The morning I went to Jorstad’s for breakfast

Jorstad’s for Breakfast

Lee Gass
June 2003

The morning I went to Jorstad’s for breakfast, I rolled out of my sleeping bag in the dark. It’s cold at Grizzly Lake in the middle of the night, but I suffered it gladly in a T-shirt and shorts, because I had a long way to go and had to travel fast.

It was still dark when I jumped the head of the waterfall, and dark when I reached the bottom of the cliff, nearly a thousand feet below. It was much darker in the forest beyond, but warmer than under the glacier at the lake. It was getting light when I hit the big trees 4 or 5 miles down the trail, and quiet. But small birds were busy at their breakfast in the live oak patch beyond the China Creek trail, and I was sweating hard.

Jorstad’s cabin was at the bottom end of Pfeiffer Flats, in an open parkland of giant ponderosa pines. Everything was beautiful; the forest, Jorstad’s cabin, his detached outdoor kitchen and picketed garden, the corral for his “donks”. George built the log cabin in 1935, and mined gold there every summer for 50 years, spending most of his winters in San Francisco. It was wonderful to visit for breakfast, dinner, or overnight, especially to listen to Jorstad’s stories. I thought of it as sitting at the feet of the master.

By the time I reached the upper end of Pfeiffer Flats, the sun was hitting the tips of the tallest trees. I couldn’t smell it yet, because the down-mountain breeze was carrying the aroma away from me, but I knew the coffee would be on the fire and ready, and the pancakes wouldn’t be far behind. Jorstad didn’t know I was coming, of course, because we lived about 12 miles apart in rugged country, and neither of us had electricity.

The bear didn’t know I was coming either. It was making a racket tearing a log apart for ants and didn’t hear me. It didn’t smell me either. That was a bit of a surprise, because although the airflow was beginning to change, air still passed over me on its way to the bear, surely carrying the smell of my stroll. I watched as I caught my breath, then moved slowly closer for a better view. A hundred feet. Fifty. Half of that and closing, and the bear was still so busy that it didn’t notice. If it had been a rabbit or a deer, that kind of inattention would have killed it long before I arrived. But it was a bear, after all, and maybe it doesn’t matter so much if a bear pays attention. Still, it surprised me to be able to approach so close, and I couldn’t wait to find out what the bear would do when it realized I was there.

We weren’t any farther apart than the breadth of a room when the bear stopped. It froze, really, like people do in the movies when they realize that all hell is about to break loose. It just froze, with an enormous jagged splinter of log in its mouth. And then it turned its head slowly, toothpick and all, in my direction.

“You weren’t paying at-ten-tion!”, I said cheerily, trying to be helpful. That bear couldn’t believe its eyes. It couldn’t believe its ears, either, I believe, as if it had never been insulted like that. Or maybe it was embarrassed. I would have been. I don’t know what the bear experienced, but whether it was scared or not, that bear spit the log across the trail and took off out of there, literally like a scared rabbit.

It just took off, spraying dirt and sticks behind it like a teenager peeling rubber. It was smoking, and still accelerating when it hit the brush at the edge of the flats. By “hit the brush”, I don’t mean that the bear “reached” the brush, like I meant when I said before that I had hit the big trees on my way down Grizzly Creek Canyon. I meant that it literally ran into the wall of brush without swerving or slowing, and the whole brushfield waved back and forth as it ran, like a half time card trick in a football stadium. And it was noisy.

One thing led to another
As I stood there on Pfeiffer Flats
Watching the bear,

And before I knew it,
Even as it
Crashed its way up the mountainside
And sweat glistened on my neck,
I flipped to another time.

I was much younger,
And in the wilderness
With a group of boys.

Not the back-yard wilderness
Of my childhood
But the real thing,
Which still existed to some extent,
In those mountains and in those times.

It took forever to climb the ridge.
Hot, dry, and scratched,
We swam slowly upward
In an uphill battle with a brushfield.

And when we reached the ridge,
A light wind cooled us
For the first time
Since we left the trail.

We had barely felt the breeze,
And were panting on the ridge,

It is also a thrill
To run upon a cougar,
In the wilderness or in your yard.

The cat could have known we were coming
For no more than seconds,
For when we saw it,
It was running up the opposite slope
So fast it made our heads swim.

It had taken us forever
To reach our ridge,
But the lion cleared a similar ridge in seconds!

Later, I wondered where the lion had been
When it discovered us.

If it had been near where we saw it first,
Near the creek in the bottom of the canyon,
Then it could have detected us
No more than moments before we saw it.

Or perhaps it detected us a long time before,
While we were still cursing our way
Up the other side of the mountain.

Perhaps it crept near
To where we emerged on the ridge,
Victorious but ignorant,
And ready to be cool.

Perhaps it stalked us,
But changed its mind,
Its direction, and our destiny,
Only at the last moment, and then fled,

Either we surprised a lion,
Or the lion changed its mind
Just before it surprised us.

How can noisy boys surprise a lion?
How can wild things
Living in their own wild world
Be surprised by tame ones
Visiting from another?

Do wild things always pay attention?

