Touching a Bear
I was visiting my sister one evening, when the phone rang. My brother-in-law, whom, for my own protection, I shall call Deputy Dawg, picked up the receiver.
Deputy Dawg taught at the local high school, and in his off-hours served as a volunteer sheriff’s deputy. These were fitting occupations for him, as he seemed to love nothing better than flunking students and arresting suspects. My brother-in-law was a hardass, taciturn man, who could easily come across as misanthropic, even toward his own family. No, especially toward his own family.
So usually he gave me the cold shoulder, and any attempts at communication were often met with winces and grunts. But he did have a friendly side, or I suppose my sister would have never married him. He could turn on the charm whenever he wanted something out of someone.
He set the phone down and cheerfully smiled, “Hey Tippy, wanna go for a ride?” It was 7:00 at night. I felt wary, but also glad that he was sounding so nice.
“Where are we going?”
“Oh, I’ll tell you on the way. I think you’ll like it,” he was grinning ear-to-ear.
“Okay, what the hell.” I’m usually more cautious, but the suasion of his rare smile had caught me off guard.
Next thing you know, we were bumping down Little Morongo Road in Deputy Dawg’s pickup truck, with headlights flashing glimpses of yucca, greasewood, and the shiny eyeballs of cottontail rabbits.
We were heading into the northern section of Little Morongo Canyon. Little Morongo is divided by Morongo Valley into a northern section and southern section. The southern section contains McKinney Ranch, as described in Chapter One of this series. The northern section accommodates the Pierson Ranch.
Dawg glanced over at me, with his big gray face, and filled me in. “Now listen, and listen real careful. What we’re about to do is 100% illegal. You have to promise never to tell anyone about it, okay?”
“Uh, yeah, sure, okay.” I’m always game for doing illegal things, as long as no one gets harmed. But it felt a little weird to be conspiring such activity with a sheriff’s deputy.
“Up ahead,” he pointed, “Is the Pierson Ranch. They get a lot of bears up there.”
“Bears!” I interrupted. “W-we don’t get bears in Mor-Morongo Valley. I-I thought they stayed up-up in the mountains. Y-you know, up-up in B-Big B-Bear.”
I felt antsy. I have a great fear of bears. That’s why I generally avoided hiking in Big Bear. That region, 6,700 feet up in the mountains, and only 20 miles away as death flies, was named by early explorers after the many Ursus americanus that once roamed there. And still do.
It’s as far south as bears supposedly get, in California, except at places like the San Diego Zoo.
My arkoudaphobia was kicking in. I really hate bears. I even hate teddy bears, and always have. Perhaps it’s because bears haunted my earliest nightmares, as a young toddler. They would chase me around in my sleep, and of course my legs were made of cement, and unable to run.
When I was four years old I spent some time in a hospital. A nurse, who was unaware of my nightmares, felt sorry for me and gave me a teddy bear. I distinctly remember sending that stuffed animal flying at her head as she exited my room, and narrowly missing her by inches.
No, I’ve never liked bears, and have never understood everyone’s infatuation with the teddy kind.
“Sometimes they come down from Big Bear,” Deputy Dawg went on. “They follow Little Morongo Canyon. They never make it past Pierson Ranch, though. They’re usually harmless and just raid the trash cans, but there’s one bear that’s been causing trouble, and tried to break into the Pierson’s house.”
My brother-in-law swerved to avoid a deep, dark hole in the dirt road, then continued, “That bear was a danger. It’s illegal to shoot ‘em, but someone had to do it, or someone was going to get hurt.”
Deputy Dawg had a friend, whom I’ll call Huckleberry Hound, just in case he’s still living. Huckleberry was the hunting and outdoors type, and was a long-time friend of the Piersons.
As a favor to the Piersons, he’d laid in wait this evening, with his nightscope, for the danger to make its appearance. And then he had shot the menace dead. But this animal was a big bear from Big Bear, and too heavy to lift on his own. He needed some muscle, and had called on Deputy Dawg for help.
And so our illegal mission this evening was to aid and abet Huckleberry Hound by dragging the bruin into his horse trailer, so he could haul it off the Pierson’s property. I suddenly realized I would be expected to touch a bear. Gulp.
