The spirit animal

by Gautam Raja

Recently, on a whim, I jumped on my bicycle for an after-dinner ride. I had no errands, nor training goals—for the first time in a long time I was simply riding. It was a cool evening as it always is in Southern California, no matter how hot the day has been. People were out walking, and I could see into warmly lit houses as I pedalled past.

I decided to go up Myrtle Street, and as I passed through downtown Monrovia and got closer to the San Gabriel mountains, the road got steeper and steeper. After a real lung-buster of a final climb, though I was in the same little town I call home, here was a different world. Mansions appeared to dangle lazily off the flanks of the foothills, most with vast views of the brightly lit valley below. As my heart rate got back to normal, my gasping turned to gawping, high above our now poky seeming neighbourhood .

Finally, I pointed the bike downhill and, careful to not outrun my headlight, feathered the brakes as I descended. Out of the corner of my eye a giant shape activated an ancient circuit that bypassed my brain with a sizzle. My gut knew, instantly, that something to my left needed my express attention. I turned my head, and standing on a side street, backlit by a sodium vapour streetlight, was a bear. It had heard the squeal of my brakes and was turned towards me, frozen.

And when I say bear, understand this was a specimen so large I could have leaned my bike on its far side and you’d have seen only the very top of my saddle, if that. It stood so still that once my silly higher brain drifted into the meeting, it thought things like, “Is that a stuffed display bear?” And, “Shall I stop and take a picture?” You can see why the frontal lobe is left out of survival discussions for as long as possible.

Luckily I was moving quickly, and was gone before I did anything stupid. I was now consumed by a need to tell somebody (I’m guessing that’s another ancient circuit). Ahead was an idling SUV with a man inside. I pulled up alongside.

“There’s a huge bear back there!” I said. He replied, “Oh yeah, they’re here all the time. They’re looking for food—they’re on my lawn a lot.”

Slightly let down at first, my next thought was regret at not stopping for the picture. If the road hadn’t been so steep, I’d probably have gone back. No wonder human life expectancy used to be 30. Imagine if they’d had smart phones as well.

As I continued my descent, another SUV honked at me from behind. I wasn’t the only one who needed to spread the news. “Did you see that bear?” the driver shouted joyfully through the window as he passed. “He was huge!”

Not two minutes later I reached familiar elevations, and it was bizarre to be back among brightly lit restaurants and shops, having just seen nature, if not red, at least “dustbin diving in tooth and claw”. Had the bear been on the main road and really not liked the squeal of my brakes, I might still be up there today. At least in part.

Far from getting me down, I was exhilarated. The nasty e-mails I’d been dealing with receded to the petty background noise they were. I was here. I was grinning. I was riding my bike like a child who had sneaked out after a sundown curfew.

In a giant bear’s silhouette, I had glimpsed forever.

First published in Gulf News, August 4, 2015