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Submitted on
August 8, 2013
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In a life that feels so lacking in concrete identity, the one thing that answers the age-old question “Who am I?” is the knowledge that Colorado is the land that gave birth to me. Pride swells in my heart when I see a bald eagle flying so close to the surface of Blue Mesa that its glossy feathers touch the water and make gentle ripples in the lake. There is equal awe when herds of elk and deer walk by me unafraid, and there is laughter when a wild turkey gobbles as he flees from me through a thick evergreen forest. Back east where the foothills give way to the Great Plains, I am humbled by the angry tornadoes that roar across the prairie in the scorching, summer heat. In the fall, I am entranced as pale golden aspens blush in the morning sun, gradually becoming orange and then red, heralding the return of Old Man Winter. I have seen nothing more majestic than the snowpack melting off the fourteeners in roaring waterfalls, and nothing more powerful than a mountaintop blizzard magically turning the world into silver. And when I flit barefooted through the Arkansas River, my skin delighted to feel the smooth river stones under my toes and the kisses of little fish on my legs, I never feel closer to God. It is a gift — an identity — that we natives all share. But in spite of my love for our state, on one matter I stand apart from most of my fellow Coloradoans: I hate camping.

My very first camping trip ruined me forever. Well, actually, I had been on my first trip years before when I was six and my Brownie troop went to Camp Tomahawk just outside of Denver for three nights. I don’t consider that real camping, however, because we had cabins, cots, a cafeteria, and a llama. That weekend at Camp Tomahawk had been a pleasant experience, and why wouldn’t it be? We had a frickin’ llama.

But the first time I went camping for real, and by real I mean roughing it as God intended, I was doomed from the get-go.

I was twenty years old, seven months pregnant with my first baby, and married to a man who, as best I can tell, has always thought he was Les Stroud. Larry comes from a family of what I believe southerners refer to as “hill folk,” and even though not a one of them has ever set foot in the South, they all mysteriously talk like they grew up in the Ozarks. My husband, the youngest in a long line of rednecks, grew up hunting with bows and guns, fishing with homemade rods, off-roading in Jeeps, and learning how to whittle crap out of corn cobs. He’s eaten alligator meat and even sampled the deep fried scorpions at that exotic foods booth at the State Fair. According to him, they taste like fishy chicken and peanuts, respectively. I finally broke him of his habit of bringing me the rattles from rattlesnakes he’d killed as gifts, as well as the wild box turtles he caught to keep as pets. For all these reasons, my brother, Jeremy, christened him with the nickname “Everyone’s Favorite Hillbilly.”

Of course, Larry is hillbilly-light compared to his family. They’re very kindhearted, generous people who would gladly give the coat off their backs to someone in need, but sometimes, they do things that make me raise my eyebrows in bewildered astonishment. For example, one time, my father-in-law bought one of those Flowbee machines, that hair cutting apparatus attached to a vacuum cleaner, because it was, in his words, “a good investment.” He cut my son’s hair with it, and by the time it was all said and done his head looked like it lost a fight with a weed-whacker.

Then the very first Christmas Larry and I spent together as a married couple, his family decided to have a sing-along. But what song should we sing first? My brother-in-law and I, newcomers to the family tree, foolishly suggested we all sing “Jingle Bells” because it’s a nice, classic song and everyone knows the words. Larry’s grandmother came unglued at the idea, however, and derisively spat, “Absolutely not! I will not sing a song that glorifies the Devil!”

And that doesn’t even count the Hatfield-McCoy war they have going with their neighbor over the water flow to all the houses in their corner of Olathe.

My sister-in-law even has a recipe for squirrel stew.

The list goes on and on.

So when they announced they were driving up to Roaring Fork just outside of Telluride to camp over the 4th of July weekend and wanted to know if we would come too, I should’ve just used my pregnancy to excuse myself. But I remembered how fun it was at Camp Tomahawk, and I thought it would be nice to camp deep in the mountains. Spending the 4th of July camping seems to be one of those things that’s central to a native Coloradoan’s identity, one of those iconic examples of who we are as a people, and I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to celebrate my Coloradoan and American heritage. Besides, it was my birthday as well, and my family wasn’t doing anything special with my dad out of town and my mom passed out drunk two days before the party even started. This was my chance to connect with my new family, rough around the edges as they were. So when Larry begged me to go with them, his eyes big and sweet like a puppy’s, I happily agreed.

