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George Catlin, ‘Weapons and Physiognomy of the Grizzly Bear,’ 1846-1848Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
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Stop Being Afraid

I feel fearful and out of place traveling across the country these days. But maybe it’s not you, America, it’s me.

Clayton Fox
April 30, 2021
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George Catlin, ‘Weapons and Physiognomy of the Grizzly Bear,’ 1846-1848Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

I’m afraid of Americans. Aren’t you?

I’ve traveled alone in Europe, South America, Israel. No particular fear to speak of. When I lived in Israel, I was alert while riding the bus, but not in a way that would have suggested I needed to be committed.

I am an alien here. On some level, it could be my inescapable Yid-ness, which includes the nightmares I was raised on when other kids were learning fairy tales. It’s partially the nightmares of my own childhood. But I think really, it has nothing to do with my ethnic or historical or psychological identity. It’s that I don’t understand you anymore, America. I am rightly terrified and appalled. Some of you may feel you have never seen the foaming mouth of evil lurking beneath the veneer of our democracy. Given the events of the past few years, this is hard to believe, but I wonder if maybe you just aren’t going camping often enough.

Fall, 2020. I am reading a copy of the forthcoming novel The Lost Shtetl on my laptop beside the remains of a campfire. My girlfriend, R, and I have been traveling across the country for weeks now. We are driving and camping to avoid any chance of contracting COVID-19. One day in Moab, we find ourselves in one of those well-maintained pay-to-park campgrounds that seem garish but are actually deeply convenient. The campground is full. Families, couples, a father-and-son team.

In The Lost Shtetl, a young religious Jew from a village lost in time sets off through the dark woods to explore big scary gentile Poland. I am struck by how much the idea of exploring big scary gentile worlds resonates with me now. And while fear and Jewry often walk similar paths, my predicament is not, I think, exclusively a Jewish one. I am terrified. All the time.

Most of last summer I was in Seattle staying with my girlfriend’s family. In a fortunate turn of events, her parents are just as frightened of COVID as I am, and therefore were responsible about their pandemic behavior, so I felt safe. That is, anytime we weren’t in the shadow of Mount Rainier.

The first time I saw, I mean really looked at, that mountain, looming so gratuitously large on the horizon, we were spending the day on a rocky beach somewhere on the Sound. Two lawn chairs, books, a beer for my gluten-tolerant girlfriend. On such a beautiful summer day, what is there to fear? Surely not a volcano that is projected to erupt in a northerly direction, possibly destroying a major American city in a matter of hours. Surely not that.

My girlfriend decided we should backpack there, Rainier National Park. Logically, I knew she was right. It would be ludicrous not to get up close and personal with one of the great mountains on the planet. My father climbed it twice. How could I refuse a simple overnight trip? What were the chances, really, of becoming Pliny the Elder, frozen in a tomb of ash forever? Very low.

But, what about a bear attack? Theoretically low—but before we left, I did spend two hours vibrating with terror as I researched everything there is to know about bear safety. Did you know that the bear whistle that is so popular sounds like a dying animal to them, and might have the opposite effect than you intended? Did you know that during a black bear attack you should fight like hell, but if a grizzly charges you, you should turn over and play dead?

We arrived at the park later than R wanted us to. We found ourselves in a bit of traffic getting in and once we did, we couldn’t find the trailhead. Just past the gate into the park, there was a large, trailerlike ranger’s office. He pointed us in the right direction for the trailhead and because I couldn’t resist, I asked, “I’m sorry, any advice on bear etiquette?”

“Well, just, hang your food up on the pole, and don’t bring anything fragrant in the tent, and you should be fine.” I thanked him while secretly hating his calm, sensible response.

We found the trailhead. I insisted we make noise on our hike to deter any possible surprises. So rather than enjoying the natural majesty around us, my nonneurotic girlfriend and I sang, played music, and continually uttered the phrase (in a deep and commanding voice) “We are humans!” Apparently, loud, authoritative speech lets bears know that you are not an animal to be hunted. We also took turns declaiming, “La, La, La!” in the tone of a demented Furby.

At the campsite, after hanging our bags up on the bear pole for the night, we retired to our tent for a game of cards and hopefully, sleep.

But I now had to face the reality that if some meth lab psycho came out of the woods looking to fuck with some city brats, no one would even hear us scream. I was camping in the woods with no one to call for help, separated from the darkness by little more than a thin sheet of nylon. I’ve never been afraid of the boogeyman. I’ve always been terrified by the real stuff, men lurking among us with a dead stare and no remorse, animals filled with venom or claws, or the possibility of contracting a terminal illness. Would I be able to fight for my survival? For R’s? And why am I always expecting I’ll have to?

At some point late last summer, I decided that if I was going to see my parents before the winter of death, I would need to drive from Seattle to Chicago while Chicago was still warm enough for outdoor socialization. I planned a brisk four-day route. I like to get where I’m going; the open road also scares me.

