It seemed auspicious enough. The giant, brick archway shot upward towards the clouds and welcomed visitors like the entrance of a theme park. It was flanked by a modest wall of stacked stones that looked like it had been taken off the set of Braveheart. On the side of the arch was a plaque, commemorating Theodore Roosevelt and others for conserving the park, and solidifying the overall belief that Teddy was pretty much an all around badass outdoorsman. What the plaque didn’t say, was the hundreds of tourists Teddy and his men were coaxing to their inevitable doom.
When we drove up to the giant stone archway into Yellowstone National Park, my mind was malleable, it was begging to be molded, to be in wonder and fall in love. My brain was at an age where magic was real, where imagination was simply a tool for expanding adventure. I lived in a world where anything was possible. Where my father was the be all, end all of information. Many conflicts were ended on the playground at school with statements like, “My dad says,” and “Yeah well, my dad is older than yours so he’s smarter.” It was a simpler time, there was less to muck my brain and more questions to stir my imagination. These were the days where Jon and I would spend our afternoons holding Star Wars models, running around the backyard reenacting our favorite scene from Return of the Jedi for the 103rd time.
“That’s right I said closer!” Lando Calrissian shouts to the fleet. “Engage those Star Destroyers and point blank range!”
Admiral Ackbar swivels in his overpriced, space-office-chair and says to the camera, “We won’t last long against those Star Destroyers.”
Lando looks sternly ahead, unwavering, “Well, we’ll last longer than we will against that Death Star! And we might even take a few of them with us!” Then he turns to his racially stereotyped, mostly mute Mexican alien friend and seeks a nod of approval. When he receives it, he pushes down on the throttle (because they can always go faster) of the Millennium Falcon and shoots forward.
Imagination was a key part of my mind, it fueled my fun and my life. To be a child without imagination is to not be a child at all. What a world we would live in if presents came from a undoubtedly borderline diabetic crawling down our chimneys every year. And while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be great if babies came after a stork dropped them off on your porch and not after months of discomfort and hours of pain?
My uncle who lived in Russia would make up bed time stories about me being Nicolai-ovanovich-lovacheski the Bear of Soviet Russia, in which he’d tell a harrowing tale about me as the figurative bear of Russia. I was seven so of course I took it at face value and heard the story of Nick, the bear who lived in Russia. The literal bear. He was so good at telling these stories, and I had such an acute imagination, I started to believe them. There was part of me that knew these had to be real. I mean really, I can’t even remember the first five years of my life, it’s totally possible I was the Bear of Soviet Russia as a child.
And there was Cowboy Jimmy. A fabricated cowboy who always ran off with my sister and left me all by myself. He always came around during the holidays or when family was in town. For years the cowboy tormented me, I never saw him up close because he and my sister would run out of sight whenever I neared. His identity was elusive, his purpose however was clear: to torment me. I had my suspicions growing up, and one day I asked my uncle Richard if Cowboy Jimmy was real.
He sat in a comfortable chair, one leg crossed over the other, his right index finger resting on his mouth while the other hand held a book before his face to read. He finished the sentenced then dropped the book down and regarded me.
“Well,” he said pondering for a moment, “I’m sure there was a cowboy Jimmy, probably long gone by now. Can’t imagine there was never a cowboy Jimmy.”
An adult confirmed my fears. Might as well of been told by the President himself. Cowboy Jimmy was not only real, but a ghost: an undead cowboy that looked remarkably similar to my cousin Doug and had the matching set to my cowboy boots, hat, guns, vest and sheriff’s star.
To say I had an active imagination would be an understatement. Imagination comes as a double edged sword. Where it allows wonder and adventure, it also permits terror and dread. With magic possible, the realm of impossibility goes out the window. All of the sudden something like a plane falling out of the sky and falling on my head or a 30 ft bear eating my entrails is entirely possible. Damn the odds of it. We live in a world where you are more likely to die in a plane crash than receive gifts from a fat jolly man from a place that doesn’t exist, and that’s a sad truth to realize as a small child.
Rolling up to the Roosevelt Arch, I remember biting my lip to contain a smile. My mom and dad had spent the entire trip from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho talking about geysers, hot springs, sulfuric pools, buffalo, wolves, grizzly bears, forest fires and bald eagles. They had shared the exotic details with such vivacity I couldn’t help but wonder if the RV had taken a wrong turn while we slept and sent us off shooting to space and into an alien solar system. My parents talked about this place like it was a different planet. They told tales of a world that had no right to exist, and described the park and its impossible features with wide eyes and big grins.
I was ready for the trip of a lifetime. While I had only been on a few trips in the seven years of my life at the time, I still figured it was OK to start calling this the best trip I had ever taken. After all, who had ever seen a geyser erupt and live to tell about it? I kept looking for cameras, thinking we were on the set of the next Indiana Jones movie.
I remember our entrance into the park with vivid detail. My father’s hand is on the steering wheel, his right rests on the felt armrest of his captain’s chair. He palms the wheel and swings the RV hard to the left, bringing the recreation vehicle and its inhabitants into Yellowstone National Park. The kids grip a window sill in the RV, looking outside the window like a child looking into a giant fish tank at an aquarium; wondering how long it will take before we see a bald eagle and a bear fight to the death.
“Look out the left side!” The perpetual tour guide, my father, yells to us. The kids scamper from the right to the left side of the RV and hit the wall with enough intensity to bring the vehicle on two wheels. My sister and I fight over the view at first then split the window 50/50.
