When I was a kid I wanted to be a wolf. I think it started when I read Jack London: White Fang and Call of the Wild set loose all kinds of fantasies and imaginings in my young mind that developed into a full-blown desire to swap my human skin for a wolfish replacement. Every night I would go to bed, curling up on my side, knees in my chest and chin tucked down in just the way I had read that wolves did, praying that if I slept like a wolf, I would be one when I woke.
After memorizing Jack London’s novels, I hunted for more. I raided my parents’ bookshelves and smuggled a copy of Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men to my bedroom when I was eight years old. I was drawn to the book because of a powerful, close-up photograph of a wolf on its cover. The photograph might have been what drew me in, but between the covers I found unfolding an incredible world of deeper meaning than I had expected. I started the book as a simple ten-year-old child with a common wish to look at pictures of wolves, but my consciousness was utterly changed by the time I reached its conclusion. My mind was filled with images of wolves chasing caribou across the tundra, and all I wanted to do was run along next to them. This was the first adult book I had read, the first book that had separate headings for each chapter, just like my parents’ books that I had admired for so long. It was the first book that spoke to me like an adult.
We had a Springer Spaniel, and as my understanding of the canine mind increased, I began to spend more and more time with him. I wished that he was a wolf, so I pretended he was; I treated him the way I had read wolves treated each other, greeting him by sniffing noses, acting gently with him and avoiding eye contact as a sign of aggression. He never became a wolf, but he did clearly appreciate that I was learning his language: we became close friends, and after a very short time he began to shadow me everywhere, sitting beside me wherever I was, on the couch or at the table, and sleeping beside my bed at night. I tried to run with Boz like wolves harrying their prey, but he wasn’t interested in my games, and any time he was free from a leash, he went off on his own adventures. I slowly grew to accept that I would have to play at being a wolf on my own.
And so it came to pass that one morning, at 5:16, in April of my ninth year, while the rest of my family slept, I slipped out of bed, stealthily got dressed, and tiptoed down the stairs. I crept into my parents’ bedroom and gazed at both of them, deep in sleep, and felt already completely separate, even before I left the house that first time on my own, even before everything had changed in a way that it would be impossible to reverse. I felt both an irresistible urge to get out of the house and a reluctant wish that I could remain there, swaddled in my comfortable childhood. But there really was no choice, and I soon tiptoed to the front door, laced up my Nikes, and slipped out.
What did I do on this adventure in the grey light of breaking dawn? I went for a run. I had been dreaming for months about the way wolves hunted by running marathons together, harrying their prey, finding and targeting the weakest members of the herd and simply running behind it until its weakness prevailed and they could finish the job. I had tried to include others in my imitations of this experience, but until then, nothing had worked. That morning, something drew me out of my bed and out of the door; I needed to run.
A child of ten should be afraid of the forest. But I was thinking of nothing. I was running.
I was lucky that the Appalachian Trail passed through Hanover, where I spent my childhood, near enough to my house that I could get there easily. When I was a boy, a walk to the AT was a special adventure, a long journey but one that I always enjoyed. I wasn’t sure I would remember how to get there; I wasn’t sure that I would be able to get there even. But I didn’t think. Some force simply propelled me forward through the half light, through the silent morning, past the tame houses, all the people of the fenced and orderly town still sleeping, only my eyes unclosed to see the drowsing Ivy League town as I drifted along the streets. The cold air felt good as it entered my still sleep-warm lungs, my mind quickly adjusting to the rhythmic sound of my own breathing as I counted paces to inhale, paces to exhale, unseen and unfelt like an early morning mist. I imagined myself passing like a wolf, slinking through the streets of a town secure in its deluded belief that no such creature could ever intrude from the wilderness that it kept at bay. I floated through the town and in what seemed like a few minutes, there I was at the entrance to the trail, cave-like and obscure where it disappeared into the trees that didn’t yet admit the first rays of the sun.
