For readers who can remember that far back, Part 7 detailed the majority of our visit to a little-known place called Bearizona. This visit occurred within the larger context of our Labor Day weekend trip, which we rechristened 'Uncle' Day weekend because we couldn’t take the summer heat in
Bearizona’s black bear exhibit was large in size and impressive in the number of bears it contained. The dirt road through the enclosure was probably close to a half-mile long, if you straightened out the two large loops designed to give the visitor more viewing opportunities. Once we entered, we saw almost immediately that the bears were active. The staff must have just fed them, because a substantial number of bears were just off the edge of the trail, eating breakfast. For some reason, they reminded me of old pictures of Dust-Bowl-era migrants pulled over informally along the shoulders of the
to eat, picnicking on their way to the Promised Land. I must have seen a picture like that once
upon a time; otherwise, I have no idea why that thought would even come to me. Some of the bears were on all fours, and some
were sitting straight up on their haunches, but all were doing the same
thing: eating slices of white
bread. Each one had a slice of the stuff
already in its mouth, or was holding it with a paw. We noticed one bear was holding his piece up
to the sun as though he were appreciating its form, the way I might hold up a
plump chunk of king crab leg glistening with clarified butter. Some had piles of slices next to them.
Who knew bears had a thing for Wonder
Bread? And they ate it with such apparent
relish, too; it seemed to be a delicacy to them, like eating dessert first. I’m sure they had been given other food as
well; good food, healthy food, food with actual flavor. All they seemed interested in was the Wonder
Bread. It was funny, but on some level, also
a little disturbing.
|Black bears and white bread.|
Sounds like a country song...
|This example illustrates the problem of shooting|
pictures through the car window.
No, camera, I didn't really want the dashboard
superimposed over an unfocused image of a bear,
even though it turned out to be kind of cool.
After trying a few different settings with the camera, I realized there was only one way to get the picture I wanted. I rolled my window down about four inches, and moved the camera up to the opening.
The change inside the car was immediate.
“Dad! You’re not supposed to have your window down! Dad! The bear’s right there!”
“I know, sweetheart,” I answered, trying to calm her with a soothing voice. “It’s okay. It’s just a few inches, and I’m just going to take a few pictures, and then roll it right back up.”
“You’re not supposed to do that, Dad! It’s against the rules! It’s dangerous!”
“It will only take a few seconds…”
“DAD! ROLL UP THE WINDOW!”
So much for calming her with my voice. “Just a few pictures, honey.”
“DON’T SAY THAT WORD!”
Her voice dropped down to an emphatic whisper. “Honey.”
“Honey? Why can’t I say honey?”
“THE BEARS WILL HEAR YOU!”
“THE BEARS WILL HEAR YOU!”
It took me a moment to figure out the bear-honey connection, and when I did, I almost laughed. But Jessica was serious, and becoming more hysterical with each passing second the window remained cracked.
“Okay, hon-… sweetie,” I said, checking myself. “Just one more second…”
“DAD, THE BEARS!!! DAD, THE BEARS!!!” She suddenly began flailing around, grabbing for her pillow. She was on the verge of completely losing it, and I sensed she was only moments away from reverting to fetal position. I quickly snapped a few more pictures randomly, pulled the camera back in, and closed the window.
I lowered my head until it rested between my hands on the steering wheel. My daughter has two personality traits that sometimes drive me crazy. One is a tendency to over-dramatize; the other is to not manage fear very well. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. In this case, I was sure she wasn’t just being dramatic. She was truly terrified.