We loaded up his beat-up ’84 Mustang and followed his parents’ Suburban towards Telluride. We were at least an hour out of Montrose before I made an awful discovery: my rescue inhaler was out. A terrible asthmatic, I didn’t dare go anywhere without it, let alone the woods where irritants were out in full force, waiting to force my lungs to close up shop. There is nothing worse than an asthma attack as far as I’m concerned, not only because you feel yourself choking to death in the most painful way possible, but because like a vampire, it drains your soul from your body and leaves you impossibly weak for days after. My asthma has nearly killed me on more than one occasion, but even still, there have been times when I’ve played dangerous games of Russian roulette with it by trying to live without my medicine, an act of defiance that refuses to acknowledge its profound control over me. That day proved to be one of the times I thumbed my nose at it. By God, I wasn’t going to be the weak one of the group; I knew I was a true native and not some tenderfoot city-girl who couldn’t last a day in the woods, but I had to prove it by not showing my weakness. So when Larry offered to turn the car around, I stubbornly refused to go back.

“Are you sure?” he asked when I’d made my decision.

“I’m sure,” I said, clenching my jaw in determination. I’d never admit it, but I was kind of scared. I’d only played games with my oral medications, never my inhaler. I thought I could last a day without it, but three days? And in the woods? That was pushing it, even for me. But now my pride wouldn’t let me retract my decision because that would be admitting weakness, and I wasn’t going to let my in-laws think I was just a dumb city-girl. So I put on a fake smile and said, “I’ll be okay. I’ll just take it easy. I won’t do anything too strenuous.”

“I don’t like this,” he replied.

“I promise,” I insisted. “I’ll be fine.”

After that, I dozed off for awhile, waking up as we coasted into Telluride for gas. Light rain that quickly became a torrential downpour began to fall just outside of town. In spite of the brilliant red-orange sunshine breaking through the clouds, the temperature rapidly plummeted from the eighties to the fifties. That damp chill deepened as we drove up the muddy, winding road in the mountain’s shadow, and the afternoon thunderstorm didn’t let up until we rolled into camp at sunset. There, the sky continued to drizzle lightly as I stepped out of Larry’s beater. At ten-thousand feet, I realized, the world is calm, but cold.

Our campground high above the Roaring Fork River was far from any trace of civilization. A small, grassy clearing surrounded on all sides by aspens, it was secluded and difficult to find. That is why, according to Larry, his uncle used it as a staging ground for hunting. My husband even made it a point to show me the spigot his uncle installed in the sheer granite wall to funnel and dispense the arctic-cold spring water to the camp as necessary. I was reluctant to try untreated water even though he insisted the rock acted like a filter, but at that altitude, no pollutants infected it, so I conceded and drank a cup. It tasted sweet and refreshing, much to my surprise.

Gayla and Jim, my sister and brother-in-law, arrived at camp with their kids the night before, so when we arrived, nearly everything was already set up. Experienced campers, they only brought the bare essentials because that’s how camping is supposed to be done. Otherwise, it’s not camping. Larry, who also subscribed to that theory, happily began pitching our tent in the mud near the tree line while Myrna and Larry Senior, his parents, unloaded the extra food from the Suburban. Adhering to my plan of taking it easy, I sat in a folding chair beside the campfire and watched Jim fuss with the logs. The rain made it difficult to keep the flames going, even with the dry wood he’d plucked from his truck, but he pushed the cinders and branches around with a poker and somehow kept the fire alive. Thick clouds of white smoke and steam wafted from it, and when a gust of wind blew the column into my face, I involuntarily sucked down the irritants.

Naturally, I choked and coughed on the smog, and as the pollutants bit into the insides of my lungs in stinging pain, I bitterly thought, Only been here five minutes and I’m already having an attack. This is just great. Quickly, I grabbed a cup of campfire coffee, an old-school remedy for asthma, and chugged it down. The attack immediately subsided.

The first night was rather uneventful and boring. After the usual campfire dinner of hamburgers and hotdogs, everyone decided to turn in for the night. It was cold and raining still, and it was dark as well. I felt disappointed. Where were the songs around the fire, and the roasted marshmallows? Where were the scary stories and everything else that went into my vision of what camping should be? I didn’t dare ask. I didn’t want my in-laws to know my romantic ideal of camping was just that: a romantic ideal. That is, what the tenderfoot Californians whom they disdained thought of when they thought of camping. I was no Californian, so I said nothing and hunkered down in my sleeping bag.