A child of ten should be afraid of the forest. A child of ten should be thinking about werewolves and man-eating beasts and the nightmarish unknown. But I was thinking of nothing, humble and attentive and rapt like a neophyte taking his first steps into his novitiate. I was running. Before any thought could form in my mind I was already in the forest, my eyes trained on the ground before me, balancing and hopping from level spot to level spot, instinctively hopscotching over roots and holes as if I had been running on trails for years. The silence of the forest around me was neither oppressive nor frightening nor mysterious; it was soothing, somehow heavy and comforting like a thick, soft blanket. I ran on for several minutes, hearing nothing but my muted, rhythmic breathing and the occasional slap of my shoes against the earth. I never wanted to stop. I wanted to keep going and going forever, deeper and deeper into the forest, but I knew that back in my old life, the shed skin of my home and my family, people were sleeping who would worry if they woke up and discovered my bed empty and cold. So with an immense effort of will, I forced myself to stop, to surrender the privilege of seeing what was over the next hill, around the next bend, and I started back the way I came. Never once did I feel tired; never once did I feel even the slightest discomfort. The route back to my house rolled past as if I was watching a movie, in fast forward, with the volume muted. I moved through the town, but I was not of the town.
I arrived at the front door, opened it as silently as I could, holding the knob to stop the latch from clicking loudly as I closed it behind me. Boz greeted me at the door, but his behavior was somehow different, strange. Usually Boz created a huge commotion any time any of us got home; he would wine and pant, jump up and down, his nails loudly playing a welcome staccato on the wooden floor. But this morning, it was as if he understood me now more perfectly, as if I had, in the miles I had just run, strayed across a boundary between human and animal, become something closer to himself. He approached me calmly, quietly, sniffed at this new smell of perspiration and endurance, and adopted my own meditative and peaceful demeanor. He remained quiet, subdued, and he and I sat together quietly on the living room floor while I waited for the sweat to dry.
I looked into my parents’ room again as I went upstairs. I was surprised to see them still sleeping; it seemed to me that I had been gone for days, for a lifetime. Yet there they were, still in their bed where I had left them, asleep and unaware that this morning was any different from every other morning. They were sleeping; I was awake like I had never been awake before.
I learned how to incorporate wolves into my own being rather than to seek them outside myself.
So I learned how to incorporate wolves into my own being rather than to seek them outside myself. But still I looked at the New Hampshire forest around me as somehow neutered, empty. The forest was lovely, dark and deep, with a varied and complex ecosystem, but with no wolves running through it, I felt that it had been drained of its power and its meaning I kept hunting for stories about wolves, and I also began to read about places that took on a mythical significance to me: Montana. Wyoming. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Alaska. I learned how to use the Dewey Decimal system in our local library to sniff out any information, no matter how obscure, no matter how sophisticated the source. By the age of nine, I was reading National Geographic, Nature, Smithsonian, anything if it spoke about wolves. I learned to travel to wolves with my mind, if it was still impossible to do so with my body. I would wait patiently in New Hampshire, but I dreamed about living where I knew that wolves ran through the hills on the horizon. Nothing else would do.
Later that year, I entered the Muster Day Race, a popular two-mile run with hundreds of participants. I knew nothing of racing, but I knew that I liked to run, and I imagined that surrounded by so many other people, I could experience something like being a wolf flanking a herd of caribou across the tundra. My parents were nervous as they brought me to the Etna green, reminding me that two miles was a long way, that it would be a great victory just to finish the whole distance, never mind about running the whole way. That at my age, I should just have fun.
So I stood calmly among bodies twice my height in the chill late May morning, waiting for the starter’s commands. I had no plan. I just wanted to run again.
The starter fired the gun and I set out with the other runners, swept along by the wave of bodies around me, nervous only that I might get trampled. But about 200 meters into the run, I burst into a loud, uncontrollable laugh, as if I was seized with a spontaneous joy too great for me to contain. Adults around me looked over their shoulders and must have wondered what was wrong with the tiny kid behind them. But I was more than fine. Just like that first morning when I stumbled half-awake out of my house, called by some mysterious voice to start running, I felt like a novice having his first mystical experience. I never stopped running and when I reached the finish line, I was in third place. A few months before, as a lonely and lost boy, I picked up a book about wolves. That first book started a succession of ideas that led me to discover my hidden talent. I was confused after the race to be surrounded by so many full-grown strangers; my run had created a sensation. The photographer for the Valley News grabbed me and pulled me aside to get my picture and the next day, there I was in the newspaper, suddenly a local celebrity. I stuck with running from that day forward, entering every race I could find, feeling that same sense of calm connection every time I reached my natural pace.
