Betty and I motored through the Rocky Mountains out of Cook City, Montana, where Soda Butte Creek cuts a sharp canyon. At the northeast gate into Yellowstone, I asked the young woman at the entrance kiosk if we might witness any of the Druid Peak tribe of wolves in the Lamar River Valley. She said they hadn’t been seen for a week or so, “but they are around.”
Saddened a bit, we drove down the valley and stopped to look at the snow-white mountain goats on the cliffs overlooking the road, the creek, the dried-out meadows. And all the bushy bison feeding out in the plains.
In the wide Lamar River Valley, I understood why the wolves shied away. Hundreds of fisherman dotted the huge landscape, knee-deep in the river, trudging across the wide grassy meadows. It felt like an invasion of spacemen. I didn’t say that, but that’s how it felt. I wanted wolves and instead got trout fisher-people.
In 2004 Betty and I and our longtime friend, Helen McStravick, visited Yellowstone and watched the Druid Peak gang hunt the Lamar River Valley on a late June evening. Before the wolves even arrived, cow elk smelled the pack and circled around and around like crazed Jewish mothers awaiting a Nazi raid. Black bear chased their own cubs up aspen trees to protect them from the undulating wave of gray, black and white canines that roamed across the wide alluvial plain, their noses down, sniffing, ears up like radar antennae. The normally ever-present pronghorn were nowhere to be seen. Viewing the hunt, electric vibes chimed the tines of my backbone, my mouth dry as the dust beneath the sage. A terrible scene of beauty, my legs shook with a weakness I hoped no one else noticed.
The weakness I felt might be an indicator of why the wolf is so despised in my part of the country. And maybe, too, why it is so revered. The fear it instills. The admiration, too. Sheepmen and cattlemen, elk hunters, deer hunters, generally hate the wolf and rage against the federal government for its reintroduction into the mountain northwest. Nature lovers praise the wolf’s acumen, its savage skills.
Up here you love them or hate them. I’m not sure how I feel. I loved seeing them on the hunt, across the new June grass like a band of raiders intent on rape and plunder. That excited me. But they kill lambs and calves. And I once worked in that world, so I understand the loathing livestock people feel for this most efficient of killers.
Up here they are killed legally, illegally. People fear being killed by them. To these folks, the wolf is evil, cunning, and lies in wait to rip their children in half, in quarters. To the other side wolves are revered as if deities, noble and regal and deserving to be at the top of the food chain with us, ultimate predators of sage ground and mountain.
I think we humans view these beasts as personalities that act and think like us. They are noble. They are evil. But to me the wolf does what it does, kill, because that is what it needs to do to survive. Remember, all of us, even vegetarians, live by consuming some other living being. The wolf is good at what it does, as are we, sometimes.
I believe game hunters of the northwest despise the wolf because they think that our elk, pronghorn and deer herds are somehow theirs, like the bands of domestic sheep that browse on the Camas Prairie, or the cattle herds that graze on the ridges below the Lost River Range. The wild game are their own private meat stock, there for the harvesting, like fat feedlot steers ready for market. I have little sympathy for hunters. I hunted successfully for years and know the word hunt does not mean guaranteed carcasses hanging in the cooler.
I do understand the rancher’s hatred, though. Ranch folk earn a living off their animals and their life is a steady pound of hot and cold, and wind and death, and livestock birth and somewhere in that birth the hardest of ranchers is softened and becomes a husbandman. One who husbands lambs and calves and even though he or she ships them off to market, there is a tie, an emotion that hangs around like the scent of September sage.
I once met a poet from Wyoming who raised sheep. When asked what she thought of wolves, she said, “I love them in the abstract.” And I think that captures the essence of this complicated quandary we face up here in Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana. We love wildness. But to what extent? Is it only so the elk herds can prosper for our October hunt that we love the wild? Or is it something more, the love of space, and no towns, no four-wheel-drives, no foul buzz of four-wheel ATV motors. The love of wildness for its own sake? And I wonder how all these in-town wolf lovers will react when the wolves begin to descend from the hills behind Boise and kill their dogs and cats, the pet mule deer that eat the plants in the back yard. Will the love of wildness still be there?
