My last 5K in 50 States was over two years ago. I wrote we should step into the unknown even when, especially when, it’s scary. I’ve thought a lot about risk this year: deciding whether or not to do things not because they could be scary but because they could be unsafe. Every day we weigh risk against opportunity. Possible consequences against immediate gratification. Physical versus mental health. Despite years of being able to safely go to Montana, I went in a time when risk-taking has never been riskier–rationalizing I’d stored up enough safe behavior to do a risky thing.
I took a sleeper car in an overnight train to Whitefish. And even though I didn’t sleep, I arrived with enough energy to amble. I sat outside a café as the sun rose, thinking, “This is travelling.” This is what it’s like to go somewhere new. To be present in the moment. To swear you saw an ex-boyfriend across the street even though it couldn’t possibly be. Or could it? In COVID times we’re all looking for an escape. The risk of an encounter.
I walked past my Airbnb and calculated that I had seven hours until I could go in. When I walked through the nearly empty sidewalks, a white pickup truck honked and gave me the finger. I can only assume because I was wearing a mask. I’d risked offending someone by being safe. I walked along a river lined with yellow trees. Then sat on a bench and called an adventure company in hopes of joining a group outing the day after my 5K. They were booked but recommended a hiking trail outside of town I could take a Lyft to. “And bring bear spray,” the voice on the other line warned. Did I really want to hike somewhere I needed bear spray? Yes and no. I didn’t want to do something risky, but I also did. I wanted to cap off my time working for an adventure company before starting a job in a different industry. I wanted that time of promoting adventure to show its influence.
I spent those seven hours reading in two different parks. I was a bit like a homeless person: heavy backpack and a wrinkled scarf, but also an intellect planning an adventure. I ate a big burger and had a gorgeous beer in the sun. Then it was time to head to the Airbnb and suit up for the run–the reason I’d come to Montana. I’d planned a route along the same river in the direction I hadn’t explored. When I started running a gentle deer stood wide-eyed in the brush. The run wasn’t hard. I wound down by the river, tried a divergent path, then doubled back. Took a selfie. Checked the map. It went like this for about a mile. I even found a covered bridge. Another big smiling selfie and onward. Crisscrossed neighborhood streets looking for Trump signs but (phew!) only saw ones for local races. The sun hit yellow leaves, energizing me as I closed in on 3 miles. I overshot it a bit but at 3.34 finished at Bonsai Brewing, just as I’d planned. There was no risk.
It was one of those runs that wasn’t a big deal. It was beautiful. And I’d never finished a run at a brewery before, so that was cool. But it didn’t feel like I’d metaphorically climbed some mountain in the way I’d always thought Montana would. Even though I went as my only travel during COVID, the run itself was unremarkable. And that’s why I decided to find bear spray and climb a mountain.
I spent that night eating a piled-high chicken sandwich and beet salad I’d picked up on the walk home. Instead of watching the vice-presidential debate, I researched if I really would need bear spray for the hike (yes) and where in Whitefish I could get it. While I researched bear spray, friends texted about “the fly.” It was frenzy-generating hype I did not want. I wanted real risk out in the world or I didn’t want it at all. I wanted risk out of my head and on the trail. I found a shop that sold bear spray and slept for eleven hours.
The next morning I ticked off the pre-hike tasks: cafe breakfast, get a Lyft, buy bear spray, and the drive to the trailhead. We drove out of town, past yeterdays’ brewery, and into the wild. Google maps showed the trailhead at a ski resort. But when the driver dropped me off, I foolishly waved him off before locating the trailhead. I only saw an empty skilift rising into the mountain. I looked around at the patchy grass and lone groundskeeper. When I asked him about the trail, he told me it began past the skilift. “It’s a hike.” I nodded and followed the empty skilift up the hill because like getting the bearspray, this pre-hike hike to the trailhead was a necessary step.
When I finally located the Danny On trailhead I was happy to see a couple about to start ahead of me and two women with a group of kids behind. “Safety in numbers,” I thought. The couple didn’t appear to have bear spray and the woman, in her dark denim and striped top, looked like she’d stepped out of Ann Taylor Loft. The group of kids was scrappy and eager. I was somewhere in the middle.