I ran through days and months and years, and by the time I had finished high school, I was a champion runner, invited to join several of the nation’s top university running programs. I won plenty of races, but the true victory was always the same: the silent embrace of empty roads, untrodden paths, was the greatest reward I knew. The steady pace and cadence of running offered stability during times of difficulty and upheaval, and there were plenty of such times as the family uprooted and moved from Hanover, a university town in the prosperous south of the state, to Whitefield in northern New Hampshire, a depressed area with a low graduation rate and the highest suicide rate in the entire region. I went from being one of the pack in Hanover to being a pariah in Whitefield, bullied and harassed for my “flatlander” accent, my preference for quiet contemplation over violence and bravado, in short, for the ways I was different, foreign, an intruder in their territory.
During these years, there were occasional rumors about another new presence in those northern mountains. It went by a variety of names: coy-dog; coy-wolf; New England coyote; Eastern coyote. Nobody really knew if it was real or just a story. The wilderness of northern New Hampshire was certainly big enough to hold a top canine predator, and the population of moose and deer, unchecked, was growing large enough to need some control. The situation was right. Wolves had once made the White Mountains their home, but they had been exterminated by people who feared them — who feared any challenge to their secure definitions and ideas — decades before. But nature has a way of filling in blank spaces in the ecosystem, and there were increasing hints that a new breed, neither wolf nor coyote but coyotes that had moved eastward and bred with wolves along the way, was now running through the hills.
The people I knew in the Northern Kingdom spoke only with hostility about this new intruder in their land. They boasted about how many they would kill if they were ever confirmed to be nearby. They spoke about an animal that was known to hunt mostly small prey – rabbits, mice, sometimes young or unhealthy deer – as a bloodthirsty killer that would destroy livestock and even sneak into houses and kill children. They spoke of this animal, occupying an important niche in the local ecosystem, as an invader, a nuisance. Not welcome.
I knew well enough what it meant to be unwelcome in northern New Hampshire. My own life had become an obstacle course of abuse and threats. Bullies who seemed intent on chasing me back where I came from, or at least making me cower so they wouldn’t notice my presence, pestered me in school. I was lucky to have running as an escape, and I was lucky to have other iconoclasts to support and guide me. I poured all of my frustration and hostility into my daily running, and I surrounded myself with a band of fellow fugitives from the culture of the area.
One of my greatest mentors was Joe, who had moved to the area from New Jersey with his two children after a life-shattering divorce. He was broken enough by his disappointments and losses that all he wanted was isolation and stability. Like me, he poured all of his sadness into his running, and he became not only my coach, but also my brother-in-arms in the struggle against sadness and alienation. I don’t know what alchemy happens between people when they run together, but the bond you form when you cover miles together is unlike any other I’ve known. We didn’t speak a lot when we ran because we didn’t have to. Joe and I understood each other perfectly.
Joe died not long after I left to run at Georgetown University. I never said goodbye because I was sure that he would live for years and years, that he would meet my future wife, my future children, that our friendship would outlast our legs, that eventually we would sit quietly together in the same way that we ran quietly together in my younger days. I can’t say I had dreams about all of this at the time, because I never expected that any of it wouldn’t happen. But in the first year I was gone, Joe’s heart exploded while he was out for a run. It was an appropriate ending for him, but too soon, and I was left with nothing but fading memories of our experiences together. Above all, there is one run that remains bright in my memory, a fitting epitaph for a great man.
Joe and I headed out the door of his house and began a lazy jog down Route 3, past the end of Main Street and onto Bridge Street, leading out of Lancaster where the road gently and surely sloped downward toward the Connecticut River and Vermont on the other side. The first mile of long runs was always slow, almost reluctant, as our bodies loosened and adjusted to the activity of running after hours of sitting sedentary. Runners are like big dogs: send us out the door and we can go forever; keep us inside and we’re equally happy to lie sleeping on the couch all day long. The change from one activity to another is always slow, shuffling and gradual.
In the 1990s, a runner in northern New Hampshire was an iconoclast, something not quite civilized.
