Friday, August 30, 2013

Day 2: Bears Are Everywhere

In the morning, as we were getting in our car to leave, a middle-aged woman walked her dog by our campsite and stopped to chat. This is something that happens, camping. People just talk to you. You talk to them. It all seems quite natural, even though you would never in a million years talk to this very same person, apropos of nothing, had you met in the middle of a big city. It came up that Emily and I were on a honeymoon. The woman congratulated us on our new marriage, but seemed a little confused. Why hadn't we gone to some resort to lounge on a beach?  She was surprised we'd want the hassle of camping on our honeymoon.

This made me think: what's a honeymoon for? If we're not being cynical*, a honeymoon is for the couple; it affords newlyweds their first opportunity to be alone with each other. Sans parents, sans chaperones, sans social expectation for sexless courtship (though with new expectations to have sex and make babies), a honeymoon is when a couple gets a chance at sustained intimacy for the first time. There's only one problem, in the case of Emily and I: none of this stuff actually applies to us. So what does "honeymoon" mean, for us? We're using the concept of a "honeymoon" as an excuse to travel, because it's typical that newlyweds vacation together.

Off the top of my head, I don't know (personally) anyone married or soon-to-be married for whom the original honeymoon concept might apply. But this only means that the honeymoon fits in with a set of wedding rituals which have largely lost their meaning, like the bride in a white dress, or the bride given away by her father. These are vestigial symbols to represent values that used to matter**. So. I guess, in sum, we're on vacation.

That's all very general. The more specific question is: what's our honeymoon for? I'm still not totally sure why we're camping, other than it sounded like fun when we planned it all, but now that we're doing this I'm glad we did. Our camping honeymoon is a little more do-it-ourselves than going to a resort would have been (though proportionately less comfortable). I think there's some thematic resonance in a DIY honeymoon. Marriage is DIY. No one else is going to do it for us. We're figuring it out on our own.

We drove inland from the coast to Santa Rosa to find the nearest WalMart. We needed chairs and a bigger tarp. While at the store, Emily came into possession of a free Razor Sharp Paring Knife, which knife, so far, has earned all its modifiers. I mention this because it's the most exciting thing we did for about 3 hours, until we passed through Piercy, CA, where 101 parallels the Eel River, to come upon a massive crowd of people in the floodplain below the highway at a reggae festival--Reggae on the River--known locally as Reggae, and found an attendant crush of cars and people suffocating the somewhat larger town (though "large" here means 1,000 people, instead of 100) of Garberville, where we stopped for gas and coffee. We drove through small town after small town on the lightly trafficked 101, wondering if northern California had been deserted. When we found Reggae, and then Garberville, we had the answer. No, it wasn't deserted. Everyone was in Garberville, gearing up for Reggae.

We arrived at Humboldt Redwoods SP in the late afternoon. Our camp loop was reasonably small, and reasonably compact--seeming more compact because the loop is located at the edge of a meadow (once a fruit orchard, where a few plum and apple trees survive) and the forest grows sparsely through the loop, providing unobstructed views of most of the rest of camp, creating a sense that many people share the same space. Fifty yards past the short bridge spanning a dry ravine, we pulled up to the ranger station (a kiosk on our right). The road for the loop was paved, and fed into a dirt walking path through the meadow 10 yards to the left of our left headlight. A dozen people stood at the edge of the meadow, holding cameras, while small children stood on top of a few small boulders placed along the boundary between the paved road and the meadow.

Emily was already out of the car.

"Do you see the bears?" she asked.

She pointed at the plum tree 20 yards past the edge of the meadow that the group of people was looking at. Oh, no. No. A mama bear and her two cubs had climbed into the tree, shaking branches and eating plums.  But no one ran. People just stood there. My head clouded over, and I don't remember saying anything. I'd entered some bizarro world where humans could stand 20 yards from a mama bear and cubs without putting themselves in extreme danger. The rangers took the bears in the plum tree as a matter of course.

"Don't get closer than 30 feet," one shouted, not unhappily, as a little girl took a few tentative steps past a boulder.

It's hard to describe the disorientation I felt in the moment, though the source of the feeling was the juxtaposition of what I knew to be true--that bears, especially bears with cubs, are extremely dangerous--with what was actually, really, currently true--that no one acted as if the bears were very dangerous, and the bears displayed no interest in anything but plums. I experienced the disorientation of a deeply felt Truth crashing into a wall of contravening lived experience. I wanted to get away from the bears as soon as possible, even as I realized that the impulse to do so was silly, and when we arrived at our campsite, we discovered that we'd only traveled another 100 yards from the plum tree, whose branches we could still see shaking past the line of onlookers.

Emily was ecstatic. I, meanwhile, moved through the motions of setting up camp and preparing dinner in a mental fog. By the time it burned off, I'd realized something important. I'm not afraid of bears. I'm not sure I ever was. Today's bears were the first I'd ever seen out of captivity. Before this, I'd never seen a bear to be afraid of. So why had I been so afraid of bears?

It took a little uncomfortable introspection to find the answer. This much is true: until today, a fear of "bears" often ruined my camping experiences. But a "bear" is not a bear. A "bear" is a flexible signifier for any and all of my neurotic fears surrounding 1) camping and 2) all interactions with humans or animals while in the woods. A "bear" is anything I need it to be so that I can say, "I'm just worried about bears," instead of saying the much less rational and much more unhinged sounding, "I'm just worried that if we start a fire and cook dinner, angry locals with greasy hair and tank top shirts (even though they have deep red farmer burns on their forearms and untanned upper arms) will find us and subject us to awful hazing/torture because we're not from around here***." Having seen real bears, I think I've pulled back the veil to get at exactly what my fear of "bears" is. This is a good thing. I've started to unravel some of my own irrational fear. Bears really aren't that scary. They're powerful animals, but only dangerous in very limited circumstances. Bears are everywhere, but it's ok.

I returned to normal in a few hours. After the bears left, but before dark, deer came to graze beneath the plum tree where the bears had shaken fruit onto the ground.  We set up our tent in the center of a ring of redwoods, so we can see the forest canopy and patches of sky when we lie down. We ate dinner and read out loud by the fire. Then we went to sleep. The whole place has a sharp, clean smell, except for my clothes, which smell like wood fire.

*Everyone knows that the most important function of a honeymoon is to provide the junction where the travel industry can tap into the Wedding-Industrial Complex cash pipe.

**These examples are pretty gross from a feminist perspective, and a honeymoon isn't really gross or problematic in the same way, but you get the idea.

***Not that, you know, I've ever actually thought that, or anything.

No comments:

Post a Comment