The Yosemite Bear Bandits
The silence of the midnight valley was broken by the patter of running feet.
Then came the cry—“Bear!”
And again, a different voice, “Bear! Bear!”
And then a chorus of “Bears!”
Lantern lights came on, flashlight beams cut through the darkness,
and my two buddies came shuffling past me, grinning.
“Tea time,” Rob said.
He was on one end of an ice-chest and George was on the other, each holding a handle, moving awkwardly. I watched them disappear into the dark forest behind me. The door of a nearby camper swung open. A man dressed in long johns poked his head out and glared into the darkness, but he was looking in the wrong direction. Two children emerged from a large tent in the adjacent campsite hoping for a chance to see a bear. Before they took two steps their parents grabbed them and held them back. One little boy had a Brownie camera with a flash on top and held it up and ready. The other boy held a toy tomahawk. The man from the camper walked in my direction, carrying a lantern in one hand and a hammer in the other. He looked like he wanted to tangle, but stopped at the edge of the forest.
“They took my chest!” he yelled. “Goddamned bears took my ice chest!”
Neighboring campers came from all different directions, gathering at his campsite.
“It was sitting right there,” he explained to the others, pointing. “It was sitting right there on the table. They just carried it off! Goddamned bears carried it off!”
“I’ll be damned,” one camper said, shaking his head.
Flashlight beams searched the dark forest beyond the lantern light while I ducked low behind a large Douglas fir, snickering. None of the campers were brave enough to venture beyond the light, but if they did, I would just pop my head out and claim to have come from the next campground upriver. They just stood there, all bewildered, like a herd of wildebeest.
Dumbasses, I thought.
I watched for several entertaining minutes before following the path of my companions, back along the dark trail to Happy Isles.
It was the summer of ‘73 and the Hippies were in Yosemite in full force. They were there to celebrate living and nature and the human spirit and the hope for world peace. That high tide mark that Hunter Thompson talked about hadn’t crested yet and beautiful spirits roamed freely, sometimes nakedly, through the meadows and along the Merced. It was commonplace to hear strumming guitars and serenading voices coming from the forest. The Hippies held nightly love-ins at Happy Isles and you could hear the music echoing all the way down the Valley. And if you looked up at Glacier Point you could see the shadows of celestial dancers stretching high on the granite walls. Everywhere you went in the Valley you could find peace and love and anti-war slogans and melodic music. Bead-laden sun worshippers lay out on the granite boulders along the river; Hippie goddesses bathed beneath the waterfalls; guitar strumming and flute playing troubadours strolled the Park’s roadways; and there was a Jimi Hendrix lookalike in a dusty black suit carrying a beat-up suitcase in one hand and a beat-up guitar case in the other. I think I even saw Joni Mitchell’s child of God walking along the road with a bong pipe strapped to his back.
Everywhere you went in the Valley was blissful, except for the ranger stations. The rangers were crew-cut, red-necked Korean War vets looking to smash some free-spirited heads. There had been an incident in a meadow where baton-welding rangers had stormed a love-in on horseback. Many of the Hippies were hospitalized, but it only made them more resolute, more anti-government and anarchical.
That was the Yosemite we stumbled into, four trail-worn kids looking for food, essentially anything that was edible. Marmots had raided our food stash at the half-way point, Florence Lake, so we had been improvising ever since.
And improvise we did, very well. We became mountain marauders, wild misfits who could even compete with the raccoons and bears for food.
When we first arrived in Yosemite Valley, we relied on the Hippies. They welcomed everyone in communal fashion. Into a huge pot everyone added something—a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, a can of Dennison’s chili beans, Spaghetti-Os, chicken broth—and anyone with a sierra cup or an empty can or a somewhat-clean hand could dip into the pot and pull out dinner. We had made our camp only a short distance upriver from Happy Isles—a cave-like hideaway along the Merced beneath a large granite overhang—which made this arrangement with the Hippies very convenient. We partook several times, contributing nothing, yet dipping our Sierra cups into the Hippie-stew, often multiple times. And they were liberal with their alcoholic spirits as well. Pull an empty gallon jug from a trash can and go from one hippy campsite to the next, finding half a beer here, some wine there, the last drops from a whiskey bottle, a little rum, or whatever, and four teenagers had enough brew to get an army drunk.
