I had planned for us to walk for miles along the wooded trail, a former railroad bed, meandering through pine forest, high desert, grassy meadow over this long weekend. My dog Sadie and I were set. Goretex, good sox, sunscreen, cashmere hat, gloves, water, snacks: we were prepared. A pre-trek jaunt was dress rehearsal. Parking spots, “urban” areas (of 20 homes or more), trestles, river access, I pinned them all on my mental map of this unique hiking highway. I was especially excited about the stretch of trail that veered from auto routes into an “uninhabited” stretch of canyon. Sadie and I were set for one long day on the rail to river trail, no matter what the unsettled weather shot our way.
Then I made the mistake of talking to locals. Not just any locals, but seasoned, sensible, well-rounded locals. Folks whose observations I valued. Folks whose declarations were not typically histrionic. Folks who knew this country deeply, after decades and decades of out-in-it residence. One who’d hunted rattlesnakes as a kid and who calmly stayed in his sleeping bag as cougar cubs caroused through camp. These were not lightweights, these men telling me about what it’s like out there now.
Wolves, I learned, have changed lots of things. Their presence is, without a doubt, very disturbing to people around here. I heard of the golden retriever snatched from the farmyard just up the highway. I heard of the huge male wolf carrying a thirty-pound raccoon across the road as if it were a kitten, just up the highway. I heard of the wolf who popped up here and there in a farmyard and who met his end ten feet from the rancher’s wife, just up the highway. I heard of the pair that moved into the neighborhood a few miles from town, just down the highway. I heard of the large male wolf that stared at a seasoned mushroom hunter from twelve feet away, not afraid, not startled, not curious, but just there, just suddenly there, just up the highway. I heard of the hunter on the other side of the state who shot repeatedly at the wolves attacking his hounds, emptying, then filling his gun. I was told that he flung one of his dogs over his shoulder and had to defend this dog from a wolf at his feet, even while he was gunning down its packmates.
I heard level-headed grandfathers say that, because they have dogs and grandkids, they now pack heat when heading into the wilds. I was instructed to do the same. I thought about it. I thought about it. I thought about my ditzy dog who, if confronted with a wolf pack would most likely either try to play or conquer, neither of which is a smart move. I thought about my own fear of bears, knowing that I would most likely lose any semblance of composure should a wolf cross our path.
And I thought of a poem I wrote about being prey:
Wolves? You too. Bring your pals.
Make me a canine banquet.
You scare me much less
than the pack of dizzied symptoms
that is Alzheimer’s.
Take my flesh.
Let my mind remember it.
From “Predation,” The Silence of Bright Star www.eloquentbooks.com/TheSilenceOfBrightStar.html
The brave stance of these lines wilted when it was time for Sadie and me to begin our trek. I did, in fact, change our plans. We still explored the gorgeous trail, especially the section that heads into the remote canyon. We still savored the luscious green and wildflower splash of this high mountain May. We still enjoyed the bright flash of yellow, white, blue songbirds. But we didn’t hike for miles and miles, off on a solitary adventure. We did most of our gazing from spots within view of the road and only hiked a section of the trail near a town, a town so small that a sign posted in its core says “Yes, this is Fruitvale.”
So why did I let the local counsel change my plans? Why did I succumb to the fear of others? I’m not sure. I’m a brave person, one who travels by herself, frequently heading out to remote places all alone. I’ve been a solitary traveler often in my adult life. Why now did I change my plans in response to dangerous possibilities?
I do not know the answer. I do know that the notion of being prey, of my dog being prey, was not one I liked. Rationally, I understand the statistics about wolf attacks on humans and know that the creatures have most likely moved further up slope, where elk calves and deer fauns are abundant. But, for some reason, I chose to be more cautious than usual on this wildland trail.
I don’t think I was convinced that we would encounter wolves. Just didn’t feel like hiking with a victim’s mindset. Didn’t want to keep looking over my shoulder, gasping at each snapped twig, hyperventilating at each shadow. Just didn't want to spend my time feeling like the frail heroine in Rackham's fairy tale illustration shown here. Just didn’t want to spend my time on the trail acting like prey.