It was fall in Northern New Mexico.
In the backyard my aging Dodge van’s faded black skin glistened under a rare bath.
She was waiting to take me to the river.
But three-dollar-a-gallon gas did what 10 years of hard driving and several near-death experiences failed to do.
I had to park my beloved van.
For the past 10 years I’d been tooling around in the V-8 driven, one-ton, behemoth, rigged up with a full-size bed, propane heat, a working kitchen in the back and all the spare parts, tools, camping and fishing gear I could haul.
With a stiff tailwind and a long downgrade I was lucky to get 12-mpg.
But now I had a little, five-speed, four-wheel-drive, high-clearance, short-wheel-base 1996 Geo Tracker with a soft-top to run around in.
And it got 30 mpg and was a non-descript, sun-faded green, too!
I lucked into the little SUV, having dropped an e-mail to an old friend, Reggie Larkin, who works out of an automotive shop up in Pagosa Springs, Colorado and told him I was in the market for one of those little Japanese jeeps.
Turns out his shop had just picked up a newer, prettier, four-door, hardtop version of their trusty little shop truck and now the old two-door, convertible was up for grabs.
“I’d buy it,” he said.
That’s all I needed to hear. I talked to his boss who told me if I showed up with two grand, it was mine.
Me and my girlfriend, Wren, talked it over, pulled some cash out of the bank and headed north the following weekend to check out the little jeep.
It was just what we were looking for to compete with Santa Fe’s legions of high-end, monster SUVs – Range Rovers, Escalades, Expeditions, Land Cruisers.
We broke it in on the ride home, crossing over the San Juan Mountains and heading down to the Conejos River. The washboard dirt road that runs alongside this river for many miles would serve well as a shakedown cruise.
The little truck worked out fine as did the fishing and a few weeks later we decided we’d really break the little jeep in with a trip up to the Valle Vidal, in the high country north of Taos on the Colorado border.
I was looking forward to this trip because I knew we’d get into some reliable afternoon thunderstorms and slick roads that would really give the little jeep’s four-wheel drive capabilities a tryout.
It would be ironic because this is where a tragic, fatal encounter with a bear many years ago led me to buy my van in the first place.
I had been fishing at Shuree Ponds where on occasion a well-placed caddis fly can entice a hefty rainbow to the surface. It’s rumored the State Game and Fish boys plant retired brood stock in the ponds, which accounts for their legendary size.
I was fishing with a former co-worker from my newspapering days in the early 1990’s when I worked as a cops and courts reporter with the Albuquerque Journal’s Northern bureau in Santa Fe.
This was the guy who taught me the basics of fly-fishing and the formula news lead.
He had pulled in a big rainbow that evening and was anxious to cook it up back at Cimarron campground, about a mile from the pond. It is one of only two campsites located within the estimated 100,000-acre Valle Vidal and usually crowded.
We rolled in late and took one of the last sites located at the far end of the loop. It looked like an overflow spot, just an old road that ran off into the woods with a picnic table parked in the middle. Stands of trees bordered each side of the road.
When we paid for our site at the self-service fee station there were warning signs posted to tell campers that bears had been raiding the campground recently and to take the usual precautions to avoid tempting them any further.
Nonetheless, my fishing partner decided to clean his catch under the public water spigot and then fried it up in a great cast-iron skillet with bacon grease. Seems I remember eating my usual hamburger and Ranch Style “Husband Pleasing” chili beans.
And it wasn’t long before the aroma of our supper brought the bears in.
I was brushing my teeth by my little Isuzu Pup truck with my back to the tree line when I heard something rustle in the leaves. I turned to find a young bear at arms length looking at me quizzically.
I literally jumped out of my boots, scrambled up onto the picnic table and started spitting toothpaste as I screamed bloody murder.
The little bear took off running and I calmed down after awhile.
We thought about leaving but it would be a long drive off the mountain to find another spot to camp since there’s no camping “at-large” within the Valle Vidal.
Instead we decided it would be okay to ride out the night in our bedrolls under a couple of tarps strung up in the far tree line since it appeared we had scared the bear off.
Besides, we had my fishing partner’s dog, Pete, with us. He was a feisty male chow/husky-looking mix with one blue eye whose manhood was intact and he wasn’t afraid of a fight.
We also had my dog Wiley, a slight, whippet/Boston terrier mix, with us. I had only recently picked her up during a fishing trip up in the Jemez Mountains. She was out with us on the first of many camping trips and just a few days earlier she had disappeared during an evening lighting storm only to nonchalantly reappear the following morning.
The fight in her remained to be seen but there was the added peace of mind brought on by my partner’s big 12-guage, pump shotgun and my .357 Magnum pistol.
I soon drifted off to sleep curled up with my dog and my pistol. But within a short time I was awakened by a series of loud whispers urging me to “wake up!”
My buddy was whispering hoarsely that he thought the bear was back and rooting around in my little Isuzu pickup truck. Then he turned his flashlight on and in the powerful beam we saw a much bigger bear than before.
She was seated with her rump on top of the toolbox behind the cab and leaning over into the open bed. I saw the top of my cooler fly through the air before my partner’s flashlight suddenly went out.
We couldn’t believe it. His bulb had apparently chosen that moment to burn out.
While I frantically searched around for my flashlight, I could hear Pete going wild, barking and straining at my partner’s grip. It was too dark to see but I could smell and hear the bear.