Like I said earlier, the thought of wolves hunting wild in Idaho and neighboring environs sets my mind to running on leather-clad legs across the high plains of dreams. My heart beats a little faster. But I know hating wildlife too, or if not hating it, knowing the necessity of its death. Thirty years ago, coyotes were once the object of my destructive wrath. I shot them, trapped them, watched them strangle to death on snares I hung off the bottom strands of barbed-wire fences not low enough to close off an arroyo. I poisoned them. Hell, I murdered white German shepherds that ran across the sheep fields with snouts bloody from massacring lambs. I poisoned registered Poodles and Rottweilers and Dobermans, curs and pure-breds, hunted coyotes constantly with my .243 on the seat next to me. It was my business.
We forget how brutal the world can get. When a wounded coyote ran out of the sheep in an alfalfa field and in the front door of an old lady’s house south of Chandler, Arizona, a federal trapper and I burst in the front door and watched it pee on the couch as it sat slapping its tail on the damp fabric like any loving dog. We cackled as we toted that sheep eater outside like a pet and shot it between its dull yellow eyes.
Yet at the time, unlike some of my fellow livestock men or some of my liberal friends, I did not see dogs or coyotes as evil or noble, I saw them as animals in competition with me for resources. I understood… I understand now, I think…that if they do not kill and eat, they will weaken and starve to death. Or something else will eat them. Most probably one of their own kind. They have no choice but to kill.
Now, I generally shoo the neighbor’s cats out of the orange gladioli, and I pet dogs. Coyotes amuse me with their pranking. Wolves? I am ambivalent—they are killers extraordinaire—I revere them.
Some of you know that Betty and I are creating a documentary film about my Marine Corps rifle company’s tenure at the Siege of Khe Sanh in 1968. Along with videographer Mark Spear, we have completed a trailer for the movie and invite you to view it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFUJyUmB9Yw. Or you can view it on Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/15870694. Take a look and see what we are up to.
Incident at Anderson-Palmisano
Sometimes creative writing is exciting, illuminating, surprising, but it can definitely be a chore, too. One of the things I’ve discovered since I started these regular Friday blogs is how often I have to find something to write about. When we were traveling, the subjects were hollered out at me, rolling behind the hum of our tires as we ran between the soybean fields, the sagebrush pastures. But now it’s, “What am I going to write about?” Often, the writing act locates subject. Get started and the focus looms into view.
My memory retreats to 1964, early August, Casa Grande, Arizona. The year I first went to work for the sheepherders. A vicious drought in south Texas and sheep were dying. Truck load after truckload arrived in the Casa Grande Valley. Unlike Texas, rain drowned the Sonoran desert and the fescue and filaree sprung up in the wet calíche ground. Alfalfa fields, too, and other types of pasture lay waiting. We unloaded semi-truck after semi-truck, sometimes ten or fifteen a day into the chutes at the little feedlot on Sunland Gin Road.
We rose before sunup, three-thirty AM or four, and unloaded semis, built fence, pounded posts, moved bands of sheep, tore down fence until the 108-degree heat drove us out of the fields and back to Sunland Gin Road and an early lunch. We were a bunch of high school kids, but they usually let us have a cold Coors or a glass of Paisano red that we poured out of a gallon glass jug into tall plastic cups.
One particularly hot day we went in around 10:30 A M and ate bologna and cheese sandwiches, an iceberg lettuce salad with not-quite-ripe tomatoes and gone-by cukes, some chocolate chip cookies, whole milk and Coors and Paisano. Too much Coors and Paisano, can after glass, laughter, cold Coors not swallowed but caught in never-never land and shot back up into the sinuses, the nose and out the nostrils onto a paper plate of half-eaten sandwich, gummy white Wholesome Bread. Giggling, antics, acting like we were dancing with the girls at the Teen Center in the old National Guard Armory, someone singing Paul McCartney’s “If I Fell In Love with You,” with a spent Coors can like a microphone you’d see on “Shindig,” the dancer acting like he was holding a girlfriend close although for us summertime sheepherders, girlfriends were something yet to come.
