What you don't see can be more terrifying than what you do see. Horror and suspense films use that cliché a lot. But it’s great advice for children’s book writers, too. And it’s absolutely true…as I recently learned.
A couple months ago, my wife and I were checking out a local nature preserve. The sign said Closed After Dusk, but we figured if we got caught, we’d just say we must have not seen the sign…since it was so dusky. After walking about a mile on a dirt path beneath a canopy of trees we saw a second sign. We leaned up close, squinted hard, and learned that mountain lions were often seen roaming the preserve and that they have been known to attack without warning! “Do you want to keep going?” my wife asked. But I wasn’t there. I’d already started walking back. My wife, Ms. Nature Lover, knew just what to do. “Don’t panic, but make lots of noise. That way you won’t surprise them and they’ll be less likely to attack.” “What kind of noise?” I asked. So she started yelling as we walked. “Hey, Mr. Mountain Lion! My husband’s afraid of you! He’s terrified! You’ve really got him freaking out!!!” I was walking really fast by then and I swear my wife was right behind me, intentionally cracking every twig in her path.
To round out the cliché, here’s what happened this weekend in Yosemite National Park. We honeymooned there four years ago, so for our anniversary we went back. On our way out of the park, my wife wanted to hop in the river at a spot with no one else around, recreating something we did four years ago. So we parked on the side of the road, found a tiny trail that led us across a meadow, through some trees, straight to an embankment that led down to a beautiful river. I had been walking a few paces ahead and started taking off my backpack. Glancing to my right, I noticed, partly hidden in the dark shadow of a large tree trunk, a massive black bear! It was just sitting there, admiring the beautiful river. They say bears don’t want to be seen by humans, so I was a little shocked that it was just…there. Maybe it was because my wife hadn’t been yelling, “My husband’s afraid of you! He’s terrified! You’ve really got him freaking out!!!” But there it was…about twenty feet away. Maybe it smelled my stockpile of almonds, pine nuts, and dried cranberries, but suddenly it knew we were there. And I knew it knew we were there because it turned it’s massive head and light brown snout right at me. My wife was still a few paces back when I turned around and (quite calmly, actually) said, “Bear. Let’s go.”
It was so weird, but because I knew the bear was there (and because I knew it saw us and didn’t start charging) I wasn’t freaked out at all. Okay, I started freaking out the further we got from it because I kept turning around imagining it jumping out of the trees and charging us across the meadow. But seeing it was…well...kind of cool. It was Yosemite National Park and it felt entirely appropriate to see a bear sitting there, admiring the river.
Anyway, my wife hated it. The entire ride home she kept saying, “It’s not fair. I’m Ms. Nature Lover, yet you get to see a black bear.”
Happy Anniversary, babe!