My brother Bill always hated to have a fuss made over him, birthdays, celebrations, even Christmas. He loathed group attention of any kind. But after his divorce from Lynn, my sister Evvie and I decided to give him a surprise party for his 40th birthday in a small town near the Oregon border, not far from our hometown in Northern California. A hundred years before, San Chirico had been a thriving logging community but once people realized that the redwoods weren’t coming back nearly as fast as they were being mown down that industry died and was replaced first, by illegal “wildcat” logging, then by commercial trout and salmon fishing then by a bunch of mostly crazy PTSD Vietnam vets who knew a cash crop when they saw one and started growing marijuana in the clearings and canyons off the not very beaten path. People still fish there, there are boats and stuff for rent but the fishing industry has moved on.
The little town mountain of San Chirico is beautiful. The San Chirico River wends its way through the town and the neighboring forests, and the town itself still looks like it did many years ago except that now one fairly decent restaurant has moved in and there are a couple of B&Bs and Air BnBs for people willing to drive inland a bit and find a lush, verdant landscape in spite of the years of drought.
The Rainbow Lodge (named after the trout, not gay rights, sadly) offered a ‘de luxe’ multi course menu (I don’t think anyone there knew what ‘prix fixe’ meant) for $65 per person, which was very, very high for us twenty years ago, but for $10 more, you could stay the night in the hotel above it, which we decided to do. In fact, we booked the whole place, eight rooms. This was an extravagant purchase for both Evvie and Me and it took a while to get Bill’s friends to pay their share but to our surprise, everyone who said they were coming actually came.
Dinner was much better than we’d anticipated. This was the era in which locally sourced food became the central factor in California cuisine. We felt like we were very well informed about the lives of every animal (now dead) who had contributed cheese, flesh or broth to the menu and the produce really did taste as if it had spent at least the night before if not that morning growing in rich soil not further than two miles away. There was also the choice of a flight of either beer or wine included and Northern California was already very good at both.
After his first acute embarrassment, Bill looked the happiest I had seen him in months.
His only two siblings and six of his closest friends had made the journey and we were all in fine fetter, made even finer by smoking some of the local weed as we walked by the river after dinner in the heady, redolent summer sunset.
The sun didn’t set until nearly nine o’clock and after we all inspected our rooms, which were minimal and somewhat dreary, we reconvened in Bill’s room. It was the only one with an outside balcony large enough to sit a few people. We sat around and lazily swapped old stories and memories. It was one of those magical nights where when a silence falls it feels organic and not forced and nobody, not even Bill’s childhood friend Dirk, felt that he had to fill it with bullshit.
A huge, show-off August moon lifted its pale yellow face into the night sky and somehow we ended up all lying down on the benches and the balcony floor and staring up at the stars. Dirk pointed out Cassiopeia but it actually wasn’t Cassiopeia, it was the Big Dipper. Dirk doesn’t know shit about astronomy or anything else really but he’s one of those bellicose guys with a big booming voice who likes to act like he does. I let him feel my breasts over my bra once when I was in middle school and he was already a junior in high school and ever since then he acts like I had a crush on him. Which I never did. Ever. Except that one night and maybe two nights after that. Fuck! I was 13.
Anyway, there was something singularly odd and perfect about that night. It was the kind of night where in a sci-fi movie we all discover that we have the same birthday and are somehow different aspects of the same person. Or, of course, a horror movie where we all get killed by the very creepy son of the owner of the hotel and no one ever finds us. I left a trail of emails, I thought. Only, did I?
We spent about two hours watching the stars, finally finding Orion by his belt and then one by one peeling off, falling asleep or going to our rooms. Evvie and I were sharing a room, we left together after getting a really warm hug from Bill.
Later that night, when the moon was directly overhead, I heard someone stir in the hall. I opened the door and saw nothing but when I went back into my room and looked out the window, I saw Bill heading off down the river path to a small footbridge that led across the river and into the woods.
I wasn’t alarmed but, you know, you always hear about people going into the garage and shooting their brains out after being the life of the party at their 40th or 50th. I was only 30 when we went to San Chirico and I’d already heard a similar story twice, and Bill had been really low for months after Lynn left.
By the time I caught up with his trail in the moonlight, he was well into the forest, guiding himself by the bright white moon. It was a warm night and his white cotton t-shirt almost glowed as he walked in and out of shadow. I remember thinking that some birds must save their voice for after midnight when they open their throat in staccato arias of call and response that are so beautiful you want to stop and maybe even weep a little.
Bill wasn’t walking very fast, he didn’t seem to be looking for anything just zig-zagging his own pathway through the bushes when I saw him halt suddenly. I couldn’t see what was in front of him yet but I could see him sharply take in a breath and then stand stock still.
I took a step to the side and saw that there, before him in a clearing, was a big, beautiful California brown bear and he was looking right at Bill. The moonlight had sprayed the oak leaves and pine-needles silver and the duff gave off an aroma of cedar and lime. Bill and that bear seemed to be somehow connected, it was if they were in a spell that neither of them wanted to break off.
I felt like I was somehow spying. There was an intimacy to this meeting that was unlike any other I have encountered. That bear could easily have caught up with Bill and mauled him. He could as easily have turned and vanished back into the world he’d come from, but he did not. He stood and met my brother where he was and lingered there for at least several minutes.
When he turned back, into the forest, I also turned aside and hid behind a tree as Bill made his way back along the path he’d come. I didn’t want him to see me or hear me behind him.
The next morning Bill was happier and more at peace than any of us had seen him for a long time. Something was resolved in him that hadn’t been resolved before. He didn’t mention anything about the bear to me or to anyone else. But he had seen it, and so had I. As we all parted after breakfast, Bill took me and Evvy aside to thank us and to say that we had been right, that even though you can not leave your troubles behind you permanently you can, if you’re lucky, get away from them for a moment, and leave all the bullshit behind.