I got stupid and slobbery but so did three or four of the others. It would probably have been okay, we could have napped it off, but some sheep trucks arrived from south Texas. The temperature at one-hundred ten or so. Triple decks of starving and thirsty, bleating, urinating, defecating, maniac sheep. I crawled in the decks on my hands and knees and ran them out. Piss and shit dripping on my head. I must have puked more than once. I must have stumbled. We got them in the corrals behind the bunkhouse and all the jefes showed up to sort the sheep. We were supposed to help run the sheep into a skinny little corral so we could vaccinate and worm them. But we stampeded the sheep again and again and more than one got balled up in a corner, the dust rising off the wool, the fevered frightened bleats of the ewes, the thump of hooves on bodies down in the dirt and smothered and I heard the jefes cussing in español about how much each one of them cost and they’d take the money out of our wages and all I cared about was how my tongue felt bulging inside my mouth, the Paisano and Coors running drag races on the inside of my dead brain, the sweat flooding my eyes. My stomach going around and around like a ram chasing a cycling ewe.
And then we slept if off. Just a lot of mumbling in the afternoon, and mouths so dry the deserts there could not be slaked by the rusty water out of the spigots. The jefes kept their mouths shut. I figured we were free from that one. The jefes all drank. To excess. They understood. I knew that. They understood, even though responsibility rode my neck and a little bit of guilt, too, whispering in my ears from both shoulders later that night as we rode to the moving-picture house in the back of the bobtail truck we used for hauling fencing material. On the way to see “A Shot in the Dark,” and then home in the sulled-up and searing black of night and then to bed, a hangover gonging inside my skull, tolling, tolling a tune you wouldn’t hear on “Shindig.” Something more mordant, like the seven or eight dead sheep (sheep I was responsible for killing—should I say, murdered?) we hauled out to the dead pile that evening for the buzzards and the coyotes to eat.
The next morning the regular three-thirty tap on my window and out the door and into the truck but just me and one of the jefes. “Where’s everybody else?” The cool reply, “They’re going over to Eloy to build a fence. You and me got other business.” The steamy morning waiting for the ball of red fervor to come up in the east. Rattlesnakes coiled in the highway, cooling their slithery bones on the macadam. I could hear them strike the rear-end differential as we roared over them. A shudder of truck, at least in my mind, as I stared in the side-view mirror and watched them writhe in pain from fangs banging hard steel.
At Hartman Road we dove off the highway. I banged my head on the top of the cab. We sped out to Anderson-Palmisano farm, a rooster tail of dust boiling up behind the truck. He stopped on the powdery road and nodded at a big, beat-down, sheep-eaten eighty-acre field. “Roll up all that wire.”
“By myself? There’s over thirty of them.” His black eyes drilled my innards. My guts sank and my mouth scratched itself as I begged for a ball of spit. “I need some gloves.” He shrugged. I dug under the seats, in the glove compartment. No gloves. “I need water.” He smirked. “Got none.”
I knew if I quit, something would happen. He’d laugh. My friends would laugh. But something deeper and darker lurked in quitting. I spit into the dust, but nothing landed. I marched into the field. Dead tumbleweeds crunched beneath my boots. I started rolling up the page wire. (Good for keeping sheep in a field, about four feet high, with an iron pipe on each end. One-hundred feet long. Made of strong wire structures in rectangles about four inches by four inches, top to bottom, end to end.) After half a roll, my back burned, sweat boiled my eyeballs in front and behind. I dry-heaved. I looked up. He stood outside his truck watching me. Like a sentry. By the third roll, my tongue felt like a big piece of raw meat. It hurt when it touched my searing teeth, the roughed ridges of my hard palate. The harsh points of tumbleweed pricks stuck in my hands, my fingers, itched and burned. I’d never make it. He sat in the truck reading something, a girlie magazine, maybe, a sex book. By roll number seven my hands bled and my feet burned, the crick in my back felt like an iron rod crammed into my spine. My head spun. He got out of his truck and took a leak in the canal. By number eighteen I was halfway around and I quit, walked off for the farmhouse and a telephone to whine for my mother. I jumped across the concrete-lined ditch. I looked at the algae-slimed water in the lower end. My tongue throbbed. I whimpered, tears slipped down my cheeks onto my chin. He leaned against the side of his truck, his arms folded as he watched me. He got in and started it up and headed towards me. I was whipped. I wiped my face with my bleeding hands and then for some reason a roar rocketed out of my mouth into the wide universe. I was mad. Mad at him, the wire, the tumbleweeds and the rattlers that snapped at the truck bottom. If I showed up like a whipped border collie, my mother would croon, “That’s alright, son,” and my father would say nothing. I changed my mind and stomped back into the field and for hours more, bleeding hands, I rolled them up, hauled them to the road, my lower back on fire. My spirit soared.