Larry was right at home in the woods and he quickly fell into a coma in his brand new mummy bag, but I could tell right away that camping and I weren’t going to be good friends. The way the ground refused to give against my spine annoyed me, and I tossed and turned incessantly trying to find a good nook to relax into. Further compounding the problem was my swollen tummy; though I was so small around the waist that people couldn’t tell I was seven months pregnant unless I lifted my shirt to prove it, that tight bubble around my mid-section kept getting in my way no matter how I turned. I thought I could almost deal with the discomfort of stone and mud against flesh if it weren’t so damn cold as well. Even through my sleeping bag (which Larry picked for me because it was rated down to zero degrees), the frigid rock under my body froze me like a popsicle. When my husband kicked off his bag because he was too hot, I looked at him in amazement and disbelief. How the hell was he not freezing like me? Sleep evaded me for most of the night until at last, as the gray sky of dawn broke through our tent, I dozed off from sheer exhaustion. And then, of course, my obnoxious spouse, excited about the day’s activities, promptly woke me up.

“It’s time for breakfast!” he cried cheerily.

“You are entirely too cheerful for six o’clock in the morning,” I growled as I buried my face in my sweatshirt to block out the morning sunlight.

“Come on, get up!”

“Just another hour?” I whined.

“No, come on. My mom’s making a farmer’s breakfast! She’s got biscuits and gravy, and sausage, and bacon, and eggs, and some other stuff cooking. And then we’re going hiking. So you can’t sleep in.”

“I hate you and everything you stand for,” I grumbled, though breakfast did sound pretty good. As we spoke, I smelled the smoky aroma of bacon waft through the tent flaps.

“Come on, get up! It’s gonna be a fun day!”

The jerk lied. Oh, he had a fun day of hiking, fishing, and playing with our nieces and nephews. I, on the other hand, spent the day taking it easy and listening to Myrna and Gayla bitch about Trisa, Larry’s moronic sister. Of course, I had no one to blame for my predicament but myself, but as each long minute spent gossiping ticked away, I found myself wishing I had brought a book to read or a notebook to write in. Instead, my butt made a deep impression in my canvas chair. Upon closer inspection, I actually thought I could see the boredom in the round indentations.

The tedious afternoon was broken up when my nieces and nephews balanced their way up a fallen tree. At its highest, the dead trunk hovered twenty feet off the ground, and as they scurried up it like squirrels, I envisioned a horrible tragedy. One of them would lose their balance on the bark slippery from the prior night’s rain, and he or she would fall and break their neck. I didn’t care that these roughneck children grew up in the woods and were probably safer turning cartwheels on the tree than I was just walking normal. I was certain one of them was going to die. So I yelled at them. It was like herding cats.

“You better get your butts down now!” I hollered as they argued with me. “You should be afraid of your Aunt Katie’s temper.” I had a mean temper, and I didn’t put up with crap, especially from kids. I hadn’t meant to step on Gayla’s toes with my threat, but as soon as I said it, she was behind me.

“No, they better be afraid of mine,” she corrected.

“Uh, yes, that’s right,” I stammered, surprised and embarrassed. Obviously, her authority trumped mine. But she had been busy cleaning up our lunch mess, so I just took it upon myself to babysit. I didn’t think she’d mind.

Still, her attitude towards me seemed decidedly grouchy the rest of the day, and I knew she was angry with me for overstepping my bounds. I kept to myself and didn’t say much to anyone unless they asked me a question. I thought that would placate her anger. But after dinner, when I saw her dumping the food scraps in the bushes by my tent, I wasn’t so sure.

I knew I wasn’t exactly Woodsy Owl, but wasn’t that a cardinal no-no when camping?

“It’s fine,” Larry grumbled emphatically when I pulled him aside and asked him about it. “She knows what she’s doing. They’ve been camping forever. You just don’t like my family.”

“That’s not true!” I whispered. “I’m beginning to think they don’t like me!”

“So what, am I supposed to take you home now?”

“No,” I shot back, my arms crossed. I stuck out my chin in defiance. “I’m not going home. So there.”

“Then sit down and try to enjoy yourself. Quit worrying so much. We know what we’re doing.” He whirled around and headed back to the campfire.