After a few minutes, our route took us over the old trestle bridge that crossed the river. The traverse was always a mixture of opposite feelings: the view was beautiful, the river slow and flat below the bridge, the trees coming up and draping their branches over the bank and into the water – the kind of sight one might want to linger over for an hour. But on the other hand, there was no shoulder on the bridge, and while cars were infrequent, they did still pass by sometimes, always too fast, and most of the drivers were unwilling to drift even six inches over the inviolable boundary of the double yellow line, even if it meant missing an innocent runner on the side of the road by inches. I had been buzzed more than once by cars speeding past, drivers flexing their egos, taking pleasure in scaring the strange person running in a place where real men moved only in cars, ATVs, and snowmobiles.
In the 1990s, a runner in northern New Hampshire was an iconoclast, something not quite civilized, and I could feel hostility in the tailwind of every car that passed me.
We crossed the bridge, eased down the artificial slope leading off of it, and drifted to the right to run along Vermont Route 102, parallel to the river, which stayed in view all along this road, two or three hundred meters away but always there. We had to pick up the pace for a few minutes as we ran past the boggy country to our left. This was a place where I had sometimes come upon moose, impassively eating the aquatic plants in water that covered half of their legs that were as long as I was tall. But the still water the moose loved was also a breeding ground for deer flies. Running too slowly gave the flies time to detect us, and once detected, we would be harried by swarms of them that would form a halo around our heads and dive in for a bite from any exposed flesh that wasn’t brushed every few seconds. Experience had taught us that the best way to fight the flies was to escape before they found us, to admit defeat by avoiding the battle altogether. A quick surge in deference to their superior numbers and tactics was the only effective solution.
We ran along Route 102 for about a mile, the road straight and flat, the thick pine forest coming all the way up to the shoulder on our left and the Connecticut meandering wildly back and forth on our right, sometimes very near the road and sometimes almost a full mile away. The run felt easy and gentle and Joe and I fell into a companionable silence, the rhythm of our steps falling into accordance and indicating a sameness of mind that no words could ever convey. We came out of the forest, ran past two big hayfields, and turned left onto Fellows Road, off of the pavement and onto a wide, packed, dirt surface, away from even occasional traffic and into the true quiet and solitude that the best runs always offer: no cars to worry about, no scoffing onlookers, only me, and Joe beside me like a shadow on my right shoulder and the road ahead pulling us forward.
It’s hard to explain the difference between running on pavement and running on dirt. Pavement is unkind to the body, whereas dirt is softer, more yielding, but it’s something beyond that. Running on pavement feels unnatural, while running on dirt feels like home, like you are back where you belong. Something deep in your soul relaxes the moment your feet touch the earth, like the way your whole self opens when you hear a song that you once loved, years ago. Like you are remembering something.
Our run took on a kind of poetic meter — an easy, natural and comfortable pattern, just two silent men and the challenge of the rolling hills and the unspeaking witness of the forest to absorb even the slightest sounds, the muffled pat of our feet on the dirt, the unpained and steady rhythm of our breathing. As we continued deeper into the forest, the air cool even in the early afternoon and redolent of pine, our silence became more humble, like that of pilgrims arriving at a holy site. We passed beautiful minutes this way, silent dirt underfoot, the road slowly switching back and forth as we climbed up a gentle but unceasing hill, nothing in my mind, no small talk to sully the perfection of the moments as they passed. I returned to something like consciousness for a moment, only to note the need to turn right onto Lost Nation Road, my energy still strong now almost an hour into the run, knowing but not feeling that this turn signaled the far side of the circular route and that from now each step I took was slowly taking me back toward my starting point, knowing it instinctively and without needing any artificial signs of control, no maps, no drawn images or itineraries, just a feeling deep in my soul that my direction had changed and I was moving back now toward my beginnings.
Here the forest was at its thickest, and I felt furthest removed from the many artifices that so demanded my attention when I wasn’t running, when I was dressed in the many uniforms required of life in the human world, uniforms of clothing and attitude and conduct, uniforms that communicated an acceptance of rules and norms and goals that deep inside myself I neither felt nor agreed with nor cared about, but that I was required to pretend to accept in order to be a part of the several overlapping communities that sought to hold me and define me. Only now, silent and alone save for my mute and reverent companion, did I feel my soul beginning to unfold and relax, here in the holy and unbreakable silence of the deep forest where nothing and nobody could tell me what to do or who to be.
