Mummies at Twilight

I plan to dress as a mummy for Halloween. Here is a picture of my costume.

But how, you might ask, will I move? My costume has no space to move my legs to walk, to hold out my arms for balance. It barely provides any scope of vision. To which I reply “Precisely! THAT IS WHAT MAKES IT SO SCARY!”

This is more than just a Halloween costume, people. This is my sleeping bag. These new-fangled mummy bags are great for backpacking. Lightweight, compact, and designed for warmth, a mummy sleeping bag is the only style you will find in the backcountry these days.

Normally I am not particularly claustrophobic. (My phobias are much more profoundly disturbing than the commonplace fear of enclosed spaces. I won’t go into them here. If I did, you might never sleep well again.) However, I spent virtually every night for the past ten days wrapped in this bag. Of course, it is entirely possible to extricate oneself from the bag, but not terribly quickly. As I lay alone in my tent with no one around for miles, I found myself wondering what I would do if a tree fell on me, or if a falling meteorite set fire to a bush and the flame leaped over to my tent, or if a bear insensibly decided to drag me from my tent and gnaw on me. I would not possibly be able to get myself out of the sack in time to do anything remotely useful.

These are not things I have ever worried about before. I’ll admit that I am more skittish about bears than I used to be, ever since that little incident in which I was charged by a grizzly in the Canadian Rockies. Even so, I am not much of a worrier. I know that most tragic incidents of bears attacking people in tents involve campers who brought food with them into a tent, or wore clothes that had food on them. I am meticulous about these matters and ought to sleep pretty soundly. Especially this time of year when bears are getting to be homebodies, readying their dens for the big sleep. But when I am trying to catch some shuteye on a small sleeping pad on the ground in 30-degree weather, sleep doesn’t always come as quickly as I might like. As I lay in the dark, every time I tried to turn my body I was reminded that these mummy bags are not built with range of motion in mind. I had time to consider the numerous times in my life that I’ve found range of motion useful in extricating myself from what might have otherwise been a perilous situation.

My encounters with other people during this backpacking trip were limited, but almost invariably involved  random people cheerfully giving me the latest news of recent bear attacks. Apparently a woman fought an attacking bear off with a zucchini somewhere out West. This should have been comforting—all it takes is a zucchini!—except I wouldn’t even be able to swing a toothpick until I could get out of my sleeping bag. And it seems some hunters were viciously attacked when they were just innocently standing around somewhere in Colorado. And other people were pulled out of their tent and killed somewhere else. The stories just sort of poured in. I wouldn’t give them another thought until night set in and I climbed in my bag. Then, I could imagine how easy it would be for a 400 pound animal to do whatever it wanted with a woman wrapped up in nylon.

My sense of helplessness was certainly not assuaged when, on one of my first nights, I arrived at the designated campsite to find that the bear pole was bent at a 70 degree angle. This gave me a pretty clear idea of the strength of bears eager for food. Still, the height seemed good enough fulfill its role of  keeping food out of reach of bears, and I reasoned that if the bear hadn’t been able to snap the pole before, then it wouldn’t be able to do so now. (For the uninitiated, a bear pole is a solid metal pole that many parks now put up in some of the more bear-likely backcountry sites. Hikers use it to hang their food, rather than choosing their own sites to hang the food, as such efforts are often not up to snuff.)   I hung my ramen noodles and granola bars and went to sleep. Sometime before midnight, I heard a banging on the pole, and I really can’t think of anything but a bear that would have made such a noise. Clong! Clong! This did not foster a sense of restful tranquility. I contorted myself to keep my finger on the release button to the sleeping bag drawstrings, and wished stupidly for the pocket knife that I had left in my backpack outside. Of course, the pocket knife would have been no defense at all—it doesn’t even have a locking blade—but I hadn’t brought any zucchini.

I lay awake much of the night, but the bear never approached my tent. Looked at one way, this might have given me a greater sense of self-confidence than ever before. I might say, “See? All one has to do is be virtuous and keep a clean camp and be smart, and the bears will have no interest in dragging you out of the tent.” And yet, the event only heightened my sense of unease.

I slept terribly every night, which is sort of like saying Michael Phelps floundered around in the pool for a week. I am the super star of sleeping. If sleeping were an Olympic sport, I like to think I would be very gracious as I looked sleepily down at the silver and bronze winners. My ability to sleep is almost super-human. So how ironic is it that a sleeping bag—whose sole function is to permit a person to sleep—was the very cause of my suffering? (I can tell you one thing, Alanis Morissette, it’s WAY more ironic than rain on your wedding day.)

I have now chronicled the one and only bad thing about my vacation, which was in every other way extraordinarily marvelous. I experienced unbelievable sunrises, moonrises, fall colors, and gorgeous old-growth forests. I would like to tell you where I went, but I met some local folks who extracted a promise that I not bring too many people here. They like it quiet in this little piece of utopia. I’ll certainly be back, possibly with a very select group of quiet friends, each in our own bear-bite sized mummy sleeping bag parcels.

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