Burning Bright - Chapter 1

When he rounded the curve on the narrow trail and saw the bear, Peter Ash was thinking about robbing a liquor store.  Or a gas station, he was weighing his options. 

On foot with a pack on his back, he was as deep into old-growth redwood country as he could get.  Although most of the original giants had been logged off decades before, there were still a few decent-sized protected areas along the California coasts, with enough steep, tangled acreage to get truly lost.  In the deep, damp drainage bottoms thick with underbrush, redwood trunks fifteen feet in diameter shot up into the mist like gnarled columns holding up the sky.

But Peter hadn’t counted on the coastal fog.  It had been constant for days.  He couldn’t see more than a hundred feet in any direction, and it made the white static crackle and spark in the back of his head.

It was the static that made him want to rob a liquor store.

The closest one was at least a few days’ walk ahead of him, so the plan was still purely theoretical.  But he was putting the pieces together in his mind.

He didn’t want to use a weapon, because he was pretty sure armed robbery carried a longer sentence than he was willing to take.  He didn’t want to go to actual prison, just the local jail, and only for a few days.  He’d settle for overnight.  Although how he’d try to rob a liquor store without a visible weapon was a problem he hadn’t yet solved. 

He could put his hand inside a paper bag and pretend to be holding a gun.  He’d probably have to hold something, to make it more realistic.  Maybe a banana?

Hell, now he was just embarrassing himself. 

Any respectable liquor store employee would just laugh at him.  Hopefully they’d still call the cops, who would put him in the back of a squad car, then at least a holding cell.  Maybe overnight, maybe for a few days.  It was a calculated risk.

The problem was these woods.  They were so dense and dark, the coastal cloud cover so thick and low, that he hadn’t seen the sky for weeks.  The white static wouldn’t leave him alone, even out here, miles from so-called civilization.  It pissed him off.  He’d wanted to walk in this ancient forest for years.  Now he was here in this green paradise and he couldn’t enjoy it.

Peter Ash was tall and rangy, muscle and bone, nothing extra.  His long face was angular, the tips of his ears slightly pointed, his dark hair an unruly shag.  He had wide, knuckly hands and the thoughtful eyes of a werewolf a week before the change.  Some part of him was always in motion – even now, hiking in the woods, his fingertips twitched in time to some interior metronome that never ceased. 

He’d been a Marine Lieutenant in Iraq and Afghanistan, eight years and more deployments than he cared to remember.  Boots on the ground, tip of the spear.  He’d finished with his war two years before, but the war still wasn’t finished with him.  It had left him with a souvenir.  He called it the white static, an oddball form of post-traumatic stress that showed up as claustrophobia, an intense reaction to enclosed spaces. 

It hadn’t appeared until he was back home, just days from mustering out. 

At first, going inside a building was merely uncomfortable.  He’d feel a fine-grained sensation at the back of his neck, like electric foam, a small battery stuck under the skin.  If he stayed inside, it would intensify.  The foam would turn to sparks, a crackling unease in his brainstem, a profound dissonance just at the edge of hearing.  His neck would tense, and his shoulders would begin to rise as his muscles tightened.  He’d look for the exits as his chest clamped up, and he’d begin to have trouble catching his breath.  After twenty minutes, he’d be in a full-blown panic attack, hyperventilating, the fight-or-flight mechanism cranked up all the way.

Mostly, he’d chosen flight.

He’d spent over a year backpacking in the western mountains, trying to let himself get back to normal.  But it hadn’t worked.  He’d finally forced himself outside his comfort zone to help some friends the year before, and it had gotten a little better.  He’d thought he was making progress.  But they’d gone back to their lives and Peter had gone off on his own again, and something had happened.  Somehow he’d lost the ground he’d gained. 

Lost so much ground that even walking through the foggy redwoods in the spring was enough to get the static sparking in his head.

Which is why he was contemplating the best way to get himself locked up.  Get this shit out of his system once and for all. 

He wasn’t thinking it was a good idea.

Then he saw the bear.

 

 It was about thirty yards ahead of him, just downslope from the narrow trail that wound along the flank of the mountain. 

At first all he could see was a mottled brown form roughly the size and shape of a Volkswagen Beetle, covered with fur, attempting to roll a half-rotted log down the side of the mountain.

It took Peter a few more steps to figure out that he was seeing a bear.

