The trail, meandering below the canopy as hardly a trickle of dust, seemed nondescript. We stood at the edge of its start, our backpacks hanging from our sweaty backs as mosquitos buzzed our ears.
“Ten miles will be easy,” my mother assured us. Us three kids glanced at each other, our eyes bright and nervous, and then swung our heads to the sign. WATCH OUT FOR BEARS, it blared. It warned about DEATHS THAT HAVE OCCURRED and WHAT TO DO IN THE EVENT OF AN ATTACK. I could picture the bear, its meaty paws tearing the backpack like tissue paper from my skin. Our only protection was, in essence, military-grade pepper spray.
“We’re going to die,” my friend whispered, I laughed, my palms clammy. My mother alone seemed unperturbed. “Let’s go,” she said brightly and plunged between the dim, unyielding trees.
Situated in Grand Teton National Park, the Amphitheater Lake Trail has an elevation climb of 3,000 feet in five miles, but it instigates deceivingly flat. As if delighting in a surge of the macabre, it then curves in the shape of a swooping exponential. While hiking, the only noises were aspens rustling like maracas and our gasps for air.
“Still scared about the bear?” I asked my friend. I imagined it tiptoeing through the silky evergreens, its teeth long and brilliantly white. Sylviaaa, Sylviaa it breathed.
“Not much,” my friend said. “First, the hike will murder me.”
Our break came as the trail burst into a field of sunshine. Like butter slathered on bread, yellow flowers covered the dirt so thickly they submerged the trail. Mountain Lupine, a sweet mauve, sprouted delicately. Far below, growing hazy, Taggart Lake glittered as if nickels tumbled across its surface. My fears were unappeased—a bear could be hiding behind a clump of geraniums.
“HEY BEAR,” I screamed, clapping my hands like an excited monkey. My adrenaline spiked as I scoured the flowers. When told to be quiet, I countered that I was “being safe.” Unfortunately, no one seemed to understand how well bears camouflaged.
For the next three miles, the crisp mountain stillness was broken by echoes of my panicked “HEY BEARS” and “YOU CAN’T RIDE MY LITTLE RED WAGON.” Two hikers, dressed in violent orange, scurried down the mountain and confirmed my fears.
“A grizzly cub—“
“Right on the trail—“
Hideous big teeth! Rabies! Beady red eyes!
“…small, fluffy, and delightful. Mama’s right behind, but you all are…painfully loud. You’ll be fine.”
The hikers waved good-bye, seeming glad to hurry out of hearing range, and I broke into another wave of “YOU CAN’T RIDE MY LITTLE RED WAGON.”
However, as we crawled up the switchbacks, the cub never manifested itself. Trees thinned, clumps of dirty snow gave way to white snowbanks shining so brilliantly they resembled aluminum foil, and few signs of life materialized. Wintergreen pricked our nostrils while we tossed July snowballs. Though snow soaked our feet, and our muscles burned with exertion, quick smiles flitted across the air.
Amphitheater Lake drove away any remaining apprehension. Rimmed by the teeth of a jagged mountain, fed by wings of powder, the water resembled green crystal. As I dipped my hand in, the cold nipped at my fingers. My eyes drifted over the aquamarine ice caking the lake.
“Worth it?” my friend asked.
We silently watched the clouds, now so close, twist playfully over our heads. I nodded, and for the first time during the hike, we both laughed. “Just barely.”
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