The road ran on a small hill, and that hill was part of a network of hills that created a large valley. The valley was wide and open, at least a mile or two across, its length stretched down to the horizon where it disappeared. Grass grew tall and unkempt towards the sky in ways that would I would think back to with jealous remembrance whenever I mowed our football-field-sized lawn. A small river ran through the center of it, it lazily went left and right, moving at a pace that seemed pretty equal to the speed in which my father drove the RV.
And in the center of the valley was a few brown masses. At first they looked like rocks, sitting rather unimportant amidst a sea of grass and vegetation. Then one moved, then another, and another. After taking the seconds to squint and rub my eyes, I realized they were bears. Bears feeding on a carcass of some dead animal.
“Whoooaaaa…” I said, eyes the size of golfballs. “Are those bears?”
“Yup!” The zoologist, my father, said. “They look like black bears, but it’s hard to distinguish at this distance.” He was alternating looking through binoculars and a Yellowstone National Park Guide Book he found for $2.99. “You can’t tell between black and grizzly cub until you see the size of their heads, or if you’re close enough to distinguish color. You see grizzly bears…” He was probably saying really important things, but a child’s mind has a way of moving on after being sedentary for more than five seconds.
We pulled over and watched these bears eat. It was really cool, watching it happen. We were watching what was exclusively shown on Animal Planet, Discovery and National Geographic. I was already thinking of ways I was going to tell my friends about what I saw; about how I watched four bears chase down a buffalo and its baby on the road in Yellowstone. I’d have to add a few details about bald eagles and wolves, and perhaps a man who lost is life defending his family, but I had the next few weeks to make the story a little more exciting.
And then my brain started doing the math. We were watching apex predators feast; and they weren’t eating luchables. These weren’t the vegan or vegetarian type bears. These were the real bears. The kind that devoured flesh. The ones that ripped and tore at skin and hide to reveal the juicy, blood innards of whatever was unlucky (or slow) enough to get caught. The remains of the buffalo in the valley had once been something living, it had once had a beating heart and was once a tiny, little, cute baby buffalo. It have even had a name, I was sure of it.
I bet its was something like Buffy, or Bill, or Fro, too. I thought. Yeah. I bet that buffalo was really nice, and look what these stupid bears did. He might have even been funny, maybe he was the comic relief of his herd, and now what were they going to do? Life is going to be perpetually droll now that Fro and his jokes are gone. They killed the thing, and for what? For chewing grass with its mouth open? For running free and majestic across the valley?
No, because it looked delicious.
With a sudden intensity, I hated the bears. I hated them for killing that buffalo and I sorta hated that buffalo for looking so damn tasty. I realized then and there that bears were on this earth for one sole purpose: killing and eating, though not always in that order.
Another blob of brown could be seen moving entering the valley, towards the carcass in the distance. It moved at an easy pace, though through the binoculars it looked much quicker. The blob was much bigger than the others.
“Looks like we got a grizzly folks!” A man in a silly hat and silly green pants says. “Grizzlies are the apex predator here.” The park ranger planted his hands on his hips then looked back out to the valley. “Yup, if one of those suckers got a hold of you, they’d tear your arm right off!” He laughed rather blithely and shook his head then added a sound effect while tugging at the sleeve of his shirt. “Pop!”
My eyes were now the size of softballs as I looked up at this park ranger with abject horror. Tear my arms off? No one could do that, except for my dad of course. He was the strongest guy on the planet. And why would they tear off my arm? I pictured a grizzly bear family sitting at a dinner table, the adults comically too large for the chairs they sat in. “Oh, could you pass the human drum stick, honey? Oh, I do love how these ones have four, the whole family gets one!” They’d pour some bear gravy over my severed arm and mow down.
I shook the nightmare out of my mind and gathered my senses. “They’re pretty slow though, right?” I asked the ranger. Surely, God wouldn’t endow a terrifying killing machine the size of a car with speed, right?
The man laughed hard and held his belly as if support it. When he was finished wiping the tears from his eyes he looked back down at me and smiled. The government funded, inducer-of-nightmares rested his right arm on my shoulder and bent down to my level. “Son, those things can run 25 miles per hour! No, if one of those things sets its sight on you there’s not much you can do but throw on some salt and slather yourself in butter so you go down easy and accept the inevitable!” For some inexplicable reason he was smiling at me.
He changed his smile to a frown as my face turned the color of cottage cheese. “Ma’am!” he shouted looking up from me. “Ma’am! Don’t walk off the road now, we don’t want to get close to the bears.”
I stood on the road, and watched the grizzly bear move in on the other animals, scattering the brown bears, the vultures and other animals. It swung its head left and right making sure no other animal was coming. When it was satisfied it had the carcass to itself, the bear stuck its mighty head into the ribcage of the deceased animal and began to tore it apart.
Something slapped me hard on the shoulder and I jumped in surprise, somehow containing the contents of my bladder. “Amazing, isn’t it?” The future bear-induced-PTSD therapist, my father, said to me. “Come on, there’s even more to see!”
That’s what I’m afraid of. He ushered us back into the RV and drove us deeper into what I now knew was going to kill me. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow or even the next day, but someday this week, a bear would see me. It would look at me like a Nutrigrain bar, a handful of trail mix or granola bar; I was a snack to keep it going for a few more hours between meals.
I’ll abducted while on a hike or sitting by the fire alone. After a few hours of looking, the search and rescue would only find my right boot, bloodied with laces untied sitting lonely by the side of the trail. And off in the distance, someone swore they could hear a bear burp with satisfaction.