Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series called “Rewind: Where are they now?” It catches up with people who stumbled into the headlines – and then faded from view.
Call him Bear.
He sure looks it, bearded and burly at 360 pounds.
In the five years since his video on YouTube went viral, though, the mountain man who lives by Yosemite National Park has started to go by another name: “Double rainbow guy.”
“I’m the world’s authority on rainbows,” says 53-year-old Paul “Bear” Vasquez.
He assumed that stature after he spoke with awestruck wonder about discovering a double rainbow in the wilderness. He even wept in the video, which has racked up more than 42 million views on YouTube - and counting.
“Whoa, oh my God! Whoa!” he says in the video. “What does it mean?”
He compares the moment to a religious experience.
“Everybody asks me if I was high,” he says. “No, I wasn’t high.”
‘God wanted to give a message to humanity’
The world has embraced him and his infectious enthusiasm since he first posted the video in 2010.
Strangers have flown him to Brazil and New Zealand to shake his hand and chat. People in Iceland built him a throne when he visited. Vasquez has done Jimmy Kimmel and commercials for Microsoft. He’s even in an in-flight safety video for Delta Air Lines.
“It was crazy,” he says. “They were all surrounding me. They were nuts.”
He’s so iconic in our era of social media that YouTube headquarters even named a gathering space after him, called the Double Rainbow Room, he says.
So you’ll have to forgive him if he’s gone a little Hollywood – or is trying to.
And why not? He says he’s in talks with “one of the biggest entertainment companies in world” for a reality TV series – about him, his wilderness retreat, his tattered mobile home with holes in the floor, and his new effort to lose weight.
True to showbiz, he won’t say who he’s talking with other than to say it’s “a really big name.”
“They came to me,” he adds.
Most importantly, however, his post-viral experience left him with a feeling of having been touched by something greater.
“Think about it: If God wanted to give a message to humanity, would he give it to a president? No. He would give to a humble farmer in Yosemite,” Vasquez says. “God is confirming that I am like Noah. That’s what’s going on in the video.
“I’m supposed to unite humanity under the rainbow,” he proclaims.
From East LA to the Yosemite wild
Vasquez evokes an eccentric of the old American West, with a devil-may-care spirit who spins yarns of quixotic adventure.
How he arrived in the Sierra Nevada is tale unto itself.
It began in the barrio of East Los Angeles, where he was born. As a boy, he ventured alone throughout Los Angeles on public buses, using a free pass because his dad was a bus driver.
“I’ve always been someone who’s fearless and immensely confident,” he says.
He then became a Los Angeles County firefighter, jumping out of helicopters for two years. He quit that and found his home in the great Yosemite in 1985. It was the park he visited as a kid with his family. He worked for a park concessionaire as a security officer, emergency medical technician and a firefighter again. Then for the National Park Service, posting public signs and fixing backcountry utilities as a seasonal worker.
“Yeah, I’ve had an interesting life,” he says.
In 1988, Vasquez bought his eight-acre spread for $31,000. He married a Yosemite Indian descended from the great Chief Tenaya of the 1800s and had two kids (now 28 and 26, one of them a son named Paul Louis Vasquez III). He got divorced, drove a truck for 10 years – to 48 states and Canada – gained 200 pounds and then lost 180 pounds training for a professional cage fight in 2005.
His opponent was 6-foot-8, 360 pounds: “A giant,” Vasquez calls him.
The cage was locked.
His official record as a super heavyweight fighter: 0 victories, 1 loss.
Apricot trees and chicken eggs
Vasquez grows just about everything he needs
He spends his days in 12-foot-by-60-foot mobile home, circa 1977, in the highlands about seven miles outside Mariposa, California, and just 10 miles from the edge of Yosemite itself.
Road signs – such as “Do Not Enter” – cover holes in the floor, but he brought electricity and water to the farm years ago.
He has everything he needs on his hillside spread. At an altitude of 3,100 feet, he grows vegetables and cultivates 35 fruit trees: mulberry, apricot, peach, plum, pomegranate, elderberry. His chickens provide eggs. He cuts his own firewood.
He also grows 24 marijuana plants – legal in California – because he has a medical marijuana prescription for pain (a bad ankle). He’s been trying since 2004 to cultivate a strain to cure epilepsy.
He does all this on $6,000 a year. That’s right. His expenses amount to $500 a month. It helps when you grow your own food, he says.
“When you get here, it seems like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
Yet he offers the most modern of twists: He posts videos of his life on the mountain once a day – 3,000 of them so far, he estimates. Altogether, his YouTube videos garnered 51.5 million views so far.
One of his videos shows a wildfire devouring a tree-covered hillside.
“So intense!” he says. “Oh my God!”
Another video shows pine trees on a hilltop framed by a setting sun.
“Wow!” he says. “There’s that same thing, man, of it burning, right? We saw that in the moon last night. Man, I’m telling you. It was like - you know what I said? I said, ‘That looks like LA burning.’ That’s what I said. That’s trippy, man.”
No ads for a ‘sacred’ video
Vasquez says he’s made $40,000 from his online fame. He could have made twice that, but he said no to offers to put ads on his double rainbow video.
“The video is sacred,” he says.
He even turned down soft drink companies’ offers to use the double rainbow video in their advertising.
“My life is almost exactly the same as it was before. The only thing that really changes is that I do a lot of interviews,” he says.
Yet one thing has changed, for sure.
He’s found what many of us spend a lifetime seeking:
The end of the rainbow.