When we picked up our bear-proof cannister at the ranger station, I pretended to rear up on my hindpaws and claw at its latches. Later, as we set up our campsite at Lake Gilmore, S. donned the panda hat I'd bought her and pretended to raise her forepaws over our cooking gear. We snapped a few photos and thought merrily of our own cuteness.(Richard, resist the temptation to tell Mom and Dad about this and I will resist the temptation to tell them about all your Beaver magazines.)
Readers wise to techniques of foreshadowing, as well as to the entertainingly retributive narratives God visits upon giddy fools, know what is coming next.
And it did not just come. It came at dusk on the second day. It came in two, a mother and her adolescent descendant. It came to our campsite.
After downing a particularly aromatic dinner - couscous, almonds, spinach, polyethylene pouch salmon pan-seared in olive oil and generously sprinkled with bonito flakes - and exploding bits of couscous all over our shirts and campsites - "Oh, why don't we just pour out the excess water right here, right next to the tent?" "Okay!" - S. and I heard funny noises from the next campsite over. It sounded like a man growling, and then it sounded like a man clapping. "Oh, what funny hippies in Northern California!" we guffawed. "Getting in touch with nature! Yawp! Yawp!"
Then our funny hippie neighbor stopped growling and said, "Hey guys, bears coming your way. Up the trail."
Very quickly our merry guffawing and couscous digestion stopped. What? What did he say?
I turned to see a black bear ambling up the lakefront trail toward our campsite.
These things followed: a panic in the heart; screaming; shouting; clapping; imperative statements, such as "Get out of here, asshole!" and "Fuck off!"; a beating together of aluminum hiking poles, producing a "plink plink" sound; a momentary retreat by the furry villain; a momentary sigh of relief by our heroines; a stuffing of edibles into the hard-sided cannister; the broader-shouldered of the two heroines walking the cannister away from the campsite; the return of the furry villain, this time accompanied by a villainous friend or possibly relative; their advance upon our hero the Chinese-cum-bunions; the quick approach of the unwanted guests, a hundred feet now, fifty feet now; the panicked tighter gripping by our quaking bunioned protagonist of the aromatic cannister; the paralysis of our indecisive Libra, feeling the hot flood of panic in the heart, blood slowing in the head, clogging the pores, hugging a plastic tank filled with food, trying to think, drop it? run with it? roll it into lake? open it and eat it all? throw it at Oski? Smokey?; centuries later, the dropping of the cannister; the complete obliviousness of the husky invaders to the smaller of the noisy obstacles banging a pot hysterically with a hiking pole, going "Hey! Heey!! HEY!!!"; the slow retreat of the bunions; the unchecked advance of the ursina; the little Vader just a pair of glinting eyes in the background; the Darth Vader standing on his hindpaws with the cannister in his "bear hug," examining the capsule, gnawing on its monster-proof plastic, swatting its smooth sides, moving it a distance, giving up, walking off; and the continued striking together of objects by two slim, hairless, bipedal frankfurters with couscous dried on their garments, crowded at the north end of camp, electrified with panic, for the discouraging sound, "plink plink plink."
A week later I asked S., because I had just finished reading an enlightening pop psychology book on happiness that discussed the phenomenon of the mind confusing the physiological manifestations of fear (elevated pulse, dilated pupils, sweat, shortness of breath, knotted feeling in stomach) with those of sexual arousal, whether I had been scared of the bear or I wanted to have sex with it. I said it felt a little like love. This conversation transpiring via instant messages, S. responded, "you're wierd."
After the last of the "plink"s, we unstaked our tent and moved it 300 feet to the north, next to our unamused neighbors, Brad from Down Under, Regina, his Vallejo squeeze, and their bear-sniffing Australian Shepherd, Juicy (I am just making up the names now). I tried to put on my game face and cheerily announced to S., "Only ten more hours until sunrise! No time at all!" and then made up stories about bears being her most likely spirit animal, which never harm their human avatars, because I thought animistic hokum would calm at least one of us down. We slept in our shoes with the hiking poles next to our fists. S. held her pee for the last long hours before dawn. At dawn we left without eating and speed-hiked the four miles to the Glen Alpine trailhead. S. said she found my no-nonsense bossiness in the morning - which came in the form of directives to collapse the tent, stuff the bags, roll the mats, lace your shoes, and leave - very attractive. Fear or lust, S.? Fear? Or lust?
In the parking lot, we fried up bacon and huevos rancheros and tortillas and ate it with coffee sitting on a granite boulder and called the chipmunks that tried to steal our food assholes.
Two nights before we had sat on a petrified log next to the deep black still lake, admiring the dazzling canopy of stars above us. "Oh, the Big Dipper is right there!" S. said after five minutes of looking; it hadn't been immediately obvious among the multitudes. I explained to her the follow-the-front-of-the-cup method of locating the Little Dipper. We applied it in vain. We lay on our backs, head to head on the log. It was thirty degrees in Desolation Wilderness. We shivered, but we did not otherwise move until two stars shot in quick succession right overhead.
Then we said, "We must be blessed." We said, "Two shooting stars are twice the luck." Despite the chilly air we felt warm and happy, not at all expecting that ursa major and ursa minor, the hungriest of the constellations, would step down from the sky the next night and follow us back to camp. The night was long and calm, and we woke from it wondering where all the stars had gone.