McAbee: Living in the mountains means encouraging our kids to release their inner wild child (column)

Jeff McAbee
Valley Voices
Jeff McAbee
Special to the Daily

It might not have happened like I picture it happening, but as often is the case with conversations with my son, I have to fill in the gaps. Three middle-school cross-country runners, including my son Jack, thought they would go out for a run in the woods last month. Another boy’s father dropped them off in Beaver Creek. They planned to run along the Village to Village trail that connects Beaver Creek to Arrowhead.

The young men ran hard, excited about the developing strength in their bodies and elated at their freedom. Six miles from home, they pushed one another, enjoying the company and the pace. According to my son, as they ambled toward Arrowhead, they noticed movement in the brush ahead of them along the trail, too big for a dog and too black for a deer.

The oldest of the bunch and the fastest pulled up and signaled for the other two boys to stop. He pointed to a large black bear just protruding from the aspens and the willows. They froze.

My son told me that he thought he was going to die, as his heart pounded in his chest. Whether or not they were in any real danger is a subjective matter and is a function of several factors. Numbers were on their side, and the black bear probably did not view them as a viable meal. The physical danger, whether real or perceived was, however, felt deeply by the runners.

On another level, the bear can take on a symbolic spiritual meaning. If you have ever looked up at a hawk or eagle and taken it as a good sign, then you know what I’m talking about. According to the internet, some Native American cultures believed one could draw physical strength, courage and leadership qualities from a bear encounter. Others, such as the Athabascans of Northwestern parts of North America, believe a bear sighting can signify change. Yep, change with teeth and claws.

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It’s significant that I — well, his mother and I — pulled him and his two sisters out of arguably one of the best public schools in Colorado, sold our house in the city and gave up good jobs so that our family could move up to this valley that we love so much, all so that he might venture out in the woods and see a bear and maybe, just maybe, like his cellphone and Xbox a little less. Talk about good change.

Michael Chabon once wrote, “Childhood is or has been or ought to be the great virginal adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger and sometimes calamity.” If a bear can signify change and if our aim was to expose him to “the great virginal adventure,” then on this day, nature delivered.

We — or, rather, I — pray often that he is challenged rather than coddled. My wife and I were thrilled he found himself running through precipitation-soaked woods and encountered a bear imbued with spiritual meaning (vocatus atque non vocatus) even though, in the physical moment, and no one can blame him, he just about wet his pants.

Like any dedicated father, I tried to walk him through some reflection. I asked him if his experience made him more cognizant of his inclusion in a larger community than just humankind. I tried to show him how this was a small first step in his releasing his inner wild man, Der Eisenhans. But to him, it was just something that happened.

He’ll remember it, though. I guarantee it. And I, with poetic license, can remember it any way I want to.

Jeff McAbee lives with his wife, three kids and two dogs in Edwards. More of his writing can be found at, @jeffmcabee on Twitter and Instagram, @steepthinking.

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