One of the men from our party decided to hibernate in the car while the others took off in search of the Point that had many stolen moments hanging from it.“This is definitely not a 15 minute hike!” sighed Deepa as we walked endlessly. After what felt like 50 minutes we emerged to precariously balanced rocks on cliffs framed by a dusky canvas. Some daft young people were lounging on the rocks and taking pictures. Soon we decided to turn around and head back to our car.
As we turned the corner, an unfamiliar sight greeted us. A creek? We were sure we did not pass a creek on our way to Taft Point. Deepa mumbled something about her legs turning to jelly. Her husband dutifully stepped forward to be of support to her tired legs as he plucked yet another stick from the obliging forest. Rajiv turned around and sprinted to the hikers for directions. He promised to send help. Deepa gripped the two sticks and Ram held the crook of her elbow. I loosened my shoelace releasing a rush of pain into my crooked ankle. Sangeeta, who had traveled all the way from India, had trusted her hosts to know where they were going.
Dusk was slowly turning to darkness. Deepa had five minutes worth of battery charge on her phone and Ram had one-minute worth on his. Sangeeta and I had no phone.
It became clear to me that we were not going to be able to out-walk the increasing darkness and decreasing battery power of our phones. A decision to call the rangers and inform them of our situation seemed the responsible thing to do. They could locate and track us. Finding a spot where we had cellphone service, we made a frantic call.
The dispatcher could see our whereabouts. We were on a trail that was two to three miles up the mountain from the main road.
“We are three women and one man, all of us, around 60 years of age,” said Ram politely. She said she could hear only one of every six words we spoke. “We are dragging a friend up the mountain,” I apprised her in clear tones. She told me we must continue on the trail towards Sentinel Hill. The trail met a cell phone tower and that was where we would wait for the ranger.
At every switchback I shouted to Sangita, “This is a trail” Finally to our relief, we sat down on rocks surrounding the tower and waited for the ranger who, we were told could take upto two hours to get to us.
I peered into the darkness at the sound of rustling leaves and grass and saw a dark shape move. The dark black against the inky blue sky seemed to have a round back and as I let out a loud yell, two small round ears popped up against the ink blue horizon, a silhouette of blackness. “It is a bear,” I declared.
Ram clutched a stick and slunk backwards toward some metal pipes that lay on the ground. Strange grunting sounds left his throat ending in little gasps of laughter as if inviting the bear to share a joke. Sangeeta looked around to see what the behavior protocol was and followed Ram. Facing the bear now were Deepa and I. Deepa whispered, “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram.” I thought it is always a good idea to request for divine help. My loud yells had not had the desired effect on the bear I noted. Instead of disappearing back down the hill, she circled around towards my left and peered at me with curiosity.
Deepa darted back. Now I was facing the bear by myself. I decided to change strategy. Abandoning the yell tactic I, too, started banging on the metal pipes. The wooden sticks were crashing on the metal pipes at a frantic pace, the yells rose to a crescendo just as headlights appeared on the horizon.
The bear smelled the ranger before we did. She lurked slowly away just as a beast of a car made its appearance. Out jumped an irate young 26-year-old white woman in ranger’s clothes.
“I’m taking only two of you. The other two have to walk,” she barked. Shocked we blurted,“But there is a bear out there, we have no torches and no idea of the trail back and no phone.”
“That is too bad,” she retorted. “You made bad choices. You deal with it.”
The ranger gave us the stare of a mountain lion. “Bears don’t say anything to humans.”
I was beginning to understand why the bear had slunk away at the smell of this woman.
Deepa scrambled into the car while Sangeeta broke into a whimper. The ranger was adamant. She was going to make us pay for being daft.
I thought of the girl who fell down the cliff at Taft Point, her camera still set up for that fabulous shot. Who was the ranger who found her a day later? What did the ranger think of the silly girl who broke her neck for a picture? Had she interrupted the ranger’s barbecue or caught her just as she was going off-duty? Silly girl. The ranger made the point.
Ritu Marwah is an avid traveler and award winning author. Her climb of Siachin Glacier left a serious respect for the Indian Armed Forces in her heart. Her article on Jinnah’s Daughter, Dina Wadia was widely read and was featured in New York Times’s Express Tribune blog.