Seeing the Bear

I went on a hike with my aunt to Abrams Falls at Cades Cove a couple of weeks ago. The information online said the hike was “moderate to strenuous.” Oh, it was. My aunt pointed out, “That was five miles uphill both ways.”

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Abrams Falls

My aunt and I both love to walk. We both love the entrancing beauty of the outdoors, the incredible wonder of God’s Earth. We both have a not-so-secret desire to hike the Appalachian Trail. After that moderate to strenuous hike, though, I doubt whether I could handle it. We would’ve turned back if not for our guides, a couple who have hiked to the falls before. They had walking sticks. That should’ve been my first clue.

I had on a pair of athletic sneakers. By the time we reached the halfway point going to the falls, I felt like I was wearing flip-flops for all the support they gave me. My feet were sliding around in them, and I could feel the point of every rock on the pads of my feet. My dad and brother have hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail. I remembered my brother’s hiking boots and his layers of thick, thick socks. Hm. Now I get it. I remember their regimen months before they hit the trail. They got up in the mornings to go to the local football field and run up and down the bleachers. As I peeled away my soaked t-shirt from my back, their stamina-building exercises made a little bit more sense to me.

In Dragonfly Prince one of the main characters, Ivan, is captured by the dragonflies while he is hiking the Appalachian Trail with his dad. Ivan’s parents are divorced. He doesn’t live with his mom or dad. He lives with his aunt—his mom’s sister—and his uncle. His dad remarried and has another family. His dad is also in the military and has been away overseas. Ivan’s mom takes care of his autistic brother two states away. So, there’s been very little family quality time in Ivan’s life. That hike with his dad was incredibly important to him, though he’d never admit that.

The paragraph above is not spelled out in Dragonfly Prince because it isn’t told from Ivan’s perspective. It’s told from Casey’s. She’s the youngest in a family with two daughters brought up in a middle class neighborhood in a predominantly military town right in the eye of the Bible belt. She’s grown up taking morality for granted. She’s used to people going out of their way to be considerate to each other. She’s also used to the social leniency granted towards outspoken American women. She expects to be respected because, well, she deserves respect. And being the youngest, she’s used to wielding a certain amount of power to get her way with Mom and Dad. She’s shocked by this land the dragonflies take her to, where she has no protection and no rights. She reacts in anger and frustration without thinking out the consequences. She’s never had to. The consequences have never been this big a deal.

Ivan understands the environment he’s been surviving in for the past ten or so months. He tries to explain it to Casey, and he doesn’t say it nicely. He wants to shake a little reality into her. The reader figures this out faster than Casey does. She’s not in her quaint little world anymore. She’s not owed anything. All the roughness Ivan shows to Casey, which she detests him for, isn’t lost on the reader who is, in fact, relating to Ivan better than to Casey. Through Casey’s fights with him we come to care for Ivan, to root for his side. The fact that we know Casey’s perspective is skewed makes us feel less sympathy for her.

Ivan resonates, though his bad points overpower the good ones. Because of this my readers have polar reactions to Ivan. They’ve met him. The ones who’ve experienced an Ivan in their lives are disturbed by Casey’s relationship with him. They tell her to run. Some of my readers have begged me not to kill Ivan off. Inwardly, they think he deserves it, but they want him to succeed. While I’m touched by Ivan, Casey is the one who resonates most with me. I know so many more like her. I love her because she’s so mixed up and needs help.

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Me and my aunt in front of Abrams Falls. We made it to the falls!

On the way to Abrams Falls a small, black bear crossed the path ahead of my aunt and me. I saw it, clear as day, but I didn’t register that, hey, there is a bear cub not fifty yards from me, fancy-free and well-clawed. And probably tailed by Momma Bear. The danger began to rush over me while we kept walking. Up the mountain I heard the bushes rustling, right over our heads. And I thought of the snacks I’d packed—raisins and apples and half a cheese quesadilla from lunch…a zipper bag of dark chocolate chips. I unzipped my backpack and stuffed my wallet and phone in the pockets of my cargo pants, thinking I wanted to be ready to relinquish my pack as a peace offering to the curious bear if he got any friendlier. Then it occurred to me that I had very little need for my wallet, or my phone for that matter. We had absolutely no phone signal. We hadn’t had a signal for a good thirty miles getting into the national park. So, basically, all this was going through my head, and it never would have if I hadn’t seen that bear.

The bear meandered away. Didn’t touch us. Nothing happened. But legitimate fear had peeled back the false sense of protection. I realized how much I take for granted about my safety. Not just at Cades Cove. There are so many freedoms I enjoy.

Ivan gets that. Though he grew up with more freedoms than most, he didn’t grow up with that sense of entitlement that Casey has. He despises her when she refuses to listen to his warnings. He’d like it if she got what was coming to her, but…he can’t seem to stop protecting her.

Yes, I’ve been up to that character research stuff again. Will I ever quit that? Um, probably not. Unless the bear gets me.