That same summer,
Far from Cuddihy Lakes,
On the other side of Marble Mountain,
A doe surprised herself, walking
Along the top of a cliff at the end of a lake
Where the fishing was more furious
Than ever before or since in my experience.

We heard a rock fall from the cliff,
Then silence, only silence.

And then, on a small ledge,
Partway down the cliff,
We saw a scrambling.

A deer!
How could it get to such a place?

We saw a scrambling,
And then we saw it fall again,
Stopping on another ledge for a moment
Before dropping to the rocks at the end of the lake.

We were horrified!

How could a deer fall off a cliff?
Don’t wild things
Always know what they are doing?

It was dark when we left the lake,
Burdened by venison,
And many hours after midnight
When we reached our camp,
Stowed the venison with eggs and bacon
In a square, metal, five-gallon can in the creek,
Down by the willows,
And went to bed.

Many hours after sunup,
Baking in our bags and sweating,
But still asleep,
We awoke to a crash
Down by the willows.

And then we heard another
And another.

“It’s a God-damned bear!”,
Cried Brunjes,
“It’s got our venison!”
“Come on!”

Out of our bags in a flash,
We were off to the creek by the willows,
To rescue our meat from a bear.

There was no meat at the creek
When we arrived,
Nor was there a can or a bear.

There were willows,
And rising above them
Was a small thick forest of alders,
Where water seeped to feed the stream.

A fresh trail of bruises scarred the trees,
And near the first of them were the first eggshells,
But no venison, no can,
No bacon, and no bear.

Then we saw the round metal lid,
Bent and gouged by claws,
Even while choruses of banging
Receded up the hill beyond us.

We crept carefully up the hillside,
Attending to the evidence
Of the saga we had heard,
And watching all around for the bear.

Fortunately, every moment or two
We could hear a tree shake
When the bear ran into it
And hear a bang when it smacked the tree
With the can full of meat.

Bruises, pieces of bark,
Hanging, sometimes by a thread,
And bare patches of cambium
That would scab over later and scar,
Making a mystery for anyone
Who came this way again.

Thirty or forty bruises up the hillside,
We found a sorry excuse for a five gallon can.
It was in tatters, torn and in pieces,
And nothing of its contents was anywhere in sight.

Here is what we imagined.

Claws popped the pressure-fit metal lid,
Bending and gouging it,
The bear grasped a leg of deer
Or a slab of bacon,
And when it pulled on the meat
The can came too!

A few years
Before I saw the bear
On the trail to Jorstad’s,
But many years after the other bear,
The cougar and the deer,
I surprised a bobcat.

It was quiet and cool
In early morning,
And a calmness
Enveloped the world.

I waded, slowly and carefully
Down Little Butte Creek, looking for newts.
Leaves, well-budded but small,
Swelled in the California spring,
And mist tangled in willows.

Beyond the willows,
A bridge carried the road across the creek
And upward, taking civilization with it.
And behind me the canyon,
Uncrossed by roads for miles,
Approximated wilderness.

Much earlier, when I turned the bend behind me,
I saw a log spanning the stream before the willows,
Noted that I would have to duck under it
When I got that far,
And then forgot it.

Nearing the willows,
I sensed the slightest motion before me,
Near, and at the level of my eyes.

Scanning upward slowly,
Not to disturb what I had seen
I saw first the log and then a bobcat,
Crossing it casually,
Seemingly lost in a world of its own dreams,
And strolling,

All mist beyond us,
We occupied the same small quiet space,
The bobcat in its dreams and I in my own,
And neither of us showed any sign
Of having been surprised.

Perhaps it was just too strange
For me to be so quiet, so slow,
And in such a strange place at that time of day;
Perhaps I was too unexpected to look for.

Or perhaps the cat looked both ways before crossing the log,
Like a child crossing a roadway, mindfully, and saw me,
Then chose to ignore me,
Trusting not only its senses,
But its sense of what it is
To be in a place at peace with other beings.

In any case,
The bobcat looked at me only once,
And then continued strolling across the log,
Calmly, as if nothing in the world
Concerned it.

That’s all there is to the bobcat story.
And there’s not much
More to say about the cougar,
Except that it left us cooling our shoulders
In the California sun.

The bear continued crashing up the hillside as I stood there by the trail. Jorstad continued having his first cup of coffee, fresh from the fire, and making his breakfast. I joined him a few minutes later, we had a great breakfast and a swapping of stories, and I headed back up the long trail to the lake, full of life and ready to rejoin the hummingbirds.

I love going to breakfast at Jorstad’s! His stories are amazing.

Just last Saturday, five days before Guy Allen told me to write a story in his workshop on narrative writing, Lucretia left the following message, calling from our property on Quadra Island, not far north of here:

“I saw a cougar.

It was really amazing,
Exciting, and scary.

I was walking up the road
That leads to Monty’s place,
At the end of the road,
And I saw a young cougar
Walking out of the bushes.

I stood,
And watched it
Walk across the road,
About a hundred feet from me

I backed away
And walked backwards
Back home.

I am standing on the porch now
And wanted to tell you,
So there you go.”

And there you go, too.