I am a lover not a fighter. Even though I don’t always love what I don’t always fight. To explain myself, I am referring to fighting a bear. I do not love bears and I do not want to fight them – much to my mother’s chagrin.
There is a story behind this rambling mess and it begins this past summer in the small, idyllic lakeshore town of Frankfort, Michigan. My mother and step-father, Pete, have retired there and a summer visit is a must, though my sisters and I like to double up as it is easier to do battle with my mother when it’s two against one.
One of the highlights of Frankfort, besides the Dairy Freeze, is biking along a beautiful path that runs inland from Lake Michigan and my sisters and I are no strangers to this pleasurable ride. But choosing between my parent’s only two bikes is a lose-lose situation. For this particular ride, I won the throw-down and chose the men’s ten-speed from 1979 with a seat so high so that my feet left the peddle every time the wheel turned. First gear was the only gear in my sister Becky’s bike and to watch her peddle ferociously like a mad circus clown was definitely the gift that kept on giving. But neither handicap was a showstopper – see, in my family, we consider it a personal challenge to overcome the most inane and ridiculous obstacles. To break down and buy new bikes would be admitting defeat. Some call it stubborn; we call it winning, just like Charlie.
So, we’re halfway through the ride, enjoying the incredible scenery and, because I am a multi-tasker, I was talking on the phone. I did notice a couple approaching us riding extremely close together and it was only after my sister said, “Holy shiznet,” that I realized that the close-knit twosome looming ahead was actually a large black bear.
We cautiously slowed our bikes and Becky and I stared at the impressive beast, trying to put the surreal scene in perspective. He was on all fours, maybe 250 lbs, and stood in the middle of the bike path about 20 yards out. Now, I wasn’t sure how fast bears can run, but I had a feeling it was faster than I could peddle and certainly faster than Becky could. The gravity of the situation swept over me – I knew it could go either way and I am not ashamed to say I was scared shiznetless.
“Becky,” I whispered, never taking my eyes off the bear, “turn back.” I didn’t have to tell her twice – she whipped that clown bike around like a professional from the X Games and took off like a slow bat outta hell.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t get my feet on the peddles. I fumbled and stumbled and dropped my phone. Because of the high bar across the bike, I couldn’t easily lean over and when I tried, the large bike fell to a 45 degree slant. I knew if I didn’t get my shiznet together soon I might soon be dead. Or at least playing dead.
I took a deep breath, got up and turned the bike around, jumped on as elegantly as a middle-aged woman can and rode off, never looking back. Becky was 10 yards ahead, but as she heard me huffing and puffing to catch up turned her head around and called out, “Did you get a picture?”
I, unfortunately, did not. Oddly enough, it had occurred to me, but in my haste to make a speedy exit, the time to snap a photo escaped me. As I was later explaining this to my mother, she announced, “Well, you could have easily done it. Black bears are a dime a dozen around here. They’re very friendly, more of a pest actually. If you want them to move, you just shoo them away.” And then, like a cheerleader at a pep rally, she clapped her hands out in front of her and chanted, “Shoo, Suey. Shoo, shoo.”
Becky and I looked at each other with that familiar “okay, she’s nuts” face. “First of all, Mother,” I began, “We don’t know if was it was a ‘he.’ It could have been an angry female protecting her cubs. Secondly, why would I want to poke a bear? It’s not like I need to prove to him how tough I am. I admit it – a bear is tougher. In a fight he would definitely win.”
“And isn’t ‘Suey’ a pig?’ my sister added.
“You girls are making a mountain out of a mole hill. Make a little noise,” she clicked her teeth as one might do to call a cat, “they just run off. They’re scared of people, you know.”
“He didn’t look scared to me,” Becky offered, then added, “Have you ever seen a bear?”
“A thousand times.”
“Really, Mom? When?” I asked.
“I don’t remember, but I know I have.” She looked around for my step-father and then screamed, “PETE! PETE! When was the last time we saw a bear?”
“Never saw a bear, Claudia,” Pete answered from somewhere in the house.
“Well, he’s wrong. I know we have. Hmm . . . unless I’m thinking of a bobcat.” She adjusted her glasses. “All I’m saying is you had nothing to worry about. They’re harmless.”
Not two weeks later my mother, the fearless seventy-two-year old bear hunter, sent an article about a young girl that had been mauled by a black bear, 50 miles from where Becky and I were riding. Thank goodness the teenager was okay – apparently you can fight a bear and win.