I finally found my flashlight and when I turned it upon the truck we could see the bear looking over at us. We tried yelling and throwing things at the bear to scare her off but she wasn’t fazed in the least by our efforts.
It wasn’t until Pete broke loose and launched himself at the side of the truck that the bear responded, rearing up on its hind legs in the bed of the pickup, big as a church.
It was a quick decision to fire, my partner his shotgun and I my pistol, a single blast each and the bear tumbled from the back of the truck and out of sight.
We cautiously made our way over to the truck and peered around the front end to see the bear struggling to get up. She was a big, cinnamon-brown bruiser and my partner put her down with another load of double-aught buck.
It was a sad affair. I remember the feeling of guilt and remorse that washed over me. To top it off my dog had run off again during all the action. Then we began to wonder what kind of trouble we might be in.
We left the dead bear and my dog behind as we dragged our sorry asses down off that mountain. We drove about 15 miles to the payphone at the gas station in Amalia where we reported the shooting to the State Game and Fish.
The officer who took our report told my partner not to feel too bad about it. Most nuisance bears are doomed to such a fate and they had been expecting something like that to happen since there had been so many bear encounters in the campground that summer.
Nonetheless, I still felt bad about what happened. We were to blame for killing that bear no matter how we tried to justify it.
My co-worker and me parted ways that morning, he headed north to Wyoming to continue his vacation and I, back up the mountain to search for my dog. I was relieved to find her, shivering in the middle of the road by the campsite.
Nearby was the body of the dead bear we had covered up with an old blue tarp. The Game and Fish officer said he would come pick it up later.
I got a good look at her in the morning light and remember the shame of it all, having to kill that great creature, especially since she was obviously the mother of the other little bear we had encountered earlier.
What had happened to that little guy? Would he end up like all the other trash picking bears in New Mexico – doomed to die?
I surveyed the scene and in the clear morning light was shocked to see through the trees a group of tents in line with where my truck had been parked the night before.
I turned and looked real hard at the line of sight from where I had been bedded down and then turned and walked through the trees looking at them closely. There it was, a fresh wound in the bark of a tree no thicker than my forearm where a round had embedded itself.
I continued through the tree line over to the next camp and announced myself and a head of shaggy dreadlocks poked out from inside a tent.
“Hey, what’s up?” the guy asked.
“Everybody okay over here?” I asked. ”We shot a bear over there last night”
“Yeah, I guess. I didn’t hear anything,” he responded.
I told him I was worried about any stray rounds and the new-age hippie crawled out and checked with his campmates and found everyone was okay.
I left relieved we hadn’t ruined anyone else’s life and I rolled off that mountain with a whole new attitude about camping.
That’s when I went out and bought the Dodge van, a “hard-sided” unit, and figured I’d let the bears and other woodland creatures do all the rooting around they wanted without any interference from me.
Return to the Scene
As we rolled into the canyon leading up into the Valle Vidal a steady rain began to fall on the soft top of the little jeep. We splashed our way through puddles in the gravel road under a canopy of thick, gray, angry clouds.
I was psyched, up ahead the road would split and one fork would climb steadily up the mountain to the ponds and the other would continue on up a valley to the upper meadows of the Rio Costilla.
It was the high road I was interested in because when it rained it typically turned into a soupy, slippery, just “floor it and pray” kind of mess.
A couple years back I had skated down that stretch of road in the van during a rainstorm as Wren and me were returning from a long road trip to Wyoming.
We decided to cut through the Valle Vidal on our way home and were doing fine until we popped over the top of the mountain and skidded to a stop.
It was raining and I knew the road down the mountain would be nothing short of treacherous. Driving the van under such slick conditions was like riding a brick. All you could do was try to aim the van, stay off the brakes and pray.
As we began our way down I looked over at Wren and found her was covering her eyes with her hands, refusing to watch. I looked back at Wiley who was asleep curled up in a ball.
See, she wasn’t worried! But I was, my knuckles had turned white from the firm grip I had on the wheel.
I was inching my way down the mountain with my outside set of wheels riding in some gravel mounded up on the very edge of the road when I noticed something in the rear view mirror.
It was a big pickup towing a horse trailer coming down the hill behind me and he was blinking his lights and coming down fast.
I slowed the van down as best I could and stayed where I was on the outside edge of the road.
Looking down off to my left I imagined the van rolling down the long, slippery slope into the rock strewn ravine below.
I then watched in my passenger side-view mirror as the truck’s headlights grew and then the van quaked as the big rig barreled past me in a shower of rain and mud.
Wren screamed, Wiley awoke and I breathed a great sigh of relief.
I cut across the road as we entered the upcoming corner and aimed for the rain filled gutter on the inside edge.
The van’s rear end fought to break free but I steered into the skid and managed to keep the right front tire in the ditch and rode out the corner.
We made it around the bend and then it was a straight shot through the muck for another mile or so. At the end of this run the gravel resumed and we’d be home free.
We made it and I sheepishly suggested we stop and do some fishing. Wren slowly peeled her fingers off the dash and told me it was time to go home.
That damn road had sunk me again.
So it was with some sense of vengeance that I returned to the Valle Vidal on such a rainy day armed with four-wheel drive. I was relishing the thought of churning through the van-stopping slop, mud flecking my windshield as I powered up the mountain with confidence.
I looked over at Wren who was grinning at my giddiness; this time we were going to have some fun.
I stopped and engaged the front hubs and then as we peeled off onto the high road I could only watch in dismay as the rain petered out, the road grew dry and the sun emerged over the valley.