The Bear Lady inspires grad students' next trip

Editor’s note: Beginning today and running every Tuesday for the next two months, The Daily Illini is featuring a series of columns by Guy Tal, a graduate student who is bicycling across Alaska and Canada. Guy, who has previously biked across other parts of the United States, Eastern Europe and Israel, is submitting articles about his experience. Because of The Daily Illini’s two-week publication break, the next two columns will only run online.

The Bear Necessities

It began with The Bear Lady.

Her name was Martin (read: Mar-teen), she had a thick braid of silver hair that swung at her hips, thighs like bear boxes, two sleeping bags strapped to her rear rack, two bear mace cans strapped to her handlebars and a quickly dwindling bag of biscuits. She traveled alone.

She first materialized around the corner of a mountain, stopped beside us at the supply store where we were resting and grunted a greeting. If there weren’t three of us there to corroborate I’d say she was a vision. Two friends and I had just begun a bicycle trip across the U.S. We were in Oregon, several hundred miles in, several hours into the morning. This was our first cross-country trip and we were proud of ourselves for having recently put in a 55-mile day.

“How far are you going?” we asked.

“Chile,” she said, consuming a biscuit.

“Where’d you start?”

“Alaska.” She swallowed another biscuit.

“What are the cans on the front of your bike for?”

“Grizzlies.” Biscuit. “Twelve so far.” Biscuit.

“Are you with anyone?”

“A German, briefly.” Biscuit. “He left.” Biscuit. “Grizzlies.” Biscuit.

“Wow. The entire continent?”

“Yes.” Biscuit.

“Where do you sleep?”

She put her biscuits away, straddled her bike preparing to leave, looked us square in the eyes. “Most nights I sleep in the wild.” At the time I believed I’d met a Norse god. 5,000 miles later I couldn’t help but think, “I’m a third of the way through the continent. . .”

Several years later, I am on the cusp of finishing a new degree in Bioinformatics at the U of I.

Friends and family inevitably ask what I intend to do with such a degree. “Fly to Alaska,” I always reply, wishing for a biscuit. “Bike south.” Call it avoidance, a distraction to steer the conversation away from careers. A new series of assaults ensue: “How much will this cost?” It’s a valid (though disappointing) question.

“I don’t know.”

“Won’t you get cold?” It’s another valid (and equally disappointing) question.

“I don’t know.”

My friend Dan was different. Somehow, he simply decided to come. The trip would be a culmination of both our degrees, an odyssey to clear our minds of academia. Perhaps he wanted to avoid career conversations too.

So one day, some months ago, we bought our tickets. Several weeks ago, we shipped our bikes.

We leave Aug. 2 with no definite date of return. We’ll complete our degrees when we get back; the trip is no longer a culmination. It’s better than that: a celebration, a momentary catharsis. Airplane regulations being what they are, we will be picking up two bear mace cans when we land. And, of course, a pack of biscuits.

See you on the mountain.

Guy is a graduate student.