Boys, Beer, Bears
Zach and I moved in together two months into dating. It was the hot summer of 2011, our first in North Carolina, and our ragtag gang of weirdo guy friends were staying on campus for the summer working odd jobs for the school. Not wanting to miss out on the fun or return to my boring suburban hometown, I got an internship in town that allowed me to rent out a dorm room for the summer. My friends could have found housing in the dorms, too, but they were scrappy and adventurous and had incredibly low standards of living, so they decided to save money by camping out all summer.
They threw together a tent village up on Jones Mountain with scraps of tarp and rope they scavenged from the campus dumpsters. Jones, a big round hill that sat across the valley farm from main campus, was thoroughly logged a century ago by the farm boys who served as the school’s first students. It was now a second-growth forest with winding trails veined through groves of tall skinny poplars.
On the back side of the mountain, they set up their camp in a clearing far from the network of trails and expected to be reasonably undisturbed by neighboring humans. They each had a tent, they shared a kitchen area, and they even built a bar up there with a raw cut piece of lumber nailed between two trees.
They were basically homeless and illegally squatting on private land, but regardless: for a bunch of single 20-year-olds with boundless energy, enough resourcefulness, and little regard for personal hygiene, it was a pretty sweet set up. To say they were loud or rambunctious or fearless was an understatement, and they enjoyed the freedom granted by having no neighbors around.
People neighbors, that is. They didn’t think about the bears.
By now, I’ve lived in lots of places with close exposure to black bears, and they’re really not as scary or dangerous as people make them out to be. In terms of behavior, they’re basically just giant raccoons: seeking out trash, climbing on stuff, leaving a mess in their wake when they cross through human territory. At the end of the day, they’re more scared of us than we are of them — with two exceptions. Everyone whose spent time in bear country knows the two rules: 1) you don’t go near a momma bear or her cubs because she will maul you, and 2) don’t leave food out when you’re sleeping in the woods because the bears will eat it and then maul you. If you don’t want to get mauled, you don’t break the rules.
The boys knew these rules well. They’d spent hundreds of hours between them camping in bear country, but like I said, they were reckless and fraught with that confident invincibility that comes hand and hand with testosterone, beer, and youth.
After a night of drinking at the makeshift bar on the mountaintop, one friend passed out in Zach’s tent with some snacks in his pocket. He popped out of bed at first light, realizing he forgot to set his alarm and was on duty for farm chores that morning. He ran down the mountain to work, not realizing that his snacks had fallen out of his pocket onto the floor of Zach’s tent in the night.
After Zach and the other boys shook off their hangovers and mozied down the hill to their respective jobs, a bear came sniffing through camp. Detecting food within Zach’s tent, the bear didn’t bother with trying to unzip the front flap. He tore through one side of the tent, ate the snacks and some of Zach’s clothes, tore through the other side of the tent, and took a huge shit right there beside the front flap of the tent.
I’ll never forget the call I got from Zach that evening on my drive home from work:
“Hey, so… Can I stay in you room for a little while?” He asked, and I could tell he was holding something back. He crashed at my place at least once every week but had never really asked first.
“Uh, sure, of course,” I said, skeptically. “Why?”
“Well… My tent got eaten by a bear. I can explain later.”
I cocked my head to the side and wondered how that possibly could have actually happened before telling him, “ok yeah sure.”
He moved into my tiny dorm room that night and we’ve been together ever since.