Now, it isn’t true what Deputy Dawg told me, about bears never making it past Pierson Ranch. About 10 years ago, and about 30 years after this incident at Pierson Ranch, one of these ungodly, fearsome monsters made it clean across Highway 62, and invaded Joshua Tree National Park. It worked it’s way east over the next several months, imperiling dogs and cats, and raiding trash cans in the outskirts of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms.
Newspaper reports of sightings kept me on high alert. Joshua Tree National Park was my favorite stomping ground for hiking, but I stayed away while this renegade was on the loose. Finally, terrified deputies chased this terrified bear, and shot and killed it as it was trying to escape over a fence, at a terrified residence in Twentynine Palms. I felt sorry for the beast, but relieved that I could now resume hiking.
We reached the terminus of Little Morongo Road. The Pierson Ranch. This ranch guards the mouth of upper Little Morongo Canyon, and sits at the edge of a large copse of trees, which are fed by an unusually large spring. Wild game is attracted to this lush oasis, for the water, and this in turn attracts bears.
Huckleberry Hound, along with a scruffy friend of his, whom I’ll just call Scruffy, and old man and woman Pierson, were illuminated by our headlights as we drove in. After greetings and introductions, we hiked up a small hurst, to a furry mound lying still on the ground. The dreaded Ursus americanus.
“Yup,” Huckleberry bragged, straightening his back, “He went down with one shot. Hasn’t moved since. I just gotta get him home, so I can skin him and put up the meat.” Huckleberry Hound was a real outdoorsman. A man with hair, and sand, and grit, and all that macho stuff. He was wiry of build, always had a bucktoothed grin on his face, and had a way of leaving the impression that he was not one to be messed with.
He also had eyes on my sister. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law coveted a fellow teacher, at the high school. But all that would surface in a few years. At this point, nobody suspected a thing.
The massive mammal lay sprawled on its side, mouth slightly agape and teeth bared. It’s eyes gazed at nothing in particular. It sported cinnamon fur, and seemed larger than an elephant, to my frightened mind.
“Are-are you sure it’s dead? What if it’s-it’s just stunned?” I meekly inquired.
“It’s DEAD,” the bear poacher asserted, while pointing, “Now grab that paw.”
I reached down. This would be the first time in my life that I would ever touch a real, live, er, dead, I guessed, bear. I picked up a giant paw on its back leg. It felt warm. Very warm. As toasty as my electric blanket. I immediately dropped it.
“Gah! It’s still warm! I think it’s still alive!” I nearly squealed, in front of these three macho men.
“No! It’s DEAD, it’s DEAD!” Huckleberry growled, with flashing eyes. “Now grab that paw!”
“Yeah,” said Scruffy and Deputy Dawg. “C’mon Tippy, stop playing around!”
I was embarrassing myself in an environment where testosterone and machismo flow as smoothly as tap beer in a saloon. I had to get it together. Must touch the bear again. Hope to God it really is dead. Just pick up that paw, Tippy, I coached myself.
I nervously lifted it. Then we all started hauling the warm carcass down from the rise, dragging it closer and closer to the horse trailer, which was parked about 30 yards away from our starting point. Or 30 miles, to my anxious mind.
I felt more and more relieved with each step, as the bear fully cooperated with our schlep, and never once batted an eye, snarled, or sprang to life in an awful flurry of slashing claws and disemboweled abdomens.
Huckleberry Hound latched the gate of the horse trailer and prepared to absquatulate to his cabin, where he could quickly carve this beast up for his freezer and a nice, warm, bearskin rug.
But first he, and his friend Scruffy, and Deputy Dawg, turned to me and looked me hard in the eyes. They sternly warned me, with an implied threat of bodily harm in their tone, “Do not ever, ever tell anyone about this, okay?”
Why were they only warning ME? I wondered. I’m good at keeping secrets. Hand to God, I’ve never told anyone about this incident. And I never will.
This is the latest installation of my six-part series, Tales of Little Morongo. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 3: Riding the Range. Click here to read Chapter 1.