Andrew D. Hughes Blog



MAN vs.BEAR!!!

There are two types of animals in this world: ordinary animals, and bears. Ordinary animals are things like puppies and raccoons and Five-lined Skinks– critters that people generally needn’t fear or even consider. If you’re a puppy, your thoughts involve chasing butterflies in the cutest, dizziest circles. Raccoons are preoccupied with garbage cans and defying natural selection by carelessly pacing the freeway. Five-lined skinks, like all lizards, are busy philosophizing about the corruption of global oil companies and the inevitable collapse of an economy whose only measure of success, they insist, is a decline in the cost of fuel.

Indeed, most animals are, by and large, cut from the stock of peace and virtue, but the bear? The bear has only one thing on his mind: he wants to tear you to pieces, feast on your innards, and slurp up your soul for dessert.

That’s why Daniel and I were a bit…well, apprehensive…when we came face to face with one of these bloodthirsty killing machines in the mountains of Virginia. Shenandoah National Park, a land as beautiful as its name (“daughter of the stars,” is one interpretation),is a  roughly 200,000 acre jar of fresh air, and is the center hub of America’s black bear population.

Upon arrival, we met a friendly blonde park ranger who lived in a tiny wooden box between traffic lanes, from where she dispensed tickets that allowed cars to freely enter her domain. She told us there were three- or four-hundred bears roaming the area. This was thrilling to us.

But as night fell, the hope of seeing one became dangerously possible, and the old proverb about being careful what one wishes, rang its truest tone in our ears.

Daniel and I were on a quiet back road, lying in the bed of my little Nissan pickup. The skies threatened us with rain, so we had rigged an oversized tarp to drape across the length of the truck. This waterproofing mechanism also doubled as a mosquito net, and we were feeling completely secure beneath our plastic makeshift canopy–until it happened.

I was half asleep when the tarp began to rustle. It was soft at first, and then it began to pick up.

“Stop,” I scolded Daniel. Such a childish prank. I was almost asleep, too!

“That wasn’t me,” he responded with a gentle calm that embarrassed my defensive tone.

A weighty silence followed.

Years of knowing a person produces a natural discretion for the level of honesty present in voice tone.

I’ve known Daniel for over a decade, but this moment presented a lapse in discernment.  I waited for him to crack a chuckle.


“Are you serious?” I asked, fearing the worst.

“I thought it was you,” he replied.

“I promise you, it’s not me,” came my answer.

He took my word for it, proving again who is the better friend.

A lump formed in my throat as he confirmed his innocence:

“Well, it’s definitely not me.”

The tarp shook again, sharply, and then settled down.

I believed him this time. This was no prank.

Images of fiercely jagged claws came ripping into our imagination. That bear wanted something, and we were caught in the middle of its craving rampage.

“Ok,” we thought aloud, trying to remain calm, “Did we forget to put anything in the cab?”

No. After we had eaten our chicken teriyaki, we’d thoroughly washed the pot and bowls and locked them inside the truck.

The tarp jerked again, in a burst of sweeping fury, and then relaxed.

“Ok, I have the key,” I said. “We have one shot to jump out of here, rip the door open and get in the cab.”

“No way,” Daniel reasoned. “Time is no factor against an angry bear!”

“Then we’re dead.”

Hearts beating wildly, we threw off the tarp and prepared to meet our fate.

The rim of the covering rolled down and our eyes locked  into the foggy haze around us.

But everything was calm.

“That’s weird,” Daniel observed, his eyes studying the blackness.

No rustling, no retreating footsteps, and certainly no bear.

No, the night was as gentle as a wedding day.

We stared into space, trying to make sense of our situation.

Then a gust of the freshest mountain air scooped up the drooping edge of the tarp, rustled it fiercely, and quietly set it back down in place.

“Wow,” I said. “Quite a bear.”

The silence of humiliation followed, and we settled back down into place.

“What do you say we don’t tell anyone about this?” Daniel suggested.

“I think that’s a great idea,” I said. “Mum’s the word.”

But a good story’s a good story, and I never claimed to be the loyal friend.


A Tale of Two Squirrels

It didn’t take me long to realize that something was awry.

My first clue was the absence of songbirds at my backyard bird feeding station.

The second clue?

A long, limp bush-tail draped over the side of one of my feeders.

A chubby gray squirrel, in his lustful frenzy for black-oil sunflower seeds, had unscrewed the cap and gotten himself lodged inside the near-empty steel cylinder.

“Oh holy night,” I muttered as I unhooked the feeder from the branch of its accommodating red oak. “Look what you’ve gotten yourself into!”

The squirrel, unable to see, protested my arrival with a series of stirs and stutters that, if translated into English, would make your grandmother blush.

I began my rescue efforts by turning the tube upside down.

The rodent didn’t budge, so I shook it a little.


Then I noticed his silvery claws latched securely around the feeder ports–the small holes designed for bird bills to slip in for a seed.

I pinched the claws and pushed them back into the feeder.

The squirrel, sensing gravity’s threat, rebutted with a growling sputter of consonants that promised certain death if I were to try my little circus act again.

I didn’t.

In fact, no sooner had he finished calling down curses from heaven, than I came out of my house with a tub of Crisco and no shortage of drinking straws.

(You didn’t think I’d give up that soon, did you?)

I dunked the straws in the shortening, squeezed them into the edges of the tube and slathered every bit of fur that I could find.

I kid you not; I buttered a squirrel!

Behold, my clever mind at work! [See footnote #1]

Again, I turned the feeder and shook it.

The squirrel began to slip, his rump emerged from the tube, then quickly retracted.