“That’s what scares me,” I muttered under my breath and then followed him.

But I was delighted when I saw Jim break open a bag of giant campfire marshmallows, spear them on a couple of pitchforks, and hold them over the flames. While he worked, I noticed Gayla and Myrna open a box of graham crackers and a package of Hershey bars. Finally, s’mores! Chocolate cures all ill. My fears about the food scraps were long forgotten.

Nighttime in the forest was a disconcerting thing for me because the darkness was so utterly black that it swallowed me whole, and it prompted Gayla to leave a small lantern glowing in her makeshift kitchen. Additionally, the animals — both the predators and prey alike — chattered away in strange, unfamiliar tones, and as everyone but me slept, I found myself wondering if they were talking about me in their own language, laughing at this girl who clearly was no native of Colorado. Although the chill from the storm the prior night kept me awake, I almost preferred it to the noisiness of the forest because the rapid pangs of raindrops on our tent would’ve been quieter. But in the absence of a storm, my sleep-deprived brain listened to the sounds of the woods, and soon my imagination started to run away with me as it began replaying The Blair Witch Project in my mind.

I had gotten myself so thoroughly scared and worked up that at first, I didn’t notice the abrupt silence that settled on the woods around the camp. But then I heard a metallic clanking sound cut through the still air, immediately snapping me from my daydream about a witch coming to kill us. As the pot, perhaps kettle, clattered to the ground, I heard the footsteps of a large animal. Just a deer, I scoffed. As if reading my mind, the animal stamped, the sound hollow and heavy, not light and airy like a deer. A terrible thought crept to my mind, and my heart started racing as I listened to the creature move through our camp. It’s just a deer…right? Again, as if responding to my fear, it snorted and grunted.

That’s not a deer!

“Larry! Larry!” I whispered urgently as I violently shook him awake.

“Wha-? What is it?” he asked loudly, clearly annoyed with me for waking him.

“Shh!” I silenced. “There’s a bear in the camp!”

Sleepily, he waved me off. “No, there’s not, it’s just a deer,” he said.

“Dammit, Larry!” The footsteps grew louder. I threw myself onto my back, pulled my sleeping bag to my chin, and watched as the silhouette of a bear approached. Larry, who had reluctantly indulged me when he too heard the footsteps, looked at me, now wide-eyed in terror.

“There’s a bear in the camp!” he whispered.

“Thank you for the news flash, Captain Obvious,” I hissed. “What are we gonna do?” Immediately, he rolled onto my body. I scowled. He was choosing now to get fresh with me? “What the hell are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m protecting you,” he replied as the creature swayed closer. “If it attacks us, it’ll take me first, and hopefully you and the baby can get away.”

“Great plan,” I drily remarked. “I thought your family was good at this!”

“I don’t have any guns with me,” he chattered. “Jim has them all.”

Shit. Jim was clear on the other side of camp. If we tried to get to his tent, we risked getting mauled.

“Call him!”

“No, it might provoke the bear,” Larry argued as the animal arrived at our tent. It followed the length of it, intently sniffing through it as it walked. It pushed its nose into the thin fabric as far as it could, and it nudged my leg. Back home, my lab, Kaylar, often playfully dug her muzzle into various parts of my body and sometimes she accidentally hurt me with her attention-getting game, but as strong as she was, her snout was nowhere near as powerful as the one that goosed me now. I stayed as still as possible, however, so as to not attract attention.

Gradually, the bear worked its way to our heads. Once again, it pressed its nose through the thin material, but this time it began sniffing our heads. I looked at Larry, and we exchanged a look of silent panic. The beast obviously smelled something he liked because he thrust his nose harder through the tent wall until it touched our scalps. Hot and heavy snorts warmed my forehead, and I realized in absolute horror that the only thing that separated my skull from its teeth was a millimeter of fabric. It grunted and pushed my head. Quiet, stinging tears streamed from my eyes now, but I remained still.

Finally, after what felt like eternity, it lost interest in our heads and stepped around the corner. It quickly found the scraps of food in the bushes and began devouring its feast. Larry and I both exhaled in relief.

He then whispered in my ear: “When I say so, you run to Jim and Gayla’s tent as fast as you can, okay?”

“Okay,” I whispered back.

