Motel Karma by
(6 Stories)

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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.

Profile photo of Lucinda Winslow Lucinda Winslow
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.

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Tags: Yellowstone Park, bears, Wyoming, 60s travel, ranches, motels
Characterizations: funny, moving, well written


  1. Thanx Lucinda for your wonderfully written tale of an encounter to remember!

    We have a woodsy country house where bears are not an uncommon sight, and if we walk about , especially at night, we’re advised to carry bear bells.

    I once had a food market delivery that was left on my front steps, and before I had a chance to go out and retrieve it, my neighbor called to tell me several bags of my groceries were ripped and the food scattered – some hungry bear seemed to especially like the Special K!

  2. Suzy says:

    There are so many things about this story to love! Your description of the Triangle X ranch is divine, with the “horses and handsome ranch hands” as well as the “pink dawns, ruddy sunsets, and backdropped ghostly moon rainbows.” Then leaving the ranch and leaving chunks of your hearts behind? So evocative.

    The encounter with the bear must have been terrifying, and the fact that afterwards everything went wrong was clearly karma at work. I hope by the time of your next trip you had finished your penance and all went well.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    What a beautifully written and evocative story in so many ways. I can’t wait for the movie version, though I was relieved that, as bad as things got, they never took a Stephen King-like turn into the darkest of the dark.

    I am a hard-hearted cynic (or realist, as I like to think) and not usually driven to attribute events to non-scientific causes. But, as your post-bear misadventuresd continued, I began to wonder if maybe Karma or some other spiritual force might not be at play here. Though, even there, was it Karma that made your mother accidentally put the car in reverse and ram the bear in the first place? Perhaps it was the bear who had the bad Karma, not your family (or even the motel).

  4. Marian says:

    Now that’s a karmic adventure, Lucinda. A compelling and beautifully written story. It’s good that there are “bear boxes” now in many parks, but you have gone beyond the practical in your writing.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    As Suzy points out, your writing is beautiful and evocative, your description of the Triple X Ranch just stunning.

    Moving on to Yellowstone, I understand how you could keep your head in your book, except for the major sights, like Old Faithful. The bear encounter is something else again. We took our kids on such a trip (doing many more national parks) in 2003 and also encountered a Black Bear, but not in quite the same way. Many of us were in a parking lot, looking at some lovely natural spot, when we spotted a cub. All the tourists grabbed a few photos, as we retreated to our cars before Mama made her appearance, so we were safely locked IN our cars. We had all been warned about NOT leaving anything even remotely smelling of food in our cars, for fear of bears. Clearly the rangers learned from incidents like yours, all those years earlier.

    You describe your hungry bear with a proper amount of gusto and fear. It is amazing that you all got out basically unharmed, if sodden, hungry and dispirited. That great bear god did not protect you as you finally got on your way and that next motel sounds awful. Thanks for your vivid description.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Love your description of Jackson Hole. Just how I remember it. But the encounter with the bear sounds terrifying and being locked out of your car equally awful. I do remember staying in motels like the ones you described when I traveled with my parents and brothers. And like your family, mine thought the swimming pool made up for the bleak accommodations.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    Your imagery and descriptions are magical; very evocative.

    The bear was likely fine, but it was pretty vindictive of it to put the whammy on the rest of your trip!

  8. This was riveting. Even though the photo “gave away” part of the plot, I still was not fully prepared; I still got scared and nervous as I read! It was the details–such as remembering exactly what book you were reading–that really made this wonderful, like a “vivid and continuous dream,” John Gardner would say. Only as you stated, this one was a nightmare. Thanks for sharing a powerful story.

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    As others have said, wonderfully written story that brings everything to life. I particularly like the way you topped the bear invasion with the keys locked in the trunk. I do hope the bear karma has exhausted itself by now! We may have passed each other on the road–was also on a cross-country trip with family in 1965 with some of the same stops, but no bear stories. There are bears around here, and we have had some forage in our yard as they regularly make the rounds in spring and fall, but people have become pretty bear savvy–fortunately.

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