Amphitheater National Forest Campground in Ouray, Colorado

“Excuse me! Excuse me, did you say bears?”  The question tumbled out of my mouth as I walked over to edge of our campsite, where Joe was conversing with the campground host — a grandfatherly looking man with silver gray mustache and matching hair peeking out from under his off-white cowboy hat. 

“Yes, ma’am,” replied the host.  “Bears live here. You’re just visiting.” 

He was dressed in denim shirt and a green vest, and he talked with us from the driver’s seat of his green, 4WD Kawasaki Mule — the off-road equivalent of a golf cart.  He cocked his head, thought for a moment, and then added, “Well, we haven’t had any bears in … four days. Do you have a panic button on your car keys?”

Joe nodded yes.

“Hit that or your horn and they will move on. They’re looking for coolers and if you don’t have one they will move on to the next campsite.”

In that instant, I pictured a black bear moseying through our campsite with his nose in the air, then pausing mid-stride to sniff. Gesturing toward our gray van I asked the host, “What about our food stored inside?”

“They won’t bother you in there.”  

I wasn’t reassured.  On a 1999 family camping trip to Yosemite we saw a Toyota sedan with its passenger side door peeled open like a sardine can.  A bear went through the backseat to access the car’s trunk and retrieve a cooler filled with food.  The remnants of the bear’s midnight snack were scattered across a field adjacent to the parking lot. 

Before rolling away in his cart, the host pointed to the black pole with hook installed near the picnic table and said, “That’s not to hang your food or trash. It’s a light pole.” 

As I looked over to the pole and imagined attaching a lantern, I asked Joe, “How did bears come up?”

“I asked about a trail into town and he said that we’d be hiking home in the dark and to watch out for bears.”

“I vote for eating here.”   

As we sat down together - inside the van - for meal of sandwiches and fresh veggies, Joe looked up from his plate and said, “I checked, our keys don’t have a panic button.”

“But we do have a horn?” I asked hopefully.

“If you’re in the van…”

I nodded.  Of course, if I was inside there would be no need to sound the alarm. I’ll admit, I wanted to see a bear without interacting with one of the hungry beasts.  I did marvel at the number campers sleeping in tents, not at all worried about the local wildlife. 

The next morning I heard some rustling outside the van. My heart started to beat a little faster, then I realized it was just Joe.  He slid the van’s side door open, poked his head in and said, “You have to come see the view from the overlook.  It’s amazing!” 

I pulled on some clothes, threw on a hat and coat, and then followed Joe.  Yesterday evening, we pulled into the campsite just as the last of the day’s light leaked from the sky and with all the bear talk I wasn’t that interested in leaving the van. This morning there was a chill in the air and the sound of squirrels chittering at each other as if they were broadcasting the meals being prepared at each campsite. 

At the overlook the tree-covered mountains appeared to cascade down from the bright blue sky, while the red banded mountains looked like a natural staircase to the valley floor. We peered down into the town of Ouray and noticed the main avenue was paved but most of the side streets were dirt.  Enchanted by the view, I was looking up and almost missed a doe and young deer munching on the grass at the edge of the road.  We looked at each other for a moment, then the pair headed down a hiking trail. 

In the bright morning light, our campsite seemed like the perfect breakfast spot.  Joe used our portable stove to make coffee, eggs and toast.  After bravely consuming our meal outside we spent the day in town.

That night, back at our campsite we once again ate our dinner sitting at the picnic table.  Just before dusk, I walked our trash over to the campground’s bear-proof dumpster. Passing by, I overheard a snippet of conversation between the host and a camper trying to select a site.  She said, “You’re scaring me!” 

I wanted to call out, “No need to worry.  The guy camping next to us is sleeping in a hammock. You’ll be safe inside your van.”