We were forced at one point to slow our pace to a humble walk, not because the work was too hard nor because we were tired nor because of danger, but simply because the terrain itself demanded it, the road descending a hill so shockingly steep that it would be impossible to run down. Joe, in his late forties and inhabiting a body that had already covered thousands of miles, didn’t have the knees for running down hills that seemed only a few degrees short of a cliff, so we took a moment to walk, savoring the rest but still, even in this moment of rest, not sharing a word, relying on the perfect understanding that our shared activity had long-ago established. I took a moment to lift my eyes from the road and looked up to the trees, their thick, green branches enshrouding the scene and allowing a few rays of light to shine through. The effect was like a Vermeer painting with the little sunlight that snuck through highlighting a few spots and the rest half-obscured by shadow. Runners don’t really think about different stages of a route: a run is just a run and all of its component parts are equally important in the totality of the activity, the early energy of the beginning and the balance of the middle and the difficult fatigue of the ending all participating equally in the experience. But this brief, lazy descent was a moment I savored, my body and mind flushed with oxygen and endorphins, everything working perfectly, body and soul alert and collaborating so I could now absorb the surreal moment of walking down this impossibly steep and improbable hill. It seemed like a secret that existed only for us.
It wasn’t long before I had to return to consciousness again and make a decision, another right turn onto a bigger road, our muffled footsteps becoming suddenly, jarringly loud again when we struck the pavement. After the mute, natural silence under the tress of Lost Nation Road, the featureless floodplain surrounding Granby Road felt harsh and bright. We descended slowly back toward the flood plain of the Connecticut and as we went, the road grew gradually wider, the trees slowly releasing their embrace of the road. A shoulder appeared again on the side of the road, signs of civilization returning one by one as our pace, steady and forward, brought us down and down and down out of the hills. Fields gradually came into view, driveways, houses, parked cars, signs and ciphers that hinted at people and property and boundaries and laws even if we still saw no people.
My feelings were mixed when we reached the end of Granby Road, now a wide, flat expanse with even a double yellow line again demarcating the boundary that drivers dare not cross, a hint that here human passersby flowed regularly, and turned right again to rejoin Route 102 a few miles further along the river. Part of me wished I could turn around and flee back into the forest and the darkness and the absence of civilization, while the other part felt tired and happy to know that this more heavily traveled road, named with a number, a more major vein for the flow of traffic, would carry me back to Lancaster and back to a place where I would be able to sit down, have a drink, and rest. The trees were fewer here and more distant, but the road was flat and easy; the pavement was hard and jarred me with every footfall, but I could run without a thought about placing my feet properly on the uniform, manmade surface. I kept my eyes forward and fixed on the white line at the edge of the road; watching the ground about ten meters ahead of me, I became hypnotized by the line and I traveled along it steady and straight and inevitable like the wind.
There on the driveway was a four-legged animal, something big, something furry, something black and tan.
Minutes passed, but I hardly felt them. My mind was lost to the euphoria of endorphins and I nodded along with each step, aware of perhaps my breathing but more likely aware of nothing and everything at the same time. Fully absorbed in being unabsorbed.
I could smell the Connecticut River again even if I couldn’t see it, the air here heavier on my skin and carrying its moisture. The cool of Lost Nation Road was replaced by the heat and brightness of the sun, trees still plentiful here but cut back from the road and the telephone wire that ran alongside it and in some places hundreds of meters away where they seemed grudgingly to allow space for a farm or a hayfield. The running here was unbeautiful but it was practical and direct.
As we moved steadily along the river toward Lancaster, driveways appeared occasionally off to our right, leading away from the road to houses hidden by the forest that was never too far away, most of the driveways blocked with heavy iron bars to keep the people who chose to live this far out safe from unwanted visitors. The road was paved and the trees had given way for the road, but people were still the exception this far from town, and the forest remained dominant.
I could feel the dull ache of fatigue in my legs now and the run was taking enough of a toll that my concentration was now almost entirely on simply continuing, enduring, getting to the end and the promise of stillness and rest that it offered.
