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Sierra magazine

From a park ranger's new novel about historic Yosemite's buffalo soldiers

A century ago, African American soldiers with the U.S. Army's Ninth Cavalry protected Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks from poachers, timber thieves, and other threats.

By Shelton Johnson

I made my last patrol to the edge of the sky. I was high up near Devil's Postpile, and had just ridden up from Sotcher Lake the night before. It'd been a clear night, and the moon just past full lit up everything so well, you never hungered for the day, so I just packed up and started heading out and up to the patrol cabin in Reds Meadow.

I was by myself, and wanted it that way. I figured if this was going to be my last journey through the Yosemite, then I'd do it alone. You come into this world by yourself, and you go out of it the same way. Of course, now I was riding a mule named Satan, so I wasn't completely alone.

There had been a fire through the area, which made the going a lot easier. The moon had no trouble getting past all the branches above me and finding a place to rest on the forest floor. The red firs were creaking in a wind I couldn't feel, but I could see it rock the tops of the trees back and forth, and the treetops seemed to be brushing the backs of the stars.

It was a quiet, peaceful night, the kind of night you long for when you ain't got it and you hope will never end when you do. I was getting to that place inside, the quiet place you get to when you've been in mountains a long time, so long that you feel you know them. Not just their names, which you can find on a map, but the names that are secret, and within your own silence you slowly begin to unlock, letter by letter, what God must call them in the night.

I think I was even dozing a bit, watching Satan's head rise up and down, feeling the rocking of my mule as he walked and the coolness of the summer air on my face and hands.

I should've known it wouldn't last.

I remember a kind of stiffening up in Satan. He slowed a bit, moving his head from side to side, and then with a snort he swiveled his butt upward and sideways in one motion, and just like that I was in the air. That mule bucked me off so easily I might've been able to call it a fancy dismount if someone had been watching, but you can't lie to God, and God knew Satan better than I did. That mule was mean and spiteful, but he had a soft spot for me. We got along just fine, and that left me wondering, as I went up, over, and down to the ground, what the hell was going on.

The ground rose up faster than it had any right to and smacked me on the butt, and as I looked up I saw more stars lighting up the sky than there'd ever been before. I heard Satan bucking and dancing back down the trail, but when I looked over my shoulder all I saw was his shadow, draining away like black molasses. Speaking of asses, mine wasn't doing too well, and as I struggled to get back up over my feet, I could feel how my legs had been left out of the plan to stand up. They were as outraged as I was and wouldn't cooperate. Eventually I was upright, standing on a steep, rocky trail in the middle of red fir forest, with moonlight clearly illuminating my bruised and scratched hands. I was thinking bout all the things you could do to a mule short of killing it, and how I was really looking forward to trying out every idea that came to me, when I saw movement up the trail about twenty feet away.

Two, no, three fairly large animals were running cross the trail, cross the very spot I probably would've been except for the disagreement with Satan over direction of travel. Peering closer, I could just make out how one of the three animals was a lot bigger than the other two. That one broke off and ran a bit toward me, fully out of the shadows into moonlight.

It was a grizzly.

And since I personally have never heard of grizzlies roaming round in herds, I figured the other two were cubs, which meant that Mama was the one taking particular interest in me. I had surprised them.

Now I was really irritated. First my mule bucks me off, probably cause it caught the scent of the bears, then it runs off, the sound of which probably spooked the bears, who likely were just trying to get away. Leaving me standing there alone, staring foolishly at my bleeding hands.

Furthermore, Lieutenant Resnick told me once that no one had seen a grizzly bear in the Sierra in nearly ten years, so I needn't worry too much about meeting one. I trusted him.

I trusted an officer. I trusted my mule.

Ain't it peculiar how the people you trust usually aren't around when you really need them? That's what I was thinking when the grizzly rose up off the ground, using her forelegs to push herself up into the air.

Copyright © 2009 by Shelton Johnson. From Gloryland: A Novel, to be published in September by Sierra Club Books. Johnson is a ranger in the Division of Interpretation and Education at Yosemite National Park.

Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, C. G. Morledge



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