Entrepreneur, clean-energy advocate and ardent outdoorsman Jay Butera has had a dream all his life to sleep alone in the woods at night. But in order to achieve this, he must first overcome his intense fear of bears. The way he goes about doing this is not for the faint of heart.
Butera told his winning story at a FirstPerson Arts StorySlam in January. The theme was "little things." Read his story below, followed by a Q&A about his experience — and some helpful advice about how to properly handle a bear encounter.
[The audio version above was produced by Kimberly Haas.]
All of my life I have wanted to sleep alone in the woods at night.
This has been a dream of mine. And there’s one little thing coming between me and this dream all my life: I am scared of bears. I mean, I’m really scared of bears. All of my nightmares have always involved bears in the woods. When I was a kid, I had to sleep with a light on in the closet, because i knew there were bears in there just waiting for darkness to get me.
But I didn’t want to give up on this primal dream of sleeping in the forest at night. I read a book a few years ago, and it said “the only way out is through.” And that told me the only way to deal with this fear of bears that was keeping me from this dream would be to face a bear — head on, stare him down.
Now there’s a trail in northern New Jersey that is infamous among hikers for bear sightings. It’s one to avoid. But I decided that I am going to go to that trail, and I am going to hike until I find a bear. I’m not proud of this decision, because in retrospect it seems really foolish. But that tells you something about the state of my mind. I wanted to get past this so I could move on with my life.
I went to the trail, I parked my car at the trailhead, and I started to hike. Somewhere into this hike, I came across some hikers. They were headed in the other direction, and they said to me, “There’s bear cubs ahead. There’s bear cubs ahead.”
And I knew what they were saying. They were saying: Turn around now. Run! Save yourself!
But I said, This is great. Bear cubs! You know, they’re little guys, and they’re cute, and it would be a great way to get to know bears without the fear of this thing.
So I walk on, and I walk, and I’m not seeing the bear cubs. And it starts to get kind of late afternoon. I’m worried about getting back to my car before nightfall, because, you know, I’m not going to sleep in the woods at this point.
I’m still on DEFCON 5 for these bears. When you’re afraid of bears, everything looks like bears — tree stumps, boulders, rocks. Everything looks like a bear.
And I came around a bend, and there were the real things. There were three little bear cubs. Man, they were cute! They were beautiful. And I’m thinking: I can do this. I can meet these bears. I can stare them down.
But I forgot one thing: Where you have bear cubs, you’re probably going to have a mother bear. And if there’s one thing I knew about bears, it’s that you don’t want to meet a mother bear with bear cubs. I’ve read all the books about it, and you know that they’re the ones that are on edge. They’re really protective. And they’re the ones that are gonna get you.
So, I don’t know what I’m gonna do, because there’s the mother bear ahead. Now, my car is somewhere down there. It’s getting dark back there. And there’s a mother bear who’s looking pretty angry. I don’t know what to do. I freeze.
Now at that moment, behind me comes another hiker — which seems wild because there had been no one behind me the whole day. And this guy appears out of nowhere. I later learned he was a yoga master from India. And I say, “Stop. Bears. Bears!”
And he says, ”It’s OK. If we walk with peace in our hearts, she won’t hurt us.”
I said, “Really?”
He said, “Yes. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
I said, “Yes!”
He said, “Can you walk with peace in your heart?”
I said, “Yes!!”
And I don’t know why I said yes, but I did. And I started to breathe. I tried to breath peace and clam into my heart, into this pounding heart, and we walked on. We walked toward the bears. And when we got as close as we would be on that trail to the mother bear, we both stopped for some reason, and I looked over, and she was looking at me in the eyes.
That’s the other thing I remember from the books about bears. You don’t want ones looking you in the eye. That’s a real aggressive sign.
And I said OK, peace in my heart. And I breathe. And I tried to smile, and I tried to think: OK, what would this yogi behind me do? And here we are. And the bear put her head down toward the ground, and I’m trying to remember from the books: What does that mean in bear language? But I hear this snuffling. (I could hear her breathing.) I hear this snuffling in the ground. She started to forage again. She went back to eating. She was standing down! She had sensed that we meant no harm, and so we walked on. And with this peace in our heart, we walked forward.
We got way past the bears, and I grabbed the yogi, this mysterious bear whisperer from India, and I said, “How do you know bears like this? How did you know what to do?”
And he said, “I’ve never seen a bear before in my life. That was amazing!”
I had trusted my life to this man’s intuition. But I’m glad I did, because it saved us both. And to this day, I think back, and I wonder why I trusted him. And I just kinda think: You know, you have to believe in things, however little they are. You have to believe in something. You have to have some faith in order to walk on in this world.
Jay Butera is an experienced hiker and camper, and he tells us he has, in fact, finally achieved his dream of sleeping in the woods, alone, at night. There were no bears involved.
"I have slept in the woods alone many nights since I faced those bears," he said. "The first few times, I must admit, I was on edge. At nightfall, when the sun had set, I would feel anxious. But then, one night, that changed. And as the sun set on my solo campsite, I felt a deep sense of calmness. I had made my peace with nature."
Tell us more about where this desire came from.
I've wanted to sleep alone in the woods since I was a kid. When I was younger, it was probably more about the adventure of it. In more recent years, I think I just wanted to feel more connected to the natural world. I wanted to make peace with nature. And there is something liberating about knowing you can disconnect from civilization and exist — even if briefly — in the wild.
How long ago was the bear incident? Did it work to overcome your fear? And do you ever go back to that place?
I think the bear incident happened about five years ago. I have not gone back to that place. I would like to stress that seeking an encounter with a bear is definitely not a good idea. I was extremely lucky in the incident I described. And, while black bears are not normally aggressive toward humans, encounters with bears are always delicate and potentially dangerous situations. Avoidance is the best strategy.
[If you should encounter a bear in real life, here's some good advice.]
Are you much of a camper/hiker generally? Where do you prefer to go in this region? Where is your favorite place to go?
Yes. Since my bear encounter, I have solo hiked and camped many trails in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Arizona. In Pennsylvania, I have hiked trails in the Endless Mountains, the Pocono Mountains, Pine Creek Gorge and numerous sections of The Appalachian Trail. In Arizona, I have hiked the Grand Canyon from rim-to-rim three times — once solo, once with my wife, Bernadette, and once with two of my daughters. I have camped a total of 15 nights inside the Grand Canyon. It is one of my favorite places on the planet.
Jay Butera is an advocate for clean energy and solutions for climate change. His work to advance federal policy and voter education about energy and climate is non-partisan, non-profit and self-funded.
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