“The Professional”

 “I have travelled this path before.  The markings on the great sequoia will comfort me until I see them no more.” – unknown

Scents of eucalyptus and sycamore permeated the warm Southern California air.  The fine brown dust particles kicking off of Martin’s paws showered the lazy blue bellied lizards occupying the hot rocks along the trail. Our mid Sunday’s trek down the mountainside to Wiley’s for corn nuts and Dr. Pepper had no reason to be different than any other, EXCEPT for the blinking blue lights on top of an animal control truck at our paths end.

Approaching the commotion, my heart went out to a limp bear lying on the concrete next to a large industrial trash container.  Martin and I watched the men lifting and stuffing the young brown bear into a cylindrical tube mounted on a trailer behind the truck.  Martin’s ears began to lay back as he let out a low growl.  I tried calming him down by placing my hand gently on his head while at the same time holding his collar until the loading scene played out.

The Forestry Service truck towed the tranquilized bear away, eastward towards the onramp to the 210 freeway.  The adolescent bear, now twice tagged as dangerous to humans, unknowingly, was beginning his transport to a testing center near Yellowstone National Park.

The silhouette of the San Gabriel mountain range gave way to the blank canvas of the high desert, slowly erasing the truck and trailer.  The sound of turning wheels diminished to a constant hum as the bumping over concrete hypnotically played in and out of young Zachary’s sedated head.

After six hours, sensing his confinement, Zachary violently arched his back up and down, pushing air through his dry throat until he growled into the darkness of the steel tube tightly encompassing his body……..The sounds of wheels came to a slow stop.  Zachary faintly heard muffled voices approaching and then felt a sharp prick to his already sore paw…….he instantly forgot his predicament and returned to the numbing sounds and motions of the road.


“That will be $1.26 for the Dr. Pepper…..if you want corn nuts, all we have today are originals”.

The brown bag holding our Sunday snack tore where the splashes of the creek running opposite our assent had landed.  I found a large boulder to accommodate Martin and me for our break at the waters edge, there realizing I was beginning a “tale” on my own.

Putting the empty wrappers into my backpack, I wondered if my Grandfather would have approved?  It would be a story not passed down.

Further up the path, we came to my Grandfather’s cabin (where we now reside).  After setting my backpack down,  I spread out his colored spirit blanket over the old cot on the porch before laying down.  The soft sound of bubbling water flowing over the rocks of the nearby creek gently delivered the restful rewards that only Sunday holds.  With a deep exhalation, I quietly gave thanks and pleasantly merged into my Grandfather’s infinite conversation with the whales………

     “A brief respite until first light and the memory of your love” 

Early Spring air over Montana hosted the final waltz of cumulous clouds crashing into the steep cragged cliffs of the Grand Tetons.  The sun’s path led in its timeless dance, recharging all surviving winter below.   Bright funnels of warm light filtered in and out of the changing cloud formations, variably illuminating the green blankets of crested wheatgrass and Douglas fir surrounding Zachary’s listless body below.

His wide head laid gently off to the side, one closed eye averting the heavens, the other into the earth beneath him.  Air pumped gently through his wet black nose, fueling the slow crescendo of warmth in and on his awakening furry body.  Zachary began to feel the piercing of the second tag in his ear and his tender paw, vaguely recollecting he and his mother’s inaugural emergence from the darkness of their first den together above “the gem city of the foothills”, Monrovia.

A glaring swath of white started to ripple….the spinning edges allowed shadow and color into the broad blur encompassing Zachary’s vision.  The broken audio back and forth of different birds chirping bewildered him.  The wind and sound of rushing water trumped the reverberations entering the brown bear’s steadily improving focus as the scent of salmon and blueberry began to overwhelm him.

Zachary’s head lifted slowly towards the enticing aromas.  Twenty yards away a giant grizzly bear was jumping up and down on a cooler wantonly grunting, yearning to reap the rewards of the additional treasures locked within the three unopened “test containers” strewn about him.