Stealthily, he climbed off me and knelt beside the door while I rolled to my knees in equal silence. With a nervous breath, he slowly began to unzip the opening, pausing only for a second to see what the bear would do. The creature didn’t seem to notice the sound, so satisfied it was safe, Larry quietly undid the door the rest of the way.

Then, he bellowed: “Jim! Dad! There’s a bear!”

Chaos ensued after that. First, Larry sprang from the tent just as the bear, startled, grunted and tried to run away. But our camp was on a slight incline, and after my husband yelled bizarre noises at it to frighten it further, I heard its big feet trip over something woody, perhaps a log or a branch. Twigs snapped in the bushes. That was followed by the sound of the bear falling down the hill with confused thuds.

“Katie, go!”

He didn’t have to tell me twice. Now I sprang into action, and I quickly climbed through the tent door just in time to see Jim run out of his tent in his old-timey long-johns. In each hand was a revolver ready to fire, and as I bolted towards him I thought he looked like Billy the Kid with his guns drawn. Larry Senior, clutching a rifle, emerged from the other tent as well.

“There’s a bear!” I screeched as I raced towards them.

“Get inside!” my father-in-law yelled, and I obeyed. Breathlessly, I leapt through the door to their ten-man tent and zipped it up behind me. Outside, the men whooped and hollered in shrill tones as they crashed through the bushes.

“What’s going on?” my niece, Jamie, asked.

“There’s a bear,” I panted. My lungs, stressed from fear and my wind-sprint through the cold, mountain air, began to burn with that familiar asthmatic pain.

“Cool!” little Stevie, my nephew, cried.

“No, not cool,” I said, trying to catch my breath. I couldn’t. It was the fear. The panic. The jog. All of it. My lungs were closing up, and they wouldn’t be calmed.

“Are you okay?” Myrna asked me as I struggled for air.

“I’m — having — an — attack,” I choked out. It was like someone clamped a big, strong fist around my throat. I sat upright on a sleeping bag and wheezed. When the men returned five minutes later, I was balancing my elbows on my knees and my face on my hands. To an unwitting bystander, the position looks like a tri-pod, and it’s a bad sign because it means the patient is rapidly losing the fight for air.

Larry recognized my distress and immediately got me a cup of water since no coffee had been brewed. When it didn’t work, I found my old inhaler and tried to use it, hoping against hope that one little squirt of medicine, or even propellant, remained. But it only shot out useless puffs of air, and I threw it in frustration.

“You just gotta calm down,” Gayla said.

“Yeah, the bear’s gone,” Jim added. “Everything’s okay, but if it’ll make you feel better, you guys can sleep in here tonight. Just in case it comes back.”

I was so tired from the ordeal and the attack that sleep sounded nice, but whenever I inhaled, a jagged pain sawed through my chest. I felt each little bronchiole, irritated by the bear’s appearance, turn a scarlet shade of red and threaten to explode in rage. I gasped for air, and knew this attack was far beyond self-help, but I nodded and agreed to try to go to bed anyway. I stretched out on my back, but my tongue felt jammed in my throat, so I tried to lie on my side instead. Slowly inhaling and exhaling as I’d been trained to do, the attack would not be quelled. You have to go to the hospital, I finally conceded.

“Larry — (gasp)?” I whispered so as to not disturb the others.

“Hmm?” He had promptly fallen asleep ten minutes ago when everyone but me had gone back to bed, and I hated waking him up again like an indecisive mo. But it couldn’t be helped. I had to get medical attention right away. I was slowly suffocating to death.

“You — have — (gasp) — to — take — me — (gasp) — to — the — hospital — (gasp).”

“Are you sure you can’t make it through the night?”

“I’m — (gasp) — sure.”

He immediately got up and found the sleeping form of his father on the other side of the tent. “Dad? I have to take Katie to the hospital. What’s the closest one to here?”

“Probably the one in Cortez. It’s just down the hill.” He gave Larry a set of instructions to follow to get to town.

“What’s going on?” I heard Gayla ask.

“Katie’s in bad shape. I’m gonna take her to the hospital,” Larry explained.

Well, that’s it. Just admit it. You’re not a camper. You’re not a real Coloradoan. Your body knows it. So why don’t you? In the darkness, I frowned in sadness and defeat. My derisive inner voice was right. I was weak. Just like the tenderfoot Californians. A city girl with no business in the woods. Just one more place I didn’t belong. In the darkness, I wiped away tears at having lost the battle.