Each evening of our first several days in the Valley, we’d return to our cave, full-bellied, and we’d sip and lay flat, and fat, in the pine needles. But as usual, when thing are going good, we became discontented. We got bored. The Hippie soup concoction got old. We craved something better, and as boys do, we planned and devised and schemed. So it became our daily routine to scour campsites for unattended ice chests, and our nightly routine to commandeer these ice chests. The way we saw it, we were providing a service to the weekend adventurers, all those L.A. urban dwellers who ventured into the wilderness only one week per year. We bestowed upon them a once-in-a-lifetime-into-the-wild experience, the telling of which could be passed down through the generations.
We weren’t bad kids, we convinced ourselves. We were just hungry.
The rangers, of course, knew bears didn’t carry-off ice chests— bears simply demolished them on the spot. So they sought out us human bears as the evidence of our labor piled higher beneath the overhanging rock we called home in the form of a pyramid of ice-chests stacked six high. On top was our prize—a red, white & blue stars-and-stripes, lacquered- finished, custom Coleman.
We examined the bounty of our nightly catch and found the pickings to be slim: half a package of Oscar Myer hot dogs, mustard, a quarter loaf of bread, three cans of coke, and a ton of ice.
“Looks like they were ready to leave.”
“Why all the ice?”
“Maybe they were planning to go to the store, but hadn’t gone yet?”
“Maybe we need to be more picky?”
Willie, the youngest among us, who had stayed back at the camp, had a fire going when we arrived. He had made it correctly this time, keeping the flames low beneath the encircling boulders so they could not be seen from the trail above or the road down at Happy Isles. Rob proportioned the catch evenly. One-and-a-quarter hotdogs each, one-and-a-half slices of bread each, and a few ounces of coke poured evenly into our Sierra cups. We stuck our dogs on sticks and cooked them, stuck them in between a slice of bread, added tons of mustard, and washed them down with the divvied-up coke. After we were through, George carried the empty chest to the back of the den and stacked it with the others.
Silence prevailed as the campfire burned down. The glowing embers lit our hungry faces. Somebody’s stomach growled.
“It’s hit or miss,” George finally said.
“We need to be more particular,” said Rob.
“We need to stick with the best tents or the Winnebago’s,” I said.
“If they have a luxury tent and good equipment, then they’ll have good
“That’s what I mean,” Rob said. He stuck his stick in the fire and
moved the coals around. “I don’t want to eat that Hippy shit anymore.”
“Me neither,” said George.
Rob looked around at our glowing faces. “I want more steak.” We had gotten steak in one of the stolen ice chests, and it was our best feast yet.
“Hamburgers will do,” George said.
“I saw a campsite with a Cadillac and an Airstream yesterday,” Willie said.
“Where?” I asked.
“Upper Pines—I think.”
“Was it Upper Pines or not?”
“I think so. We passed it on the bus.”
“Okay, we’ll ride the bus again tomorrow. We’ll take a double-
decker and stakeout the best campsites.”
“Yeah,” Willie said, “and maybe I’ll find that Cadillac again?”
“We’ll look for campsites with multiple tents, good tents.”
“And a lot of children,” said George. “Children need food.”
“And parents usually have beer or wine,” I said.
I looked over at Rob, who was shaking his head as he stirred the coals with his stick.
“We’ve hunted and scavenged and begged,” he said. “We’ve gotten lucky sometimes, and sometimes we don’t.”
“We’ve eaten Hippy shit.”
“Yeah, what’s your point?”
“Why scavenge when we have a shit-load of food right here at our
George and Willie exchanged glances.
I just looked at Rob, bewildered.
“The snack-bar, dummies!”
He was referring to the concession stand at Happy Isles, which was
open during the day and boarded up at night. It was loaded with all the kinds of junk food teenagers love.