The following is a true story. And the kind of incident that occurs frequently enough so as to prompt my sister, Becky, to say, “Why do those kinds of things always happen to you?” I’m not sure, but as a writer, I’ve been blessed with a fate that has been sprinkled with unusual and tempered with bizarre. I’m also lucky to be alive (as I’ve been told).
So I’m on my way to visit my mother and Pete in northern Michigan, my boys buckled in the minivan and deeply engrossed in a highly educational DVD. I was bored. We were in no-man’s land – my cell couldn’t get any reception, the boys weren’t fighting and even the satellite radio keep going in and out.
I became obsessed with mastering the cruise control. Keep in mind that in the ten years we have owned a Honda, I had never used this feature, located right in front of me on the steering wheel. But as you may have guessed, I am also blessed with the ability to multi-task. So, not only was I driving a 3000 lb vehicle at 70 mph with my young children and a dog in the back, I was also trying to figure out the mystery of the confusing cruise control.
It was NOT my fault, I repeat, NOT my fault
Here is my disclaimer: Even if I had seen the bale of straw sitting in the middle of the road at the crest of a small hill, it would have been too late to do anything. I hit the bale bomb with a resounding “thud”, and though it’s half the size of a bale of hay, it still packed quite a punch. The car shuddered, the boys threw off their head sets and began screaming, the dog started barking and thick smoke obscured all the windows except the windshield.
So you completely understand the decision I made, I will outline the facts.
1. I was in shock! This is important to keep in mind.
2. We were in the middle of nowhere.
3. My phone didn’t work.
I couldn’t figure out the smoke thing. My car was still running and I didn’t detect any funny sounds, but the heavy dark smoke had enveloped us. I could hear other cars honking (as if I were unaware!), but I was afraid if I pulled over, I would be stuck. I thought I should try to make the Big Rapids exit, two miles up the road.
Suddenly, as I neared the exit, the smoke instantly disappeared. I looked out my rear view mirror and saw a small fireball rolling back down the highway. It came to rest at the side of the road where it promptly burst into a large fireball.
This is where I had my ah hah moment. I had been dragging the bale of straw under my car and the friction had caused it to ignite (the smoke!) and when it burned down enough, I had shaken it loose. I was instantly relieved that we weren’t dead, but I was still visibly upset and I needed to see what kind of damage I had inflicted on my beloved minivan. I pulled off at the intended exit and headed for the only gas station, a mile down the road.
Rule of thumb – Know your Audience
I got out to inspect my beat-up car and immediately started recounting my situation to the large tattooed fellow on the Harley Davidson, getting gas next to me. Remember, I was still in shock. As I was explaining my story, I noticed a smell, a funny smell, one that I recognized from back in the day – the guy reeked of marijuana!
It was just my luck that the biker dude was stoned to the beejezus! The whole area was filled with the stench of pot but I had already engaged him and I didn’t want to appear rude or insult the dope-fiend, so I finished my story.
“Well, that explains it,” he drawled.
“What?” I asked.
“Why you smell like Cheech and Chong.” He nodded towards the van where my two boys’ faces were pressed against the window.
“Me? What do you mean?” I turned around and smoke was still pouring out from every crevice of my van. Smoldering pieces of straw stuck out from the door jams, the windows and even the gas cap. It then came to my attention that the smell of burning straw smells suspiciously like you-know-what. He wasn’t the pot-head - I was!
“I’m a responsible mother! I only did that once,” I gulped, “back in college.”
“I bet you didn’t inhale, either,” he chuckled.
Just then, a small group of fire trucks and police vehicles, their sirens blaring, passed the station, racing out towards the highway.
“Looks like you have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy.” The biker/comedian pulled his helmet on. “Good luck,” he said sincerely as he roared off.
The Walk of Shame
I slowly walked in to the gas station and announced to the two gals listening to the police radio that I thought I might be the one who started the brush fire out by the highway. They looked at each other as if they had never started a fire and handed me the phone.
Later, as the police were taking my report, the officer mentioned, more than once, just how lucky we were to be alive.
“You know,” he said as he took my registration, “those gas tanks are made outta plastic. If you’da pulled over with the bale still stuck, the car probably woulda exploded. You’re lucky you hit it straight on,” he added, “most folks would have jerked the steering wheel one way or another, coulda hit a car or veered off the road.”
So, it was a good thing that I didn’t do as common sense would have dictated. By not seeing the straw bale in time and not pulling over immediately, I may have inadvertently done something right. . . by following some crazy, shock induced logic; I may have saved my family from, well, something not good.
“I could have been planning three funerals right now,” my mother commented when we arrived safely in Frankfort. “Four, if you count the dog . . . and this is a busy weekend.”
I do hate to put people out.