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Know the West

Falling bears; border wall delights; lightning strikes

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


NEW MEXICO: The latest in pack rat home security systems.
Carl Gable

“A patrol car was struck by a falling bear in Northern California … causing the vehicle to crash and explode.” News stories rarely begin this way, but it certainly is an opening guaranteed to catch the reader’s attention. The Associated Press explained that the bear apparently either “jumped” or fell onto the car from a steep embankment. No doubt this was a bear of considerable girth, because it smashed the hood and windshield, causing the patrol car to crash into the embankment, roll onto its side and “burst into flames.” Somehow the Humboldt County deputy escaped without serious injury, but the car was gutted and about half an acre of hillside caught fire and burned. As for the bear? “Don’t worry,” a spokesperson for the California Transportation Department; it “fled the scene.”

Pop quiz: What part of a bison can you safely touch in Yellowstone National Park, or in any other park, for that matter? “No part, and don’t even think it!” has been the Park Service’s answer for decades, yet tourists can’t seem to resist a fortuitous fondle. Thanks to a widely circulated video of a bison flinging a young girl into the air after a group of kids got too close, we know that the animals have little patience with rude humans. Yet a man who left the boardwalk at Yellowstone this August to pet a bison on the head managed to escape without being gored. So how does the Park Service get its safety message across? The agency recently distributed a schematic drawing of a bison, carefully but humorously delineating the consequences should you venture too close. What happens if you touch a bison’s nether regions, for example? The Park Service simply replies: “Do you have insurance?” Poking the chest of a bison leads to a blunt “Vacation over.” Yet given human nature, we fear one warning might prove counterproductive. Asking people “How fast are you?” before they touch a bison’s head might just tempt competitive types, dying to find out.

If you read the Seattle Times, you’ve probably noticed that real estate dominates the news, as young people are priced out of a drum-tight market, and ho-hum houses sell for a million or more. Meanwhile, Seattle struggles with what the paper calls the “surreptitious and unregulated universe” of rundown recreational vehicles lining some city streets. The RVs, which rent cheaply but are in sorry shape, will soon be towed away, said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who called their owners “the worst of slumlords.” Yet the tent colonies set up by the homeless in front of buildings are no solution either. Some “authorized encampment areas” have been turned into tiny-house villages, but until Seattle has enough services and housing, Durkan said, “I can’t guarantee that we’ll ever have a place where there are no tents.”

It lasted for half an hour, but it was a lovely sight: Three pink seesaws were inserted between the steel slats of the border wall that divides Mexico from the United States, and as U.S. Border Patrol agents and Mexican soldiers watched, children on both sides bobbed up and down, united in fun. On the U.S. side, the happy event was held in Sunland Park, New Mexico, population 14,500. The “Teeter-Totter Wall” was created by Ronald Rael, an architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Virginia San Fratello, an associate professor of architecture at San Jose State University. Their earlier works include a “Burrito Wall” that allows a food cart to be inserted between the slats, as well as a “Wildlife Wall” with gaps permitting wildlife to pass freely between the two countries. Only a few months ago, though, Sunland Park’s wall made darker news. In April, members of a right-wing militia took it upon themselves to forcibly detain migrants there. Then, in May, a group collecting private donations for a border wall erected its first section of fencing on private land in the city, reported The New York Times. Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea praised the shared playground, saying that it showed that “people live along the border and get along pretty well with each other despite the wall.”

Paul Beaupre, a doctor and CEO of St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson, Wyoming, wasn’t climbing a mountain or even out golfing when lightning struck him this July: He was walking toward his car across a parking lot at the Jackson Hole Airport. Waking up after being “face-planted on the asphalt,” Beaupre said later that he simply went on home, figuring that the lightning hadn’t killed him, “and I would see how it went.” The answer was “not well.” At the hospital where he works, Beaupre later learned he had a broken nose and jaw and three broken ribs. But at least he hadn’t suffered a heart attack, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide, “which is a common occurrence after being struck by lightning.” The National Weather Service recommends taking shelter if a storm is within 3 miles, adding ominously that even on a clear day, lightning “can travel up to 15 miles from a storm.”

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected] or tag photos #heardaroundthewest on Instagram.