This is an excerpt from an in-progress, yet sort of stalled, novel that doesn’t really have a good title yet.
I smelled like a coprophiliac, except a coprophiliac would have made more efforts at hygiene than I’d done. I had a week’s worth of grime and sweat on me, hadn’t tried to bathe except to get rained on. I like to work up a good odor in the wilderness to give the bears plenty of warning that I’m around. And, I don’t know, sometimes it’s hard to see the point of being clean. So I was surprised to see the wolf. It should have smelled me and steered clear. Instead it was lying on a narrow, duff-covered shelf that formed a natural trail along the slope opposite me. Its eyes were open and peering at me but it didn’t move or make any noise. I thought it might be dead. Or maybe it was raised by rabbits and that’s how it’d learned to hide. I foxwalked closer, keeping all the weight on my back foot until my front foot had found a secure spot, making almost no noise as I moved downhill, which is not that impressive considering I was surrounded by spruce and pine and there wasn’t a lot of low-growing vegetation to step or trip over. I made it to the floor of the little gully and looked up but couldn’t see the wolf from that angle. I made my way uphill, slowly, and when I got within twenty feet I saw the camera, one of those camouflage trail cameras hunters strap to a tree and use so they don’t have to do any real hunting. When did hunting turn into a namby-pamby hobby with video cameras to show you where the game is, ATVs to help you haul it off the trail? Pretty soon we’re going to have paved hunting trails. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, hopelessly out of date. If you’re a hunter and you can can’t find an animal on your own and carry it out on your back, or a horse if you’re lazy, you should starve—or buy your meat at the supermarket. A camera in this situation meant there was a trap, too, probably a slew of them. When I got up there I saw the wolf’s left hind leg was caught, all mangled and crusty with dried blood. He hadn’t been there long enough to decide to try to chew his foot off. Or it was a matter of pride, although that’s a dangerous and stupid way for me to think, as usual. The wolf’s eyes were following me but it still had not made any noise. I paused. I won’t pretend like we had some profound intraspecies moment of connection or understanding. I generally get along better with animals than with humans, but that doesn’t make me a wolf whisperer, just a grumpy introvert. And I was too angry for profundity just then. He was too scared or exhausted, probably angry, too. He was big, sad hazel eyes, his top and back streaked with silver and brown. He looked to be mostly white on the bottom. He had a collar around his neck. He looked proud but beaten, majestic but pathetic. He didn’t howl or whimper, just breathed heavily. “It’s OK, wolf,” I said quietly. “I won’t hurt you. I ain’t no dirty poacher. I’m here to let you go.” I kept talking, kindly, gently, as I stepped closer. The wolf didn’t move. When I got within five feet I crouched lower. The camera hadn’t seen me, as I’d come in from behind. When I got to the tree I stood up and removed the camera, then dropped it on its face in the dirt. I kept up my end of the conversation the whole time. Normally I’m the quiet one. I got close enough that it could have ripped out my throat, but I wasn’t afraid. It was a wolf, not a man.
I crouched down again and edged closer and put my hand gently on its flank and it didn’t move or object. I’d never been this close to a wolf before and was surprised at how massive his feet were. I knew their feet were big, had seen their tracks, but that was academic. I stared at them for a minute as I rubbed the wolf and whispered to it. “This might hurt,” I said, “but just for a second, and then you’ll be free.” I reached down and pried open the jaws of the trap and the wolf slipped its paw out and limped off to freedom. He was going the wrong way, farther away from the supposedly protected confines of the national park, but I didn’t say anything. I figured he had learned his lesson.
I’d left my backpack by the trail, hidden in some brush. I’d only stepped off the trail to pee. Then I heard some ravens vociferating and making a big flap not too far off. I followed them on a lark to see if they’d found a wolf-kill. I think they were upset because they felt snookered. They’d spotted this wolf thinking it meant food, and here he was malingering. They were bawling him out like he was a deadbeat dad. It was pure chance that I’d stumbled upon the wolf. Those ravens saved his life and nearly cost me mine.