I was making progress!

The squirrel was terrified. What manner of horrors would he have to face next?

Seeing that rescue was imminent, I grabbed the tail and gave it a tug. For a moment, the squirrel followed my lead, but in a sudden burst of panic, he darted deeper into the feeder.

I gave an extra pull, and the squirrel did just the same until, at one point, the force of pressure on both ends outweighed the tensile strength of the poor beast’s posterior limb, and half of his tail ripped clean off!

I froze for a moment, surprised at my cruelty, and pondered its implications that this poor animal would have to carry until the day that he passes on to meet his heavenly reward.

I considered every possible means of making amends–the best admittedly being duct-taping the extension to the existing stub–but, realizing that my negligence had resulted in permanent damage, I gently apologized to the animal, and promised never to do it again, in the event that the tail should regenerate or be replaced by a prosthetic.

I’m still not sure if he has found it in his heart to forgive me.

But if a squirrel is one to hold a grudge, then he isn’t the only one in town harboring a personal vendetta.

About a year later, Daniel and I were driving across a stretch of country road, thoroughly engaged in planning emergency procedures for a zombie apocalypse.  It is useful to know, for example, that zombies are capable of climbing stairs, but are powerless against ladders. Ladders! They may be your lifeline someday. You can thank me then.

While in the heat of debate, a squirrel launched from the adjacent woodlands and bolted beneath Daniel’s car. We cringed, and heard the distinct “BAH-BOOM” of two tires cruising over the animal’s body. I hung my head in shame: I was, once again, a participant in bringing harm to one of these creatures.

But then, much to our shock and horror, the squirrel continued running, charged across a yard, and scurried up a tree. Unbelievable!

They may be fuzzy and cute, but squirrels are capable of withstanding some serious trials and tribulations. It makes me wonder how terrifying a squirrel uprising could be. If nature ever decides to release its sharp-toothed minions into society, then our human race is sure to perish.

If you were wondering, I did finally manage to wriggle the first squirrel  out of the feeder. He plopped onto the ground, a buttered mess, glared at me with fire in his eyes, and then hurried away.

That’s at least two candidates carrying a bitterness against mankind.

It only takes one to start a catastrophe, so please, be kind to squirrels.

I hear they have no problem with ladders.





[Footnote #1] Actually, my subconscious memory retrieved the Crisco idea from an episode of Full House, where DJ and Kimmy had to babysit a bratty little boy whose head got stuck between two banister posts. DJ buttered the boy’s head, which made it slick enough to save the day. I thought Crisco would be more slippery than butter, so I have merely made an improvement on the resourcefulness of one DJ Tanner. You never know when those TV sitcoms come in handy.Wait until I tell you about the time Bill Cosby saved me from being trampled by cows.

Catbird Song

It was just before four o’clock in the morning when the catbird started singing.

It was still dark.

And I wished that I had that courage,

that dignity,

that standing,

that wisdom,

to burst into song,

at the mere anticipation of something beautiful.


The night is as dark as the cracks in the sidewalk beneath my torn sneakers. I am going somewhere.  Somehow, even a busy turnpike can find the courage to be silent on a night like this. Maybe it’s the modest hum of my heart’s string section, or the electric murmur of the power lines above that lull me into this blissful state of consciousness: equal parts rainy funeral and first day of summer.

Behind me, the city’s lights bleed through fog, asking me questions I never want to answer. So I continue walking, step over sure-footed step, until an elderly black woman crosses my path. Fate locks our eyes and throws away the key. Only hindsight will offer me a glimpse of the raggedy blankets that twist around her body. But in the present moment, I can only see her eyes shooting through the night: walls of wet paint encased in a stern glare of milky suspicion and oily sorrow. I have never seen this woman, but she knows me from the inside out, and has walked enough silent turnpikes to distrust a stranger so inherently depraved.

Her unrelenting suspicion pushes me off the concrete; my shoes sink into a thin gloss of mud. I know better than to share her sidewalk. It’s the only thing she owns.

An hour passes, and I’m lying on a hotel bed, looking at the empty, white ceiling stained from cigarette smoke. I’m both warm and safe, and she’s neither. And I can’t help but feel a little guilty, watching the world from within my nest of human technology. Not everyone was given the chance I was given.

No, she’s probably still out there walking, step over hesitant step, living perpetually in her footprints. She is going nowhere. It begins to rain, a drop at a time, and I wonder what the city lights speak to her. And if they have anything to say at all, I wonder if she even remembers how to listen.

The Deer

The mountain fog engulfed the quiet stands of beech and oak, revealing only hints of their gnarled and twisted outlines. The air was dead and silent, and icy flakes of cloud particles clung to our faces. The smell of frozen earth beckoned us to continue the winding ascent. Time lost its meaning, distance its power. The peak, we assumed, was only a brief walk ahead, but at this elevation, slightly lower oxygen levels added strain to every step.
We paused, listening. Our gasping breaths were the only sound on earth. I turned toward Daniel; his gentle brown eyes matched the woodland’s every hue. We dared not speak; the silence seemed for a moment to hold the universe in place.
Finally, a white-tailed doe came bounding toward us from the depths of the fog. She barreled through the air–up, down, up, down–ascending with grace and descending with power. Her tar-black hooves stabbed the soil and splashed dirt across the trail. She strode gallantly past us–almost oblivious–from one wall of fog into another, until she dissolved, dreamlike, into the ether of cloud on the far side of the trail. The sound of her footsteps lingered for a moment more, either in the distance or an echo or merely in the magic of our memories, and then she was gone.

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