Then as we ran past a driveway across the road, appearing in front of me and curving up out of sight into a grove of trees, there was something to look at again, and my eyes remained fastened to it as a welcome distraction from the pain and monotony of my fourteenth mile, my aching feet protesting against the manmade surface, designed to keep only machines happy. Secluded in my pain, I saw another solitary figure standing in the middle of the driveway, strong, noble, like a sentry guarding its territory. I didn’t know what I was looking at because I didn’t think enough to ask the question, to question anything at all; I only consumed the vision the same way I was taking in oxygen with each breath, moving through a sensory experience without thinking about any of it at all. There on the driveway was a four-legged animal, something big, something furry, something black and tan. Its legs were long and it looked for a brief, conscious moment like maybe it was a dog, an unusually big German Shepherd. But no, how could it be a German Shepherd when its canines, exposed as it stood there panting, were so unusually big, like they didn’t quite fit its mouth? Maybe it was a puppy, but no it couldn’t be a puppy because no dog still growing could already be so big. All of this in the space of two unslowed, straight paces forward. Now I saw that this animal was moving steadily down the driveway toward the road; I was seeing it but not seeing it, absorbing the vision but not processing it, myself moving also steadily forward toward rest and recovery.
I was dimly aware of a car coming toward us in the other direction, but how slowly everything was unfolding, dreamlike and spectral while I maintained still that steady rhythm of left foot, right foot, inhale, exhale, the rhythm more important than anything. Coming toward us was a metallic blue late-model sedan. Across the road was some kind of dog thing, moving now in a steady, unhurried trot down the hill, its eyes up and focused on something like maybe me? Was it looking at me? Did it see the car? Did the car see it? But more importantly, how much longer until we are Home and I am Finished?
The car came toward me. The animal came toward me. I kept moving on my own path. Our three trajectories were converging upon a common point. Just before we converged, the driver of the car must have considered the risks enough that he braked suddenly. Violently. The car seemed to stop instantly, silently, the severity of the change from motion to stasis forcing its hood suddenly downward. It seemed to crouch, to dig in its heels as if it were alive and frightened of something. Maybe if I had been thinking at all I would have considered the danger of this moment, a fast-moving car coming violently to rest a few meters away from me, but I wasn’t thinking at all, I was running, simply being. Maybe if I had been thinking at all I would have asked questions about what kind of dog would be so completely oblivious of cars, of human nature, of the tendency of people to believe that cars have the right of way over everything, but I just kept going. I never even looked in the window of the car, never saw it anywhere other than my peripheral vision.
And the animal? It was no dog. As she came closer, I could see that nothing about her was domesticated or tame. Her stride was too perfect, too efficient; there was an inexplicable, latent power in her every move. She just loped across the road, curving his route into a parabolic crossing, moving still forward but adjusting to keep a comfortable distance between her and the still, idling car beside her, looking at it with an almost annoyed curiosity, close to me and coming ever closer but I, who remained a pure force dedicated only to going forward, hardly paid her any attention at all. I wasn’t thinking about anything, looking at anything; in a way I wasn’t there at all, just a body with a soul floating somewhere above everything, detached from everything even while I observed every tiny detail. I never even slowed down; I didn’t say a word to Joe or to myself of to the unseen driver or the unseen, unknown animal. I just kept going.
I could feel the animal’s presence as she crossed in front of the car and maintained the curve of her crossing to fall in behind me, pacing herself by my own steps just like a perfectly trained heeling dog. She ran along next to me, half-stepping me just like I was half-stepping Joe on my other shoulder, running the same pace but a half step behind so she was just off my shoulder like a shadow. I can’t say this felt normal or abnormal because the truth is it didn’t feel at all, it just was, and in the same way it just was true that this wild animal was not just running behind me but trying to communicate with me in that way that all dog-like creatures communicate with the new ones they encounter, lifting the thin material of my running shorts and nudging my backside with her nose. It didn’t feel unexpected or surprising or frightening to sense the cold, leathery flesh of her nose against my buttock. I didn’t wonder if it was a good idea to reach back with my left hand, to touch under her chin gently. I felt keenly the softness of her fur under my fingers, the sharp edges of her lower mandibular bone where I pressed the tips of my fingers ever so slightly into her chin, cradled her muzzle in the palm of my hand, and, with a minimum of pressure, guided her nose away from my backside.
