Bears of Ruidoso
Bears do what they want. Just ask Goldilocks. Their independence and unpredictability are fascinating, and have inspired legends and stories among people who have had the dubious privilege of coexisting with them.
If Ruidoso residents seem to have bears on the brain, there’s a reason. The southern New Mexican mountain resort town is tucked between the Mescalero Apache Reservation and the Lincoln National Forest, two big chunks of territory that gives the bears plenty of room to roam. And if the big furry guys sometimes get a hankering to come to town, who’s going to stop them? Not me.
Maybe they’re attracted by all the bear souvenirs. The gift shops of Midtown Ruidoso have stuffed bears, carved bears, bears made of silver, leather, rabbit fur and buffalo bone. Bears on T shirts, pajamas, coffee cups and key chains. Bears as earrings, necklaces, belt buckles and book marks.
Or maybe they just want a bite to eat. Bears rummage in the town’s dumpsters, scratch on doors, and invade kitchens. They suck the sugar water out of hummingbird feeders. One afternoon, a bear strolled across the main street in town, greatly entertaining the folks who were eating lunch on the deck of a nearby restaurant.
A local insurance agent filed a claim for a carpenter whose lunch was eaten by a bear. Unfortunately, the lunch was in the glove compartment of his truck and the bear, lacking fine motor skills, was obliged to remove the dashboard to reach it. Then, to show his appreciation, the bear left behind a little—well, actually not that little—souvenir on the seat.
Ruidoso dogs develop a "bear bark," letting their owners know when Papa or Mama or Baby Bear have come to call.
One summer when our household was temporarily dogless, I came home to find a large furry object sleeping on our deck. My first thought was that my husband had gotten a new dog. My second thought was, "Wow, that’s some big dog." When it stood up I saw that it was, of course, a bear. I ducked out of sight and the bear—his nap disturbed—heaved a sigh, jumped over the fence and headed into the woods.
Before becoming too annoyed by such bear shenanigans, remember that one of them grew up to be the most popular bear in American—Smokey Bear. After a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains in 1950, a charred little cub was found clinging to a burnt tree. Although our ideas about fire and forest health have changed in recent years, Smokey Bear remains a popular symbol of respect for wildlife and wilderness.
More visible around town than real bears (and safer, too) are the ubiquitous carved wooden bears. There seems to be a guy with a chain saw on every roadside, turning hunks of Ponderosa pine into wooden bruins. Local businesses have ursine patrons standing out front—holding a newspaper at the Ruidoso News, a doughnut the size of a spare tire in front of a doughnut shop, a snowboard and skis by a ski shop. There’s a crowd of them outside the Ruidoso Public Library, all with armloads of wooden books.
Jaded locals tend to roll their eyes over the subject of chain saw bear carving. Okay, it’s not art. But it certainly is skill. I’ve never tried it myself—chain saws scare the beejesus out of me—but doing any degree of fine work with one of those screeching monsters can’t be easy.
Ruidoso even staged its own version of the Trail of Painted Ponies in 2003. Artists, including internationally-known Ann Templeton, created bears like Vincent Van G’Oso with the famous painter’s face and bits of his paintings around the body, and A-Bearican Gothic, a take off on the stern couple in the Grant Woods painting. One of the most popular bears–especially with the kids–was Dia Del Oso, a skeleton bear painted in the style of Mexican Day of the Dead folk art, holding a skeleton fish in its mouth.
And then there’s the story of the hiker who was chased by a bear. He climbed up a skinny tree to escape, and the bear tried to dislodge him by shaking the tree. When that didn’t work the bear went away, but just when the hiker thought he was safe, the bear returned with another bear. The two of them shook the tree twice as hard, but the hiker managed to hang on.
The two discouraged bears went away. The hiker was about to climb down when he saw them coming back. He knew he was now in big trouble.
This time, they brought along a beaver.
Lyn Kidder (writer) and Frederic Moras (photographer) have traveled around for 8 years, living and working in Idaho, Alaska, Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming.They have collaborated on two books while in Alaska Barrow, Alaska from A to Z and Tacos on the Tundra biography of the wacky woman who opened the world's northernmost Mexican restaurant, in Barrow, AK. Both are available on amazon.com. They have settled in the mountains of southern NM. You can see more of Frederic's photos on www.artistregister.com. This piece originally appeared in the June 2002 issue of New Mexico Magazine