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Treed

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20 August, 1935

Dear Cassandra,  

This morning Neil and I left the wildly misnamed Rapid City, South Dakota. Or possibly North Dakota, I'm not certain what the difference is. Our first stop was Mount Rushmore. I was glad to be able to get out of the car to stretch my legs, but there isn’t much to see there. Someday there will be four presidents’ heads carved into the mountain, but at the moment it is just George Washington and a little bit of Thomas Jefferson, and I told Neil that I am still too English to be very impressed by them. He pretended to be offended by this, but you’ll be pleased to know that I didn’t waver. We didn’t stay long, but drove on through the Black Hills. They are mountains and are not black, they are grey with green trees on. The road was very windy and rough, and I was a little worried we would get stuck, but luckily we didn’t.

The land here is very empty. In England when you drive through the countryside there are villages in every direction, but here you can drive miles and miles getting from one tiny town to the next! We are staying tonight in the town of Newcastle, Wyoming. I must say, the names of American towns seem to have very little to do with anything. What is this town named for? There is no castle. As you know, I have never been to Newcastle Upon Tyne, but I presume there is or was a castle there.

We will be in Yellowstone Park tomorrow afternoon and are planning to stay there for a week before heading south. Neil says he wants to get a photograph of me standing next to a bear so that he can study all the differences between us. He says he thinks he could tell me from a bear pretty easily now that he knows me better, but he wants to be certain so he doesn’t make the same mistake again. I retorted that it was just as well he had made that mistake, otherwise we might never have spoken to each other ever again! If the photo comes out well I will send it to you, but we won’t be able to have any of the film developed until we get to California. Neil has taken four rolls of pictures already! He says I am in most of them.

It’s very strange to be writing to you when you can’t write back to me. It feels a little like I’m talking to you and a little like I’m talking to myself. I hope there will be at least one letter from you waiting for me when we get to the ranch in California. (That was a hint.)

Neil just told me to “say hi to Cassandra and Tommy and everybody.” Those were his exact words. Read them however you like.

Love, Rose

P.S. Every time somebody calls me “Mrs. Cotton” I look around for Neil’s mother!

 

 

Rose had to admit that Yellowstone was breathtaking. They drove into the eastern entrance of the park. The road wound around the side of the mountains, curving in and out, and always with a steep drop on the downhill side, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. As they drove she could sometimes glimpse the river below.

They saw their first bear not long after they entered the park, when Rose noticed a small dark brown bear ambling along just off the road.

“Gosh. I’ve only ever seen bears in the zoo….”

“Looked like a black bear,” said Neil.

“But it was brown.”

“They come in all colors. Most of them are blackish.”

“Then why are they called black bears?”

“Well now, ma’am, I don’t rightly know,” said Neil.

“Ha ha.”

Not long after that, they got a better look at a black bear. It was standing right in the middle of the road, and it seemed in no hurry to depart. It was, Rose thought, not that much bigger than a mastiff. It seemed small for a bear, but still a big animal. It was blocking their way, so Neil stopped the car. “Come on, bear,” he said. The bear just looked at him.

Neil sighed. “Okay, if you’re not going to get out of the way, let’s get a picture,” he said.

“What?”

“Come on, Rosie, get out and pose. It’s fine. Black bears aren’t dangerous.” He was rummaging in his camera bag for his Leica.

“But…I’m not going to stand right next to it…”

Just then the bear came around next to the window on Rose’s side and stood up on its hind legs. It’s face was only a few inches from hers, and she reared back and began rolling up the window.

“No, no. Give it the rest of that sandwich,” said Neil. He was getting out of the car with his camera. Rose thought it was insane. They were stopped right in the middle of the road, and there was a wild animal that looked as though it might be ready to climb in through the window at any moment!

“Neil…”

“They’re not dangerous, I promise. Give it the sandwich,” he said.

Rose bent over to get her pocketbook, where she had put the leftover half of a ham sandwich. She rolled down the window again and gingerly offered the sandwich to the bear. She heard the click of Neil’s camera. The bear took the sandwich from her hand. Her heart was thumping, but it really did seem to be all right. The bear went down on all fours again to eat its sandwich, brown paper wrapping and all. When it had finished, it started to rear up again, but Neil waved his arms and yelled “Yaaaa!” The bear ambled away. It didn’t seem bothered at all.

