Facing the Bear: A Visionquest
November 1994, by Tony Nitz

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        All Joshua knew for sure was that he was lost. Unaware of the forces which led him to this place, he found himself facing another new trailhead. Exhausted, and apprehensive about what might lie before him, yet knowing the trail behind him would lead him nowhere, he embarked on the next leg of his journey.
        The morning sun has not yet broken the horizon, though there was sufficient light to see the path. This trail was rockier than the last. Josh has traveled out of the densely forested valley into the dry and sparsely vegetated mountains. The sun was rising behind him, illuminating the peaks before him, but leaving the valley, for now, in darkness. The trail follows the contours of the ridgeline. Hardly a trail at all, Josh keeps one hand on the rock face to his left. Less than one step, or misstep, to the right will send him into the rushing water he can hear in the blackness far below.
        Josh can see few trees. What vegetation exists here is primarily thorny bush-like plants. Not quite cactus. In the dim morning light, he can only see less than a dozen trees in the vicinity of the trail; one seemingly growing from the rock just above and just ahead. The trees, knurled with age, seem huge compared to the few other plants. They appear almost dead, except for just a few green needles growing from a branch or two. Josh wonders how long these old pines have endured the hardship of this place. A thousand years? More? The barrenness and ugliness of this place suddenly seems beautiful when Josh contemplates the perseverance of these majestic pines, and their outright defiance to adversity. As he passes under the tree growing just above the trail, he can feel a new strength grow within him. Josh is thankful for the motivation from the tree. He knows his strength will be tested again; if not today, tomorrow for sure.
        In the valley, Josh had become complacent. Life was easy. The complications of human civilization had been left behind, traded for the serenity of nature. In the valley food was plentiful and easy to come by. The wind was slight and the temperatures were moderate. It took barely three hours a day of work to supply himself with all the requirements of survival and comfort. After a few weeks the other animals even began to respect his territory, and he did not need to worry about an unwanted visit from a bear or mountain cat. For awhile, Josh actually thought he had finally found what he had been searching for: tranquility. After a time, though, he realized that he had simply accepted an escape from reality. Everyday life may have been easy, but he had nothing to look forward to. His only purpose was to live, until he died. That was the first test on this journey of self discovery; to resist temptation and overcome his complacency. True tranquility could not be found by escaping the difficulties of life, but only by facing those difficulties for better or worse. So, after many weeks, he broke camp and journeyed on.
        His next test comes sooner than expected. After balancing himself around an outcrop of rock, Josh finds himself facing what amounts to a dead end.  One of the old trees had fallen into the trail. This one was dead without a doubt. Apparently struck by lightning, and charred black on the top side, it had been knocked off the rock above. It slid down the rock face, end over end, to be stopped by the ledge Josh was now walking on. He can see no way around it. But, he knows he must go forward.
        He cannot climb over or around the dead tree, impaled upside down into the ledge he is hiking on. It is too large, with no secure hand holds. Also, it is too large and hard to consider cutting through with his axe. It would take days. This obstacle seems insurmountable. Frustrated, Josh sits to contemplate. How could such a trivial matter as a blocked trail seem so defeating? As he sits, considering turning back, Josh notices that the ground beneath the fallen tree is mostly gravel. He checks to insure the tree's position is secure, then begins to dig the gravel out from under the tree. In short order, he has opened a passage just large enough for him to push his pack through, and crawl through himself. The huge, dead tree was not disturbed, but it no longer blocks the trail. So, the journey continues...

        The day nears its end. Not quite dusk, the sun rests on the horizon just beyond the peaks to the west. Josh has descended into the next valley. Although still high in altitude, there are a few islands of trees with some grassy patches among the rocky terrain where a camp could be made for the night. The peaks and ridges create a firm distinction between darkness and light among the shadows they cast. Josh knows he must make camp soon. He chooses one of the grassy areas and drops his pack. There is little firewood to be found, but he begins to gather what is available while there is still some light.
        Josh had walked a hundred yards or more from where he left his pack. Among the shadows ahead he notices movement. At first he thinks it may be just a trick of light and shadow, until he hears the unmistakable grunts. Josh stands still, waiting. Then the animal moves into full sight. A bear. This shouldn't be too much of a problem. It is a black bear; usually docile. Though this one is quite large for its breed, maybe five hundred pounds, and it seems quite interested in Josh.
        "Scat! Get out of here!" Josh shouts at the bear while he claps his hands loudly. This beast has no fear of humans, though. It behaves annoyed at Josh's shouts. Josh decides to be a little more aggressive. He has heard that black bears, unlike grizzlies, are easily intimidated by man. So, Josh picks up a rock and hurls it at the bear. That was a mistake. The bear rises onto its hind legs and releases a deafening roar. Josh is armed only with his axe, for cutting the wood he was gathering. There are no trees nearby he can climb. There is nowhere to run. Josh collapses with fear.
        Josh knows now that this is the test he had anticipated. His earlier tribulations were just tools to strengthen his will. How you face death reflects your attitude toward life. Josh realizes now that being lost is a state of mind, not a physical location. Although he has no map to locate his position in these mountains, Josh knows he can find himself if he has the courage. Deciding to change the direction of his life, Josh controls his fear and stands to face the bear.
        The bear is more than three times Josh's size. If the bear attacks, Josh will die. Josh remembers why he journeyed from his transient home in the valley. His life had had no purpose beyond just living. He was simply waiting to die. He considers the simple notion that, at worst, his wait may be over. He further considers that, in the few moments that may remain in his life, he could still resolve some of the internal conflicts which brought him here. Josh may not be able to control the bear's anger, but he can control his own submission to the bear's will. He may die, but he will not submit. Josh decides to be the unquestionable master of his own soul.
        Still consumed by fear, Josh, again, shouts at the bear. He hurls violent, vulgar insults at the beast. Josh feels a new inner strength growing. Risking everything, and risking nothing, Josh commits one final act of defiance. Raising his axe over his head with both hands, and screaming wildly, he takes several quick, deliberate steps directly toward the bear.
        The bear drops to all fours. Josh expects him to charge. But, instead, he turns and slowly saunters off, grunting mildly. Josh realizes that he did not defeat the bear, but, more importantly, he defeated his own willingness to place his destiny in the hands of others. The bear is still out there, and Josh is still afraid. But his fear is now controlled, and fear controlled is strength.

        Josh returns to where he left his pack and makes a camp for the night. His sleep this night is sound, and he dreams of his new destination: a large body of water beyond the mountains, with a sandy beach bordered by thick vegetation. Life here will not be as uncomplicated as yesterday's valley, because Josh will find people here, too. Though, if life does become too complacent, he can return to the mountains, or journey beyond the shore. Regardless, he is no longer lost, because he has a destination.
        When he wakes, Josh wonders whether the place he dreamed of is real. Should he return to the place, and life, he originally fled, armed with his new strength and perspective? Or, should he cross the mountains in search of the shore in his dreams? Deciding that his confrontation with the bear marked the beginning of his visionquest, and not the end, Josh travels on.


copyright November 1994 | Tony A. Nitz  | all rights reserved | Revised:  Friday, 18 February 2005 20:19 +0500