Laura A. Munson
The Firefighter and the Grizzly Bear
by Laura A. Munson
I sat next to a New York City firefighter this morning, at the café in town. He was visiting Montana; here to fish.
“Were you—you know…there?” I said.
He talked about it for a little while. I shook my head, speechless.
“So, where’d you go fishing?” I asked, trying to change the subject, for his sake, really.
“Someplace called Polebridge.”
“Oh. Up the North Fork. Beautiful. Did you have any luck?” I said, expecting the usual North Fork-sized grin.
“Are you kidding? I didn’t fish. With the grizzly bears? No way. I hardly got out of my car. Ended up at the saloon. I think I met the Unibomber’s twin brother.”
His earlier words rang in my ears: fingers with wedding bands, briefcases with kid’s drawings perfectly in tact, melted running shoes… I lifted my coffee cup up in front of my mouth. “Well, the river is huge this time of year with the run off, anyway. Not the best time to fish. Did you get up to the lakes, though? Bowman? Kintla? They’re amazing with the mountains still snowy.”
“Well I had to go somewhere. There was a grizzly bear right behind my cabin. Believe me, I was outta there.” Then he pantomimed his rendition of a mauling. “But when I got to the lake, some guy told me there had been a wolf sighting, so I stayed in my car. And when I got to the next lake, there was a bear sighting, so I ate my sandwich, and headed back to the saloon.”
No, I begged into the arch that surely linked the two of our human brains together, somehow. Please don’t take that back with you to New York. Tell them you saw a grizzly bear and it was grand. Tell them it was just there, behind your cabin, munching on some grass. Tell them that for one instant everything came clear for you and you realized that not everything bigger than we are needs to be conquered, controlled, isolated. Tell them you felt in that moment, holy. That he did not attack you. And you knew, just for a flash, that there is grace in the world, that we cannot worship fear, that the hell you were apart of at Ground Zero, was washed in the hulk of this creature, that just wants to live. Just like you.
But I stayed silent, finishing my coffee. Maybe you can’t afford to see danger in beauty after you clean up after one man’s total betrayal of love. Maybe, after that, it’s one thing to see the man-made world for what it is, but another thing entirely to see the natural world for what it is.
“There were people actually riding their bikes around,” he said. “One guy was jogging! They’re nuts, man.”
I caved. “Those folks would probably say that taking a bike ride through bear country is a lot less dangerous than going to work in the Bronx every day, taking the subway, fighting fires.”
“Gotta do what ya gotta do.”
“I think those folks would say the same thing.”
“Yeah but you don’t have to do that stuff.”
“I know what you mean. When I first moved here I was scared to hike in bear country. And when I mustered up the nerve, I was always looking over my shoulder. Then I had a baby, and I used that as my excuse. But after sitting in my back yard all summer, knowing that Glacier National Park was only twenty miles away, I couldn’t stand it any longer. Now, I consider it a great honor to see a bear. When I lived in the city, I took the subway home late at night after work. Sometimes it was scary. But there are inherent dangers in everything we do. I guess I’d say that I have to be out there now. Bears and all.”
“I think that’s freakin’ crazy.”
“There are those who say they would rather be killed by a grizzly bear than in a drive-by shooting,” I said.
He just shook his head. “I got kids. It’s not worth it.”
“Me too. And I promise you that it is.”