“Have you tried taking in some deep breaths to calm down?” Gayla asked me, breaking through my thoughts.

“Yeah, she has,” Larry thankfully answered for me.

As sick as I was, I still managed to roll my eyes in the darkness. No, Gayla, I hadn’t thought of trying to breathe. But I’ll be sure to give it a whirl because golly-gee, it sure sounds like a swell plan! Nothing irritates me more than when people try to suggest remedies while I’m in the midst of an attack, as if they’ve conveniently forgotten I’m a lifelong asthmatic and have probably already done what they’ve suggested, plus ten other things they haven’t, to recover. And I probably would’ve gotten snarky with her about it had it not been a waste of precious air. So I stifled it and let Larry help me to my feet.

“Hope you feel better,” several of my nieces and nephews called as he led me outside.

“We’ll call you when we get back to town,” Myrna said to Larry.

“I — (gasp) — can’t — (gasp) — breathe (gasp),” I said as he put me in the Mustang.

“I know, that’s why I’m taking you.”

“I’m — (gasp) sorry.”

“That’s okay. You couldn’t help it.”

When we rolled out of camp, Larry flew down the hill, his speed gradually increasing to a hundred miles an hour. I looked at him in alarm as he raced around the curves. A month before we met, he’d been in a crash just outside of Montrose in which the driver rolled off a cliff. She had been going forty on a ten mile an hour hairpin turn in her Jeep, and when it was all said and done, my husband probably shouldn’t have survived the fifty foot fall to the ravine floor. The Jeep, according to him, looked like a crumpled beer can. But his speed tonight, albeit born out of worry for me, was definitely going to get us killed.

“Slow — (gasp) — down,” I choked. I was struggling even harder to breathe now. My trapezius muscles were as taut as a snare drum, spasming violently as every wisp of air I gulped down tried to stretch them loose. To optimize what little air flow I had, I braced my arms on the dash and leaned forward. My efforts helped little and soon, my biceps and triceps ached as bad as my back and neck. A deep rattle emanated from within, like someone gulping air through a straw.

“Are you okay?” Larry kept asking me, and I kept shaking my head no. Obviously, I wasn’t okay. I wasn’t going to expend the air to say so.

Finally, he flipped on the Mustang’s hazard lights after getting caught behind much slower mountain traffic. He cursed all the drivers, certain they were idiots because they didn’t know to move out of the way, and he hoped to scare them aside. It worked. People scrambled to the side of the road when they saw his car flying down the mountain with its hazards on. I’m sure they thought his brakes had burned out. Of course, when the city lights from Cortez filled my sight, not two minutes after he implemented his bright idea, a set of blue and red flashing lights broke through our back windshield.

“Just fucking great!” Larry yelled as he pulled over. I thought the same thing as my eyes started to slip shut. “Well, maybe he can give us directions to the hospital anyway.” He rolled down the window.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” the cop opened. A standard question.

“Because I was going too fast and my hazard lights were on,” Larry answered.

“Can you tell me why?”

“Look, I don’t want to be rude, but my wife’s having an asthma attack and she ran out of her medicine. I’m trying to get her to the hospital in Cortez because it’s really bad. I know I shouldn’t have had my hazards on, but it’s an emergency. Can you please tell us how to get there?”

The state trooper shined his mag-light flashlight in my face. Even though my eyes were barely open, the white light blinded me.

“Jesus, Katie, your lips and eyelids are turning blue!” Larry cried.

“Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do,” Smokey the Bear began. “You’re gonna follow me. I’m gonna take you straight to the hospital, and I’m gonna call this in so they’re ready for her when we get there.”

“Thank you so much!” my husband cried. In a moment, the trooper pulled ahead and led the way down the mountain. He never turned his lights off, and he too sped down the hill. I barely noticed, though, because my asthma leeched out my last traces of fighting power, and I slumped backwards in my seat. I was drifting to a place where I barely noticed the pain anymore, and blue bursts of energy exploded across my corneas. So tired. So tired. I started to close my eyes.

“Katie, stay awake!” my husband barked at me.

“Can’t — (gasp) — help — (gasp) — it,” I whispered as I collapsed into the window. The staunch chill of it felt good on my face.