“Okay, Jess, okay. The windows are up,” I said, my head still resting on the wheel. As a parent, this hypersensitivity to fear was worrisome. As someone who’s struggled with intensely debilitating feelings of fear his whole life, it was extremely concerning. Quite frankly, even I, the most chicken-@*#! person I know, didn’t respond with such blind panic when I was her age. Like most good little boys, I learned at an early age to rely on the three “S’s” for controlling pervasive fear, at least outwardly: subdue, suppress, and stifle. By ten, I had long figured out that there was one fear which held great power over the rest: the fear of embarrassment. I guess what bothered me more than anything was that she seemed completely unwilling to recognize the rules of civilized society, or play by them. She abandoned herself so readily to the slightest scary stimulus, she seemed so willing to instantly abdicate control over her mind, it felt as though there was nothing there to build upon, no foundational resistance to work with, or to encourage, or develop. Trust me, we’ve seen some amazing displays of meltdowns over the years. In this particular situation, the resulting scene was little more than tremendously annoying, limited as it was to the interior of our car. But put her in a public context, say a shopping mall, or the zoo, and we’re talking show-stopping, gasp-inducing reactions from innocent bystanders. Put her in a room with a nurse and a needle, and I literally begin to worry for everybody’s safety. But how do you begin to reach someone who glazes over at the first sign of trouble? Where do you even start? Not knowing what to do was driving me crazy. My forehead hurt, only partly from leaning on the steering wheel. It wasn’t fair, I thought. She showed absolutely no natural ability to stifle.
I turned my head enough to look over my arm at Elizabeth, who gave me an exasperated shrug, as if responding to the same unspoken question. “We broke the rules,” I said quietly. “Even though I made sure that it was safe, I shouldn’t have rolled the window down.” I could hear her whimpering underneath her pillow. “I’m sorry, Jess. I won’t do it again.”
The car became quiet for a few minutes, and then, with a heavy sigh, I began moving the car forward. After another lengthy pause,
spoke. “Hey, Jess,” she said brightly, “Do
you see those two bears over there? They’re
both standing up! It looks like they’re
dancing! Oh, they just fell over!” It was usually Elizabeth who took on the role
of coaxing Jessica back out of her shell in the aftermath of moments like these. In this case, she had some ready help from
the clownish behavior of the bears.
Jessica recovered quickly, blithely comfortable under the false security
provided by the assumption that nothing bad could happen as long as the windows
were up. Elizabeth
We crept deeper into the exhibit, watching the bears still munching away with perfect contentment on the remainder of their white bread. Others roamed restlessly around the depths of the enclosure. Several crossed the road, intentionally oblivious to the rumbling strand of cars and trucks. A few bears were sprawled out on the ground in positions that reflected, in a friend’s perfectly coined phrase, “dinner afterglow.” Except, of course, they had just eaten breakfast, but there seemed no point in trying to tell them that.
Under the irresistible influence of the bears, the atmosphere within the car magically gained back all of its cheerful buoyancy. One bear was rubbing its backside on the rough bark of a ponderosa pine, shaking the poor tree, which was not a small specimen, so hard that it looked as though it were about to crumble to pieces. I heard a laugh, a girlish squeal of delight, that I didn’t recognize. Bewildered, I looked behind me from one girl to the other, trying to identify the source. Then I saw
completely absorbed in the bear’s stumbling antics, giggling with pure enchantment,
her face glowing with an expression of enraptured innocence. Elizabeth
I was stunned. I had no idea she was even capable of such little girl noises. In the history of our relationship together, 25 years and counting, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard her laugh like that, or look quite like that. I studied her face as though she were a stranger. We’ve been to some great places together, fun places; places where we’ve professed to have had the most fun we’ve ever had, together or individually. For instance, we both adore
have been there many times, alone and with the kids; but nothing in Walt
Disney’s dream world ever produced a response like that in her. Monterrey and , two more
favorite places; no such luck. San Francisco . My God, you would think if anything would
trigger an undiluted outburst of sheer giddiness, it would be the shopping
nirvana of Sex in the City New York . Manhattan London, not even . London Elizabeth’s a hopeless
Anglophile, and not even standing on the aorta of the British
Empire could do it. Paris, a city we both fell in love with, that amazing night
at Walter’s midway up the Swiss Alps, Venice, Florence, . In all the time I had known her, which was practically
since she actually was a little girl,
I had never seen her become a little girl right before my eyes. Rome
I wanted to capture that school-girl giggle forever. I wanted to trap that moment in a glass jar, with holes in the lid, and learn how to keep it alive, to feed it and keep it close to me. I would guard it and protect it with my life, if only I knew how to produce it. But how do you get from fun, in all its various forms, to generating that peculiar kind of spontaneous joy? And if you can’t make it, how do you hold on to it? All I had to work with was my own faulty memory, and a camera. CAMERA! Please don’t be too late! I quickly fumbled for the camera, turned it on her, and snapped a picture.