The trail ran through a deep pocket of old-growth trees in an area too steep for commercial logging.  It was mid-March, and Peter assumed the bear was looking for food.  There would be grubs under the log, which would provide much-needed protein in that still-lean time of the year.  The bear grumbled to itself as it dug into the dirt, sounding a little like Peter’s dad when he cleaned out the back of his truck.  The bear was focused on its task, and hadn’t yet noticed the human.

Peter stopped walking.

Black bears were plentiful in the wilder pockets of the west, but they were smaller, usually three or four hundred pounds when fully grown.  Black bears could do a lot of damage if they felt threatened, but they usually avoided confrontation with humans.  Peter had chased black bears out of his campsite by clapping his hands and shouting.

This was not a black bear. 

This bear was a rich reddish-brown, with a pronounced hump, and very big.  A grizzly.  At the top of the food chain, grizzlies could be very aggressive, and were known to kill hikers.  Clapping his hands wouldn’t discourage the bear.  It would be more like a dinner bell, alerting the bear to the possibility of a good meal.

The most dangerous time to meet a grizzly was in the fall, when they were desperately packing on fat to make it through the winter.

The second-most dangerous time was spring, with the bear right out of hibernation and extremely hungry.  Like now.

Peter was lean and strong from weeks of backcountry hiking.  His clothes were worn thin by rock and brush, the pack cinched tight on his back to make it easier to scramble through the heavy undergrowth.  His leather boots had been resoled twice, the padded leather collars patched where mice had nibbled them for the salt while he slept wrapped in his groundcloth. 

He’d walked a lot of miles in those mountains. 

Now he wondered how fast he could run.

He took a slow step back, trying to be as quiet as possible, then another.  Maybe he could disappear in the fog.

Peter had once met an old-timer who’d called the bears Mr. Griz, as a term of respect.  The old man had recited the facts like a litany.  Mr. Griz can grow to a thousand pounds or more.  Mr. Griz can run forty miles an hour in short bursts.  His jaws are strong enough to crush a bowling ball.  Mr. Griz eats everything.  He will attack a human being if he feels threatened or hungry.  Mr. Griz has no natural enemies.

The bear was still focused on the rotting log.  Peter took a third step back, then a fourth.  A little faster now. 

Call it a retreat in the face of overwhelming force.  No dishonor in that, right?  Even for a United States Marine.

The California Grizzly was supposed to be extinct.  But this bear looked big, and big males were known to travel long distances in search of mates.  He was only sixty miles south of the Oregon border, and in this dark primeval forest, anything seemed possible.

Five steps, now six.  Peter didn’t care how much this particular grizzly weighed, or what he felt like eating.  He didn’t want to find out.  He was almost back to the bend in the trail.  This would be a good story to tell someday.

Then he felt a slight breeze move the hairs on the back of his neck.  The wind, which had been in his face, had shifted.

He was in trouble.

Grizzlies have fair eyesight and good hearing, but their sense of smell is superb.  And the mountain breeze carried Peter’s weeks-long hiking stink, along with the smell of his supplies, directly to the bear’s brain.  The supplies included a delicious trail mix made of cashews and almonds and peanuts and raisins and chocolate chips. 

Much better than grubs under a log.

The bear’s head popped up with a snort. 

Peter stepped backwards a bit faster, feeling the adrenaline sing in his blood, reminding himself of the old-timer’s advice on meeting Mr. Griz. 

You didn’t want to appear to be a threat, or to look like food.  Running away was a bad idea, because bears could run faster than people.  And running away was prey behavior.

What you were supposed to do, said the old-timer, was drop your pack to give the bear something to investigate, then retreat backward.   If the bear charged, curl up into a ball, protecting your head, neck and face with your arms.  You might get mauled, but you’d be less likely to be killed.

Peter was not exactly the curl-into-a-ball type. 

The bear stood upright on its hind legs, now a good eight or nine feet tall, and sniffed the air like a Silicon Valley sommelier. 

Mmmm.  Trail mix.

Peter took another step back.  Then another.

The bear dropped to all fours and charged.

Peter shucked his pack and ran like hell.

 

He’d grown up with animals.  Dogs in the yard, horses in the barn, chickens and cats wherever they felt like going.  He’d kind of inherited a big dog the year before, or maybe the dog had inherited him, it wasn’t entirely clear.  In the end the dog had found a better home than Peter could provide. 

But he liked animals.  Hell, he liked grizzly bears, at least in theory.  He certainly liked how it felt to know a big predator was out there.  It made him feel more alive.

