Sequoia National Park
The Bears Went Over the Mountain
by Bill Carpenter
I’ve noticed that the best stories seem to come from an event beginning with a declaration like, “Once we got the fire out...” Decades later, reminiscing, you say wistfully, “That was the time the dog got the roast, and we ate cereal.” Not especially funny at the time, but in retrospect, it was the milepost of an unforgettable moment in time, hilarious, one repeated by one’s grandchildren generations later. The 2013 Grizzly was sort of like that, a tour I’ll never forget.
It all began with the unusual assemblage of antique HCCA automobiles on a gorgeous sunny day in Bakersfield, California. A bearded, rather patriarchal-looking tourmaster Michael Sullivan (the patriarchal part ending at his shoulders where a pair of faded farmer’s overalls took over from there to the ground) greeted us as we greeted each other. Exhilaration filled the air. This Grizzly Tour, we actually could have real Grizzlies! According to the National Park Service, the bears were coming out of hibernation, and they were hungry. Mmm, tourists!
On the tour there were a variety of cars. Certainly there were the hardy little Model T’s, driven by Bill Otteman, Michael Sullivan, Lee Chase, Gerry and Barbara Hosterman, Frank and Dorothy Bristing, and me. Nevy and Kerstin Clark came all the way from the east coast to drive their 1913 Pierce Arrow roadster. Jim Diener drove his 1913 Overland and Pat and Merrily Farrell piloted their 1914 Stanley. Mike and Carolyn Martin drove their 1914 Cadillac and Donna Jones drove her very large modern Dodge diesel pickup with chrome exhaust stacks and huge wheels under a lifted body, just in case someone’s car needed crushing.
We departed Bakersfield in the early afternoon, skirting the city as we traveled north through delectably-scented orange country. One of the joys (and sometimes disadvantages) of our ancient machines is that as we travel, we have the full sensory experience of the countryside. The whisper of breezes through the forest, the chattering birds coupled with the burbling voices of antique machinery, the general awakening of the spirit…good stuff. I put my top down, and folded my windshield flat. AAH! This is the life! Fading into a self-imposed euphoria where it was 1912 again, I found myself singing Professor Potts’ song, “It’s the posh, posh, traveling life, the traveling life for me…” The world was good.
My placidity suddenly snapped back to the real world when, a few miles down the road, I realized that dusty cloud just ahead was a huge swarm of bees returning from their duty in an orange grove – and I was headed for the middle of it! A fleeting thought that I ought to put up my windshield came to mind, but by then there was no time for anything but duck down, grab my collar, and get spattered with the goo of a thousand bees. The dead bees were stuck all over, but the ones that concerned me were the wounded. They were more than peeved, and I’m sure I looked like a drunk driver frantically smacking their dazed, angry bodies out of the car before they identified me as the cause of their malaise. So much for that day-long cleaning and polishing job; but I really didn’t have to worry about that, as you shall soon see. The windshield was the only clean part of the leading edge of the car, and I was determined to keep it that way! There’s nothing so slimy as a bee full of nectar and pollen, except perhaps a Junebug. For an insect, they’re heavy, too, and can give you quite a welt when you hit them at speed. By the way, they pop when they hit you – another secret known only by motorcyclists and old car aficionados. In defiance, I snapped my windshield back down.
We threaded in and out of orchards, through tiny farming towns where the populace ran to their fences and children pointed and waved, until we came to the town of Lindsay. After fueling and scraping bugs, we settled into our motel for the night. By this time, the weather report had turned from sunny to possible rain. Rats. I unrolled plastic over my car and tied it down in the face of stiffening winds.
By morning, the rain had softened my bug collection, worked its way under the plastic, and soaked my seats. But adventure beckoned, and so, after drying off, we continued on our travels. As we neared the mountains, the roads grew steeper and steeper, winding like a serpent around every geographical feature, a fun run in itself. I was enjoying the challenge and my new, sticky tires. The sweet old car ate up the roads with gusto, through fields, forests, and beautiful rolling farmland. Then, as we gained altitude, the mountains dropped fog, then drizzle, down on us. The top came up, and the windshield, too. The temperature dropped quickly. As I drove, I gave thanks for Rain-Ex. Over all, it got pretty unpleasant - or so I thought until I came across the speedster.