The now awaking young bear struggled to pull himself up……after finding his center, Zachary instinctually moved slowly towards an open container between the grizzly and the water’s edge.  Before managing to get within ten feet, the grizzly pulled up and charged the smaller “newcomer”.  Zachary, panicked and, rapidly retreated to the cover of a nearby tree, quickly climbing up the trunk, startling all the occupant birds away. A lone pigeon briefly lifted into the air with wings flapping and then gently landed on Zachary’s head….. almost comically, together in shock, they observed the giant grizzly’s lumbered return to the unopened containers wondering if there would be any spoils when and if the giant grizzly ever left.

“Restless Riders”

To avoid Amsterdam’s winter, Martin and I had returned to the San Gabriel’s, visiting my mother to take in some “thawing time” while working on my Grandfather’s cabin.  We regularly took breaks by the babbling brook until the melodies on my guitar would become stale. This process repeated until culminating into a need to be somewhere else…… off to some adventure greater than our typical and predictable Sunday treks to Wiley’s.  I decided it was time to venture further out……

I kept one bag of corn nuts out and stashed the rest in the cooler on top of three large twist tops of Dr. Pepper in preparation for our two and one half day journey to the base of the Grand Tetons. I slid the plastic box in below the bed hosting Martin’s favorite spot on top of my grandfather’s spirit blanket.  With little deference to all the commotion, Martin perked up long enough to acknowledge my presence before leaving me as usual, to revisit the memories of his earlier haunts…. (likely Sara and the sands of Oregon’s Manzanita).

When I turned the ignition, Martin jumped into the front passenger seat and stuck his head out the rolled down window to let his nose moisten.  While taking in our newest trek he adapted to the winds outside his window…. turning on and off his baby helicopter tail rotations giving notice of his approval.  With each manual shifting of the gears, the now greying “golden man pup” clumsily met the challenge of maintaining his balance at shotgun while the radio blared the appropriate accompaniment to our excursion and free flow of  corn nuts ……crunching together we were now officially on the road again!

“The New Arrivals”

When we came up to the entrance of the “testing center” it was later afternoon.  The sun’s  illuminations onto the massive silhouette of the Gran Tetons began to transgress into almost a fake cardboard cutout silhouetted by the setting sun.  I was so occupied by the transitions in the view, I almost crashed into the gate blocking entry to the facility.  Glancing beyond the barricade, I could see a couple of steel cylindrical tube trailers used to transport the bears, parked next to an empty pen built with thick high wire.

A “private forest ranger” complete with badge, patches and an artificial Canadian Mounty hat peered through my rolled down window to acknowledge our arrival.  After immediately reassuring me that most all credit cards were accepted, he handed me a combination price sheet/map pin pointing all the surrounding two star motels, recommending Molly’s where we could get the best chicken pot pie in the state or if that wasn’t “our bag” he pointed to a brand new fast food venture not more than two hundred feet from our exact position…..

“You’ll have to wait ’till tomorrow ’cause the center is about to close.   It’s probably for the best anyway, ’cause the “bear activity” worth seeing is usually early around breakfast time.” With a wink and a fatherly smile he added “make sure your ‘service dog’ is on leash when you come back…. there will only be a “slight” extra cash charge for him.”

Martin and I found a place up river to camp out without much difficulty and after taking a hike along the Madison River, we prepared a modestly warm meal courtesy of the Coleman.  We wolfed down our food and sensing the sudden material drop in the temperature, quickly picked up the pace in preparing to bed down.

Looking back down valley, except for the dramatic mountains and rushing river, the twinkling small village of neon and plastic seemed to me as out of place as my first view of our tranquilized bear lying on the pavement that day we first saw him in Monrovia.  I began to wonder if we would ever be able to determine what became of him.

“A River Dog’s Instinct”

The next morning when we arrived at the gate, Martin’s instincts kicked in as he immediately recognized our bear from the San Gabriels. He anxiously jumped through the open window of the bus and sped toward him.  Martin galloped along the the parameter of the testing center getting dangerously close to the swift flow of the Madison river.  His excitement trumped his judgment and into the water he went, riding the rapids over the rocks until rushing completely out of site.