|Joy is a peculiar kind of happiness...|
“I’m sorry,” she said eventually, wiping tears of a certain kind from her eyes. “This just reminds me of going camping with my mom and dad. We would always see bears. Being here just brought it all back to me...” Her voice trailed off.
I shook my head emphatically. “Don’t apologize. You just surprised me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like that out of you before.”
She looked at me semi-sheepishly, her deep smile still glowing. God, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that expression…
After leaving the bears, which was the last of the drive-through exhibits, we were directed into a parking lot in front of what looked like a brand new old western fort, the log stockade kind. The woman who was in charge of parking told us that inside was a zoo containing smaller animals that were better seen up close, instead of from a car. We parked in the gravel lot, unloaded the kids, and approached the entrance, where we were greeted by a large bear carved from wood holding a pot of honey. It was a clearly designated photo opportunity, one we obediently took advantage of:
|Two girls and a bear.|
Sorry, Maria, but he's not going to share
Instead, I will concisely summarize our experience within the fort by saying that when we came back out, our tummies were full, each girl was clutching a stuffed teddy bear, and it had just crossed over to afternoon. We easily spent four hours in Bearizona without ever experiencing a moment of that dragging, strung-out feeling you get sometimes when you overstay a place in an effort to get your money’s worth. By the time we left, we all agreed that Bearizona had been the highlight of our trip. Although from this experience, Maria would develop a fear of bears that would make Stephen Colbert proud. For weeks after our visit, she would make us check her room each night for bears before bedtime, and if she woke up crying, it was inevitably because of the bears she saw in her dreams.
Back on highway 40, headed west again, I began to watch the clock more closely. We spent far more time at Bearizona than I had anticipated, and this meant that the possibility of making it back before the returning crush of holiday weekend traffic was slipping away. Fortunately, our plan of bypassing the I-17 in favor of a less-traveled route back to
should preserve us from the worst of it.
Still, I had never driven this exact way before, and didn’t really know
what to expect from the roads, or the traffic on them. Phoenix
We bolted another thirty miles along the interstate before reaching the junction with highway 89 near the town of
Turning south, we aimed ourselves directly into some very dark
clouds. The prospect of rain was thrilling,
and I accelerated towards it as if reacting to the distant sight of a long lost
lover. At home, the total extent of
precipitation we had seen since May consisted of exactly three half-rains; and
in many ways, a half-rain is almost worse than no rain at all because of the
teasing torture it inflicts. For those
of you not from the desert, a half-rain is what happens when it actually does
rain, and the rain actually hits the ground (thus distinguishing it from the
half-half-rain, which is when you can see it raining above you, but the rain
never makes it within 500 feet of your stinging, dried-up eyeballs), but
because everything is so infernally hot, within twenty minutes you would never
be able to convince someone who wasn’t there that it had rained at all, unless
your car was parked outside and you could show them your dirty windshield with
its hundreds of fossilized remains of water droplets that evaporated on
impact. It’s very difficult to
accurately describe how much a man’s undies can get into a twist as a result of
enduring this succession of rain-teasing (I assume the same holds true for
women, but I haven’t checked personally).
