most of them centered around one of the four general themes:
a) curse word, curse word, curse word, thatsabearandimgoingtodie, curse word
b) what do I do?
c) this will make a great story someday
d) if I am unable to tell this story, what shutter speed do I use to record my own mauling?
As the bear approached, I hiked up the switchback and devised a strategy. Understand, Blue, that at the time there was a really popular tv show called Man Vs. Wild. In this show, a crazy man named Bear Grylls was “stranded” in extreme locales and demonstrated how to survive in the most extreme circumstances. I watched this show, and obviously, because I watched a television show about survival I clearly knew what to do in this encounter.
Don’t be this, Blue. This is stupid.
I was, however. Stupid, that is. And so, as the bear approached, I snapped a few pictures and yelled out, “HEY BEAR!” This is what you’re supposed to do. Yell at it to let it know that you’re a threat.
It kept coming. Didn’t even bat an eye, as a matter of fact.
So then I yelled at it again, and when that didn’t do anything, I threw a rock at it. That’s right. Instead of doing the smart thing and, you know, keep walking with the understanding that this bear probably just ate a whole dumpster full of soup cans and tampons and was not interested in devouring me, I decided the best thing to do was risk provoking it to attack me.
The rock hit the bear in the shoulder. Surprised, possibly startled, assuredly not threatened, the bear took off in a run. I did, too. I was fully prepared to sprint the rest of the 6 or so miles up the mountain if needed, but luckily, the bear veered off the trail and disappeared into the brush.
I didn’t see anything, not even a squirrel, for the rest of the hike. It was the best hike ever. I never felt more alive and in tune with the world. As I was harmonizing with nature, the sheer stupidity of what I did began to sink in. A little knowledge is more dangerous than a lot of ignorance, Blue. Because if I had just been ignorant, I would have just ran away. But I watched Bear Grylls survive in the wilderness, and if he could do it, then I could, too.
Except I almost didn’t.
Don’t be the guy who thinks he knows more than he really does, Blue. That guy is dumb. Better to be the guy who doesn’t know anything, and takes along someone who does. That guy is way smarter.