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Shielding the flame very carefully, I managed to start a fire with my first match, then added progressively larger sticks of kindling and finally wedged a slab of bark against the rock outcropping, directly over the small blaze. After a minute or two the bark began to smoke, then sputter, and finally the edges burst up into orange flame.
By the time the fire was blazing, night had fallen. I squatted, naked except for my jacket, drying my clothes from the inside out: underwear and socks first, then jeans and undershirt, then my hat and finally my shoes. I had wrung things out as best I could, and I held them out over the fire on sticks.
The nylon shoes I had been wearing dried quickly. Everything else took a long time, especially the sweatshirt, and as the clothing steamed there was nothing to do but think. As I would learn through the following days and nights, there is no way to avoid thinking when you are all alone. When immediate needs have been satisfied—and perhaps some future needs as well—there are few distractions. I became convinced that the people we label primitive must surely be philosophers. They have no choice.
When I was finally dressed again, I roasted my trout, using one of the sticks I had dried my clothes on. As I ate the fish—without salt they were only just edible—I thought about the cougar. I had heard one in the wild once, screaming from a rocky bluff above me, but I had never seen one. I had always wanted to see one—but not this week. Even though I knew quite well that they are shy animals, the thought of an encounter was frightening. It was easy to be reasonable at home, but not so easy in the forest.
The shotgun lay at my side, the shells beside it. Because it was a single shot, the hammer had to be cocked before the gun would fire. I loaded it, feeling altogether like a fool. Loneliness as much as fear made me do it. Loneliness and fear are pretty much the same thing sometimes.
I tossed the remains of the trout into the darkness, as far from my campsite as I could. After placing two large slabs of bark across the fire, I tried to sleep. I lay on my back, watching the stars, and finally dozed off.
No more than an hour could have passed when I woke up terrified, stomach turning over, heart pounding in my ears. Twenty or 30 yards behind me, something large was moving through the trees. I had heard it through my sleep, and I was on my knees, facing that way, gun in my hands and hammer cocked. It must have been a deer, heading down the steep slope to the creek for water. Once wide awake, I knew that. But I stayed there gripping the gun until the animal was well out of hearing range.
There was nothing to be frightened of—I knew that as surely as I knew my name—yet it was half an hour before I felt relaxed enough to lie back down and try to sleep. With three more strips of bark crisscrossed on the bed of the fire, I stretched out on my side to warm my back. Somewhere far away, on another mountain, coyotes howled. Finally I dozed off again, but I don't think I slept for more than 20 minutes at a stretch throughout the night.
I got up when the first sunlight hit me. The rocky ground had me stiff and sore in a lot of places, and I spent half an hour exploring the clearing and eating elderberries for breakfast. They were dry and sour.
I decided to try to kill a grouse, so I picked up the shotgun and started around the clearing. First I circled it—the theory is that birds become confused and frightened and are apt to sit tightly in their cover when they hear sounds coming at them from all directions—and then I began to walk slowly uphill through the elderberry bushes, stopping every 10 or 15 feet. Another theory holds that pausing that way frightens the birds—perhaps because they think a predator is about to pounce—and flushes them from their cover. For whatever reason, it worked. These were blue grouse—big, relatively slow birds—and half a dozen of them burst into flight before I was halfway up the clearing. The last of them was the simple straightaway shot I had been waiting for—I wanted to use only one of my shells—and I killed it cleanly, the first grouse I had shot in years.