I dug the trap out of the ground and stood up and peered after the wolf but it had disappeared. I shouldn’t have pulled up the trap. It’s illegal to mess with someone’s trap even if it’s set up illegally, as this one was. It was set, out of what would normally be the regular season, too close to a trail in a forest where trapping was not allowed; even better, a federal judge had recently ruled that Wyoming’s gray wolves were federally protected, thereby suspending hunting and trapping of wolves in the state. Traps are a menace. They catch wolves, coyotes, foxes, and other animals that shortsighted people don’t like, and also owls, bald eagles, cute little puppy dogs. They’re also just plain mean. One of the great ironies of this world is that the beings who really deserve to be caught in a steel leg-hold trap are the ones that set them, and it’s surprisingly rare for them to accidentally catch themselves. This illegal trap was still protected. I didn’t care. I was about to go look for more, figuring they’d be set all along this handy shelf, but then I heard a twig snap behind me and turned to see what seemed to be a rocket launcher pointed at me. Purely by reflex I hurled the trap at the man holding the apparent bazooka and hurled myself about five feet out of the way. He fired and it sounded like Thor had crossed over into the wrong mythological universe and busted Zeus over the head with his mighty hammer. The ravens squawked and disappeared and I got hit with clods of dirt. It was hard to tell if it was the flying wolf trap or the supersize gun that knocked the man stumbling three feet backward, but I took advantage, with my ears ringing, and ran up from the side and tackled him. The gun tumbled to the dirt. It was a miracle I could see him to fight him, considering he was camouflaged from head to toe. Camo boots. Camo pants. Camo shirt. A camo bandana around his neck and camo hat upon his head. He wore camo gloves and his face was hidden beneath camo paint. I righted myself and punched him in the face (he was easier to see on the ground, with its background of brown pine needles), kneed him in the groin, dropped an elbow on his gut, and while he reeled from that I hit him with a blast of bear spray, aside from my Bowie knife, a boot knife, a belt buckle knife, and a homemade Zippo gun, the only weapon I had on me. Also one of those cat-shaped personal defense keychains where the ears are really daggers; macho men tend to describe them as sissified until they get punctured by one.
I picked up his gun. It looked like something the Predator would have attached to his arm but it turned out to be a Tavor SAR-FD16, an Israeli rifle with a thirty-round magazine. It was a nice gun, felt good in my arms, as it ought to for $1,800. It made my old guns, hidden in my Jeep, seem puny and antique. I didn’t allow myself to feel jealous. The higher-tech the weaponry, the lower the humanity. It was a rich man’s gun, but still an honest gun because it was only good for what guns are really only good for, killing people. There’s nothing inherently immoral about hunting, but if you’re physically able you should use a real weapon, like a longbow or your bare hands. Shooting an animal from three hundred yards, with the aid of a powerful scope, is assassination, not hunting. A gun is an insuperable barrier between you and a sublime experience. Without a gun you’re more aware, you become part of your surroundings, because you’re in the middle of the food chain, instead of the top. You hear better, see better, smell better. And if you stumble upon a grizzly, you will have the primal experience of your life. Talk softly, stand still but firm.
I pointed his fancy gun at him.
“This thing even legal?”
“Yes, and God Bless America for it.”
“You need a special license to operate it?”
“Don’t talk blasphemy, boy.”
“When I worked at walmart they wouldn’t even let me run the cardboard smasher till I’d been properly trained on it. But I guess guns is different.” I will sometimes put people like this at ease by slipping into Okie grammar. I will warsh and y’all but I can never bring myself to say walmarts. Most people find it disarming; a few even find it endearing. I’m just a small-town boy from Oklahoma. I don’t know nothin’.
He wanted to talk more, plead his case, but I was only curious about the gun, and he got the message when I poked him in the neck with it. When we got to my pack I ordered him to lie facedown in the dirt. I fished out my duct tape and used it to cuff his hands together behind his back.
I dug out my measly .45 and strapped the holster on my belt, then shouldered my pack and told him to stand up and walk in front of me.
“Think I got this thing figured out now. Finally found the safety anyway. Don’t do nothing stupid now. I know it’s unfair of me to ask that of you, but try. Where’s your truck?”
