Gilda rolled into bear country the day after the Perseid meteor shower peaked. High expectations were mine to watch this August night sky after leaving behind weeks of fog and sky-cloaking marine layers. Gilda performed like a champ on her 400 mile drive and brought me 6000 feet closer to the night sky above the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Months earlier, I booked site 18 tucked in Goose Meadows Campgrounds off Highway 89. The campground borders the Truckee River. It’s a gorgeous site with direct access to the river. The biggest drawback — busy Highway 89, a main thoroughfare from Interstate 80 to Lake Tahoe.
Campground notices make it clear that bears are there. “Do not leave food on the table, in your tent, or in your car. Store the food in a brown steel locker provided in your camp.”
Bears I take seriously. While California’s grizzlies are only seen on the state flag, the black bear population remains. According to California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, about 40% of California’s black bear population lives in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
My daydreaming habit kicked in while I lugged the plastic tub of nonperishables from Gilda to the locker. I recalled my first experience with bears until the distraction of my hand creaking open the bear-proof locker door rolled my tummy. The locker; was it sanitary? Hardly. I’d call it yucky. Mindful of my first bear experience in 1969 in Tuolomne Meadows, I decided to put the camp stove in the locker too. The perishables would be fine in Gilda’s refrigerator, I prayed.
My first marriage was in Feburary 1969. Steve, my new husband, was a science major at San Jose State University. He considered camping a natural part of life. It was what his family did every summer. Since our first meeting in 1966, I joined the family campouts that traversed California’s reservoir and natural lake systems from central to north California.
We honeymooned and lived in student housing across the road from the university. The studio apartment was gawd-awful. Beige paint, beige carpeting and the smell of beige things gone wrong over the course of the apartment’s student-life. So when Steve and another couple said, “Hey, let’s take a backpack trip up to Tuolomne Meadows,” without hesitation, I stuffed my hiking boots, a sweater and a book into my backpack ready to hop in Steve’s blue Volkswagen van and head east to Yosemite National Park.
The base camp was abuzz about the two women recently attacked by bears. “I heard that the one mauled was on her period,” whispered Sonja, the other half of our hiking friends.
“Great!” I exclaimed. “Lucky me.”
“Oh, no. You’re not?” Sonja asked.
“Yes I am.”
I forced this reality-check from my mind as we trekked up the trail to the meadows and set up camp. It was August and the Perseid meteor showers animated the night sky as we sat by the glow of our campfire drinking cheap wine and munching on Pringles. The thing about this sort of campsite is that potty time means finding a place in the woods. Um—-but what about the bears? What about my natural time of the month? Oh cripes!
Sonja stood guard.
Back by the campfire, a terrible ruckus rang across the meadows. “Bears!” a man screamed. Flashlights mimicked the meteor shower above. And I knew that I would not sleep because if the bears where on the other side of that soggy meadow, that meant they were —-. “Char, don’t go there,” Steve warned. But I did. Like a golden knight and dedicated protector of all the morning sun appeared. Sonja and I announced that we were heading back to the van. “We’ll see you boys later.” As we passed by the bear invaded camp, the campers there were still in shock cleaning up their shredded tent and the crushed cans of Campbell’s soup and Dinty’s Stew. A classic cafe for the bears.
Highway 89’s traffic noise turned from a constant stream to intermittent as the day faded to dark. My tripod-mounted camera was set ready to capture streaks of light in the night sky. I held vigil waiting for that first sign of an August meteor shower—just like back in 1969.
Spouse sat quiet by the Coleman lantern with Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in America” in hand. I thought about Steve and how he was like a meteor that quickly flashed across my vision. I thought of how we didn’t know that it was his course of study at the state university that would bring his sudden death before he turned 30 and left me with our two baby girls on an August afternoon eight years after that high-country hike in Yosemite.
Life for some, and for reasons I will never understand, is exactly like an August night sky — a spectacular burst of energy and light that seems to end much too soon.
No longer the lithe, young bride of a college student, but still enthralled with the turning of the planet, and still mindful of life’s dangers, like bears in the woods, I find myself still craving the joy of planting my tush in the seat of a VW van pointed in the direction of my next adventure. Go Gilda. Go.