In fact, I’ve discovered that there is a whole psychology to the
relationship between desert dweller and rain; a complex, stormy (excuse the
pun) psychology. I would love to explain
it in greater detail, but I’m kind of in a rush to get home, so I’ll have to
save that for another time. Ash Fork
As odd as it may sound, if there were anything that could have made our trip even better, it was to have it rain on us. And it finally did, as we were zinging south on highway 89. Huge, juicy, morbidly obese drops of water began to hurl themselves against the windshield and the thin steel of the car’s roof. Inside, we were all thrown into a state of primitive excitement. I had to explain all over to our two-year-old, who had initially been frightened by the sudden, noisy assault, what rain was, since nearly one-fifth of her life had passed since the last time she experienced precipitation that actually got anything wet. We shut off the air conditioner and opened the outside vents so the thick smell of rain could permeate the car. We rolled down the windows enough to feel the wind and be splashed by rain-spray, occasionally taking a whole, fat drop on the shoulder or side of the face at high velocity, inspiring fits of laughter. We barreled along, spontaneously breaking into a serenading rendition of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head,” which we sang enthusiastically, being one of the few songs about rain we knew that wasn’t completely depressing. This launched a discussion of why there are so few songs in praise of rain. Most of the songs we could think of were inherently negative, even openly hostile, while the rest tended to be “silver-lining” songs that celebrate finding happiness despite the rain. Even in that most classic of rain songs, we observed that Gene Kelly was “Singin’ in the Rain,” not singin’ because of the rain. What the world needs, we decided, is a great rain song for the rest of us, the people who don’t have enough rain in their lives, who look around when it’s wet and only see a wonderland.
The rain stayed with us for close to half an hour, almost all the way to
Chino Valley, a small town north of .
Because it had absorbed all of our attention, once the rain ended we
could clearly see that we had left the big evergreen trees behind, and had
dropped in elevation to the point where we were surrounded by wide, gently
sloping, straw-colored grasslands. The only prior knowledge I had of Chino
Valley’s existence (so that’s where
it is) came from seeing what always seemed like an abnormally large number of buses
from their school district routinely navigating the streets of northwest Phoenix. As I looked around at the vast empty land and
sparsely distributed homes, I couldn’t begin to understand where all the kids
that filled those buses were coming from, let alone why their buses seemed to spend
so much time in the big city a hundred miles away. Prescott
We came into
from the north, passing through the granite dells that I had seen many times in
promotional pictures, but had never seen personally. The dells are giant, rounded boulders that
have lots of deep lines cut into them.
They were surely formed by some perfectly reasonable geological process,
but they looked to me as though some ancient Titan had attacked them in a
moment of weakness with a giant cheese slicer when the rocks were still soft
and, presumably, cheesy. Prescott
Within minutes, we found ourselves at the corner of the city’s centerpiece, the historic courthouse square. The granite block building had once served as the territorial capital building, and so was built with the requisite neo-classical gravitas common to federal buildings, a stateliness which far exceeded its current role as a county courthouse. But, it also serves as the town’s central gathering place; and today a Labor Day celebration was underway, with booths and stands forming an impromptu picket fence along the inner perimeter of the square. Streets were cordoned off, and hundreds of people were milling in every direction. We nosed our way through the streaming crowds along
wishing we could stop and investigate.
Elizabeth and I agreed that it would have been a great place to let
Maria burn off some energy, but the chaotic swirling of people and cars made
the prospect riskier, or at least more arduous, than either of us was willing
to endure. We simply skirted by, figuring we would find a place to stop and stretch
a little further on.
