RUN OUT OF BIG BEAR

July 6, 2010 § 3 Comments

Ever since I arrived in Los Angeles, I have been scolded, berated and chastised by friends and strangers alike over my negligence in not taking a trip up to Big Bear, a mountain region 90 minutes northeast of LA. Most popular as a skiing destination in winter, Big Bear also features mountain lakes for boating, trails for hiking and of course a multitude of scenic areas for camping.

So it was with a healthy dose of excitement that Victoria and I decided to spend our Saturday in that part of the world. It was Independence Day Weekend and a patriotic feeling was swelling our hearts; we wanted to explore this great land, wrested from the smelly British and taken from the Native Americans and the Mexicans by force. With that backdrop of adventure, heroism and manifest destiny seamlessly blended with cultural genocide and mass land theft, we set off.

The journey to Big Bear allowed me to view some suburban areas heretofore unseen by the writer and, in retrospect, better off left alone. The San Bernardino Valley is a wonderful place to raise your children if you like choking smog, endless cookie-cutter houses that line up like identical pieces of beige lego and a smorgasboard of strip malls to choose from, which is critical because Subways and Jamba Juices do vary enormously from one store to another. All of this is set in front of an incredible backdrop of mountains- I say incredible because although they lie only a few miles to the north of what amounts to a huge suburban concentration camp, they cannot be seen due to the pollution.

Having passed through that nightmare, our spirits lifted as we began our ascent toward Big Bear. The weather was refreshingly mild as we finally put the windows down to take in the fresh-ish air, bidding farewell to the dull, heavy layer of airborne filth covering the valley below. Victoria decided to bring a little bit of Los Angeles with her, blasting all and sundry with her horn as she passed slow-moving drivers trundling around the winding road, set amongst sheer cliffs promising certain death to anyone plunging into the abyss below. “Put your teeth back in, old timer!” She bellowed at an elderly man, whose smiling face melted into sadness as his ego and weekend were simultaneously crushed. “Learn how to drive, humanoid!” She screamed at an acne-ravaged teenager, driving with what appeared to be his girlfriend, a young girl now suddenly looking to greener romantic pastures in the face of her now former boyfriend being so effortlessly humiliated on the open road.

So it was with some relief that we headed into Big Bear Lake, one of the bigger towns in the area, ready to take in the sights, fraternise with the locals and enjoy some lunch. American flags abounded as we cruised down the main drag. I felt vindicated- the location on the plane ticket said ‘United States’; but one could never be sure these days. Thank heavens for these wonderfully orienting flags, confirming that yes, I was indeed in the US of A. Having experienced the drive out, I was beginning to suspect that I was in fact living in war-torn Beirut.

Our first sighting of the lake was downright disturbing. Upon its shores was the same horrific slice of suburbia that I thought I’d left behind in San Bernardino. Soulless houses lined with the token wood siding, packed against eachother,  ruining what would have been a tranquil shoreline, usually so inviting to a visitor. What is the point of a lake if one cannot have access to it? Of course, later there would be many places where one could walk down to the lake (and venture out onto it), but once again private development of formerly pristine natural areas had succeeded in adding to their beauty its own unique brand of ugliness. This was where people so desired to visit? Big Bear was off to a bad start.

Further along, we came to the town center, an assortment of shops and bars, many of them draped with a Wild West motif, which seemed appropriate, given the demographic amidst which we were walking. I casually hid my Star of David necklace, fearing a mountain-high pogrom as I put a protective arm around Victoria, who in turn slid a protective arm around me- she had recently seen Deliverance and, noting the average length of the beards, thickness of the beerguts and fullness of glaze in the eyes, had decided that the person in danger of deflowerment was me.

Having hidden any sign of my Jewry and removed my shirt from my pants to cover up my firm, shapely derriere in order to make myself more resistible to the local orthodontically-challenged male population, we decided to venture into the Cowboy Express Steakhouse for some lunch. Victoria’s mouth began to water at the sight of all kinds of black and white photographs on the log-cabin walls depicting the glorious slaughter of peaceful herbivores for her imminent dining pleasure. Any salivation was duly halted, however, by the sight of stoic, moustachioed men with large guns standing in front of old saloons, men who looked frighteningly similar to those that we passed on our way to this fine culinary establishment. Dryness of mouth reigned.

