Tag Archives: camping

The Elmer Call

Background:

Every summer during my informant’s childhood she went camping in Yosemite. Among the many other camping traditions that people may hold, it always seemed to her that everyone who regularly attended Yosemite was in on this piece of lore. While she didn’t understand why people did it at first, she eventually learned the story from her parents. Now, she enjoys the idea of the tradition because it reminds her of her childhood.

Context:

While this call-and-response is usually only performed and passed between campers in Yosemite Valley, I was lucky enough to have my informant share it with me during an interview that was being conducted to collect folklore.

Main Piece:

“Some years ago a kid named Elmer was lost in the woods. Every summer from then on someone would shout “ELLLLLMEERRRRR” and every camp through the whole valley would echo the name back.”

Analysis:

Whether or not Elmer ever really existed, I was able to find out by looking further that people have reported hearing his name throughout the valley since the 1930s! Moreover, there was even a children’s book published that describes the phenomenon. This shows that although the tradition remains folklore in Yosemite, its influence has been expanded to the realm of authored literature as well. While some tradition-bearers prefer to act as gatekeepers of their knowledge, I personally believe that the publication of this piece of folklore has been positive. Allowing it to be shared with children who may never get to camp in that region is a very kind thing to do, and it may eventually lead to the tradition being spread and practiced in other areas as well.

For another account of this phenomenon, see:

Yosemite Ranger Notes. “Yosemite Valley: A Land of Beauty, Peace, Sanctity, and ‘ELMER!’ – Yosemite National Park (U.S. National Park Service).” National Park Service, 29 Sept. 2014, www.nps.gov/yose/blogs/yosemite-valley-a-land-of-beauty-peace-sanctity-and-elmer.htm.

White Rabbit, White Rabbit, White Rabbit

“White Rabbit, White Rabbit, White Rabbit” is an expression used when people are sitting around a campfire. It is used to get the smoke out of one’s face and by repeating these words, the smoke will change direction. The concept is that the smoke is made up of hundreds of minuscule white rabbits. They only go in your face because they don’t feel appreciated and want attention. By saying white rabbit three times, you acknowledge their presence and therefore, will leave you alone.

The informant learned this folk expression through Boy Scouts. It is exactly the type of silly thing that would be made up by kids. The informant heard it from an older scout while away at camp. They still practice it to this day because it shows a fun, non-serious side.

It seems to me that it is a childish solution presented for a childish problem. Many kids enjoy camping or at least are forced to participate in it. Kids are very focused on the moment, so something like smoke in their face would upset them greatly. This “solution” turns this problem into a fun game that holds, in theory, real-world significance.

Proverb for How to Approach Different Kinds of Bears

[The subject is MSt. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

MSt: If it’s black, attack; if it’s brown, lie down; if it’s white, good night.

ME: Could you explain that for me?

MSt: Alright, so when you’re, like, in the backcountry, you see a bear, there’s different, like, responses that you should have depending on the type of bear, so if it’s black, attack; brown, lie down; uh, white, good night. So black bears are easily scared… One time I, like, there was a black bear- a black bear kind of came into my campsite and was like, rustling around, scaring everybody, but we were just, like, real loud that night, and we all sang into the campfire, and like, we scared it away.

ME: So black means you attack.

MSt: Black means you attack. ‘Cause they’re scared of humans. So they mostly just don’t want the trouble. Like, any bear’s gonna get between you and their cub, but pretty much, like, black bears don’t want the fight. They just wanna, like, live their own life. Which, retweet.

Brown bears: brown, lie down. So brown bears, grizzlies, will attack you, but only if, like, you’re interesting to them. So just, like, lay down, try to make yourself small, like, be very clear that you’re not gonna try to attack them, ‘cause they will fight you and they will win. Play dead, because you will most likely die if you see a grizzly bear, but there’s a chance you won’t if you just, like, play dead.
And then white is good night, because, like, if you see a polar bear you’re fucked.

Context: MSt is one of my suitemates, and a sophomore student in college. She was born in Germany and moved to Michigan when she was five years old, where she grew up and lived until coming to USC. German was her first language, and though she still understands it she has forgotten how to speak fluently and now considers English her primary language. She has always been interested in hiking, camping, and spending time outdoors. In the middle of a conversation about our favorite deadly animals, I mentioned polar bears and she recited the proverb above, which I then asked her to explain. She told me that she had heard it from a teacher on a high school camping trip after they saw a brown bear pawing at one of the tents and scared it off by blowing whistles and loudly singing songs.

