Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
August 29, 2008
When I get up in the morning, one of the first things I see is a painting of a grizzly bear’s wrinkled snout, large, white fangs framing a man-eating mouth, and unavoidable, dully-crazed, menacing eyes looking back at me from the bedroom wall. He is ferocious, appearing out of the blackest night, and would be quite fearsome if I didn’t know it was a painting.
Maybe it isn’t truly a grizzly and represents pent-up anger instead, lurking on the edges of my consciousness. But when the wind blows the first snows of winter around my yard, I can smell his breath. A guy I grew up with in Aspen created that canvas years ago.
There were the grizzly cubs in Yellowstone, the year I was 9, and the sow that spared my life must have told the story a thousand times of how some innocent kid nearly took her patience to the limit by ignoring her mad charge and how he ran his hand down her back as she circled around him. That was a long time ago, and it’s still a compelling memory in my mind.
To tell the truth, I’ve seen so many bears around here that I lost track of the number many years ago. Oh, they come and go, and there might be a long spell where I don’t see any, and then all of a sudden, maybe I’ll see six or seven in one week. Some stand out in my mind with majestic clarity; others look old and near the end of their time; but for the most part, they seem to be adolescents or young adults, although a few cubs can always be seen dancing around their mothers.
A couple of weeks ago, there was a confrontation with an unusually large black bear, with hair of the darkest hue. I was walking up a very deep and slippery irrigation ditch, which was overgrown with vision-blocking willows, and I thought the splashing sounds I heard ahead were caused by my dog, Topper. The bear no doubt thought my splashing sounds were coming from more floundering fish like the one he was toying with in the recently drained channel.
In a heartbeat, we were upon each other and the inevitable lock of our eyes occurred at about the same time we both realized we had made incorrect assumptions. To the bear’s credit, his look was more of the “I think you’re in the wrong sandbox, kid,” rather than any type of fear. I couldn’t crawl out of the canal without making myself totally vulnerable, so I breathlessly stood my ground, feigning an air of total nonchalance. After thinking about it, the bear awkwardly left the ditch, casting me a disbelieving glance over his shoulder as he ambled away.
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The first thing you see when you walk into my living room is a painting of two grizzly bears, a male and a female, their marauding activities exposed by soft glowing light, perhaps from a campfire. It was painted by a woman who, in the course of my life, has been one of the great loves but also the other half of a friendship of the most enduring kind. Created at a time when we both were going through some wrenching changes in our lives, it depicts (in a spontaneous, synaptic brush of oil on canvas) the years of intimacy we shared, two imaginative lives intertwined but separate, sometimes going in the same direction, navigating myriad longitudes and latitudes of dreams and excitement, dashed hopes and dead-ends, at different speeds and at different levels of emotion. It was partially in response to a short story I wrote for her about metaphorical, bullying grizzlies in the mountains surrounding a spectral valley of never-ending challenges.
When it’s all said and done, the bears are important, but it really isn’t about them, not really, or is it?