I’d never seen the range like this. I felt like I was in a Mad Max movie alone. We stepped through the sagebrush one foot at a time, only hearing the snap of the dry sage under his feet.The sage’s unmistakeable smell was released as the mortar and pestle action of Jimmie Bill’s hooves hit the ground. I loved this feeling in the fall. The mountains were desolate. Only a few hunters were left who hadn’t yet filled their elk tags, and the cows had headed for lower ground. Salty, Tonka, and Elvis followed close behind taking turns at being chief cow dog for the journey. Jimmie Bill seemed relaxed today, not spooked like she’d been last time we took this ride alone. We were headed out towards Big Mountain Bluff where the light would be perfect in an hour. I wanted to get a shot of it with the eastern sun hitting it from a new angle.
The two year drought had depleted the land of its life. It almost felt dead. We rode for three hours. Not once did I spot an insect, frog, or anything that indicated there was life. I’d never seen the land this thirsty. It was eerie.
Jimmie Bill was a godsend to me. His sure-footedness and calm disposition was like being carried by an angel on days like today. We reached the foot of Big Bluff and the canyon dropped immediately below me. My heart gasped as my stomach did a flip at the beauty before me.
I couldn’t wait to get the camera out and stretch my legs for a bit.
I stood there stretching and moving about eyeing the right angle for the shot I wanted. The dogs got still. Motionless still. It scared me. I’d never seen them stop dead in their tracks like this - especially with no bull around to stare down. Then it started.
It came from behind me. The sound moved around my body as if it was composed of matter. It was like a cloak that spoke. First one, then another. For a minute I thought it was a sound that could come from heaven because it was so outer-worldly. But then their harmony began.
It was both beautiful and frightening at the same time. They harmonized as one by one, as if in slow motion, the hairs began standing up on the back of my neck. Like dominoes. The chills that ran throughout my body reminded me of the waves in a lava bottle. I didn’t dare turn around. There was no real way to measure how far away they were, and if they were close I didn’t want to know. I slowly moved towards Jimmie Bill, who also stood motionless. When he was within arms reach, I grabbed the saddle horn firmly and practically glided up him until I could lift my left leg over the saddle. I wanted out of there.
I gave him a gentle squeeze with my calves, making sure to keep the spurs far from his flank. He leapt forward. He was clearly scared too. I pulled back on the reins, sat deep in my seat and clicked. He began walking slowly. The dogs followed behind, yipping and yapping, but never making a sound above a certain octave. There was a language I couldn’t hear between them as they walked along beside us.
The wolves continued to howl as the sound grew closer. At one point, the howling turned into a hollering like a touchdown had just been scored. I wondered if there was a ritual when the killed something, or one of them had gotten a little. Didn’t know. All I knew then was I’d give anything for a cell signal or a gun that could protect me and the dogs if I needed to. Wolves will rarely attack a human in the wild, but dogs are free game. Knowing human consumption wasn’t their norm didn’t make me feel any better right then - mostly because the land told me all day how little it had to give. This would mean the wolves didn’t have much to eat either. Middle aged flesh was sure better than nothing. Especially with the marbling I could offer them.
Night was falling now and Jimmie Bill was threatening to trot. He wanted back to the trailer, and the dogs had started chasing each other more, romping in the sagebrush ahead. Their fear appeared to have lessened. I took a long and deep breath in and exhaled.
The howling lessened and hadn't inched any nearer to my ear. The hairs on the back of my neck were beginning to soften and lay back down. It wasn’t long before the trailer’s roof glistened in the setting sun up ahead, and I thanked God for the wonder and awe of this day, no matter how scary it had been.
That’s the thing about creation. Even it’s terror is astounding. I hadn’t been threatened in any real life way, but the knowing that I could be and the stark awareness of how vulnerable I was alone in the wilderness against a pack of wolves was akin to a spiritual awakening in ways that are hard to describe. It’s the contrast between beauty and violence that stunned me. My imagery of the wolves capacity to tear away at our flesh was vivid and potentially real; juxtaposed against a sound so eerily beautiful it made the hair literally stand up on the back of my neck while I listened, mesmerized by it’s glorious and ethereal harmony. Their voices blended into one at times, traveling through the thin mountain air until it entered the face of Big Bluff and the mountain sent their echoes bouncing through the valley high and low, as if alive.
It wasn’t long ago I’d tracked the valley below for miles to find the 30 or so dead calves that one lone wolf had annihilated in a joy kill. The fresh kill spots spread across the sagebrush marking the last place their mother had felt its mouth against her skin. The ground around these dead calves was so disturbed, it looked like there’s been a war. And there had been. The most disturbed ground was where the mother cow had likely tried to fight off the hungry wolf to no avail. Looking at the soil and the bloody kill spot near the snacked upon, ravaged newborn was proof that good and evil, light and dark live within all of us in a shared space.
This wasn’t the first wolf I’d have a close brush with.
There’d been another one summer long ago.