Sunday, February 17, 2013


I had the good fortune of seeing a coyote this morning on my morning bike ride up Horsetooth Mountain.  Though I was only about fifty yards away from him, this fella didn't seem to mind my watching him hunt for mice.  He seemed to be having a really good time, wagging his tail and lying belly down in the grass before suddenly leaping up off his hind paws, and pouncing.  This guy didn't have very good luck while I was hanging around--he didn't catch a single mouse--but he reminded me of this essay I wrote about coyotes about twenty years ago, when my ex-wife and I were living up in northern Montana, out in the middle of beautiful nowhere, with coyotes galore....


Often I'm awakened at night by howling coyotes, and I've found the minstrels sound much better from a distance than from nearby.  In fact, from a mile or two away, the songs, salutes, and inquiries can fill me with the same beguilment I feel when watching the stars or listening to the wind.
But on nights when the coyote choir sounds less like a Mozart nocturne than the laughter of psychopaths milling in the ravine only fifty yards from the house, I jolt awake, heart pounding, fearing for the ducks and geese, for the sleeping cats, for the calves, and, remembering stories of doomed dogs lured off by coyotes sirens, for my dog Shep.
I stumble out of bed, grab the flashlight and run outside. Though the hellraisers grow quiet the momenthear the door open, I swirl the light into the ravine and yell, "Go on, get out of here!" The tactic usually disperses them as quietly as scolded kids, and they take about as long as kids take to recover from the scolding.  A few minutes later, I hear the tenors again, though faintly, continuing their reckless fun in the ravines mazing out toward Beaver Creek.
According to Zuni legend, when a hunter coming home late at night hears a coyote howl, "he bethinks himself of the time when he must say farewell to the living, and go his way to the Lake of the Dead." On my nightly walk to the creek, the yips and wails of coyotes often inspire my own mortal musings.  The chorus usually begins at sunset, when the ravine through which the creek snakes fills with deep shadows and a damp chill, and when one lead singer starts yipping and squealing as though in misery. 
Following the first by only a second or two, another coyote tunes up with its own variation on the same theme—then another and another, until the dissonance grows into one great cacophony.  In the midst of such elemental madness, in the theatrical stillness of the creek at twilight, with the moon on the rise and the first stars appearing, I think of the prairie once hunted by grizzlies and wolves, and I begin to feel as alone as the deer must which hears its own mortality hotly panting in the surrounding brush.
I feel even more vulnerable when, as I head home from the creek in the dusk, I sometimes see the silhouettes of four or five coyotes half a mile across the salmon grass. I've never heard of anyone having been attacked by coyotes, but I hurry to keep pace with 0ld Shep just the same.  And I keep an eye on the distant, shadowy figures disappearing in swales and reappearing on hillocks around me,  as I remember the story by Tolstoy in which a wedding party, sleighing through snowy woods, is stalked and devoured by wolves, and that "brush wolf" is what many old timers call the coyote.
I discovered recently that coyotes don't cast their spell exclusively upon humans.  One night after a rain, Shep and I were walking through the hollow behind the farm when a coyote stirred from the brush below the opposite ridge and slinked up and over the ridgetop.  Shep thundered down the trail, splashed through the mud, shot up the bank, and disappeared over the hill on an interception course.
Despite Shep's hoopla, I wasn't worried for the coyote; the dog lives for the chase, but he's never caught anything but mice and porcupines.  Expecting to see him at any moment, wandering back in defeat, I climbed to the top of the ridge—and stopped. 
In a dip in the trail a few feet ahead, Shep and the coyote were standing together, in a mysterious communion, with their heads down and their noses only a few inches apart.  For a second, I wondered how I'd quell the imminent fight, but neither animal so much as growled.  They just stood there, guardedly and politely testing the other's scent.  After what seemed like several minutes but couldn't have been more than two or three seconds, the coyote turned and continued casually up the trail.
Shep remained where he'd been standing, looking around and whining as though bewitched and truly afraid.  When he saw me, he came running, fussing as though we'd been separated for days.  I tried to calm him and continue the walk, but Shep would have none of it. 
He yipped and danced around me and tried frantically to shepherd me back to the farm, as if Lucifer himself were waiting in the pinkening bluffs and darkening flats of the prairie beyond.  When I finally got around him, he sat down behind me, whimpering and shuffling his front paws until, spooked now myself, I relented and followed him home.
In Voice of the Coyotes,  J. Frank Dobie writes, "That superstition that a howling coyote turns at night into a ghost that no bullet can harm is but a manner of saying that the howler makes a target as insubstantial as Macbeth's air-drawn daggers."  I bore witness to this testament one spring afternoon when Shep and I were walking along the mesa shelving up to Eagle Rock, a volcanic dike jutting over Beaver Creek Road.
We were half-way to the dike's top when the intermittent barks of a lone coyote pierced the quiet around me.  From the thin, tireless voice, I took it to be that of a youngster airing out his lungs from a nearby ridge. Though I knew the animal was close by, I couldn't pick it out of the prairie.  There was no wind, but the voice seemed to swirl.  
First, I thought the sass was coming from the brushy drainages to the north.  Then I thought it was originating ahead, then behind, then ahead again—all the while sounding so close that I could have hit the cocky little cuss with a stone.  Not until I followed Shep's gaze did I finally separate the pup from the lichen-flecked fieldstones, sage tufts, and crocuses, on a flat ridgetop a hundred yards northeast.  The small, dun coyote, with a bushy gray tail half again his total size, bounced on his front legs with each angry yelp.  When I started toward him he turned tail and disappeared in a ravine.
"He's heard the coyote bark" is a Western phrase describing someone who's been beyond the edge of ordinary experience—someone who's fallen head-over-heels in love, for instance, or had a close brush with death. 
But you don't hear the adage voiced as often as you once did.  Most of us seem to have fallen under the illusion that all the mysteries have been solved, leaving little to riddles and awe.  A good antidote to this malaise lies in coyote country, in the vast sage flats creased with draws and ravines, where the extraordinary is only as far away as the next coyote chorus.

1 comment:

  1. The devils. They're charmers and ventriloquists, and these mid-winter nights they run through our creek bottom making Moose a nervous wreck. That's a beautiful essay, Pete.