You guys remember that SNL skit, “Bill Swerski’s Superfans?”
I’ll admit right off the top that I have no idea what any of the sportsball references are in any of these skits, or why they’re funny, but I know that the skits themselves are the most delightful little morsels of archetypal caricature I’ve ever seen. As a superfan of crazy voices, with bonus points flagrantly allotted for fun accents, the Bill Swerski skits were some of my favorite during my childhood, which just happens to coincide with the best decade of SNL in recorded history: the 90’s.
I know, I know, Dan Ayrkoyd and all this, but for real? There is nothing on this godforsaken planet better than a Chris Farley/Adam Sandler/David Spade moment of character breaking.
I’m a big fan of character breaking in any creative vignette. It’s the ultimate moment of truth, when the reality of the actor is laid bare in all its glory.
Anyhow, I’ve been thinking a lot about bears lately – actual bears, not sportsball Bears – because they are the best animals in the forest and, like a bear, I will fight you if you even consider disagreeing with me.
While I’ve lived in Pennsylvania – in this very corner of Pennsylvania itself – my entire life, I’ve observed very few actual, literal bears in the wild. We used to take summer evening drives, my parents and I, to the Grunderville dump when it was still a thing, to see if we could catch sight of them tearing into someone’s black-bagged refuse.
How sad is that? I know this isn’t a manifesto on all the reasons humans are a disappointing mess as a species, but give me a large break. We create mountains of trash, which creates bears who eat trash instead of rabbits and berries, and then we toddle along the outskirts of what basically amounts to The Onceler’s clearing in “The Lorax” to watch our grotesque handiwork: one of nature’s most magical creatures feasting on the Spaghettios my kids refused, which sent me into an existential tailspin regarding my ability to parent children when I can’t even appropriately feed them, as I threw them in the trash bag currently being eviscerated by a habituated, lazy apex-predator-turned-milksop.
The State of Pennsylvania hates it when we feed bears, so I really don’t get why dumps, which are basically just Las Vegas shrimp buffets for the Ursus crowd at this point, are even legal. but whatever I guess.
For those who weren’t aware that the cans of pepper spray you can get from the Jelly Belly-slash-katana outlet off I-90 at Peach Street are not just for carrying hipside to a federal mutiny, there’s an entire section of like kindergarten through seventh grade you totally missed. Once a year, that first half hour during homeroom, when an authority figure in a varying-shades-of-olive uniform and a hat so wide-brimmed it couldn’t have originated anywhere but inside a Dudley Do-Right episode, would wander in and tell us what to do if we were ever the sorry fool who ticked off a bear during what were apparently supposed to be regular journeys into the forest surrounding us.
I didn’t do a lot of hiking as a kid, but I did a lot of wandering through the woods from one friend or another’s house to my own, or just wandering around solo, smelling the dirt, or the sweetish scent of rotting apples fallen from the impromptu orchard in the lower pasture and killing time between breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner, all summer long.
Later, as a teenager and young woman, I spent more time than I can count on the back of some horse or another wandering the woods of Scandia like a nomad in a dystopian movie that will absolutely feature a weirdly aware-of-the-irony Tom Petty at one point or another before the credits roll.
I’d wake up in the morning, do whatever I was forced to before my own way would be bestowed upon me, and then guilt my mother into driving me to the barn. I’d tack up, climb aboard, and into the wild I would happily toddle with no intention of returning anytime prior to dusk. Often, I’d roll back to the barn on whatever horse I was riding that day and stay another hour after hanging tack back in the bunk room, scraping the sweat off my animal’s cavernous barrel belly, and turning him loose for the night so I could shovel his dookies off the floor in some kind of otherworldly primordial bliss at the peace and comfort within my self-imposed isolation.
I’d lay awake, the night before a peer’s birthday party or a family picnic, plotting ways to get myself out of any expectation of human interaction whatsoever and back into those glorious, endless woods.
And even then, no matter how hard I strained my ability to hope, I almost never saw a bear in the flesh.