I didn’t wonder what I was watching as I looked back over my left shoulder and saw her drift off the road and down the bank. I had no questions or answers in my mind as I watched her continue into the field on the other side of the road. I wasn’t thinking anything at all, and Joe must have been the same, because no words passed between us, two runners with the shared desire to get ourselves off the road, off our feet. I never even wondered about what I saw. Not until later. Only at home did I begin to calculate the experience.
I would like to tell you that the parting with her was perfect. In my memory I have constructed and reconstructed the event, over and over, sometimes trying for accuracy, sometimes trying for perfection. Whatever the true events of that day were, they are gone now. I want the memory to go like this: as I continued on my path and she continued over the embankment and into the field, I uttered a prayer of benevolent connection between myself and the creature that had inspired me, led me onto the path that made me the person I was, my first and most powerful inspiration to run.
I want the protagonist of my memory to recognize the connection between him and the wilderness, the way that moment was the culmination of so many moments, so many sleepless wishes, so many awkward tears. I want to have known that I was living a holy moment that would remain one of the most singular and perfect moments of my entire life. I want to go back and know that I was meeting one of my personal gods that I had believed for so long to be beyond me, whom I believed I would never meet.
All of the heroes of this story are gone now, impossible to reach, having crossed over a boundary that I cannot cross.
I want all that to be true. But if I am trying to create something like an honest retelling of the event, I have to say that if anything crossed my mind at all as I looked over my shoulder and watched the canid presence move in a straight, businesslike line across the field toward the trees lining the Connecticut River, it might have been a prelingual, “huh.” I was not thinking about anything. I was simply going forward, leaning like Sisyphus into the endless uphill of late-run fatigue. I continued on toward my goal and the coy-wolf continued onward toward hers, neither of us letting our minds wander from the present moment into any illusory memories or questions or thoughts.
All of the heroes of this story are gone now, impossible to reach, having crossed over a boundary that I cannot cross. Joe, the only other witness, is dead. The wolf would have died years ago. I never saw the driver of the car, so in the context of this story, he was only ever a shadow, just a force whose role was to make that machine move. There is nobody left but me, and even I am many years, many deaths and rebirths, removed from the experience. The man who writes the story now understands the significance of the encounter, but the yearling that had the experience never stopped to think about it for even a moment.
We speak of dualities and boundaries so often: human and animal; tame and wild; here and there; alive and dead. Here’s what I think. Boundaries and dualities are illusions. They are comforting lies that we tell ourselves to make the universe seem like something we can understand, name, control. But the more we think about the boundaries we invent, the more permeable and ridiculous they become.
We create “wolf boundaries” to keep nature away from us, ignoring the fact that the descendants of these animals we fear are inside our own houses, sleeping on our couches, sharing our meals. We create boundaries between species: wolf, coyote, dog; then a species comes along that is a combination between all three and we don’t even know how to name it. We insist on a division between reality and imagination, ignoring the fact that with every passing second, experience becomes memory becomes imagination.
I myself am not above suffering from these self-delusions. I try to grasp those distant and fading memories. But as with all ethereal objects, the more I try to grasp, the more they seem to vaporize in my hands. I try to think about what, who, that animal was who crossed the road, who dallied for a moment on her journey from the forest to the river, who turned her wild eyes to me for a brief moment before she went on. I ask myself what she was, why she was, but the only answer that comes is that she is not now; she exists only in my mind. I ask myself what Joe might have thought as he ran along next to me; I wish often that I could speak to him about it, but the only certainty available to me now is that he is an unbeing, gone now for more years than I had been alive at the time of the event.
Perhaps it is fitting that things end this way. I think about that animal and I can only accept that she is an eternal paradox, straddling boundaries upon boundaries upon boundaries. She is both wolf and coyote, both real and imaginary, both defined and undefined, and she will forever exist in that border territory, her crossing making a mockery of my need to understand and label her, her aspect proud and impervious just as it was on that long-lost day when her natural drive to move from the forest to the river so completely overcame our human drive to keep nature in its place.
Illustrations by Gordy Wright
Gordy Wright is an illustrator/printmaker based in Hamilton house artist studios. He graduated from the Bristol UWE illustration course with a first class BA(Hons) degree. He is also a course tutor at the Bristol Folk House where he runs a digital illustration course.His work is often narrative based and strongly influenced by nature and environmental issues.
Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.