I quickly passed the couple and was soon on my own. It was glorious. Now unmasked, selfie stick in one hand, bearpray in the other, I was armed. Away from other people I was both risk-free from COVID and more at risk to encounter a bear. I went on like this for a while, taking in the yellow leaves, feeling both safe and unsafe. I met a few other hikers: couples and a bearded runner who emerged from the brush hopping and spinning one way and then the next like a forest spirit (I assumed part of his training). It made me feel safer to see them. Afterall, it’s easier to put on a mask than deal with a bear.
I decided instead of making noise to scare away bears (as I’d seen in The Parent Trap), I could play music. I choose “Rocky Mountain High.” Ah yes. Back in nature. Another 5K in the books. Hiking to music was so lovely that I let Spotify go on to the next song, “…Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you, honey…” I smiled, knowing that John Denver and Loggins & Messina probably wouldn’t protect me from bears, but they sure sounded sweet.
A half hour passed without seeing anyone. And even though my legs had more in them, the risk of actually having to use the bear spray was greater than the enjoyment of being alone in nature. So I turned around. I ambled down the hillside to the ski lodge not triumphant, but much like how I’d felt the day before: I did a thing… It wasn’t dramatic or particularly difficult, but it took planning and intention. What happened next, I could not have planned for.
At the ski lodge where I’d been dropped off, I called Lyft. 15 minutes went by until the same groundskeeper called out, “Did you get a ride into town?” After his voice boomed across the grass, another voice called, “Do you need a ride into town?” It was one of those in-a-movie moments: I first registered the voice, then the message, and then the presence of a bare-chested trail runner stretching on the lawn. Actual human interaction. It was jarring in COVID times. I did need a ride, but he was “a stranger.” He asked where I was from. After I answered Seattle he said, “My wife and I used to live on Mercer Island.” Aha! Wife=safe. Seattle roots= greater likelihood of being a democrat= greater likelihood of wearing a mask= greater likelihood of being COVID-free. How did he handle risks? I asked if he’d ever seen a bear. “Oh, yes.” He raised his arms and spread open his palms, jumping and yelling to demonstrate what he’d done when he’d seen one. This made me laugh. “That would scare me!” I said. This all seemed positive. I’d been tallying the risks in my head: stranger, COVID… I decided that a trail runner was less likely to have COVID than a Lyft driver, so I accepted his offer of the ride. When he opened his truck door and pulled out an N95, I knew I’d made the right decision.
The drive down the mountain was novel-esque. Like I’d completed some part of the hero’s journey, in both hiking bear country and accepting a ride with a stranger. I felt my anxiety going down as we rolled down the mountain. I told him about my 5K in 50 States project, figuring it would interest a fellow runner and be an easy way to pass the time. I asked him to drop me off at the same brewery I’d finished my run at yesterday. But fifteen minutes later when we pulled into the parking lot, I had a thought. Because conversation had flowed and I appreciated the ride I asked, “Can I buy you a beer?” Those words sound like a come on, but we both knew they weren’t. It was a Tuesday afternoon. He didn’t seem to have a day job to return to. Buying someone a beer was a normal way to thank someone, back when we could do normal things.
At the brewery we had IPAs at a table under a tree in the sun. He took a call. I listened to him say things about chimneys, types of stone, dollars, and when he could meet the person on the other line. After he ended the call I asked, “Do you build chimneys?” He laughed and explained he was helping a friend. “I’m a mental health therapist and a practicing pastor,” describing his churchwork as “slipping in and creating change.”
He told me it was hard to create change in a politically mixed town. When our conversation turned to the election just weeks away–the end of times or not–he quoted the Bible, Matthew 24. If he’d led with this when we met on the lawn I would have been turned off and probably not have taken the ride. It would have been a risk I would not have been willing to take. But after the beers and shared Seattle experiences, I was receptive. He recited:
“Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
“The love of most will grow cold.” It sounded like something out of a fairy tale. Words spoken by a beautiful woman in a long, white dress. “The one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” What did it mean to stand firm to the end? Firm in kindness? Justice? Doing what’s right? We said goodbye at the truck, trading masked smiles. We agreed how important it is “to be open” and “trusting.” To “look for opportunities.” Then I added and laughed, “… while looking for bears.”