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What a Gaze of Raccoons Taught Me About Fear photo

When I arrive at my assigned campsite I find Cheerios scattered everywhere. I brush them off the picnic table and they fall to the concrete slab underneath. I make no further effort to clean them up; some animal will come eat them soon. I leave my bike—which I rode up from the city—and head to the showers. I turn the rusty knob and wait for the water to warm up. When it's ready I get in with my clothes on because they are covered in sand. Everything has been covered in sand ever since a few hours ago when a rogue wave slammed me down into the surf and dragged me up the beach like I was a dead animal.  

After the shower I gather my clothes into a wet bundle and walk back to the campsite. I am inside my tent arranging my sleeping pad and sleeping bag when I hear something snickering. It is close and it makes my ears perk up. I stick my head out but I see nothing. Then I look back at the concrete under the picnic table I notice that all the cheerios are gone.


My first morning at the campsite I sleep in. When I crawl out of my tent and stand for the first time the heat makes me feel dizzy. I take a second to find my bearings. There is my bike leaning up against the picnic table. And one of my red bike bags. But its companion bag is missing. At first I am confused—I can't remember ever separating the bags. Then confusion turns to alarm. Half of my belongings are in that bag. Did someone just walk away with it in the night? Adrenaline pumps through my body as I do a full turn in place.

But oh, there it is, on the ground at the campsite next door, contents spilling out on the dirt.

It's obvious—the way it has been so carelessly abandoned and the way that only the food was touched—that animals got to it. They are the kinds of bags that buckle closed at the top and the buckle on my tampered-with bag remains shut but the bag has been forced open and a very particular food—the dried fruit—snatched out and scattered everywhere. This was clearly the work of something with small, deft hands. The suspect: a raccoon.

I don't like this at all. I don't like that a raccoon ate my food and I don't like the idea that it touched my stuff with it's human-like claws. I imagine it sticking its hands in my bag, feeling with its pointy little fingers, snatching at the peanut butter and the energy bars, figuring out what it can get into, pulling out the bag of dried fruit, cutting up the plastic with its teeth, sticking its wet nose in it, contaminating everything with rabies and other foreign diseases. Big, black, night-vision eyes watching my tent. The scene makes me shiver.


I grew up with wild animals. Kind of. We lived in one of those new subdivisions that was all by itself out in the middle of farmland. We were settlers. We were sprawl. Our neighborhood was nice and neat but out back there was a barbed wire fence that separated our manicured yard from a pasture with horses. There was a opossum that I found hanging upside down in the garage. And a fox that stood regally against the fence line in the dewy mornings. Wild animals with teeth and claws and loud stomping hooves. But I needn't be scared. That's what the adults told me. In fact, the animals were scared of me.

So when a small bird flew down one day and pecked its way through the shiny granola bar wrapper and left with a chunk of sweet chocolate chips I was appalled. How dare this bird not be afraid of me. Didn't it know I could crush it in my hand? But, I guess, I hadn't really done anything to deserve this bird's fear. And after all I was not king of the wild. Kings are not scared of small animals, deserted towns, the dark.


I jolt awake. Outside my tent something walks in the gravel, cackles. There are many and they are talking to each other. Something brushes against the nylon of my tent and I jump out of my sleeping bag and into a crouching position. My heart surges in my chest. I turn on my headlamp and yelp at a small dark figure standing just outside the mesh of my tent. “Get out of here!” I yell. I grab the only plausible weapon which is my full water bottle. It would definitely hurt to get hit in the head by this, but also I don't think my aim is that good. And surely they would retaliate.

I am shaking, considering for the first time the damage that six raccoons could do me if they wanted. The image of them latching on to me, their claws and their teeth that are wet and sharp. Outside they knock over one of my bags. There is another one creeping up to my mesh door. I shine the headlamp everywhere. I hit the sides of my tent to make it smack and ripple hoping it will scare them away. But these animals are not scared of me. They linger outside my tent.

I try to go to sleep with my headlamp still on, but I just watch time. It's 3am, then 3:15, then 3:30. I decide to just get up and pack up and leave. I was going to leave today anyway. Inside my tent I roll up my sleeping bag and sleeping pad, all the while my ears attentive to every cracking twig and trembling leaf. My hands shake while I unzip the tent door. I jump out quickly and shine the light all over so that I can put myself in a position of running or fighting. But I see nothing. The 'coons have scattered. My bags are face down in the gravel but otherwise undamaged.

In the dark I take down my tent and pack up my bike. I ride out with my headlamp on underneath my helmet. There are few streetlights here and the morning is misty. Near the campground exit I point my headlamp towards something ahead. It is big, solid, protruding from the haze. Then I recognize it is a deer and I am relieved. But when I get closer he doesn't move out of the road. He glows in the spotlight of my headlamp with flickers of dust and ocean spittle around him. Branch-like antlers reach out from his head. As we are about to pass I see that he is bigger than I am on my bike and my chest suddenly swells and sinks at the realization that he could push me over with almost no effort and pierce through me with an antler. We maintain eye contact as I pass and I shiver in the dark.


When the sun starts to come up I feel my body unravel, the tension evaporates with the morning ocean mist and I feel safe again in the light, in the street, amidst shopping centers and honking cars and other things constructed by humans. The sun comes out. It is a new world. On the shoulder ahead I see something in the road, could be a discarded blanket, a lost car part. When I come upon it I see it is a raccoon. It is belly down, chin on the pavement, like a dog resting. Its eyes are open and it looks like it is staring at me. It is not clear whether it is dead or paralyzed.

There is a feeling, rushing up, running through my body. Here in the daylight on the human-made highway I am a king again. But I don't want to be. For a moment I am nostalgic for the night when the raccoons and the deer and I were colleagues in the wild.


My parents still in live in my childhood home. But the pasture of horses is gone. Instead there is a house with a backyard pool and more houses around it. I asked my mom recently if she remembered the fox and she said of course. It's still here. And there are coyotes too.

 “Coyotes?” I was surprised.

 My mom explained, “There's a story going around the neighborhood that someone saw them on the golf course one night carrying away a little dog.”

Yes, I am sorry for the little dog. But also it just seems right. I hope the coyotes roam the golf course forever.

image: Anne Foster