If you’re from anywhere with an actual city center, what I’m about to say next is going to probably confuse you, but it’s okay. Just come with me. I feel like I can make you understand.
I am a bear. In spirit. Also, kind of in appearance first thing in the morning, before I’m properly caffeinated and ready to be nice. Bears like to go into their dens when the first delicate flakes of snow begin to descend on our world, or at least our corner of it, and they like to just lay around in a sort of general funk-slash-state of suspended animation until life gets easier again.
Can confirm that this is also a strategy I employ a lot more often than I should in the face of unpleasant circumstances.
Bears are renowned throughout centuries of folklore, and legend, and storytelling, and general Jungian collective existence, as intelligent, powerful, curious, and weirdly kind of human. The rear paws of black bears, the bears we have here in Pennsylvania, leave a print that is a truly uncanny rendering of a human footprint.
Bears are opportunistic omnivores, happy to munch on whatever turns up along their path, be it an unwary rabbit or a bramble patch of mid-autumn blackberries, and always opting for the snack that requires the least amount of energy expended to acquire it.
I, too, will cheerfully shove whatever’s been left lying around in my face at pretty much any opportunity presented. Especially when it’s unanticipated doughnuts. In the breakroom. When no one’s around to witness my sin.
Bears are heavy but agile. They lumber their 200-900 pound fat machines around the woods on planned and predictable trails on an endless calorie hunt around nine months out of 12, but when they need to they can run up to 35 miles an hour, chase you up a tree, and probably trounce you at Marco Polo, too, in that lake you just jumped into because your reptilian survival brain confused bears with bees while you were doing everything that game warden told you, back in grade school, never to do if you encountered a bear while trespassing on its property and running away looking to the bear like a really slow, easy, serendipitously silly little prey animal.
The one time I can remember having seen bears in the wild is a particular Wednesday afternoon about an hour from sunset in what feels, as I step into the memory, like the crispy first few evenings of August around 1996. I was riding a horse called Wings, who was a bit of a pain in the hind end to ride. Wings was as anxious and flighty as she was stunning to look at – a skewbald and well-muscled heap of white splotches on a liver chestnut palette, who would just throw her rear legs up in the air midstride, out of absolutely nowhere at all, curving her own spine in what felt to her rider like the most convincing impression of Linda Blair ever performed.
While every single time I left that barn I prayed to whatever deity might hear me for the opportunity to see a bear in real life, I don’t actually believe in God, so I never actually believed it would happen, so I never actually understood just how stupid a wish that was to wish when I left the barn on Wings. If ever there was a horse I would like to never, ever, under any circumstances encounter a bear on, it was her.
So, of course, it was at the outset of this very August sunset ride, atop Wings the Intermittent Psychopath, when I finally saw my bears.
We’d just left the barn, and I’d probably just made my stupid, stupid wish, when we crested the back portion of the pasture and I gazed around at the treeline trying to decide whether to cut her reins left, toward Cobham Park for a front row seat to a spectacular sunset in the neighbor’s field, or right and plod along the edge of a spring-fed creek to drink from the limestone waterfall a few miles north and loop back to the barn from the end of the winding, dead-end country lane on whose side it sat eternal.
Before I could even scan the perimeter of the pasture to settle on an experience, I felt her flanks ripple and the first churning waves of Wings’ signature “I’m suddenly and abjectly terrified” prance began. The sensation of being at home atop a horse is one that only comes with hours and hours in the saddle, and time was something I wasted on riding like it grew on trees, so I knew well by the age of thirteen how to feel the utter dread that floods the body when the brain perceives that it will be killed momentarily. I turned my heels down in the stirrups and flexed my thighs from obturator to adductor. The muscles on either side of her heaving ribs turned to stone before my awareness of her spooking caught up with my perception of it.
That inter-species telepathy is another really cool experience you can only get from developing a relationship with a 2,000-pound prey companion.
