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The risks we face: bears, cars, COVID-19

As Chicago announces its return to recreational normal, COVID-19 joins the usual threats to health and safety.

Black bear.
A large black bear similar to the type that ate a woman in Colorado Friday.
Associated Press

A woman was eaten by a bear in Colorado Friday, shortly after my wife and I arrived for a long weekend. Not just mauled; consumed. A bad end. This tragic and gruesome event didn’t give us pause before hitting the trails, however. Such attacks are rare. Plus, it happened near Durango, the southwest corner of the state. Far from Boulder.

Just another risk to consider, along with whether I need those ski-pole-like sticks that older hikers use to keep their balance — not yet — or if we should cut our hike short because of the weather — we did, a good choice, since it began hailing, hard, two hours after we left the mountainside. And of course the most dangerous peril of all: driving to the trailhead.

Not to forget the newest, and therefore scariest, risk: COVID-19. Most hikers wore masks, even though we were outside and more than six feet apart, generally. Those who didn’t have masks would pull out the necks of their T-shirts and tuck their noses inside as we passed, almost as a form of greeting. I am fully vaccinated, so I wore my mask below my chin when nobody was around, slipping it into place as people approached. It seemed the polite thing to do, and I didn’t consider my personal freedom trod upon.

Back home, Lori Lightfoot announced Chicago will lead the charge returning to festivals, concerts and summertime fun. Will people show up? Of course we will. Dinners and music and trips give life the illusion of significance.

That’s why I raced to get my shots. We flew to Colorado, a few days before my wife’s “full immunity” kicked in, to help my mother through some minor surgery. Because of the timing, my wife initially decreed we would wear face shields on the plane. That was scary. Face shields strike me as something nurses wear in intensive care units. To wear one in an airport is a bridge too far, like putting on a welding mask to shake hands. But I was willing to humor her. Heck, I once took Metra downtown wearing a kilt, backwards. What is shame to me?

But the day before the flight, when she practiced putting on the face shield, it was murky—the shields had been bought online—and she abandoned the idea. I uttered a silent prayer of thanks.

So I actually understand those who don’t wear masks. They find it embarrassing, unmanly, unnecessary. Or can’t be bothered, the way one in eight Americans doesn’t wear a seat belt. To me, knowing that some 30,000 Americans will die on the road this year, and that wearing a seat belt cuts in half the chances of being seriously hurt in a crash, it’s worth the three seconds to reach and click. But that’s me. Not everyone values their lives and maybe they have a point. Some have less to lose.

Although vaccination is not a purely personal choice akin to wearing seat belts, since failing to get vaccinated not only puts yourself at risk, but undercuts the “herd immunity” which would keep the coronavirus from spreading and mutating. It’s both reckless and selfish. Then again, there’s a lot of that going around.

Not to mock those who make different safety choices. That stings. Years back, when my wife and I were hiking in bear country, we hung a “bear bell” off our pack — the idea is, the bears hear it and are scared away. But other hikers grinned at us as we passed on the trail. You could see the thought bubble over their heads: “Novices.” So we took the bell off. We didn’t want to be laughed at by strangers more than we didn’t want to be attacked by a bear. That’s people for you.

Speaking of people. Her name was Laney Malavolta. The woman killed by a bear Friday. She was 39, a wine sales rep who loved the outdoors. She was walking her dogs when she encountered the hungry mama bear and her two cubs. I mention this because it’s too easy to view the deaths of other people as abstractions, grist for argument, when they aren’t being ignored completely, like the 579,000 American COVID-19 deaths that get shrugged off by people shrieking about government control, as if prodding them to wear a mask is fun. Colorado wildlife authorities shot the bear and her cubs.