Some years ago, my husband at the time, Sebastian, and I decided to spend our second anniversary backpacking in the wilderness.
We would celebrate our love in solitude, as far away from ringing phones, television, e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter as we could get. We were young, naïve and arrogant—maybe not masters of the Universe but at least in charge of our own adventures. It never occurred to us that things might not go as planned.
Our target was the Beartooth mountain range in Montana, whose jagged barren peaks resembled bear’s teeth.
We began our hike on a late July morning, the day before our anniversary. At the foot of the trail, a large poster warned that this was grizzly bear country. As he passed it, Sebastian confidently tapped the bear spray hanging on his belt. The salesman at the mountaineering store in Bozeman had told us that it would stop bears in their tracks. Still, the idea of bears unnerved me. When we’d planned our escape into the wilderness, I’d conjured images of thick forests, bubbling mountain brooks and virgin lakes. I’d delighted at the idea of encountering wildlife—songbirds, deer, rabbits, maybe even a fox. At least that had been our backpacking experience so far. A tarantula nearby our tent in Death Valley was at the top of our “worst encounter” list.
By late afternoon, we had reached Lake Albino. Situated at 10,500 feet— far above the timberline—the lake was nestled into a small glacial cirque in the skirts of the imposing Lonesome Mountain. There, we found the perfect spot for our camp—a grassy patch sheltered behind a cliff that dropped almost vertically into the lake on the other side.
We ate dinner with our backs propped up on boulders as the peaks’ reflection in the lake faded away and the sun receded behind the western wall of the cirque. The thin air smelled sweet; the silence was thick, permeated only by the ripple of the streams flowing in and out of the lake. After the ten-hour hike, our bodies seemed weightless, our power boundless. It was hard not to feel on top of the world, superior to all mortals back home, sprawled on couches and La-Z-Boy chairs in front of television sets.
Our only company at dinner was a scruffy-looking mountain goat that wandered around us in circles. In the gloaming, his beige coat seemed almost golden. I wanted to give him some food but my husband’s wisdom prevailed: “You feed him now, and he’ll keep us awake all night, looking for more.”
Before it got dark, we bundled up our food and hung it off the cliff over the lake. No bears would get to it there. We breathed in the cool, crisp air one last time and crawled into our tent.
And with that, the high of the wilderness left me.
I felt small and vulnerable, encapsulated between the nylon walls of the tent. What about the grizzly bears?
“Don’t worry,” my husband said. “They only attack if you startle them with their cubs.”
It was easy for him to say; he was a seasoned mountain adventurer and a war journalist. While he slept peacefully, I lay in the dark with my eyes open and my ears strained.
I could hardly hear it at first—a grunt of sorts, that quickly grew louder, and to my tortured imagination seemed to be right outside the tent. I nudged Sebastian with my elbow, too frightened to make a sound. He stirred, listened for a second and sat up so suddenly that I nearly gasped. He unzipped the tent and shone the flashlight in the direction of our cooking site.
I waited for him to reassure me.
“Oh no,” he said instead.
My ears began to buzz. My vision blurred. I sat there, watching as he slid his feet into his shoes and grabbed the bear spray.
“Quick, get your boots on,” he said and ducked out of the tent.
My hands were shaking and I had a hard time working the laces. When I finally joined him outside, he was crouching, ready for action, the spray in one hand, the flashlight in the other, shining it in a circle around us.
“Don’t worry. Just black bears.” He paused. “But there was a cub with them, so we should be careful.”
Later, he would admit he’d told me it was black bears, despite their light coloring, so that I wouldn’t worry. Grizzly bears—who can reach 1,500 pounds and stand 8 feet tall on their hind legs—have a much lighter, cinnamon-colored coat.
Sebastian pointed the flashlight up the cliff, and two sets of eyes glowed back at us.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said and started walking away from the campsite and the cliff. “We have to leave them space to retreat. They are stuck between us and the lake.”
When it seemed like we’d walked far enough, we climbed on a large boulder and waited. Sebastian tried to reassure me, promising that they were going to leave us alone. And, if not, we had the bear spray. But that was no comfort to me. To use the spray, one had to wait until the charging bear was merely 15 feet away. What if Sebastian miscalculated? What if he used our one shot too early? Too late?
I could see them now. Four shapes sauntering down the hill in the star-lit night. Two adults and two cubs. Clearly too light in color to be black bears.
“You see, they’re leaving,” Sebastian said.
The bears walked heavily, unhurriedly.
“It looks like they’re headed straight for our boulder,” I said.
“No, they’re going away.”
But they weren’t. They were coming straight for us, no matter what my husband said. I quickly went over the bear-attack tips I’ve heard: don’t run; play dead; waive your arms to make yourself look bigger.
“I promise you, they are going away,” Sebastian said and, almost in the same breath, he raised his arms.
I couldn’t believe it, but this was hardly the time for feelings of indignation. I followed his example and spread my arms above my head. The buzzing in my ears was loud, my muscles tense. I held my breath as I watched the four swaggering shapes get closer and closer.
Finally, they emerged from the darkness.
It took me a while to process what my eyes were seeing. In the thin light of the flashlight, a family of mountain goats inched slowly toward us.
The next morning, the morning of our anniversary, we packed hurriedly and started back for the parking lot. We’d had enough of the wilderness.
We reached our rental car by early evening, covered in dust, sweaty and exhausted and headed for the closest town in search of a hotel. We drove up and down the hair-pin turns of the Beartooth Highway, US 212, blasting our favorite Tom Waits album, The Black Rider. Midway through, we pulled over and humbly watched the sun set over the peaks as the car stereo played our wedding song. What better way to celebrate a marriage than sharing a beautiful unorchestrated moment along a winding, scenic road?
Our marriage might not have lasted but we still laugh about the “goats scare” and remember fondly the sunset we watched on that road in the middle of nowhere, feeling weightless with exhaustion and mystified by the beauty and power of the mountains around us. A momentous experience and a humbling reminder that even the best plans can fall through—even the best relationships. But, in the end, magic can be found in places you least expect as long as you’re open to receive it.
Daniela Petrova is a New York-based, freelance writer who writes about travel, food, art, relationships, and health. She grew up in Communist Bulgaria and credits her insatiable curiosity about the world to her childhood behind the Iron Curtain. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, Women In the World, The Huffington Post, Conde Nast Traveller, Islands, and Marie Claire among others. You can read more about her and her stories on her website and follow her adventures on her travel blog: Daniela’s Travels.