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Where the Bears Are

Sequoia road

We pull into Sequoia beneath a purple sky, and the brightest stars are winking. The ranger is waiting for us — the first one we've seen after dark in a month on the road. She has a face like a shriveled apple and urgent things to say about scents: Take all the smellies out of your car and put them in the metal box. It’s news to us Midwesterners that black bears kill cars for tubes of toothpaste. You wake to a commotion in the night and see the vehicle rocking, or you get back to the trailhead parking lot and the car’s not a car anymore. They shatter glass, they ravage upholstery, and they defecate everywhere. We’re not organized road-trippers. It takes a long time to find all the empty wrappers.

This is a random stop on a road trip that’s hurled us through a blur of country. It hasn’t rained in twenty days. A geologist could map our path by the strata of dirt in our wheel wells. We are coming now from Vegas and are still in our casino clothes, which smell charmingly of burned money. For the last few days we didn’t know when to sleep. I woke a few times thinking dawn was coming through the curtains. It was the Eiffel Tower, soaked in neon.

Now we want to get some shade and see a huge tree. But more and more we are thinking about bears, the ranger’s warnings ringing in our ears. On a two-day march through wildflowers and granite up the High Sierra Trail, our hiker blabber fixates on the prospect of seeing one. Warnings crop up on every informational sign and in every stranger’s mouth. A waist-high boy with horizontal teeth has spotted one, but it wasn’t that cool because he’s from Tahoe and sees them all the time.

On our backcountry night I lie rigid with fear. Something is rustling around our tent for what seems like centuries. I feel around for my three-inch knife. Should I have put my dirty socks in the bear bin? Whenever I sit up the rustling quiets, and when I lie down it starts up again. I come to realize that my eyelash is brushing against the sleeping bag.

Four days later, we head coastward, driving through the sequoia groves. Pollen floats in the beams of light that cut diagonally through the trees. Then we catch sight of something barreling downhill. It's headed toward the road, and it can’t be a bear. Bears don't cross roads.

When I imagine a bear, I see a creature that moves at a leisurely pace and stares with its head tilted at clusters of berries. This thing is galloping, alternately weaving between trees and lunging through the air. For a speck of time it's crossing the road. I take a mental snapshot. Then it vanishes down the hill.

I consult the image in my mind. It was a bear, and it moved like a furry brown cannonball.

-- Jake Abrahamson

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