Get Their Good Tidings

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“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.”

–John Muir


Three miles up the canyon, I see a bear.

We’re standing on a small cliff overlooking McGee Creek. Like many Sierra Nevada streams, McGee is lush: willows, wild rose, wildflowers, and quaking aspen, their bark white as milk.

“See if you can see a Yellow Warbler,” Chris says, already scanning the creek with his binoculars. “They like to perch.”

I survey the treetops, looking for the male warbler’s bold, look-at-me-now yellow. Green, green, green, green, and then suddenly I see a smudge of something bright. Half-hidden by an aspen, there he is: small songbird, yellow head, yellow body, black stripes on his wings. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America shows faint red stripes shooting down his belly, but I’ve never been close enough to see them. A breeze picks up; the leaves of the aspen flitter. The warbler, in and out of sight. I focus my binoculars again and again, catching sight of him intermittently.

In my periphery, I sense Chris turning around. He’s shouting. A rough and low voice, unfamiliar.

A second to put it together: Ragged brown fur, golden face, half-sleepy, half-curious eyes. Big body loping down the trail toward us, snout in the air, sniffing.

I’ve been waiting for this moment since I first started hiking in the Sierra Nevada six years ago. I learned then what to do if I saw a bear (hint: stand on your tiptoes, get big) and what not do (hint: do not run; that only signals ‘prey’). One time, high above June Lake, on a hike by myself, I felt positive a bear was following me. I clapped my hands as I walked, talked loudly to myself, and sang “Amazing Grace” to let all the bears in the vicinity know that I was there and I was loud.  When I finally arrived at the end of a trail–a big, blue alpine lake–I could hardly sit still. I ate my sandwich quickly and hiked back to my car, stomach nervously growling, every shadow a bear. But I never saw one.

“Get out of here,” Chris shouts, walking towards the bear. “Move it.”

The bear dutifully backs off, then comes forward again, but Chris yells, and the bear shuffles back into the sagebrush, up a hill.

The fear that I expected to arise and bloom like a blush is nowhere to be found. In its place, I find simple happiness: There is a bear. I see it.

Above us, atop the highest peaks, gray clouds gather. It’s noon, thunderstorm season. We turn around and begin the hike down (glancing backwards once and a while, just in case), leaving the bear to its wild, unknown life.

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