My husband, Ashton, and I recently went on a camping trip in King's Canyon National Park. It is my favorite place in the world. We drive up from Santa Monica, and on the second day of the trip, we do a big hike that challenges us. Most recently, we set out from Road's End trailhead to Paradise Valley. It was about 7.3 miles one way, round trip 14.6mi, to Paradise Valley with a couple thousand feet of elevation change.
In the early morning, before we set out on this hike, I was prepping my pack at our campsite. While doing so, I happened upon a shiny penny nestled in some pine needles away from most human traffic. Thinking to myself that that’s a pretty random spot to find a penny, I picked it up and stuck it in my pocket before setting out for a very long day of hiking up to Paradise Valley.
The first two miles of the hike started on flat and wooded terrain. It was absolutely infested with mosquitoes. Bug spray didn’t deter them. Another pair of hikers turned back about two miles in because they were unbearable, but we persisted up two more miles to Mist Falls and started the trek beyond the popular landmark into basically wilderness. After that, the mosquitos were nothing.
We stopped for a drink and a handful of cashews in a small shaded and wooded area after a series of completely exposed and brutal switchbacks. Something big started rustling in the underbrush. It was close, but we couldn’t see anything because it was so thick. I stood at the wood line with my arms up and started talking loudly while Ashton got his pack situated and back on. He did the same for me, and at this point it became apparent the critter in the brush was a mountain lion. We still couldn’t see him but he began chirping (they chirp?) to tell us to GTFO. So we kept talking and looking big and skedaddled.
Rattled but still enthusiastic, we pushed on. Not a quarter mile later, I’m leading and walking quickly. SSST SSST SSST a rattlesnake is 2 feet in front of me on the trail and I’m about to step on it. This snake was ginormous. Probably the size and length of a tall man's arms. Ashton claims I jumped back 8ft. I believe it.
Soon, we’re about a mile from Paradise Valley and feeling better. Tired and quiet, we enter into an area of crooked trail that’s full of massive boulders. You can't see around the corners, because these boulders are big. Ashton is leading. Rounding a corner he freezes - “Bear.” It’s no more than 15 feet in front of us. “Mama bear.” I correct as I spot her cub climbing a tree that’s squarely between us and her.
They’re black bears. She spots us. Her baby spots us. She locks eyes with each of for a second.. Grabbing the bear spray from my side pocket, I start talking firmly, calmly, and loudly. I AM A SCARY HUMAN PREDATOR. Ashton jumps in, too, GET GOING, MAMA, TAKE YOUR BABY WITH YOU. She tilted her head, almost exasperated (“Ugh, gosh you two, my kid’s trying to play here.”) and checked over her shoulder, away from us then started walking away down the trail. She looked back to her baby. He clumsily hopped down out of the tree and followed her. This whole interaction really lasted about 22 seconds but it felt like an eternity.
Once they were out of sight we hopped up onto one of the big boulders and watched them head across the river. That baby was fucking cute. Mama was beautiful too. We pushed on for another mile and a half and posted up in the most beautiful valley I’ve ever seen.
Once we got to the valley, I took off my pants. As you do in the wilderness — to get into icy, alpine waters. The penny I found that morning popped out of my pocket, falling to the rocky river bank. For half a second, I thought to leave it right there. That penny was unlucky! So many dangerous encounters today, and it’s all because of that penny! It was obviously the penny. But then, my ‘leave no trace’ ethos and rational mind took over. I could see that penny as a wild animal attractor. An unlucky token that brought these critters to me. BUT I emerged from each encounter unscathed, braver, and smarter for it. I was lucky to not be hurt at all that day. That penny kept me safe and calm under pressure. The penny immediately went from unlucky to lucky - just because of how I thought about it.