I was barely conscious when we arrived at the Cortez hospital, right where the ambulances drop off patients. The cop, who made good on his promise to alert them, got Larry’s information while an unusually large entourage of doctors and nurses met me at the door with an oxygen mask, pulse-ox machines, and medicine. I spent the night in the emergency room, drifting in and out of consciousness as they worked hard to fix me. And after four nebulizer treatments and equally large shots of Solumedrol, Benadryl, and adrenaline, just as the sun was rising over the distant horizon, they finally released me. It was, I realized, the 4th of July and my birthday.

So frail that I could barely walk, I slept all the way from Cortez to Montrose. Asthma attacks always take it out of me, and I knew I was going to be exhausted from it for days, so I needed to get a head start on my sleep. Larry didn’t wake me during the car ride until we rolled into town and he pointed out the hot air balloons slowly climbing into the clear blue sky. They were colorful, and many of them were patriotic-themed, but many more were effigies of famous cartoon characters. Still, they rose out of the flatter buttes of the Western Slope like candles on a cake. And I wished I had stayed in Montrose all along.

The first thing I did when we got back to our apartment was take a shower. I didn’t realize until I stripped off my clothes just how much I reeked of smoke and dirt. I wrinkled my nose in disgust, washing my hair three times just to get it all off, the earthy aroma of burnt wood conquering the fresh scent of shampoo flowers. Gross. Just one more thing to hate about camping. What a useless, boring waste of a person’s time. Who actually finds it fun? But, then again, what did that say about me? What true Coloradoan hates camping so much? I sighed and watched in amazement as the water turned black while it streamed down my body and swirled down the drain, all my expectations and certainty of who I was flowing with it, and I wondered if Wyoming would welcome me as a native.
This is a tale about bears.

This essay is a part of my Master's Thesis, "The Year of the Monkey," a collection of creative non-fiction memoirs.
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Daily Deviation

Given 2013-09-29
Ursa Minor by ~PoesDaughter is tense, introspective and beautiful all at once - a stellar nonfiction work. ( Suggested by Steve-C2 and Featured by neurotype )
greenbank Featured By Owner Dec 10, 2013

Finally got around to reading this, and I have to say it is an absolute joy to read something so well-paced, crisply and emotively descriptive, and dramatically intimate. I'm guessing that as non-fiction it includes some details which wouldn't be expected in a fictional piece, and that just adds another layer to the gripping tension you present so brilliantly. And the way you end it, providing a gentle winding-down with a final snap of that uncrushable humour, is also a delight.

Interestingly, we don't need to wait to the end to find how it turns out (you wrote it in the past tense, so obviously you didn't die); that standard "hook" is not needed here. The reader gets sucked in right from the start with your sardonic and self-deprecating humour, and we want to carry on reading to see what did happen to turn you off camping. Incidentally, that's a neat trope; I think most readers would guiltily admit that they should enjoy camping, but actually don't like it that much - so they get to empathise with you from the get-go.

I also enjoy the subtlety of your title: some of the bears we have to deal with are more terrifying, or terrifying in different ways, than others. And some of them aren't left behind in the woods, either. A really neat touch, that.

PoesDaughter Featured By Owner Dec 19, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you :)

I'm really glad you enjoyed this piece. I was going for comedy when I wrote it because now, it's kind of a running joke in the family. It wasn't funny at the time, clearly, but now I can look back on it and laugh. I try to be honest about things like that - I hate camping. I think that in a lot of things, camping for example, a lot of people secretly agree with me but don't have the courage to say so.
greenbank Featured By Owner Dec 20, 2013
I think it's a great comfort - and perhaps a strength - to be able to laugh at terrible things (afterwards) and put them in perspective. After my heart attack a few years ago, I wrote to my mother in Australia to tell her the news; in her reply she actually apologised for laughing at my account of the episode. But still, looking back now, it's the funny aspects of it that I remember best.

One of those bits was my introduction to a delightful new medical verb. I was lying in the ambulance outside work, and the two paramedics were hooking me up to all sorts of kit; then one of them started filling an eye-wateringly huge hypodermic syringe. "Right," he said, "now we're going to thrombolyze you." I've worked in medical libraries, but this was a new one for me: was it going to be seriously painful? Or deeply embarrassing (the ambulance side door being wide open to the passing public)? And the other paramedic was a woman: she was no doubt trained in all sorts of intimate procedures, but I wasn't.

