For Doug Patterson
I don’t exactly believe in totems, but I can identify with the Native Americans who feel that a person has a kinship with a certain type of animal. Bears have always intrigued me. Though I am not a large person, I think I know what a bear’s body feels like to a bear.
I don’t hang out with bears here in Ann Arbor, and, really, I’ve only seen bears from a distance, but there was one time…
I got off the Canadian National train about 10:30 at night in the rain. The hotel shuttle bus was waiting. I was not going to the hotel, The Lodge, at Jasper National Park. I had a little money left from my summer job as a camp counselor, but I’d splurged enough on the train ride from Winnipeg, and had to make the remaining dollars last.
It was fall 1971. I was college age but not in college. It wasn’t called “gap year” back then, but I seemed to be taking a gap year-or-two every year or so. There was also the draft board and the war in Viet Nam looming over everything. I was already considered “delinquent,” because I had refused to get into a certain line at the army’s pre-induction physical. I wasn’t sure what came next. The trip to Western Canada was to explore the possibility of emigrating.
Hitchhiking from Detroit to Winnipeg had been the first of several trips that have me convinced that fall is the ideal time for a road trip. Rolling on uncrowded 2 lane highways across the Upper Penninsula and into Wisconsin and Minnesota in the September light, we passed cardboard signs advertising wild rice. My luck with rides tapered off when I reached the north-south highway at the Minnesota-North Dakota border. Waiting in the dark, while caravans of grain trucks whooshed by, I almost gave up, but got one last ride from a State Trooper with alcohol on his breath. He spoke about how wealthy the farmers in that valley were and ,without words, about how bored he was, but by the time he dropped me off, 30 miles up the road, the traffic had disappeared, so I got a few hours of sleep under a bridge.
The next afternoon I found myself in Winnipeg’s industrial area and managed to hop on a bus to downtown. As I look back I’m amazed at the hospitality shown me by the people I phoned up out of the blue. They were college friends of my mother, Beth and Ruben, of whom I’d heard her speak, but had never met.
I got their number out of the phone book, and they came to pick me up. They were invited to a holiday dinner, the first night of Sukkot, at Beth’s sister’s house, and took me along. I don’t remember anybody remarking on my body odor. I have a vague memory of taking off my shirt and scrubbing my upper body in the washroom at the bus station. At the time I took it all for granted, but there was a warmth in their welcome that I still feel 42 years later, a warmth that had nothing to do with the scruffy kid I was.
So, it may have been because of their respect for me that I asked them to drop me off a day or so later at the train station rather than at some good hitching spot on the Trans-Canada Highway. Possibly I wanted to appear more prosperous than I was, or maybe I didn’t want to subject them to the guilty feeling they might have after abandoning their friend’s kid by the side of the road. All these explanations and analyses are a ripple on the surface of a wave in the tide of existence/providence that deposited me late at night outside a closed train station in the Canadian Rockies.
I climbed on the shuttle bus just to get out of the rain, but the driver told me there was a public campground he could drop me off at on his way back to the lodge. It must have been 10:30 or 11:00 when I stumbled off the road and down an embankment. Trying to find my way through rocks and trees by the light of the occasional passing headlights and lantern light glowing through the sides of tents, I found a flat spot in the gravel. There I set up my little plastic tent, pulled my stuff inside and quickly fell asleep.
I opened my eyes again on an orange day which turned bright gray as I slid out of my sleeping bag and the orange tent to see the rain had stopped. I was about 30 yards from the gray-blue Athabasca river and its gray gravel banks. Apparently I had set up camp on a path between campsites in a very informal campground. The ground was well drained but still damp on the surface. I was disappointed to discover that the cheap tent, which had performed well enough in the summer, was showing its limitations in the cool mountain autumn; condensation from my breath and body heat, with no permeable surface closer than the tent’s one open end, had coated the ceiling, the sleeping bag and everything inside, but I was not too bothered, I could dry things out. I also noticed a curious set of 5 small holes in the plastic above where my feet had been. They were laid out in an arc at about the same distance apart as a man’s outspread fingertips. I was a bit puzzled as I walked over to a wood fire where four or five people were warming themselves.
There was a young American couple talking to a Canadian guy about their season following the apple harvest up through Washington State and into British Columbia. It sounded like they were enjoying their trip and making a little cash. I liked the names of the places they’d been or were going; Walla Walla, Kamloops, Kelowna. A couple more people walked up, Canadians who’d bicycled from Toronto or Montreal. I was just getting the feel of the place when the woman asked, “Say, did you hear her last night?”
“Oh, yeah!” said one of the cyclists. “Sounded like she tripped over something out there. I’m glad we had all our food locked up in your car.”
” A bear?” I asked.
“Yeah, she’s been coming around here, getting up to some mischief. Did you see her?”
It was then that I remembered my dream. There had been no imagery, but I sensed that a large being was approaching. I felt it appropriate to address this being with a sort of honorific, so I said, in the dream, something like, “Welcome, O Mother.” Then I felt the bump in the night but didn’t wake up and didn’t think about it until the conversation with the other campers reminded me, and the meaning of the five holes became clear.