Thursday, August 26, 2010
I came home late one evening to find my landlady standing in front of her home, talking on her cell phone. It turned out she was in the midst of calling me, hanging up as my car crunched up the gravel. She wanted to tell me that she'd seen a bear go across the property, silhouetted against the darkening sky as it moved along the ridge just above my house. It dropped down to the road and into the yard of the weird old guy who'd once been under police surveillance because he allegedly got his kicks opening his robe to passing school buses.
Not long afterward, a young couple moved into the casita just down the hill from ours. Fresh from Manhattan, they weren't too clued in about animal control. In less than a week, the husband, after stepping out onto the balcony for a middle-of-the-night smoke, was startled by the sound of the bin being tipped over by a bear that was looking for the heart of some attractive olfactory delight. The poor guy spent the better part of the morning picking the trash--mostly liquid-encrusted, styrofoam take out boxes-- from the hillside. A week later it happened again, probably not long after I joked to my neighbor that I hoped that the bears weren't on their way for a meal out, this being date night.
The odd bear incidentally making its way across the land doesn't bother me. One conditioned to a free lunch does. Where the neighbors wanted to triple bag everything, I suggested we simply take the trash out in the morning, before the trucks roll by around eight. Crisis averted.
What has changed for me is my relationship with bears. In Japan, I dreaded an encounter with one. Here, I'm not so much scared as cautious. Whereas I used to walk up the hill to my home in the dark, marveling at the incredible number of stars up there, I now turn on the lights lighting the path every time.
At my job at REI, I find others who have their own relationship with bears. Whenever anyone comes in to buy bear spray, I always ask their story. One guy told me that he often rigs his trash bin with a small water balloon filled with ammonia, since bears have such an acute sensitivity to smell. Another guy told me that it isn't bears that he uses it on but the cougars (which really scare the crap out of me). He's used it before, on a mountain lion that is lured onto his property by his two dogs. He essentially called in an airstrike on the whole area, dogs and cat alike, since it was a quicker and more effective way to get his pets into the house.
A few weeks ago, a small newspaper serving the mountain communities of the east face of the Sandia Mountains ran an article on bears. Apparently, there have been 120 encounters in the 3 months since spring, with 40 of the animals being shot by landowners. In the week after the article was run, we completely sold out of spray. Not a day has gone by without at least three customers looking for a can.
My favorite bear spray story happened months before this, during my first week at REI. A woman walks up to the counter, asking for some. She was wearing those big Jackie-O sunglasses, with a poodle under one arm. I asked her what was up, and she told me that a bear kept coming over her fence into the yard, located in one of the posher areas of Santa Fe. I asked her, quite seriously, if she thought taking on a bear was a good idea. Wouldn't it be easier to call Fish and Game? She said that she already had. What did they suggest? Bear spray. When I returned from our back room where we stock it (since it has reportedly been used by robbers on mountain shop employees), she asked me how to use it. I read her the directions off the can, saying that she had a range of about 30 feet, which was from the counter to the front door. Oh! But the entire can would empty itself completely in 7 seconds. Without a beat she said, "Better get me three." I still have an image of her, standing beside her palatial home, poodle under one arm, quick-drawing the cans from a Gucci holster on her waist.
(I'm sure that there'll be a sequel to this story.)
On the turntable: Frank Zappa, "Bongo Fury"
On the nighttable: Stanley Crawford, "The River in Winter"