Somewhere in Idaho or western Montana, we had to pull in for gas at one of those grand truck stop slash roadhouse places. As much as we peed on the side of the road on this trip, we sometimes took the risk of “using the facilities” so that we could shit. I didn’t feel secure about lingering in the gift shop, where “masks are required” but were infrequently worn. After a healthy dose of hand sanitizer in the car, we were back on the road.

Our resting place for the day was a gorgeous state park about two hours east. We arrived at dusk. This is the time when bears are most active and also not a great time to be setting up a tent. Upon arrival, we stopped to check the welcome board, which informed us “CAUTION! Mother bear and cubs spotted in the area. Active. Lock away all food. Carry bear spray.”

We hadn’t brought any bear spray. But I tried to play it cool. After all, on Rainier we were totally alone, miles from the next campsite. This one looked full.

The host was nowhere to be found. Suddenly, two women appeared, out for a dusk jaunt with a dog. “Hello!” I shouted jauntily. “Are you the host?”

“Oh, no, sorry about that. He’ll be back I’m sure! We’re just out for a walk. I live in a cabin down the road.”

“Would you mind, um, well, anything we should know about the bear situation?”

“Oh, she’s a BIG fucker. Dragged my steel trash can halfway down the street. Just you know. Lock up your food.”

“Oh, right, sure.”

“Are you all … are you camping or?” The place was mostly full of RV’s.

“We are, we are, we have a tent.”

“Oh. Well, you’ll be fine. There have been some campers this summer with tents.”

“Right. OK. Well, thanks!” Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. We drive around to find a suitable site. By now the sun is setting rapidly and I am trying not to betray my rising terror. No signs of the bear.

R gently suggests we open a bottle of wine. I’m sure she opened it while looking at me with a blend of compassion and pity, but I don’t know because I was furiously trying to make our dinner on the butane cook stove, wanting to get it eaten and done and cleaned before nightfall, and the arrival of the bears.

By now, my head was being torn into shreds; I’d out-panicked myself. Things get fuzzy from there. Something involving Tylenol, Advil, and weed gummies. The upside was, with all my attention focused on my migraine, my subconscious had decided that I no longer cared if some Unabomber type came to slit our throats and take our protein bars—it would have been a mercy.

The next day I had planned for us to reach the Badlands. I had been to the Badlands once before, as a boy on a family road trip. I remember loving it there. Though my childhood was frequently terrifying, as a rule, children aren’t afraid of what they don’t know to fear. The Airbnb listing was for an “Authentic 1880’s Homestead Cabin.” No electricity, no bathroom, bring your own sheets and pillows. But I’m a former Bernie voter (2016) from Los Angeles, so I assumed it would be chic. I mean, we were mostly using a tent anyway, so this would be an upscale tent with walls, right?

The drive into the Badlands at dusk is magnificent. Just like the movie. Through our speakers, Dax Shepard interviews Ethan Hawke, saying something about poetry and not wanting to die with regrets, but I am not listening because although we hadn’t seen another car for 30 miles, we just drove past two cars pulled over on the side of the road. It looks like a woman has broken down and is getting help from a man. Should we turn back? Is he going to pretend to help her and then murder her? Terry Malick, Ted Bundy. Vive l’Amerique!

We don’t turn back. We’re running out of time. We turn onto a stony road up to a massive plateau overlooking a massive ranch. One guest house is well lit and inside there is a family eating dinner. We stand outside in N95s waiting for our contact to show us the way to the cabin. He arrives, maskless, and stands extremely close. He points across the property to the nearly dark horizon. “See down there? Past the stacks of hay? Down by the river? Behind those trees? You’ll find it down there.”

Perhaps the American animus starts in our wildlife, in our tectonic plates and mega-volcanoes, in the F5 twisters that routinely slash and kill, in the relentlessness of the hurricanes that batter our shores. Chaotic, divine movements, beyond the grasp of man—G-d’s country indeed.

I ask, because I am a living Maccabee, “Any rattlesnake advice?”

“Well, they’re out there, but I don’t think you’re gonna see one.” The man disappears. We drive down the long road toward our site. We aren’t sure exactly what the fuck his directions meant. The scraping noise from the car’s undercarriage is so loud it’s almost comical. We cannot turn back.

Our cabin has an outhouse, which I instantly abhor. About 20 yards away there is a large metal wall, behind which are stored endless bales of hay. The meth lab psycho narrative transforms into an image of a lonely ranch hand drunk on “shine.”

The cabin is not chic. The mattresses are stained with all manner of detritus; notably, blood spots. I suggest to R that we oughtn’t sleep on those beds. In this matter, she instantly agrees, and for once I don’t even feel like an embarrassing nebbish, though when she suggests we plant our tent in the adjacent patch of lawn, I counter by pulling up an article on rattlesnakes sleeping next to tents for warmth. We decide we’ll sleep in the hatchback.