No one said anything. We were all aware of the snack stand. We passed it everyday on our way into the Village and had watched, covetously, as tourists ate hot dogs and ice cream bars and drank Dr. Pepper and Crush. We had never considered busting into it. Breaking the law. Stealing ice chests was one thing; breaking into the snack stand was felony larceny.
Rob slowly glanced around the campfire, stopping on my face. “Well?”
“There is food there,” I said, matter-of-factly.
“They’ve got hamburgers,” said George.
“And ice cream,” said Willie.
“And cigarettes,” said Rob.
We all thought of the Snickers bars, boxes of them.
“I could cut the cable with my axe,” Rob said.
The stand was secured each night with plywood boards secured by
a cable-wrap, which could be cut with a sharp axe.
We exchanged interested glances. “When?” I asked.
“Now,” said Rob.
“Yeah, now,” George nodded. “All the rangers have gone to bed and there are no Hippies tonight.” He paused. “And I’m still hungry.”
“So am I,” said Rob.
It was past midnight. Happy Isles was the ghost town it should be. And there were no Hippy music festivals going on.
“You think you can cut that?”
Rob stared at me. Then he got up, went to his pack, took out his axe, and came back to the campfire. He took his seat and ran his finger over the blade. He put on one of those shit-eating grins, the kind that only he and Jack Nicholson could make.
“Yep. I think I can cut it.” He hacked the air twice for dramatic
Willie grinned widely too. “Yeah, that should do it.”
“Okay, then,” I said, “George and Rob will take the snack-bar.
Willie will stand guard out back , and I’ll watch the road. Once you’ve got the cable cut, you come get us.”
Rob chopped the air with another practice swing of axe, and grinned again. “Certainly.”
We immediately assembled into a unit, heading down the dark trail together along the white-flashing Merced. There was starlight, but where the forest was thick it was nearly black. Only out in the river could we see white. We could hear various echoes down-Valley—a garbage truck slamming dumpsters and some shouting voices—but they were distance sounds, none of which were of any concern to us.
We all took our positions, and Rob and George got started at the snack stand.
From where I stood watching the road, I could hear the action but couldn’t see it. The first chop of the axed had a muted sound and the second a little louder. The third echoed off the granite base of Glacier Point. The chopping became a flurry. It reached a crescendo, paused, and then one last loud Bang!
I tried to look in between the trees back toward the snack stand, but I could see nothing. I was getting nervous. I was expecting someone to come get me. Negative thoughts flashed through my head. Still, there were no lights on the road. The only light I could see was up high at Glacier Point.
Finally I left the road and walked back to the snack stand to see what was going on.
As I came though the forest the snack bar emerged in the starlight. The building itself, four-sides about fifteen-foot square with a back door and an open counter facing the river, was in an open area cleared of trees. What I saw, or thought I saw, was the bar open for business, as I had seen it so many times in daylight. Behind the counter, where the plywood had been removed, stood an attendant wearing one of those center-creased white café caps with two-pointed-ends.
It was Rob.
“How can I help you?” he said, sporting the Jack Nicholson grin.
George was already inside rummaging through boxes. I could see
his backside bobbing up and down as he went through the inventory. Willie suddenly appeared in the back door, which was now open.
“Yeah!” was all he said.
“Take those,” George told him, and Willie grabbed some boxes George had set aside and carried them out.
Rob grabbed the point of his café hat and tossed it out the opening. “C’mon, get in here and help!”
I went in through the back door. Willie was walking away with what I now saw to be a case of ice cream sandwiches.
We didn’t handle this very systematically. Like pirates pillaging or rats in a cheese factory, we took whatever and as much as we could. By the time we left, it looked like bears had been there, for real. Boxes tipped over, some ripped open, shelves disheveled and emptied, refrigerator items unwrapped, bitten into, and carelessly discarded. We even left the damn freezer door open. And I’m sure our fingerprints were all over the place. We really didn’t think or care about that kind of thing.
Exiting the back door with arms filled, I saw Willie sitting there at the base of a pine tree in full-lotus position gorging on those ice cream sandwiches. He had white ice-cream all around his lips.