Highway 89, however, had other plans. A few miles after passing through the center of
Prescott, it bends away from the restaurant
and retail corridor familiar to people who approach the city on the main route
from . Before you realize it, you’re in a secluded
suburban area, and then almost as suddenly, back into the open chaparral. A quick survey of the family revealed that no
one was in immediate need of a rest stop, so instead of turning back, we
decided to press on. Phoenix
We didn’t stop until we reached Wickenburg, a distance of merely sixty miles, but it’s a long sixty miles, taking almost two hours, the road wending precariously down through the mountains soon after leaving Prescott. Although we had been through this part of the highway once before when Jessica was just a baby, we had forgotten just how acutely and constantly swervy it was, and also how prone to carsickness Jessica is. As an infant she had slept through this part the first time. We noticed her growing discomfort first by her silence, and then by the loss of color in her face. As the car spun its way down the mountainside like a twisting maple seed, she rode along the very inside edge of nausea for the next ten miles without ever totally losing her grip. That’s my girl, I thought proudly. Who says my daughter can’t stifle?
No one was more thankful than Jessica when we finally pulled into the familiar Wickenburg McDonald’s. We had driven all the way from Bearizona without stopping, a distance of roughly 130 miles, which equated to 3.5 hours of solid driving. With the exception of the rough patches through the mountains, the girls had handled the long drive better than
or I could’ve
We claimed a booth inside the McDonald’s, saw to necessities, and placed our order. I loitered by the counter until our stuff was ready, and then returned to our table, handing soft-serve cones to the kids, and a large sweet tea to
. I sipped a bottle of water, feeling pretty
good about where things stood. An hour
or so from now, we would pull into our driveway at home. Barring a serious accident on the highway
between here and there, it probably wouldn’t be later than four-thirty or five. We would unload the car, and after that, I
would grab the hose and desperately shower water over all the plants outside,
hoping they could be resuscitated after enduring two brutal summer days without
us. I looked out the front windows of
the McDonald’s and watched the cars whizzing by in both directions. The old traffic bug-a-boo, which had
dominated my list of concerns about the trip home, had proven to be a
non-factor. We had driven from Elizabeth all the way
through without any serious impediments.
And judging from the volume of vehicles passing by on the highway before
us, there was no reason to think things would be much different the rest of the
way. Had I not known better, I never
would have guessed that we were in the thick end of a holiday weekend. I wondered whether the poor wretches southbound
on the I-17 were backed up to Sunset Point yet (I later heard that it actually
was as bad as I wanted to believe it would be, which I then felt badly about
wanting to believe, although also selfishly and unnecessarily vindicated). Flagstaff
I watched our daughters eating their ice cream, or in Maria’s case, attempting to submerse herself in it. I reflected with satisfaction over the last thirty-five hours. We had accomplished our goals, that seemed safe to say. We had briefly escaped the absolute tyranny of the summer sun and its power to desiccate not only physically, but spiritually. We found enough of a respite in the tempered heat and cool mountain breezes to return home with patched-up hope. We couldn’t change the fact that summer would last at least another month, and very possibly two; but we had been given a taste of what waited for us after: a nearly endless string of days, each one as blue and perfect as the mildest summer day in
Our conviction that there had to be an end to summer was revived to something more substantial than lifeless words. Flagstaff
|Lunch under the pines|
|Maria at Lake Mary|
|The women in my life|
“Alright,” I said, holding each one in turn in my gaze, “I guess it’s time to go home.”
Whew! It’s done. If you are one of the people who actually read every part of this story, you have just finished forty pages of Times New Roman, 12 point font, standard margins, single-spaced insanity. That’s 23,363 words, according to Word’s word count (You didn’t think I was going to count them, did you?) You can’t see me, but I’m tipping my hat to you right now. You have earned the right to be called a true-blue friend of the blog, either that or a glutton for punishment. I gave you many opportunities to bail out on the story, or even forget about it entirely, making you wait like I did for weeks at a time for the next installment. Yet you persevered. Good for you. I hope you were moderately entertained throughout, or at least sporadically so. I also hope you will comment or email me to let me know of your accomplishment. I don’t know what I can do to reward your patience and/or lunacy, but I’d like to thank you individually, and try to find out why you would ever choose to spend your time in such an unproductive way.