“You’ll get yours, hippie.”
I nudged him. Just because “nudge” is a trendy word these days doesn’t mean it’s not effective. “Truck. Start walking.”
A line came to me as we hiked back to his vehicle: “men know not whither sorcerers of hell in their wanderings roam.” That is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf and it is the best line from the Tolkien translation. My father was aware such a translation existed, but he never got to read it because he died before it was published. He wouldn’t have liked it. I say that because I don’t really like it and our tastes are similar, but I do like that one line.
Most people in these semi-enlightened times like wolves. Most Americans support wolf reintroduction. But it’s hard to fight the tyranny of the minority. There’s always a small but militant cohort who think they know best. They stock our lakes with non-native fish because they think they’ll make for better angling, and the invaders outcompete the natives, or eat them, and the state has to pay tens of thousands of dollars to remove them, millions for Yellowstone Lake. They kill predators because they think the predators will eat all our livestock and children. Good luck convincing these shadetree biologists that their actions are misguided. Their hearts are in the right places, not so their heads. These are true believers. In case you weren’t paying attention or didn’t live through it, here’s what the twentieth century should have taught us: beware of true believers, no matter their stripe. Anyone who is absolutely sure of anything—God, foreign policy, whatever—is as delusional as General Buck Turgidson. Sociopaths are nothing. The most dangerous thing in the world is a made-up mind, at least I’m pretty sure.
Sometimes when I’m hiking I wonder what I would do if I had to kill someone on the trail. (This will sound peculiar, but I keep a pair of latex gloves in my kit just in case.) I would most likely use a big knife, wipe it clean and wrap it up for the moment. Duct tape the wound to limit blood as I move the body. Get his keys. Carry the body far off the trail. Bury it if possible or cover it with debris or dump it under a ledge. Dig up a sack full of dirt and circle back to the trail approaching the kill site from the opposite direction and cover the blood with dirt. Stomp it down. Return to the trailhead. Find his car, put gloves on and a stocking hat and drive it at least three miles away. Discreetly hike to the trailhead—if the coast is clear drive off in a different direction from the way I came in. Drive as far out of the way as possible. Get rid of the knife, maybe in a McDonald’s Dumpster. Drive far away and get rid of the boots. Find a nice wilderness area about a hundred miles away and go backpacking for three or four days. Backdate the backcountry permit. Strange thoughts to have? I was never a Boy Scout, but I live by their motto.
I could have murdered the jackwagon. This was not the most highly traveled trail in the area. Things probably would have been a lot easier for me if I had killed him. There are people who would say I had a right to kill him, not just in the moment when he had that absurd gun on me, but later when my life was not in immediate danger. He’d have killed me, no question, no compunction, would have snuck up behind me and put a hole in my head about the size of my head. He would have succeeded if he’d been a decent hunter, knew how to walk in the woods, not that I am one to judge. A better student of birds and forests would have known he was coming, but I was only halfway through What the Robin Knows. I guess I should be grateful for those stupid cameras making people lazy. He’d have felt justified and his ilk would have said it was justified. But I’m no killer. Maybe I’m encumbered by morality, maybe I am a dowdy old soul, but I have fairly strict views on the taking of life, particularly human life, which might seem bizarre on the surface since I hate most humans. Humanity, not to mention every other species besides bedbugs, would be a lot better off without him. There are a lot of people that we’d all be better off without, fascists, racists, rapists, jackwagons. If about nine percent of the human population died all of a sudden, the remaining ninety-one percent would automatically become smarter, safer, better. But the only people who would be willing to take them out are part of that population. The rest of us are too good to do it. And they’re not going to do it for us. No one has the guts to do it, certainly not me. No, it still wouldn’t work. The trouble with jackwagons is they have cousins and brothers, angry relatives who probably don’t like them much but would still feel obliged to avenge them. This was the lesson of Homer’s Odyssey. You can wipe out the suitors, but then their relatives are going to come after you, so unless you’re sure a god is going to come down from Olympus and broker peace, best to take a diplomatic approach.
All of these thoughts became moot when we got to the trailhead, where his buddy was waiting for him. His buddy had an even bigger gun.