“See? Easy as pie,” said Neil, as he started up the car again.

 

As they drove on they saw several elk crossing the road. When they stopped a little while later to stretch their legs, Neil swore he had seen a bald eagle, but Rose missed it. It was late afternoon by the time they reached Yellowstone Lake. They didn’t stop, but turned north to the Canyon Hotel, where they were going to be staying. Neil said it was too fancy, that they really ought to be camping out, roughing it. But the hotel was modern and spacious and Rose liked it. They ate dinner in the big, raftered lounge, and then there was dancing. After that they went outside for a little walk in the moonlight. 

 

The next day, Neil insisted on going on a "hike." He picked out a loop trail, and Rose made him promise that they could turn back if she decided she didn't want to go the whole way around. They walked about a mile along the top of a ridge, and then the trail headed downward, into the canyon. 

"Wait a minute. If we walk down there we're going to have to walk back up," Rose said accusingly.

"Yes, that's the idea! Fresh air, exercise. Don't be such a tenderfoot."

"Me?” Rose laughed. ”Just watch!” She began skipping down the trail.

“Hey, wait!” he yelled after her.

She stopped and turned back. He was grinning at her. "What is it?"

"Well, you look awfully cute in those shorts. Maybe we should make this a quick hike after all."

“You’ll have to catch me!” she yelled back, continuing down the trail. Behind her she could hear Neil laughing.

The laughter stopped abruptly. “Rose,” he said, and the change in his tone of voice stopped her in her tracks. She turned and looked back up the trail. He was standing a few dozen feet below the top of the ridge, looking past her.

She heard some rustling and crackling in the bushes on the left side of the trail, a little downhill from her. There was something there, something large.

“Rose: come up here. Don’t run, but walk quickly,” he said. His voice was even, but she knew something was wrong and she had her suspicions about what it was. As she climbed back up the trail it seemed steeper and longer than it had on the way down. The look on Neil’s face made her heart thump, and not in a pleasant way. He was standing under a pine, and as soon as she was within arms’ reach, he caught her around the waist and lifted her so she could grasp the lowest branch. She heard a noise behind her on the trail.

“Climb,” he said.

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine. Just climb.”

So she climbed. The branches were close together and the smaller ones smacked her in the face. As soon as she left the lowest branch, Neil grabbed it and somehow managed to pull himself up onto it. Then they both climbed. Rose’s clothing kept catching on twigs. Her legs and arms were trembling; she wasn’t sure whether it was effort or fear. But after a couple of minutes they were both well up in the tree, and Neil said, “I think that’s high enough.”

Rose took a moment to catch her breath. Then she finally got up her courage and looked down. There on the trail near the base of the tree was a brown bear. It was much larger than any of the bears they had seen so far. It was shaggier, too, and it had a hump on its back. It was snuffling around curiously.

“I thought you said they weren’t dangerous,” she said.

“Not the black bears. That’s a grizzly. They’re not usually dangerous either, unless you surprise them." He took a deep breath. "But you were just about to walk right between her and her cubs. She was on one side of the trail and they were on the other. I could see them all from up here, but I guess you couldn’t from where you were standing. And then just as I put you up in the tree, she started charging.”

“No, I didn’t see anything….But I heard her. Did she really charge at you?”

“Not really. Just a little run to scare us, I think.”

“Well, it worked. I’m scared,” she said.

“Yeah. But we’re okay up here.”

They sat in silence for a while. The bear seemed unconcerned. Rose could hear it munching on something.

“Can bears climb?” she asked.

Neil took his time replying. “Yes,” he admitted. “But I think grizzlies aren’t as good climbers as the black bears. Too big to get very far.”

“Oh.”

They sat in silence a little longer.

“When do you think it’ll be safe to get down?” she asked.

“When she leaves, I guess,” he said.

“But what if she goes up toward the trailhead? She’ll be between us and the car.” 

“It’s a loop. We'd have to just go on. Get back to the car the other way around.”

A ten-mile loop, she thought. I don’t want to walk ten miles. I want a nice cup of tea, and Americans don’t know how to make tea properly.

“Rosie, look...” whispered Neil.

Rose looked down, but all she could see was Neil, and below him the bear, still snuffling around in apparent unconcern. “What is it?” she asked.

“The cubs. They’re just a little way down the trail.”