The backpack distracted the bear for only a few seconds, barely long enough for Peter to round the corner, find a climbable sapling and jump up.  The bear was right at his heels at the end.  Mr. Griz chomped a chunk of rubber from the sole of Peter’s boot.  Peter was glad he got to keep the foot.

He scrambled higher, finding handholds in the cervices of the soft, deep bark.  This was a redwood sapling, tall and straight as a flagpole.  He hugged the trunk with his arms and legs while the bear roared and thumped the sapling with his forepaws, apparently uninterested in climbing up after him.  The young tree rocked back and forth and Peter’s heart thumped in his chest.

Alive, alive, I am alive. 

Would you rather be here, or stuck behind a desk somewhere?

“Bad bear,” he called down.  “You are a very bad bear.”

After a few minutes, Mr. Griz gave up and wandered back toward the smell of trail mix.  Peter had to climb another ten feet before he found a branch that would hold his weight.  He was wondering how long to wait when the bear returned dragging Peter’s backpack.  It settled itself at the base of the tree and began to enthusiastically disembowel the pack.

After an hour, Peter’s two-week food supply was working its way through the entrepreneurial bear’s digestive system, along with his emergency phone, long underwear, and fifty feet of climbing rope.

“Mr. Griz, you give the word ‘omnivore’ a whole new meaning,” Peter said from the safety of his high perch. 

The bear then proceeded to entertain itself by shredding Peter’s sleeping bag, rain gear, and spare clothing.  Peter said a few bad words about the bear’s mother. 

Mr. Griz was tearing up Peter’s new featherweight tent when it began to rain again.  Big, pelting drops.

Peter sighed.  He’d really liked that tent.

For one thing, it kept the rain off.

 

He’d slept many strange places in his thirty-some years.  His first six months, he was told that he slept in a dresser drawer.  As a teenager in fairly constant and general disagreement with his father, he often preferred to sleep in the barn with the horses, even during the severe winter weather common in northern Wisconsin.  He’d slept in tents, on boats, under the stars, and in the cab of his 1968 Chevy pickup.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, he’d slept in a bombed-out cigarette factory, in a looted palace, in combat outposts and Humvees and MRAPs and anyplace else he could manage to catch a few Z’s. 

He’d never slept in a tree before. 

It wasn’t easy.  The rain fell steadily, and soaked through his clothes.  As the adrenaline faded, the static returned to fizz and spark at the back of his brain, which added to the challenge of sleep.  His eyes would flutter shut and he would drift off, arms wrapped around the trunk of the sapling, serenaded by the snores of Mr. Griz below.  Then he’d abruptly jerk awake to the sensation of falling and find himself scrabbling for a handhold, shivering in the cold and wet. 

The night seemed to last a long time.

He spent the time awake remembering the previous winter, spent camping alone in the Utah desert.  But the arid emptiness had left him with a longing for tall trees, so he made his way through the beautiful emptiness of Nevada to California’s thirsty, fertile central valley and the overdeveloped mess of the northern bay area.  It made him think, as he often did, that the world would be better off without so many people in it. 

He’d parked his pickup in the driveway of a fellow Marine in Clearlake, California, and walked through housing tracts and mini-malls and vineyards and cow pastures to the southern end of the Mendocino National forest, where he headed north.  Sometimes he hiked on established routes, sometimes on game trails, sometimes wayfinding the forested ridges, trying to get above the rain and the fog and into the sun.  He’d come too early in the year for summer’s blue skies, but he didn’t want the woods all cluttered up with people. 

Instead he’d found a very large bear.

When it became light enough to see the ground, he looked down and considered his options.  His gear was wrecked, his food supplies gone.  Mr. Griz still down there, bigger than ever.  Still snoring. 

A cup of coffee would be nice, he thought.  But not likely. 

He was pretty sure his coffee supply was bear food too. 

He looked up.  He was astride a sapling in a mature redwood forest.  Although he couldn’t see far in the fog, he was pretty sure the sapling went up another forty or fifty feet.  The mature trees probably went up two or three hundred feet after that.

The rain had stopped sometime in the night, and although the fog was still thick, some quality of the mist had changed.  It glowed faintly, green with growth and heady with the oxygen exhaled by giants.  He thought maybe the sun had come out, somewhere up there.  It turned the forest into something like an ancient cathedral. 

He looked down.  Mr. Griz, still sleeping.  The contents of Peter’s pack destroyed or eaten.  The static fizzing and popping in his head.  Peter himself cold and wet and tired.

He looked up again.  The promise of sunlight, and warmth, and a view.

What, you want to live forever?

He smiled, and began to climb.