Sunday, September 26, 2010

The boy in Wal Mart's parking lot

I escaped from Wal Mart one recent sunny afternoon, the natural brightness a welcome contrast to the  bilious Wal Mart lighting, designed apparently to illuminate the mutants who shop there in flesh-draped droves. Where do these people come from?
I was contemplating that question when a young man suddenly appeared. He was gangly, dressed in tattered black clothing, and wore a furry animal-head hat with ear flaps. I think it was a puppy likeness. Nothing scary, but the hat seemed too warm for an 80-degree afternoon. He had a brindle pup on a leash. The way he leaned and cast his eyes, I could tell he was going to ask me for money.
He did.
"Can you spare a dollar so my dog and I can get something to eat?" He looked at me directly. I froze.

Usually, the panhandlers I encounter are at freeway exits or at the entries to shopping mall parking lots. I'm in my car. I'm in a hurry. I'm suspicious, especially when they hold crude handwritten signs conveying such platitudes as "Have a nice day," or "God bless!" I'm hardened.  I avert my eyes and gun it when the light changes or the car ahead of me finally moves. It's always uncomfortable and unsettling. 

As a newspaper reporter years ago I interviewed panhandlers and did not come away with much sympathy. But they were adults. Some were con artists. I'm sure they had horrible "inner child" issues. But this was a kid. I guessed he was around 16 years old.

"How old are you," I asked.
He said he was 18. I asked why he needed to approach strangers for money. He said that's how he survives, and that he'd been on the street since age 14. He said he was from California. I didn't ask more questions.
Of course I could spare a dollar. I could spare a lot more than a dollar. I gave him two. Big of me, right?
He thanked me profusely, yes, profusely, and walked away. I got into my hot car, and driving out of the parking lot, saw the puppy-dog hat heading into the nearby Taco Bell, the dog tethered out front.

That gave me pause. The direct result of my, uh,  generosity was that this kid could eat.
I drove into the Taco Bell lot and parked. It had been less than two minutes since I had bestowed two measly bucks on this kid, and already he was in line for a taco. Maybe he'd gotten lucky with a few other Wal Mart shoppers earlier, and my two made enough for him to buy a meal. But could he feed the pup?
I fingered the money in my wallet. There were some twenties and lots of lower denominations. I wadded up a few bills and entered the restaurant. There he was, perusing the menu, the third person in line. I took him by his unlined hand, and startled, he pulled away and stared. I don't think he recognized me. His eyes were red-rimmed. Does that mean he does drugs? Or that he is just tired and sad and hungry?
I didn't care. I pressed the bills into his hand and said something lame like, "Two dollars isn't enough to feed you both. This should help." Then I turned and left. I glanced back briefly. His mouth was agape.

I've been thinking about this a lot. There's enormous misery in the world, so much suffering and poverty and ugliness. When your life is good, you have the choice to ignore it all. You can because you have way too much to eat, live in a comfortable home, and travel about in a sealed metal unit with AC or heat, whatever you need. Your children are healthy and doing well and you are so proud.
You don't come into direct contact with people whose lives are incomprehensible. I am, most of the time, insulated from misery and happily growing tomatoes and riding my bike and, except for donating to  nonprofits and doing some board and volunteer work, I shut out the kid in the parking lot—and all the others.
But when you look a kid in the eye, when it becomes personal, you have to do something. So I was compelled to give this puppy-dog kid a little cash. Will I be tossing dollars out the Corolla window at panhandlers? Probably not. But I have added this non profit to my donate-to list. In my small rural community alone, there are at least 87 homeless kids.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A bear trip on the Rogue River

This mama and her cubs were our companions for two days as we camped at Brushy Bar on the lower section of the Wild and Scenic Rogue River in late August. It was a joy to share the river corridor with them without fearing that they'd raid our kitchen — or our tent to chomp us in the neck in the middle of the night. This photo was taken from our camp across the river. But the next day, this trio was with us, dining on abundant blackberries alongside our camp. Like maybe 20 feet away. Except for an occasional curious stare, they ignored us.
Here's the wimpy-looking bear fence at Brushy Bar.
I love it when somebody has an idea that seems improbable, and others pooh-pooh it, and then the idea turns out to actually work. Such is the case with the electrified bear-deterring enclosures on the lower Wild And Scenic Rogue River. The idea is you keep a clean camp, place your coolers and trash inside a low-profile electrified fence, and after bears get zapped trying to cross it without realizing that they could probably just step over it, they learn that those delectable odors are not so desirable after all.
This bear is maybe 20 feet away from the edge of our camp. It was so fun watching her strip the berries from the bush. Her cubs were nearby, learning the ropes. Imagine weighing 250 pounds or more and living off berries and insects, and that's during August,  the bounty time of year.
Then they go on to be natural bears and devour berries, grubs, insects, shoots, birds' eggs, an occasional fawn, and so on. 

It used to be that problem bears on the Rogue—that is bears who got addicted to eating human food—punctured boats and destroyed coolers and scared the crap out of people. This went on for years. Some of the more determined bears ended up dead, shot by government workers trying to protect the public. The Tate Creek area was infamous for cooler-raiding bruins, and I remember seeing campers in this area repairing their rafts after bear invasions. I personally made an foolish decision not to remove a large aluminum dry box from my raft when my river group stayed at Half Moon Lodge. I forgot about the Rice Krispie bars! The next morning I was horrified to see the top of the metal dry box bent at a 90-degree angle. A bear had easily defeated the nylon strap and a strong latch and escaped with the bars, which weren't any healthier for her than they are for us. Box repair cost $100 and my passengers, who had to sit on the box, which one of them first hammered into submission, were not quite as comfortable as they'd like.

During the 80's, 90's, and early 2000's, bear duty was part of river trip chores, which meant staying up to protect the coolers, garbage etc. from night marauders. Film cans—those now obsolete items—filled with ammonia and set atop food containers, were thought to deter bears. I'm not sure they were effective. But I am sure that on 100+ trips down the lower Rogue, I loved seeing bears along the bank—and one incredible time swimming in front of the raft—but didn't care for them in camp. They were a nuisance and, of course, a 250-pound black bear intent on eating your food, which you are trying to protect, is a potential physical threat. Although black bears, unlike grizzlies, are not known for attacking people.

Thanks to the bear fences, we can have our cake and coolers and our bears too. For more about the August 2010 Rogue River trip, check it out.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Late summer harvest & an eggplant recipe

Tomatoes are the garden star in August, followed closely by those glowing purple eggplants.
After a strange summer with a June that tried hard to be winter—and almost succeeded— and many night temps in July and August dipping near 50 degrees, the garden has finally come around. The fruits of our labors are spilling into the garden trenches, and the bounty pictured above is typical of what we harvest a couple times a week in late August into mid-September.  Melons are peaking and yesterday we picked seven more of the sweetest juiciest-imaginable cantaloupes living up their name, Ambrosia. 
The eggplants are abundant but a challenge. What to do with about 100 of them? Here are a couple ideas: