by Hank Leukart
March 28, 2010
The world’s smartest bear strikes again
Making friends in Yosemite.
Hetch Hetchy reservoir view with tree
This is the third essay in a series about living in Yosemite National Park. Start with the first essay for the whole story.Y
OSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — I can’t seem to get enough of Yosemite, despite smoke filling the air from the Park’s Big Meadows Fire. By talking to Rangers, I learn, strangely, that the Park Service set the fire intentionally but overestimated their ability to control it. I start to become nervous that my entire new home will be burned to the ground while I’m living in it. Nevertheless, Wini and I spend time hiking in beautiful Hetch Hetchy below the full moon, exploring the impressive Mariposa Sequoia Grove, flirting in rocking chairs on the porch of the classic Wawona Hotel, and racing by car to see awe-inspiring Glacier Point at sunset. But after all of this fun, I start to worry that I’m not actually living in the Park but instead am just enjoying a long vacation. It occurs to me that I’m not sure I know the difference between “real life” and vacation. For most people, I suppose that the difference is going to work, but I’m writing (and thus working) every day in Yosemite, so I feel like I have some living-there credibility. But I’m still feeling insecure, so I start trying to think of the things people do in “real life.” That’s when I ask the cashier at the Curry Pavilion Breakfast Buffet if there’s a place in Yosemite to get a haircut.
She looks at the out-of-control jungle that my hair has become while living in Camp 4, and she nods sympathetically.
“If you go to where you get the employee uniforms, there’s a woman there who cuts the employees’ hair two days a week,” she explains helpfully.
I’m proud of myself, because after all of my Yosemite exploring, I know exactly where she means. I drive to the sign reading “Employee Uniforms,” and sure enough, just below that, the sign reads “& Yosemite Haircare.” Below the sign is Sarah, who offers to cut my hair for $30 (three times the employee rate). She tells me that she recently moved to Yosemite from the Bay Area, for the same reason everyone moves to Yosemite: she loves it. I ask her if she’s made any friends, and she says that the great thing about her haircutting job is that she meets everyone who lives in the Park. She tells me that she spends two days per week cutting employees’ hair and also volunteers in Camp 4 as a “bear chaser.” She explains that the Park lets her stay for free in a yurt in the Camp, and in exchange she stays up at night from 9 P.M. to 2 A.M. chasing and yelling at bears to keep them away from campers and their food. The World’s Smartest Bear was clever enough to visit me after Sarah went to sleep last night, I think. I decide that “bear chaser” may be the world’s strangest job.
I’m so excited to have met Sarah, a person who lives in Yosemite full-time, that I decide to try to meet more people. I figure if I have local friends, then I’ll really be living here. When I return to Camp 4, I introduce myself to a guy at my campsite, Garrett, an 18 year old guy from Detroit carrying almost no money, hitchhiking his way toward Montana. As he offers to make me some coffee, he tells me that sometimes he’s forced to sleep in ditches on the side of the road when he can’t find a ride. This is one tough dude, I think.
The next morning, I introduce myself to Becks and Susan, two girls from New Zealand who have just finished teaching at a youth rock climbing camp. I try some of the New Zealand slang I know on them (“scroggin” is their goofy word for trail mix), and they’re impressed. They respond with a piece of New Zealand slang I’ve never heard: “Keen as!” and I realize I still have a long way to go before I’m truly an honorary Kiwi. But I feel proud of myself, because within only a short time in the Park, I already have five friends. Not that I’m counting.
At night, I meet a mother and daughter in Yosemite’s Curry Lounge working on a puzzle of the map of Disneyland. They tell me nervously that they plan to hike to the top of Half Dome, and I try to set their minds at ease by telling them about the Incredibly Brave Kid. Then, the Crivellos, a creative Bay Area family with a photographer father, novelist mother, and actress daughter, adopt me for the evening and teach me to play dominoes for the first time. They are extremely competitive and I lose, badly. They seem pleased, as though this is a trick they play nightly on unsuspecting victims in Yosemite.
After my drubbing, I return to Camp 4. At 1 A.M., I’m happily asleep in my tent, when I awake to the sound of footsteps outside my tent again. I look over at Wini, who again looks terrified. I’m about to start yelling and banging my sandals together at the bear, when I hear a voice.
“This is the Park Ranger. Does anyone at campsite 13 drive a silver car with California license plates?” the bear says. As my sleepiness fades, I realize that the person outside my tent is not a talking bear.
“Yes, I think that’s my car,” I yell back. The Ranger then tells me that it’s illegally parked and says I need to move it immediately to avoid a parking ticket.
Annoyed, I emerge from my tent only to be blinded by a bright flashlight.
“Wow, nice haircut,” the Ranger says. Confused, I look up at her.
It’s Sarah. Apparently she’s a bear chaser and a car chaser. She reminds me suddenly of Kirk, the guy in the TV show Gilmore Girls who does every single job in Stars Hollow, the Girls’ tiny Connecticut town. Whenever Kirk appears on screen, he seems comfortingly familiar, reinforcing the show’s small-town, homey feel.
In Yosemite, too, seeing Sarah, my personal hair stylist and bear chaser, in the middle of the night, is a strange comfort. She makes Camp 4 feel like home.
An hour later, Wini and I are woken up yet again by the World’s Smartest Bear trying to infiltrate our bear locker. I start to wonder how long I really want to live in a place where I’m visited nightly by a bear. After all, in the three years I spent living in my Los Angeles apartment, not once did a bear break into my refrigerator in the middle of the night.
Read the next essay in this series, in which a 19-year-old rock climbing girl calls me a pussy.