Our family didn’t travel much. Augusts we went to “The Farm”, my father’s family house in New Hampshire, delicious with sleeping porch and cows in the fields. There were, however, two notable trips West, both full of copious 60s motels, mostly with swimming pools, because my usually cheerful brother was impossible without them. However, on the second, 1965 trip when I was fifteen and my brother 9, an event changed our motel karma from heaven to hell.
When I was fifteen and my brother 9, an event changed our motel karma from heaven to hell.
We were finishing a week in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at the Triangle X Ranch. It was paradise, full of horses and handsome ranch hands, with the Tetons towering snowcapped and gorgeous above the Snake River. The mountains caught pink dawns, ruddy sunsets, and backdropped ghostly moon rainbows after campfires under the full moon. As a place to stay, perfection.
Now it was time to leave. We peered out of our rented sedan, leaving chunks of our hearts behind, saying goodbye to windowed dining hall and hearty meals. Goodbye to golden pine log cabin smelling of oil heaters and varnished floors. Goodbye, Heaven.
The plan was to drive north to Yellowstone Park, then over a pass to Idaho, and points west to San Francisco. We had food for a picnic lunch in the trunk, and I had Anne of Green Gables, which had captured me. I only put it down long enough to walk the boardwalk next to Yellowstone’s Paint Pots, stinky but beautiful, and for Old Faithful to roar and spout on schedule. There were crowds, and we watched a family feeding a Black Bear food out the car window, the father snapping pictures from across the road. “The Flintstones” had made “Jellystone Park” bears famous. “Stupid!” we commented, “they’re wild animals,” and, smug, we headed north through Ponderosa pines like in “Bonanza.” I returned to my book.
At noon, we stopped by a ravine with a rushing river below. My father and brother scrambled down the wooded slope. My mother made P and J sandwiches on a suitcase in the open trunk. I stayed in the back seat, sobbing over the last pages of “Anne.” What can I say? I was fifteen.
Then, Wham, Wham. Mom was slamming the trunk lid, shrilling, “Ed, Ed!!!!!!” I spun onto my knees to peer out the back. My father and brother scrambled in through righthand doors. My mother gave a final slam and piled into the driver’s seat. We all peered back. A huge black bear was lumbering along the low wood railing straight toward our car. Her fur shone, her eyes glittered. She was huge and determined. Then, slow motion, the trunk lid lazed back up, obscuring our vision. The latch had not caught.
Noises began in back. Cans clanking. Glass smashing. Scrabbling and snuffing right behind our seat. Whooshings, as the bear’s long claws punctured an entire six-pack of beer. Panic thrummed through the car. “Start the car,” ordered my father. Mom did. “Ease forward,” he said. She put the car in gear, but, nervous, stepped on it. Hard. We lurched. Not forward, but back, slamming into the bear.
There was an audible “Oof,” then Bear was running, disappearing into the pines. Mom worried she’d hurt the creature. But the bear was gone and didn’t return. None of us wondered then what it might mean to hit a bear, totem spirit of protection, with awe-inspiring powers. We would find out.
After a long pause, my mother handed out the smushed sandwiches she’d brought with her escaping the bear. She got out to clean up the beer-sodden, jelly-smeared mess as best she could. My father and brother watched the river from the safety of the road. My mother finished, slammed the trunk. After a silence, she called, “Ed?????”
She had locked the only set of keys to the rental car in the trunk.
Those days, there was no trunk release up front. And the bear’s revenge had begun. The sky began clouding up. The sun disappeared. Sleet began, then snow. Temperatures plummeted. Our jackets were all in the trunk. The road had been busy. Now all traffic stopped. An hour passed. My father promised us that rangers had to patrol all the roads. None showed. It got darker. We stopped talking. The roar of the river got louder. Despair settled in.
Then, ghosting out of the storm, a rickety pickup passed. My father jumped out, shouting. The truck slowed, then backed up. A wizened man with a drawl asked did we need help. He laughed at our tenderfoot predicament, and whipped out his cigarettes, extracted the foil liner, dove under the steering wheel. Varoom! Just like that the car literally jumped to life. The man slithered out, refusing my father’s cash. “Nah, jumping’s easy if you smoke,” he said, and disappeared into the snow.
And after three hours of mountain driving, we reached Pocatello, Idaho. But the bear’s curse continued. That night we spent the night in the worst motel ever. It wreaked of mildew from the tin shower enclosure and wheezing air conditioner. The fold-out bed I shared with my brother had a lumpy mattress over a million springs. The curtains wouldn’t close, and the bar next door blared light and music all night. And it was one dump of a motel after another all the way to San Francisco.
To this day, my brother doesn’t remember any of those motels as bad. They all had swimming pools. But I still think that bear — like Mary Oliver’s “dazzling darkess, coming down the mountain,” — was a veritable mountain goddess. We did her violence. And paid.
Lucinda's past lives thrash in the rearview, among them TV captionist, children's theater director, opera director, spiritual junkie, piano instructor, and other nefarious activities. Now she writes, works for social justice--ending poverty and book banning--while building gardens in Connecticut and New Hampshire.