In a panic, I backed up the bus, u-turned back across the bridge and raced down river along a creviced dirt road bordering the rivers edge. Minutes later, incredibly I found Martin “shaking off” on the opposite side of the river.

When siting me he began barking and nervously attempted to cross over to me.  I begged him to stay and weighed my alternatives.

I could either drive back up stream to cross to Martin’s side (hoping he would stay in place) or I could dive immediately into the river and hope to have enough time/room to successfully cross to Martin’s side before reaching him. Unsure of what he might do if I left him alone, I took off my shoes and hit the swift cold current of the Madison. Instantly, I found myself a quarter mile down river.  Martin did his best to keep up while negotiating the trail along the river bank, but was losing ground fast….. in that moment, all I could hear was the forceful rebound of the water against my ears as I emerged and submerged above and below the water line as the fast flow engulfed me.

Ten minutes and two miles down river later, my limbs became as numb as jello.  I began contemplating the space between the beats of my heart, noting that they were getting longer and emptier until I began to feel  invisible.

When I awoke, my head and one shoulder was beached in a tide pool amongst the sticks and sand. My legs floated over the river’s open invitation for me to rejoin its long flow to the great Gulf of Mexico.

I struggled to stand and regain my thoughts.  Turning towards the river I saw Martin at its center go by, no longer barking but silently struggling to keep his head above the water.  Without hesitation, I dove in and swam with what I had left until reaching him. I grabbed him by the nap in his neck to keep his head above water, holding on, praying for a stall in the relentless current.

There would be no memory of passing three forks and merging into the great Missouri River or flowing onto the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico.  My first recollection was finding myself surrounded by multitudes of other floating bobbling mortals, accompanied by their noble companion dogs…..

Retrievers, Terriers, Bull Dogs, Mutts, Collies, Spaniels, the complete family of canines, all dog paddling above water joyously barking with one and other floating around with their human projects as if happily coexisting in a giant azure aquatic bark park….. congratulating each other on bringing their companions safely through to the end of the river.  In unison we all (human and dog) sang together……

“The river flows, it flows to the sea and wherever that river goes, that’s where we want to be.  Flow river flow.  Let your waters wash down.  Take us from this road.  To some other town.” – Roger McGuinn “Ballad of Easy Rider” (words slightly altered)

After a respite from all the singing, when I opened my mouth to speak to another floater to my left nothing would come out.  Strangely, rather than feeling frustrated, I was comfortable with my newly acquired audio deficiency.  Being part of something where no one spoke or was uneasy with silence was settling and refreshing.  The concert with the singing dogs closed with a shared and absolute understanding.

Currents no longer mattered.  We were free to bob and drift any which way in the waters of the great gulf….. Whether we floated out into the Caribbean or through the Panama Canal into the Pacific no longer mattered.  Floating away alone or with another no longer carried the consequence of fear or guilt.  Only love prevailed.

“Fountain Redux”

The lapping of the water reverberated off of the fountain’s edge.  When I opened my eyes I beheld the hands attached to me not making sense.  Except for the shade provided by the structure over me, I only knew it to be an extremely bright day.  I would have gladly returned to my “nap of memories” had it not been for the familiar scent of eucalyptus and melody of my Grandfather crossing the square.  I slowly found my feet traveling across a hardened red clay pathway towards the syncopated picking on a lone guitar.

For a moment I paused and looked back for Martin, only to see a pack of dogs in slow motion, frolicking in the square next to an old bull tied to a post in front of a shop full of trinkets and blankets.  I felt no pain or sorrow in my heart. There were no spaces left between the beats open for me to contemplate….. I only heard the music and barking of the dogs as together they slowly drowned out the sound of the fountain’s water works.

Some days later, after returning to my cottage by the Pacific, I read an article regarding a band of professional bears that worked together at a testing center near Yellowstone.  Some were black bears, others brown.  There were Euro bears, California Grizzlies, Russian and several others being introduced to the project of testing containers for being “bear-proof”.  I smiled at the thought of these survivors of continental drift once again united in helping their brethren survive in a world that once belonged to them.

Until we meet again, remember….I will always be yours in earnest,

Simon Birdsong

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