Fortunately, neither; it simply meant injecting intravenously a chemical which breaks down (lyzes) clots in the bloodstream (thromboses). Ah, obviously, you say; but it was the serious - even portentous - way he said it that made me grin. He also said: "This might feel a bit cold." And it did; startlingly, I had this clear sensation of ice-water travelling slowly up the vein and into my heart. Amazing stuff. Now, if anyone asks, I can say that yes, I've been thrombolyzed - and semi-publicly, too.
PoesDaughter Featured By Owner Dec 20, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
I find that laughing at the dark stuff is the best way to cope. My husband, as a fireman and EMT, is all about the laughter. In fact, all of his coworkers have incredibly dark senses of humor; if you knew the jokes they made about things...I mean, they "learned" how to deliver babies by watching Monty Python! He's fond of saying their job is "to make you naked" because they tend to cut people's clothes off. 

I'm sorry you had a heart attack. That's awful, but I can understand why your mom laughed a bit because of it. I love the way you articulate things of that sort. I remember your description of the snakes in your back yard, the ones that your cat brought to you as gifts. You have a dry sense of humor that might be imperceptible to less intelligent readers, and it's that witty sarcasm that I appreciate.

Funny enough, I've heard the word "thrombolyze" before, but that's because it's one of the words in my husband's lexicon. It's always in reference to the heart.
greenbank Featured By Owner Dec 21, 2013

I agree with you about firemen and their sense of humour. I've been privileged to meet a few, and yes, their humour can be shocking to some people; nurses are the same. But there are some pretty grim things in life - and firemen get to see more of them than most people - and if the only possible responses are to laugh or cry, I think it's better to laugh. My ex was of the opposite persuasion, which caused difficulties sometimes. I was a volunteer in Queensland's State Emergency Service for a while, and all our training emphasised the absolute need to do whatever you had to at the time, and throw up later when the situation was over. The SES crowd were a fun bunch of people with a robust sense of humour too.

The heart attack wasn't a big deal (I'd rate migraines as far worse). I got a bad case of what I thought was indigestion ("heartburn"), which tablets wouldn't shift; but after three days of sleeping poorly my left arm started to hurt, which I thought could be a bit of a clue. So I went up to one of the first-aiders at work and asked him: "How do you tell if you're having a heart attack?" His eyes bulged a bit, and after that it was all panic stations. Once I was hooked up to a radio-ECG machine in the ambulance, a specialist at the hospital radio'd back: "Yep, he's having a heart attack." So I got whisked away and dealt with: in on Wednesday, out on Saturday.

I have to say that lying in a hospital bed when there's not much wrong with you is very boring, especially in a cardiac ward where they deliberately avoid excitement. I was hooked up to a five-line monitor (one of those "machines that goes BEEP"), and whiled away the hours playing a bio-feedback game - trying to make each line in turn move into the red (it's harder that you'd think). Eventually the nurses got pissed off and made me stop.

Considering that both my father and my grandfather died of massive and unexpected strokes, I reckon I've come off pretty lightly.

Eremitik Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013
if each story in your thesis is as well written and fun to read as this is, you should have no problem attaining that master status.
personally, i would love to read them and hope you post them.

excellent work!
PoesDaughter Featured By Owner Oct 2, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks! I have posted the other essays in my thesis, save one, which I'm still working to revise. If you want to read them, you'll find them in my gallery file called "The Year of the Monkey." <3
obelisk-light Featured By Owner Sep 30, 2013
I'd read this when it was posted first, but I forgot to favourite it - silly me. Congratulations on a well-deserved DD! :D

This was a very tense account. As always, your words are captivating.
PoesDaughter Featured By Owner Sep 30, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
No worries :) And thank you for adding it to your faves!

And thanks! I was mind-blown when I found out. I simply jumped on real quick to check my messages before bedtime since I have to be up in five hours. But that was a few hours ago. I certainly didn't expect to get such an awesome surprise today, but it really did come at the exact right moment. :w00t!:

Yeah, it was not the most fun way to start out camping. But, at least it was a memorable experience! LOL
1AmTheIT Featured By Owner Sep 29, 2013
Christ, I was so into the story. I began having a panic attack moments after reading, "Hot and heavy snorts warmed my forehead, and I realized in absolute horror that the only think that seperated my skull from its teeth was a millimeter of fabric." and I had to put my phone down to count my breaths. I had a bit of trouble finishing it, but I needed to know how it ended. C: Very well written, thank you so much! 
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