Thoughts: The reason MSt saying this stuck out to me in the middle of our conversation was that growing up, I always knew that there were different ways you were supposed to react depending on the type of bear you ran into, but I had no way of remembering what there were. This was the first time I had heard something like “leaves of three, let it be” (a proverb about avoiding poison ivy) that applied to bears, and it feels like something I should have learned growing up. I can see it being spread very easily from person to person because in addition to being short, catchy, and easy to remember, it is actually helpful to know if you’re in a situation where you might encounter a bear, and besides that, the last third of it is funny. It makes sense as a proverb that an authority/mentor figure would tell a student (which is how MSt first heard it), but also as something kids could say to one another for fun in a relevant conversation (which is how I first heard it).

Bears and Menstruation

My mother grew up in rural California. She spent a lot of her time outside and hiking. When she was a Girl Scout, she heard that when you are on your period you should avoid going in the great outdoors.

JE:”I always heard growing up that it wasn’t safe to hike or go camping while you were on your period. Apparently bears and other predatory animals can smell it and are more likely to attack. When I was growing up, two women were killed by a bear and the rumor was that it was because one (or both) of the women were menstruating.”

Me: Who told you this?

JE: My Girl Scout Leader was the most distinct person I can remember. There were some men at my church who wouldn’t let their daughters (my friends) because they thought that women should not hike, camp or even venture into the back county during their periods because it will attract predators who will come and eat them. This cautionary advice goes for women around the world. ”

Analysis: I researched the validity of this superstition, and it holds little scientific evidence. The superstition has a strong hold on people because it’s a pretty visceral- blood, gruesome attacks, young girls, etc. To me, however, it seems like a fear of bears morphed into an unfounded belief. At one point, this was perhaps a good way to keep young girls from exerting themselves in the woods when their families believed women should be at home. The stereotype only reinforces the idea that women are not as suited to survival in the wilderness as men.

For the Yellowstone Bearman’s advice on this folk belief, see:

http://www.yellowstone-bearman.com/menstruation_data.html

Upside-down Boots

My informant is one of my father’s friends, he is a long-time ranch owner in the high deserts of Arizona. I was with him on a trip home this spring at a baseball game and he was recounting a night he was camping out in the desert and forgot to turn his boots upside-down one night.

PL: “It was very early in the morning, a little past dawn and we were up and breaking camp, and making breakfast and feeding the horses and whatnot. I sit on my cot and pull my boots over to me, but I forgot to turn them upside-down the night before so I gave them a good shake out. The first one came out clean, so I put it on, but I go and shake out the next one and what do’ya know a dang-ass scorpion falls out! Big guy, scurried away before I could squish it. Dang critter slept in my boot all night.”

Me: “It this something you have always done?

PL: “For sure, it’s something I was taught at a very young age. Scorpions like to sleep in dark, warm places like the toe of a boot, so you keep them turned upside-down at night to prevent the things from getting too cozy in your boot when you’re sleeping out in the desert, and not just outside too, it’s good to do in cabins or in horse stalls or wherever there may be scorpions.”

Me: “Who taught you this?”

PL: “My father taught me this. He lived out here his whole life and had only been stung once. I’ve never been stung so you do it out of caution you know? Those things can hurt you, you grow up fearing them and getting stung in the foot would be the worse.”

Analysis:

This is traditional knowledge known amongst campers, ranchers or anyone who spends time in the desert. Since scorpions are rather regional, at least in the United States, to the southwest region and so this sort of knowledge is a part of the identity of those from the southwest. Only those who have lived with scorpions or encountered them would know to avoid them or have feared them since they were kids and have reason for such precautions. Additionally, the majority of people from the Southwest and Arizona have a deep appreciation for the desert and often undergo “desert safety” days in school, so they spend quite a bit of time in the desert whether hiking, camping or horseback riding. Therefore, this sort of traditional know-how would be passed down from parents to kids or teacher to students, etc. It is simply one of many tidbits of desert wisdom that is passed on, so as to avoid run-ins with scorpions which are hazardous and can be deadly.