J and I decided to stay in Missoula, MT for two nights for a couple of reasons. For one thing, some cool friends of ours, our friends Seth and Matt, for instance, had informed us it was a great place, and when cool people like a place, I'm inclined to trust their judgment. The other reason was that we really wanted to have a day where we didn't have to drive. A day where we could wake up and not get on the road. You can explore a town all you want, but if you know you've got to get back in the car for an extended period later in the day, it's never as relaxing.
We had a rough plan of how we wanted to spend our full day in Missoula - first, a good breakfast, then a hike (we'd spoken to an incredibly helpful woman at the visitor's center in town who'd given us tons of brochures and maps illustrating local hikes) and finally, exploring the town a little and getting some dinner and maybe a glass of wine.
J, who, as I've mentioned, is a far better planner than me, took some time looking at the maps and plotted out an ambitious, roughly six-mile hike for us, one that would take us down a flat nature trail along the Clark Fork, up the side of a hill, and down to the "M" - the letter is painted in white on the side of Mt. Sentinel representing the University of Montana, and hiking to the "M" is a popular activity for many Missoula residents.
I say our plan was "ambitious" because six miles is a big hike, but we hadn't gone on any hikes yet and we're pretty excited about getting some exercise and spending some time in the wilderness and all that. Plus, the weather, while cold that morning, wasn't absurd, and temperatures were expected to get near 50 by midday.
I thought it would take us a couple of hours. We're in decent shape. Ambitious, but not crazy.
So we began, J stopping every now and then to focus his binoculars on some far off bird flying above the river and me walking quietly, both of us dressed for the cold morning with hats and gloves.
We were unfamiliar with the area, of course, and so we missed the turnoff for the Hellgate Canyon trail - the second part of our hike - the first time around and ended up going a mile further down the river then we needed to. But it was ok. It was early, and we were getting some fresh air and backtracking was alright. So we hiked a couple extra miles. Whatever.
Everything was fine, really, until J pulled out the map to recheck our route after we missed the entrance and read aloud to me that the area was used as a travel corridor for bears and mountain lions.
I don't know why, but I kind of thought that by skipping Yellowstone, we were also skipping dangerous wildlife. How naive. The mascot at University of Montana is a fucking Grizzly Bear.
I'm afraid of bears in a kind of abstract, stupid way. I don't have a phobia or anything, I don't sit in my bed at night terrorized by the thought of bear attacks. I mean, I probably think about bears - really think about them- once a year, at most.
But, as I've mentioned in the past, being alone in the woods is up there on my list of least favorite things, even being in the woods with another person, as I was on this hike, and have been other times when J drags me somewhere to find some elusive bird or something.
Think about it. You're in the woods and something or someone attacks you and what can you do? Nothing. You can't shout for help because no one will hear you. All you've got as protection is your wit and your physical strength and that's not that comforting, honestly.
So throw the possibility of bears in the mix and I don't like it. Who does? Crazy people, that's who.
I voiced my concerns as we headed up the Hellgate Canyon trail (and believe me, the word "Hellgate" should have warned us about the difficulty of what we were about to do but it didn't) and J was quick to remind me that these trails were well worn, well maintained, popular places where many, many people hike. He was right of course, but the fact of the matter was that we seemed to be the only people hiking on that lonely Tuesday.
So we continued up. At first, climbing the steep trail was pretty exhilarating. As much as I complain about possibly being killed, I like hiking, seriously. I love getting some exercise in the great outdoors. I love camping trips. I love animals. As we huffed and puffed our way higher and higher, I tried to remember that I am a pretty sensible, intelligent person and sensible and intelligent people don't spend hours on end thinking about bear attacks when, clearly, the threat of danger is incredibly low.
I don't know why we didn't realize it at first but it quickly became clear that what we were doing, actually, was hiking up an entire mountain. As the route twisted and turned we started making ridiculously obvious observations like, "Huh, this is a little tougher than I thought it would be," or, "Man, this is one steep trail."
The Hellgate Canyon trail is a little over two miles, that much we knew, and that knowledge became less helpful information and more a brutal cross we had to bear as we realized we'd be climbing two miles on the kind of inclines that would instigate cardiac arrest in some people.
After a while everything got a little more stressful than I like it to be while I'm on vacation. The hike was so, so difficult. I was constantly on the lookout for bears and when I thought about what I'd do if I saw one, my mind went blank. Turn around and quietly walk away? Yell? Play dead?
Plus, those warm sweaters and winter coats we'd put on to protect us from the cold? Totally unnecessary as we began to sweat, and totally a pain in the ass to carry since they didn't fit in the backpack we'd brought along.
J, God love him, did his best to keep me occupied and optimistic as we approached the top. I didn't want to stop along the way for breaks, both because I felt that would increase our chances of being mauled and because I just wanted to get there (while tired, I felt that good pain you feel when you're getting a killer workout and in the back of my mind, hidden by all the other emotions I was experiencing, I was happy that we were doing something so physically strenuous). So as we marched on he kept me talking, asking me to explain, in detail, the plot of the movie "The Edge," starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, who test their strength against a huge bear while lost in the wilderness, a movie that I really like for some reason.
Talking helped and soon the end was in sight. The last quarter mile was unbelievably steep but we made it to the over 5,000-foot peak and from there looked out at town below.
Even better, we could see the other side of the mountain and the trail we'd take down, which was, unlike the part we'd just traversed, covered in prairie grass and treeless.
The way down was really tough, too, don't get me wrong. Our legs were tired and shaky and there were rocks to slip on, but we were getting off the mountain. And we'd climbed the mountain in the first place, so we felt pretty good about ourselves, despite kind of wanting to die from fatigue.
A few minutes after starting down from Mt. Sentinel's peak J, who was ahead of me, turned around and said, "You're gonna love this," and I looked up and saw, heading in our direction, an old guy who was hiking towards us. Another person! Finally. If only I'd seen him an hour before, when I needed the comfort of knowing other humans did exist and were alive and unharmed in this bear-filled world.
We saw a lot of people on the way, which was nice, even if we were on the sunny side of the mountain, out of the woods. And secretly I think we were both thinking, "Yeah? You're hiking halfway up? Good for you, you bastards. You have know idea what we've been through." We did some calculations and realized we'd hiked about nine miles when it was all said and done, which I know some people (assholes) do every day, but for us, nine miles was pretty major.
As for my fear of bears and all, I know, I really do, it was ridiculous. I recognize that. And to tell you the truth, my fear dissipated the minute we reached the top and I recognized our feat in getting there was so much more important than some wild animal that might try to harm me. In fact, if I was feeling so awesome when we finally made it to the summit, that I'm pretty sure had I come across a bear I would have faced him full on and told him to take his best shot, for real. Try me, I just climbed a mountain, and I will take you down.