90,000 Miles to Me

11,918 Miles • The Real Smokey Bear

Things I saw from the road in New Mexico:

  • Street sign near Cibola National Forest: “CTR OF NM TRAIL” – Is it really the center? From which perspective? This sign is triggering my autistic need for exactitude big time.
  • “Lincoln Campground – No Overnight Camping”
  • Passing through the main street in Roswell, NM, I saw 14 references to UFOs and aliens on businesses and advertisements. I was expecting more.

I also saw Smokey Bear. I mean the real Smokey Bear. I’ve always thought he was just a made up character, but apparently–I find out as I’m driving through eastern New Mexico–he was a real North American Black Bear.

In 1950, an unwanted, human caused forest fire swept across the Capitan Mountains near Capitan, New Mexico, burning 17,000 acres of Lincoln National Forest. On May 9, 1950, firefighters found the tiny, five pound bear cub clinging to a blackened tree, and rescued him. He was badly burned on his bottom and legs, where the fire had reached him, but he survived, thrived, and quickly became a media sensation.

Within days, his fame was co-opted by the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention program, who got permission to use his likeness on their pamphlets and posters, and so he went down in history. Can you finish the phrase “Only you…”? If not, you are in the minority. Schoolchildren around the world were tested on which advertising slogans they knew best, and when given the beginning of a slogan, “Only you…” was completed accurately more often than any other advertising phrase all around the world. That is effective marketing.

Smokey Bear’s grave marker.

A month after he was found, he was flown to Washington D.C. where he lived the remainder of his life at the National Zoo. Smokey died of old age on November 9, 1976. At the request of the citizens of Capitan, New Mexico, his body was brought home and laid to rest in this small New Mexico town, near where he was found.