Velma parked her Airstream in Yosemite and stayed all summer. There she kept nature in check, terrorized the rangers, smoked like a chimney, and left only after the first acorn of autumn fell into her gimlet.
Velma was the brainchild of cartoonist/political satirist Phil Frank, who produced Farley, a San Francisco-based cartoon strip that ran daily (except Saturdays) in the San Francisco Chronicle from 1985 to 2007. Farley had an avid following. Thousands of people, including this author, didn't consider their day complete without their dose of Farley.
Sadly, a brain tumor took Phil's life in September 2007 and brought an end to the Farley strip and any further adventures of the marvelous cast of characters that inhabited it. Like other avid fans, I still mourn the loss. I miss Phil and his alter ego Farley. I miss Bruce the right wing raven, mystic Baba Rebop, Speedbump the feral cat, the feral pig from Marin County, Irene the meter maid, Beppo the homeless Vietnam vet, and the urban black bear clan. I miss them all. But most of all, I miss Velma Melmac.
Velma Melmac was a remarkable woman who had a cat, a chihuahua, and a penchant for RV-camping in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite was a seasonal haunt for a number of characters in the Farley strip. Phil had his urban black bear clan regularly summering in the park (imagine that!), and he had Velma going there every summer as well.
Velma was tough. Phil gave her a surname that belonged to a 1950s-era brand of dishware that was well-nigh indestructible, and nothing could have been more appropriate. The supremely self confident Velma knew exactly what she wanted, what she liked and disliked, what she would accept and what she would not. She was single, drank gimlets, chain-smoked, used lipstick to wretched excess, squeezed her oversized butt into tight pedal pushers, and treated almost everyone else like crap because......well, because that is what suited her fancy. Velma's world was about as egocentric as it could be. If you didn't like it, you could go to hell.
Velma's attitude toward nature, which was almost wholly lacking in nuance, did the heavy lifting in her comic role. Some observers have said that she hated nature, but with all due respect to these deep thinkers, that's nonsense. Velma didn't hate nature any more than slaveholders hate their slaves. As far as Velma was concerned, nature existed to promote her personal well-being. It was there for her pleasure and convenience. Thus, while pretty scenery and cool breezes were just fine (which is why she went to Yosemite for the summer), bugs, dirt, and cold were simply not acceptable. No, not at all.
At Yosemite, Velma ensconced herself in an air-conditioned monster RV, astroturfed her campsite, vacuumed the nature trails, and used bug spray by the gallon. If nature was going to impinge on Velma's idyllic life in Yosemite, it was going to do so on her terms.
Each summer, we Farley fans would eagerly look forward to the Velma episodes set in Yosemite. What would this incorrigible broad do next? Would she devise some new way to keep bugs and dirt at bay? Would she perhaps encounter a park ranger tough enough to stand toe-to-toe with her? Would she sink to new depths?
Velma loved to sit in her lawn chair, smoking a cigarette and sipping her gimlet, secure in the knowledge that her little corner of the world was understandable and controllable. But each year, as the Yosemite summer gave way to fall, an acorn would plop into her gimlet, signaling that it was time to skedaddle. Goodbye Yosemite, hello Manteca.
Now and then I pause to reflect on my fascination with Velma. Why, I ask myself, am I drawn to this drawn woman? Here I am, a guy who believes that national parks like Yosemite are cathedrals for nature worship, and I'm captivated by a woman who treasures modern comforts, makes war on bugs, and believes that nature serves our needs best when it is conveniently accessible and tidied up to our satisfaction. Velma may not exactly be the Antichrist, but where national park visitation is concerned, she certainly has devilish dispositions. Why should I be interested in a woman like that?
I think I know why. It's not just that Velma is outrageously funny (though that would be reason enough). She's also one of my other-shoulder angels.
Like everyone else, I've got angels on my shoulders. They whisper in my ears. If my cognitive processes conjure up the concepts "Yosemite" or "wilderness" for example, there is a sudden shuffling and buzzing as the relevant angels take their places to continue the fight for my soul. Whispering in my right ear are John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Bob Marshall. And whispering in my left ear, right there beside James Watt and Ted Stevens, is Velma Melmac. "Be like us," Velma whispers. "You know you want to."
Postscript: Velma Melmac T-shirts, mugs, and other memorabilia can be ordered at this site. A number of the Farley strip collections are available as books, including Travels with Farley (1978), Asphalt State Park (1987), Going Local with Farley (1991), I'm Ink, Therefore I Am (1997), Don't Parade On My Reign (2003), Fur and Loafing in Yosemite (1999), and Eat, Drink, and Be Hairy (2006). The latter two books, which were published for the Yosemite Association, feature strips set in Yosemite or dealing with the Yosemite-summering urban bear clan