As we drove into Yosemite National Park, we had no idea the two young coyotes we saw would be just the first of our wildlife encounters. Yosemite’s cold river runs through the forest between vast rock formations that loom and tower in every direction. As Kiwis, we’ve been reared on a diet of scenery, consuming vistas at the recommended rate of 5+ a day, but even we had to admit this place was breathtaking.
Signs everywhere told visitors to “Keep our Wildlife Wild” by not feeding them the sort of food Americans take on a walk through the forest (the same sort and volume of food that New Zealanders would gobble in a grief-induced binge or an eating competition). The trouble with this sign was that the Yosemite squirrels have evolved an extreme cuteness so everyone was feeding them turkey, Twinkies, pizza, burgers and cake.
As a visitor to the country I was keen to respect the rules, but I still wanted a close look at the squirrels. So I crouched down and reached out, rubbing my empty fingers together. Sure enough a squirrel popped up for a sniff. I gave him a little rub on the nose with my fingertip and he bit me hard. He didn’t break the skin, just nipped enough to say “around here, we rodents don’t take too kindly to folk who read the signs and follow the rules”.
Later, out the back of a majestic lodge called the Awhanee Hotel, we walked over to see what was attracting a group of locals. A large crab-apple tree stood just out from the edge of the woods, and strewn all around its base were scraps of foliage. About a dozen Americans were staring into the tree at what could only be described as a bear.
He was a medium-sized character who would no doubt have made a large-sized mess of your anatomy if he had the idea to. But at this moment (and by the look of the mess, all that morning) he just wanted crab apples. Any one of us alone wouldn’t have dared move as close as we did, but there’s stupidity in numbers, so we edged dangerously close. One teenager’s mother asked her what she would do if the bear came down. She said she would run (duh!). Her father weighed in to say, “Honey, bears can run 30 miles an hour.”
Said the girl, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun the slowest person here”, and she looked cruelly around at the gathering of genuine chubbies and fatsters – because Americans really are porky.
You know how if you drive an unusual car you become part of an informal club, so when you pass another person driving the same car, you might give a little wave to each other? Well, for our first week in the States I wondered why I was getting the occasional little nod, wave or hello as I walked around the streets – until I realised that in this country skinny people are so rare they greet each other if they pass in the street.
But the bear was not coming down any time soon; he was gorging himself rotten. Presently he let loose an alarming volume of mustard-coloured faeces, which showered down before us. Americans’ fondness for food is rivalled only by their love of the obvious, so of course someone immediately shouted, “Honey, the bear’s shitting!”
In a flash of brilliance, I turned to the group and asked, “Is this tree counted as actually being in the woods? Because if so, we’ve answered an age-old question here!” It wasn’t the best joke in the world, but it was perfectly timed and I’ll admit I was hoping for a little chuckle or at least a smile, but they all stared at me dumbly.
Not a flicker of understanding illuminated their bovine eyes. The only one who moved at all was the skinny guy at the back of the group who gave me a little wave.