The first sign of danger came on the heels of our drink order. We were happily seated under a large, shade-bearing confederate flag (I immediately felt cozy- my comforter cover bears the same symbol) when the waitress came over to take our drink order. I sensed I’d made a mistake as soon as the words, “I’ll have a Cosmo, heavy on the cranberry” came out of my mouth. Victoria’s shoulders slumped as we watched the waitress give me a second look before heading over to a barrel-chested, woolly gentleman wearing overalls and a flannel shirt who sat watching by the jukebox. As the waitress whispered in his ear, pointing me out on the patio, I felt like a fugitive seated at a bar whose image comes on the television, being forced to watch as recognition dawns on each of his fellow patrons’ faces. My ensuing response was also in line: run. But Victoria was next to me; no man can afford to be a coward in front of his girlfriend. That can come later, when she’s not around.

So I sat tight, under the glare of this beast from another age. I snuck another glance and by this time he had put a toothpick in his mouth, sending it on vertical loops between his lips. I felt myself being hypnotized. Luckily the spell was broken by the waitress returning with our drinks to take our order. My beloved Cosmo, however, was nowhere to be seen. In its place, next to Victoria’s beer, was a tumbler of translucent brown fluid. This was dumped in front of me with the words, “Jedediah thought you’d do better with this.” I stared, mouth agape as the glass landed on the table. Victoria took a sheepish sip of her beer, awaiting my response which she knew would undoubtedly involve the overturning of tables and a maniacal, raised voice.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Not the time or the place. Jedediah would get his. In the meantime, it was time to order. Victoria ordered a burger while I hesitated, perusing the menu.

“Do you have any vegan meals?”

The waitress took a quick look at Jedediah. Then back to me.

“Uh… we could put extra lettuce and tomato on the burger.”

I looked up and into her bored, vacant eyes. Was she playing with me? Because I could have dealt with that, even appreciated some good old urban, downtown sarcasm at a moment like this, a little sprinkle of Letterman thrown into my Davy Crockett experience. But no. She was trying to help a lost cause. Trying to rescue me. But I was too deep into a state of shock to grab the lifeline.

“I’ll have a burger, medium, meat on a separate plate, please, no bun, salad instead of fries, no dressing, oil and vinegar on the side.”

What?? I asked Victoria after the dumbfounded waitress had walked away. My reasoning was clear: she could have the meat tomorrow. Why waste it? But my love wasn’t appeased. I had let her down. This was my chance to channel John Wayne, and instead I’d summoned early Woody Allen. This was a mess. To add to my vexation, Jedediah was once again receiving an eyewitness news update on the happenings at our table.  An almost toothless sneer was beginning to form on his cracked, tobacco-slimed lips. I was starting to think about everything unfinished in my life when Victoria nudged me.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” she whispered. My head whipped around with a faint crack.

What?” I asked. “But we just ordered!”
 “I don’t care. This isn’t gonna (her anunciation is perfect, but ‘gonna’ works better for action sequences) end well. Let’s just leave a 50 on the table and blow this popstand.”

She didn’t really say popstand. And I didn’t have a fifty. With a wearied sigh, Victoria pulled a 50 dollar bill from her wallet and stuck it under the mouldy ketchup bottle. “Let’s get outta here!” She hissed. Jed was still sitting near the jukebox, which was too close to the exit. The patio was too high to leap off. I needed a distraction. Life can be strange: all day my wits were absent. Meatless burgers and cranberry-heavy Cosmos had abounded. But in this moment, genius finally arrived. I stood up, pointed to the street below and shouted:

“LOOK! A PERSON OF NON-CAUCASIAN ETHNICITY DRIVING A HIGH FUEL ECONOMY VEHICLE WITH A RALPH NADER BUMPER STICKER!”

Chaos ensued. A primal, vengeful scream emanated from Jedediah as he jumped off his bar stool and sped out into the street, along with the rest of the staff and some patrons wielding deer carcasses. Victoria and I filed out with them, sprinting away from the place, only stopping once we’d reached the corner. We chanced a look back, to find Jedediah throwing his arms in the air in frustration, his grimy overalls billowing in the wind. To this day I am convinced I caught his stench on the breeze as we retreated to our car. That smell is keeping me awake at nights. But that’s for another day. Victoria and I, heading out of town, had escaped with our lives. Big Bear had opened its arms to us and we had come eerily close to being another picture on its walls. Victoria had also managed to snag back the fifty clams from under the ketchup bottle as we bolted out of there.

As we passed through San Bernardino on our way home, its confines suddenly seemed a little friendlier to the eye. With the accent on little.

Don’t get me wrong. Big Bear is a pretty place. But Red Neck might be a better name.




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