“I have travelled this path before. The markings on the great sequoia will comfort me until I see them no more.”
Scents of eucalyptus and sycamore permeated the warm Southern California air. Fine brown dust particles kicked off of Martin’s paws, showering the lazy blue bellied lizards occupying the hot rocks bordering the trail. Our mid Sunday’s trek down the mountainside to Wiley’s for corn nuts and a Dr. Pepper had no reason to be different than any other, except for the blinking blue lights on top of the animal control trucks at the paths end.
Approaching the commotion, my heart went out to a limp bear lying on the concrete next industrial trash container. Martin and I watched the men lifting and stuffing the young brown bear into a cylindrical tube mounted on a trailer parked nearby. Martin’s ears began to lay back accompanying a low growl. I helped calm him down with a pet to his head until the loading scene played out.
In that moment, I felt the sudden and strong presence of my Grandfather and with one deep breath I imagined…….
The Forestry Service truck tows young Zachary’s tranquilized body away, eastward down the 210 freeway. The adolescent bear, now twice tagged as dangerous to humans, is beginning his transport to a testing center near Yellowstone National Park. The silhouette of the San Gabriel mountain range gives way to the blank canvas of the high desert, slowly erasing the truck and trailer. The sound of turning wheels diminishes to a constant hum as the bumping over concrete hypnotically plays in and out Zachary’s sedated head.
Eight hours later, outside Santa Fe, the drug delivering deep sleep begins to wear off, transitioning Zachary out of his twilight.
Sensing his confinement, Zachary begins to violently arch his back up and down, pushing air through his dry throat until he begins growling into the darkness of the steel tube tightly encompassing his body……..The sounds of wheels grind to a slow stop. Zachary faintly hears muffled voices approaching and then feels a sharp prick to his already sore paw…….he instantly forgets his predicament and returns 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 are the originals today”.
The brown bag holding our Sunday’s snack began to tear where the splashes of the creek running opposite our assent had landed. I found a large boulder to accommodate Martin and I for our break at the waters edge, when I realized I was beginning a tale of my own.
Putting the remnants of our treat into my backpack, I wondered if my Grandfather would have approved? It would be a story not passed down by the ancients.
Further up the path, we came to my Grandfather’s old cabin (where we now reside). After setting my backpack down, I spread out his brightly colored Indian blanket over the 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 exaltation, 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 paths lead in its timeless dance, recharging all surviving winter below. Bright funnels of warm light find their way 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 lays gently off to one side, one closed eye averting the heavens, the other into the earth beneath him. Air pumps gently through his wet black nose, fueling the slow crescendo of warmth in and on his awakening furry body. Zachary begin to feel the piercing of the second tag in his ear and his tender paw, vaguely recollecting he and his mother’s emergence from the darkness of their first den together in the hills above Monrovia.
A glaring swath of white begins to ripple….the spinning edges allow shadow and color into the broad blur encompassing Zachary’s eyes. The broken audio back and forth of different birds chirping bewilders him. The wind and sound of rushing water trump the reverberations entering the brown bear’s steadily improving focus…….. the scent of salmon and blueberry begins to overwhelm him.
Zachary’s head lifts slowly as he strains to turn toward the enticing aromas. Twenty yards away a giant grizzly bear is jumping up and down on a cooler wantonly grunting, yearning again to reap the rewards of additional treasures locked within the three unopened “test containers” remaining about him.
The now awaking young bear struggles to pull himself up……after finding his center, Zachary instinctually moves slowly towards an open container between the grizzly and the water’s edge. Before Zachary manages to get within ten feet, the grizzly pulls up and charges the smaller “newcomer”. Zachary, panics and, rapidly retreats to the cover of a nearby tree, quickly climbing up the trunk, startling all the occupant birds away. A lone pigeon briefly lifts into the air with wings flapping and then gently lands on a branch just above Zachary’s head….. almost comically, together in shock, they observe the giant grizzly’s lumbered return to the unopened containers wondering if there will be any spoils when and if the giant grizzly ever leaves.
To avoid another Chicago frigid winter, Martin and I returned to the San Gabriel’s to visit my mother and take some “thawing time” to work 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 finally decided it was time to venture further out…… maybe find out what ever happened to that young bear we saw limp on the pavement at the foot of the mountain.
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 Montana and her 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 Manzanita).
When I turned the ignition, almost startled, Martin jumped into the front passenger seat to let his nose moisten while adapting to the winds outside his window…. turning on and off his baby helicopter tail rotations, he clumsily met the challenge of maintaining his balance as I manually shifted gears along the road. Finding the highway we headed out with the radio blaring the appropriate beat to accompany our enthusiastic launch into a new adventure.
“The New Arrivals”
When we arrived at the entrance to the “testing center” it was later afternoon. The sun’s illumination on the massive silhouette of the Gran Tetons began to transgress into almost a fake cardboard cutout silhouetted by a powerful spotlight. I was so occupied by the transition of the view, I almost crashed into the barrier gate arm 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 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 MacDonalds 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, as most of the “bear activity” worth seeing is early around breakfast time.” With a wink 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 modest warm meal on the Coleman. With the sudden material drop in the temperature we 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. I began to wonder if we would ever be able to determine what became of him.