Rose pushed some branches out of the way and craned her neck and finally found an opening that let her look down at the cubs. There were two, and they were playing together like a couple of puppies, romping and rolling. Two little bears with big paws, round, soft-looking ears, and guileless faces. One was a light brown, almost blond, the other a bit darker. Rose could see that they were taking turns ambushing each other.

“Ohhhh,” she breathed.

“Real cute,” said Neil.

“They're adorable! How long does it take them to get big enough to be frightening?” asked Rose.

“I don’t know. A couple of years, I think. These were probably born this winter.”

“Goodness…”

“If they ever let us down from here, we’ll have a great story. A wild mama grizzly and her cubs, not 20 feet away from us.”

Neil reached up and found her foot, then slid his hand up the back of her calf.

“What are you doing?” Rose asked.

“I’d hold your hand, but your leg’s the only part of you I can reach right now.”

“Oh. Well, do be careful, I don’t want to get all excited and fall out of the tree,” she said.

Neil grinned up at her and tickled the back of her calf.

“Later, darling,” Rose said, but she couldn’t keep from smiling.

“Promise?”

Rose giggled. “Promise,” she said. She realized that she had stopped feeling afraid. They watched the cubs playing for a while. Neil absently stroked the back of her calf. Except for feeling a bit cramped, Rose felt perfectly happy.

 

Rose wasn’t sure how long they sat there in the tree. Not long enough to feel really stiff or uncomfortable, and not long enough for her to start worrying about going to the loo. After a while, the mother bear ambled off down the trail, back toward the undergrowth where Neil had first seen her. One of the cubs didn’t follow right away, and the mother bear had to come back and chivvy it along.

“Come on, Junior,” Neil said. “Follow your mama, that’s a good bear.”

Finally they were all out of sight. The trail was quiet.

“I think they’re gone. Can you see them from up there?” Neil asked.

“No, I can’t see very far, even with the height.”

“Too many branches. I’m going to get down and make sure they’re gone,” said Neil. He lowered himself from the tree and scouted up and down the trail a bit. “All clear,” he said after a while.

Rose descended the tree and sat on the lowest branch. She held her arms out to Neil and he braced her as she jumped down. Conveniently, this left her right in his arms. He kissed her, and it was like that first time, in the field by Scoatney station, that wonderful combination of excitement and peace, newness and familiarity. Or like the day Neil came to see her at the flat in London, back when she was still caught in the trap she had built for herself. She had been anxious and worried that day, but as soon as he said her name she knew that everything would be all right. The trap was sprung. She would never again have to pretend to be something she was not. 

“We should get going, I guess,” Neil said eventually.

Rose nodded, and, taking a step backward, she looked down at herself. She had scratches on her arms and legs, and she was wringing wet with perspiration. She could feel that the tree's branches had tugged her hair out of its braid. “I look a fright,” she said ruefully.

“But you’re so much more beautiful when you’re not trying to look perfect,” he said, brushing a strand of hair out of her face. And he kissed her again to prove he meant it.

“Had enough hiking?” he asked.

“Yes. Let’s go back to the lodge.” They walked back up the trail with their arms around each other.

 

[Rose to Cassandra, 25 August, 1935]

….After I stopped feeling so scared I had a lot of fun watching the cubs. They really were sweet. I wish I could describe it, but you know I'm not good at that sort of thing. In any case, I'm very glad we saw them. It was wonderful.

I’m not sure how long we were up there, less than an hour, I think. After a while the bears left, and luckily for us they went back down the trail, so we didn’t have to walk around the whole loop. Neil calls the incident, “Treed by a Mama Grizzly.” I’m sure you can make it into a better story than I ever could.

We are staying two more days and then we go south. We are going to drive through Utah. Neil says he wouldn’t take me through that state if the Mormons were still like they were in "A Study in Scarlet." (I had to pretend I knew what he was talking about. Is that from Sherlock Holmes? If so, I will tease him for liking something English.)

We are planning to go to the Grand Canyon and maybe the Petrified Forest. And then on to California. Do write to me. Neil and I should be at the ranch in a couple of weeks.

Give my love to Father (if he’ll have it) and Thomas and Topaz, and the Vicar and Miss Marcy when you see them. And to yourself, of course. You know there are a lot of things I would do differently, if I could go back in time and fix everything. But I'm happy where I am now, and I hope you will be one day, too. Married life is wonderful!

Love, Rose