How to scare a bear!
When I am out hunting ghost towns I like to wander into the local bar and find the “old timers.” The challenge is to see if I can get them to tell me about their past. Typically, I get skeptic looks and silence— until they realize that I just may be considered worthy of listening to their stories and tales. The day in Cleator, AZ is the one that stands out most. I walked in wearing my motorcycle clothes and all the locals got up in unison and walked to the bar to avoid me. To them I was a helmeted idiot. A tenderfoot. Someone who went looking for gas in a town that only had a bar. But sometimes there's another alternative to avoidance: the tall tale. And a common characteristic of the old timers is to fool the tenderfoot by spinning a yarn. Sometimes this is much more interesting. And eventually, you get good at telling truth from tale.
The following is a story as told to me while sitting on a barstool in Ouray, Colorado. Is it true? Well, you'll have to discern that for yourself. But I will say that years after hearing this tale, I read a story written by Roger Henn, an author and story teller from the San Juan’s. The story I heard in the bar and the story in his book were nearly identical. Henn's book, however was titled Lies, Legends and Lore of the San Juans (and a few true tales), so make of that what you will. Great book, if you're interested, the kind I would call a bathroom book. Great short stories for those few rare minutes you need to be occupied.
According to the local's story, this young lad was hiking the Red Mountains in 1936, and that was when he discovered how to scare a bear.
Because of the heavy fallen timber, he was having difficulty seeing his way around the trails. Eventually, he came upon a great stump, perhaps eight feet high, likely the remains of a tree cut-off when the snow was just as deep. The great stump was at least four feet in diameter, and from the ground, it looked like the perfect lookout for a hiker who needed a better view. So using the old limbs and knots, he climbed the giant, rotting stump, and finally reached the top. Success! He could see all around, as he stood straddling the hollow center of the old tree.
Suddenly, though, he slipped, falling straight into the cavity of the tree. His hands were forced into the air, and when he finally stopped falling, he couldn't reach the top. To top it off, the knobs and bumps inside the tree kept him from hitting the ground. He was effectively stuck, suspended inside the giant stump. It was only after shouting, screaming, whistling, and singing that he realized no one was anywhere near and no one knew where he was. His hope of rescue was pretty dismal. So what he did next was what he did best. He dozed off to sleep.
He was awakened by something rustling around in the brush outside. Hollering was his first instinct. But when the noise came closer, he realized that an animal was making the commotion. And when the scratching and clawing reached his stump, he decided it best to keep his mouth shut. Then the smell hit him, and he knew that a bear was outside.
But not for long.
Suddenly, the hole at the top of the tree went dark, and the bear began to back its way into the stump. It must have been getting ready to hibernate, perhaps coming back from a day of hunting berries.
The hiker pulled his hands down as far as he could, but knew he'd soon have to do something. So when the beast reached his hands, he grabbed two handfuls of its tail end and hollered as loud as he could. Next thing you know, that old bruin jumped up and out of that stump with the hiker hanging on. And when he let go, the bruin was running for the cover of scrub brush at full-on speed.
And so the hiker got his lesson in scaring bears. One he'd probably rather not repeat, except of course, when bellied up to the bar.