For many miles, I drove hunkered down in the cold and wet, seeing no other cars, antique or no, until suddenly, an open-bodied yellow Model T Ford speedster piloted by Frank Bristing came up behind me with his wife Dorothy riding in the mechanic’s seat. The car had no fenders, either, the tires sending a giddy circular spray from each corner high into the air. Frank wore a sadistic sneer, but Dorothy looked utterly miserable, rolled up small inside her windbreaker. Every curve gave the inside passenger a high-pressure dousing of whatever was on the road, which by this time was turning to muddy slush. I had to appreciate the sordid humor of the moment, but not for long. I was just beginning to marvel in a detached, scientific sort of way at my newfound appreciation of the effective design of my fenders (I think this is where hypothermia was setting in), when the road began to ice up in spots. The slush began to solidify. In addition, it had become very steep, a cliff face on my right, and a three-screamer drop off on the left without guardrails. Turning around was out of the question. But the old Ford surefootedly climbed up and up, her narrow tires cutting through the growing slush and snow like an icebreaker, never wavering. Never slipping. Wow. Maybe they really did know what they were doing in 1912? The snow began coming down hard, and sideways, huge wet flakes gluing to frozen little bee bodies with their extended stingers. Icicles crept down from the top, weird and exotic shapes formed by the wind, twisting and spiraling like the road. Yet the old girl just kept climbing, resolute and certain, with nary a hiccup. A respectful bonding occurred, at least from my side. If the car could think, her opinion of me would probably have been less. In those conditions, I made a discovery: Rain-X does not do much for snow and ice! My windshield was a total whiteout. Every few minutes, I had to flip it back and hand-clear the heavy snow onto my lap, then flip it back up for a few more minutes of driving. And so it went to the top. At the top, we assembled in a restaurant/gift shop for some hot libations. All, that is, except for the Stanley, which I heard was on its way, but had some trouble finding water for its thirsty boiler. A few lame jokes about stuffing it with snow dropped to the muddy floor. Soon, the Stanley came chuffing along, none the worse for its experience. Surprisingly, we lost no cars on this ordeal. I’m not so sure about frozen ears, toes and fingers, though.
No bears in sight. Back to the den, cubs. Word went out that the road to King’s Canyon was closed due to snow, but we could go down the other side of the mountain about ten miles if we needed gas. A couple of us did. I didn’t really need gas yet, but I figured it was best to top off, conditions being what they were. The other side of the hill was much worse than the first. Descending the steep, slippery hill and then climbing back up made me question my sanity, but I figured I was OK, since truly insane people don’t do much self-reflection. I’ll settle for stupid.
The arduous journey continued, and we eventually came to our hotel, the Washachi Lodge, where we unloaded our iced gear onto frozen bell carts and dragged them through the snow on useless wheels to our respective lodging. Keeping luggage on the carts was impossible because they were covered with ice and snow that wouldn’t give up residence, even after overturning the cart and applying a good banging. This effort in futility became aggravating. I finally just picked everything up and lugged it through the snow. After several trips up the path to the lodging, I made one last return to make sure everything was unloaded, the day gladly over – or was it?
As I approached the car, I suddenly stopped, mesmerized by the beauty of it all. By now, the cars were all nestled in pure white blankets. The snow softly drifted down without a sound in huge, fluffy flakes on the gorgeous evergreen forest around us. Magical, like a childhood Christmas. I stood silently in the snow for a long time as the light slowly faded away. The scene brought back to life memories of forgotten youth so long ago, raising the sweet specters of happy yesteryears and loved ones long departed. A special time, one not soon forgotten. Thanks, faithful old car, for the memories. Sleep tight.