It didn’t help that the sun, sinking into the trembling oak branches cast a stippled, shimmering sort of light on that liminal space between pasture and wilderness, but as I gathered up the slack in her leather reins, collecting her swaying, mighty head for her because the hapless beast had proven time and again that she wasn’t going to do it for herself, she swayed, and I atop her, into the westerly shade edging the wooden fence line and finally, with my sluggish human perception, I saw what had set her stomping and pawing the sweetgrass sea below us. I pivoted myself left on my axis, the lower half of me melded, now, to the saddle. An extension of it, and drew my right hand up, backward, dropping my left hand in the same motion to my to hip, using physics to send a message through the leather straps and into her mouth, up to her brain, to spin.
Ever been on a Tilt-a-Whirl?
It’s like that, kind of, if the Tilt-a-Whirl has a brain of its own and could fling you across a clearing like flicking a spider off your shoulder.
And, as we did, I locked my gaze on the three hulking black bodies sniffing the ground below the field apple tree that had been dropping overripe fruit for weeks as the summer relented each evening only to come raging back at dawn.
Another, less tangible, liminal space – the transition of one season into the next.
Finally, on our third spin, I held tight on the reins to draw her nose and eyes down, forward, forcing her to focus on only the most immediate sights and smells and hoping, as she threw her weight back to the left, caught sight of the barn, that her brain would snap back into effective action mode and she’d take off for it, full steam ahead. Funny how you spend months trying to break an animal (or a child, for that matter) of an “impolite” behavior only to pray they’ve retained the instinct for it when the need for politeness flies out the window.
Below us, where the pasture dipped and swelled to meet the woods in a tender, sweeping crescendo of dissonant spaces, the bears caught scent of us and, on that last, third whirl around, I saw the largest of the three hoist himself upright, going from three or four to six or seven feet tall and drawing whiffs of us in, his snout snapping up and down, drinking in our unique smells as they danced down to greet the trio on a staccato, sudden wind that swirled a clutch of crackling leaves around Wings’ knobby ankles, and tossed her waving mane back into my face.
Just then. Crack. Almost before my fingers released the tension on her reins Wings felt it, felt the intention itself before it even became action, and responded, threw her head up, thrust it forward, and ran. Snap. Like a rubber band.
And we’re off.
It couldn’t have been two seconds later the pair of us crashed through the open paddock gate and the dull thud of her full-powered canter on the sodden paddock gave way to a solid, flint-on-steel hammering and I knew without looking that we were going to make it. Both of us. As we tore past the outdoor corral and rounded the bend toward the front door, my body loosened, a chill ran down me from the nape of my neck to shoot out the tips of my fingers and square-booted toes, and just like that, like the initial crack, then fading report, of a gunshot both of us drained of tension and energy at the exact same time.
My right foot slid from its stirrup. My hip flexed to swing that half of my body, then the rest over the left half of hers, and I dropped away from her like a pilot fish from the rough side of a great white, into the current of warm air and dandelion fuzz, and Wings disappeared into the black cavern beyond the barn door with a sassy little whinny and I dropped to a squat, knees at right angles and palms on dirt, as if the ground beneath me may still be as unsteady and theoretical as it had felt with my trembling legs clung to her trembling sides and both of us living up to her namesake as we flew from the pasture toward home.
It occurred to me as I trembled there, panting and slowly melting back into my human, non-panic awareness, that I had not the first idea whether I’d done anything at all I’d been told to do by the game wardens who’d presented their Pennsylvania Bear Safety PowerPoint to me annually for the better part of my life. It occurred to me how very differently the entire event could have ended had I not been on a horse, or been on a horseless reactive and spastic than Wings.
And it occurred to me, as it has occurred to me several times over the past two weeks, that no matter how much you prepare for something you can ultimately, have no idea whatsoever, when that awful thing finally happens, how it will go down, or whether the tale will be a comedy or a tragedy told, one day in the distant future, around an early August fire pit at sunset, to regale friends and loved ones in the timeless tradition of storytelling for its own sake.