There is a massive moon against a glorious sky, but my concerns are with the snakes. There are also coyotes about, and we’re grilling steaks. Bubbe wouldn’t like this. She would say “Dis is meshugeh.” It takes an hour to rearrange the car so that we can sleep in the back. Sure, I regularly turn on my iPhone flashlight and scan the surrounding bushes for shiny red eyes but otherwise, I’m chill. After we settle down, I begin to panic about the butane canisters we have in the sealed car. We clear them out. I worry we missed one. After a long debate, depriving my asylum nurse of rest, I relent and continue my silent watch for the depraved cowboy who never comes.

After a couple of weeks in Chicago, where my fears were, sadly, more stereotypically of gun violence (my brother’s apartment is down the block from a CVS which was recently featured in a wild night of murder across the city) we headed back West, away from my parents, brother, and two pregnant friends bringing new life into this world. The first two nights felt pretty safe. Even when we stopped at a small BBQ restaurant in Salina, Kansas, where all the people were maskless, I felt OK. We sat in the park outside the restaurant, ate in the grass, and watched teenagers be teenagers and moms be moms and no man made us afraid.

Back to the campsite in Moab, on the third night: We ate vegetarian chili and leftover cheese curds from our fast-food lunch. It was gorgeous all around, but I couldn’t properly appreciate it, as I was too focused on our neighboring campers: an aging father with the look of a man who knows how to build things with his hands and his gangly son who looked to be about my age, and whose voice immediately set my hairs on edge—a kind of affectless whine that I associate with young school shooters everywhere. Father and son set up their separate tents with an almost slapstick bickering that would’ve made Lucy and Desi proud. It was clear that they loved each other and equally clear that their relationship was a difficult one.

As the sun sank beneath the horizon and R and I were finishing our food, the young man popped his head over the small hedge dividing our campsites and said, “Hi there! Sorry not to greet you earlier, we’ve just been setting up! Very rude of me. I hope you have an excellent evening!”

“Thank you, same to you all,” R and I said, almost in unison. Of course, R was wishing him well in the fraternal way that communal campsites are supposed to engender. I, meanwhile, thought I caught an inhuman gleam in his eye, which I didn’t mention to R, both because I felt she was at the end of her rope with my panic attacks and because I didn’t want our deranged neighbor to hear me. And so, again, even though we are surrounded by dozens of other campers and only about 50 yards from the main building, I spend much of the night imagining that this gangly emo psychopath was coming for us.

Later, R tells me she overheard the young man saying something to his father about his service and his struggle with PTSD—or something like that. That sounds right, I think. Then I feel pathetic shame that my response to a suffering young veteran is animalistic fear.

I thought that when I got back to my comfortable corner of Los Angeles, the fear would subside, behind my two deadbolts and my stockpile of N95s. But now the unraveling has come in earnest. I don’t feel the visceral fear I felt in the American wild, but I don’t have to. The wild out there has been unleashed in here.

My terror of bears, and snakes, and coyotes is real, and also symbolic. The animals are just doing what they have always done, living their lives. But they are wild. They are wild and free and beholden to nothing except instinct. That scares me. I cannot speak to them with reason. They will not understand. Perhaps the American animus starts in our wildlife, in our tectonic plates and mega-volcanoes, in the F5 twisters that routinely slash and kill, in the relentlessness of the hurricanes that batter our shores. Chaotic, divine movements, beyond the grasp of man—G-d’s country indeed.

The answer for so many of my friends is to put their hope in Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey and other assorted oligarchs.

This, by the way, is terrifying. These companies know where we like to eat, what our interests are, who we’re fucking, and more or less what time we get up and go to bed. Amazon builds clouds for the CIA these days. Even more unnerving is the fact that my generation thinks that this is a price worth paying if it means “fixing” America.

When we departed Seattle in late September, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg z’’l had just died. No doubt some people in eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa (places that my fellow Angelenos regularly mock and yet have also begun to gentrify) were very happy to see Amy Coney Barrett be nominated to take her place.

But as we drove through those places we saw something beautiful, maybe more beautiful than the mountains and prairies. Flags, flown at half mast in her honor. Not at federal buildings, or even police stations. At small businesses, at town halls. Individual people had to make the choice to lower those flags. To honor a woman who was the best of what America can be.

It didn’t do much at the time to dissipate my panic at shadowy armed men or hungry animals, but upon further reflection, it suggests that we might all share in common the desire to transcend our fearful animal selves. I am trying to transcend my own every time I sleep beyond a deadbolt and chain.

Clayton Fox writes Tablet’s daily newsletter, The Scroll, alongside Sean Cooper and Jacob Siegel. He has written independently for Tablet, Real Clear Investigations, Brownstone Institute, American Theatre magazine, Los Angeles Magazine and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @clayfoxwriter