“Come on,” I yelled at him.
He wiped his mouth, got up, picked up the boxes, and followed me. I let him go ahead.
As we walked back up the dark trail, Rob carried a stack three boxes high. The box on top was a case of Salem cigarettes. He had jerky strips and pepperoni sticks stuffed-in and hanging out of his back pockets. George was equally loaded. Being the biggest of us, he managed four boxes, the top one pressed up against the side of his face. He had to eyeball the trail through a slither between boxes. Willie had two big boxes. He was still munching on ice-cream sandwiches. I know this because I could hear him and every once in a while an empty wrapper would drop to the trail in front of me and I’d picked it up.
“Hey! Don’t leave a trail!”
He’d look back at me and shrug, and then do it again.
We reached our cave-like hideout exhausted. We set all the boxes
down and took inventory. We had boxes of hot dogs, hamburger patties, buns, Almond Joy and Mounds, cookies, cases and cases of Snickers, and even a boxful of ketchup in those small little packets. Rob’s prize was the case of Salem cigarettes. He took to smoking one right away.
Everyone had already eaten something, either back at the snack-bar or on the way returning to the camp. But we ate more now. We ate as many ice cream sandwiches as we could before they melted. We sent what was left downriver in a box. We ate some raw dogs, some pepperoni sticks, and lots of Snickers. Afterward, our bellies were feeling it. Willie was moaning all night and eventually threw up, which caused a chain reaction. I remember, at one point, three of us were lined up along the river bank.
The next day, ranger trucks were all over the place. They stretched police tape around the concession stand. Tourist and hikers stopped and gawked.
We spied on them from a distance, but stayed at our camp for the next two days, keeping out of sight, sunbathing on the large boulders along the riverbank, barebacked with big bellies. We had no need to go anywhere. We had more food than we could eat. We utilized the ice chests to preserve the food and also rigged a line in the icy river, at the end of which was a huge plastic bag full of perishables, weighed down with some stones.
But truly, we had taken too much, and much of it was spoiled in the heat of the summer valley.
On the third day, we all headed into the Village. We slipped by the Ranger’s crime line, acting shocked to see the concession stand still closed and taped up. We spent the day lounging around the Village. At one point, I saw Rob sitting at the entrance to the Village Store selling half-priced cigarettes. Yes, he did that, and somehow didn’t get caught. We heard some word about the snack-bar break-in at Happy Isles. Rumor had it, among the day-hikers anyhow, that bears had done it.
Yeah, right, we thought, bears with axes.
We were all snickering at the news of this.
The rangers, of course, knew better.
We spent our last day in the Valley riding around on top of one
those double-decker buses, sliding jerky strips to one another, trading Almond Joys for Mounds bars, enjoying the sunshine and the breeze. I remember looking at Willie’s face, which had been gaunt after the long trail, and noticing it looking fuller. We went back to Happy Isles for our packs, and left with some misgivings. This granite overhang, nevertheless, had been our home for several weeks. We set the red white & blue custom Coleman ice chest afloat downriver, hoping its return to its true owner. All the other ice chests we left stacked beneath the overhang, figuring someday someone would find them.
Sadly, the Hippies were blamed for the snack-bar break-in. The baton-wielding Rangers banned them from Happy Isles. They could no longer hold music festivals there, or for that matter, anywhere in the Valley—the crackdown became Park-wide. That last night we stayed at our camp there was no song or music echoing down the valley. We didn’t see the shadows of celestial dancers high on the granite walls or the tie-dyed t-shirts and long dresses celebrating out in the meadows. We had crashed that long beautiful wave Hunter Thompson had wrote about—maybe not for the rest of the country, but certainly for Yosemite Valley.
I can still see Rob lounging in the last seat on top of the double- decker, bare-backed as usual, smoking one of those stolen Salem cigarettes. He’s grinning that crazy Jack Nicholson grin, like he’s in on some joke the rest of the world didn’t know about. I can’t see his eyes because he’s wearing dark sunglasses, but when he notices me looking at him his grin widens, his lips move slowly, and he says one word, loudly: