Don’t Worry About Bears – A Story from the PCT

When I told people I was planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail they would always bring up bears. So much in fact, that despite never having seen one in the wild, I started to worry.

“Will you bring a gun?” People asked. What a silly question.

“No,” I said, “it’s illegal.”

“What about bear mace?” They countered.

“Uh, sure, bear mace.” I lied. I started telling that fib to everyone. It was easier, and it made them worry less. It made me worry less too because people stopped asking. Don’t worry about bears. I got bit, but it wasn’t by a bear.

I was somewhere between Casa De Luna and Hiker Town when the attack happened. The assailant was silent and it was over before I knew it happened. At first, it itched more than it hurt, but that wasn’t unusual at this point. It was at first like any other red bump from any number of bug bites on various parts of my person. There were a lot of other bites too. I was sleeping under the stars every night, like some sort of desert beast. Me and a whole lot of wide open space.

A few days later I felt my energy draining, I assumed I needed to eat more. This seemed counter-intuitive as I was losing my appetite with my energy. I was drinking plenty of water despite being in the desert hills of California. I must be lacking in vitamins I thought, I would be sure to pick some up in Tehachapi.

The next day I woke up to intense throbbing pains. My entire haunch felt like it was being ripped apart by unseen forces. It was the pain that woke me, then fear. I thought a scorpion or snake had got into my sleeping bag was trying to tear its way out- right through my butt. I shimmied out of the bag with the grace of a baboon and dropped my pants. I craned my neck to see how bad the bite had become. It looked like a softball with a bright red ringed bullseye on it. I still had twelve miles to get to Tehachapi. They were the longest miles I did on the Pacific Crest Trail. Maybe ever, something sinister was taking root inside me.

Each step racked my body and taxed my will to move forward. To sit down was to invite more pain. Putting pressure on the bump felt awful, but the worst pain of all came whenever I had to get back up. It was best to stay standing. The regular aches and pains that go with a through hike pale in comparison. I considered laying down on my stomach right there in the middle of the trail, but it was more work than it was worth. I decided to make the grueling walk as quickly as possible.

I caught up to my pal Freebird at the Highway crossing. I was grateful. It was midday and the temperature was hitting triple digits. He agreed to stand in the sun and hitch a ride while I sought refuge behind the meager shade of a traffic control sign.

Once we got to town we met up with Mosey in a motel. Mosey is a nurse when she’s not hiking around, and she agreed to take a gander at my butt bite. Insisted actually.

“Something’s wrong with my ass,” I told her.

“Still?” She asked. “Show me.”

“I don’t know, it’s pretty gross.” It was embarrassing. “It’s gotta be a big pimple or something.” I had convinced myself it was the worst pimple ever.

“I’m a nurse! show me!” She was very concerned so I showed her.

   “You need to see a doctor, like right now! Like today! You could die from that!”  I thought if I could just pop this thing in the bathtub…

The next day I saw the doctor. I’m not a medical professional, so I’ll tell you what happened in my own words. The good doctor scooped a big chunk of meat right out of my butt cheek. Squeezed all the evil out, packed it full of gauze, and put me on antibiotics. This amazing woman had her husband come and pick me up after the visit. He drove me to the pharmacy to get my prescription filled. I am still blown away by their generosity. If it wasn’t for their help, my trip would’ve ended right there in that quaint little town.

I went back to the Doctor two days later and there was some localized necrosis from the bite. They hacked that away, then she squeezed more poison out.

“So you might want to switch from a bandage to a pad.” The doctor said.

“Like a feminine pad?” I asked.

“Yes…”

The second hole in my butt now had the circumference of a US nickel. I never probed the depths of it, but I’d wager it was about an inch deep. It oozed blood and other things, all day, every day. I had to rinse it out with a saline solution then change the pad in the morning and again before bed. I needed those pads, and I got them at K-Mart with the help of a traumatized young woman in a red vest.

“Excuse me, sir, do you need any help?” She had no idea how much help I needed.

“Uh, Yeah.” I stammered. “I need pads… I don’t know how you gauge them… But I need something that will soak up a lot of blood, like a whole lot. Wide ones too, the wider the better.”

“Um, you might want these.” She shifted uncomfortably and pointed to a box. “But you can return them if they’re not what the person you’re getting them for needs.”

Despite knowing better I blurted out “They’re for my butt,” and disgust washed across her face. The words kept coming, “I have a hole in it- Er, well it’s a second hole, everyone’s got the one right? Erm, one of them doesn’t really go anywhere though- It’s from a bite, I’m a PCT hiker, see, and… uh… I’m gonna go. Thank you. Bye.” I took my pads and retreated in shame.

Despite everything that happened to me, it couldn’t have happened in a better town. Tehachapi is good to hikers. The place is full of genuinely kind people you think only exist in works of fiction. Good, honest people who want to help strangers. They invited me into their lives and homes. I thought about moving there but I was itching to hit the road by the time the doctor gave me the go ahead. Dealing with an open wound in the Sierra offered its own challenges. I worried about the blood attracting bears, but I never saw one.

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