Howling in the Dark

I’ve been cooped up at home for the last several days.  Cooped up and not-so-slowly going insane because of it.  I hate being sick, but I wasn’t about to drag my fevered butt into work and take my friends and co-workers down with me.

Today, however, I just couldn’t take it anymore.  I couldn’t take the walls.  I couldn’t take the inactivity.  I couldn’t the sheer, mind-numbing boredom.  So what if I had less energy than a week-dead garden slug?  So what if I looked like that same slug?  I wasn’t gonna sit at home another damned minute!

I (intentionally) didn’t take skis or snowshoes when I went out.  I didn’t take ‘em because I know myself too well — I would’ve been far too tempted to keep going, to go just a bit farther to see what was around the next hill.  On foot — in knee-deep snow — that urge to keep going is a hell of a lot easier to resist.

On the deck of my condo it is sunny and 40.  Oh, there’s a wind blowing — the wind of a big storming coming in — but it hasn’t yet kicked in too badly.  Inside the park, where I went for my aimless little walk?  Take away 10 degrees, add more snow, and a much colder wind…

Keep in mind, this is all in the northern range of the park, the part at the lowest elevation.  It is warmest in this area, and has the least snow.  Had I gone out wandering back “home” at Canyon — where I’ve spent my summers — that knee-deep snow would be chest-deep…if not even deeper.

The wind was kicking into gear, inside the park.  The storm that’s coming was a hell of a lot more ominous and imposing a thousand feet higher in elevation, and tucked inside the mountains that ring Yellowstone.  Still, I needed to wander…

58CA0113-4B5F-41F7-A1B0-1A4C39D52B0BThe nice thing about the wind is that it clears the tops of the hills and ridges.  Oh, going up or down the sides is still a tough slog through snow, but once you get on top there actually are bare patches.  You can walk with ease on the tops.  You can also sit, out of the wind in the lee of a tree, and remember why you came here in the first place…

You can sit and absorb the sun and air…

You can sit and stare out over the white-draped hills and valleys…

You can sit and wonder at the majesty and peace of a winter wonderland that so few get to see…

You can sit and listen to the wolves howling…

You can lose yourself in those howls, you know.  It doesn’t matter if it is a single pack calling the members together to hunt, or two packs “arguing” back and forth over disputed territory, or even a single lonely wolf looking for a mate, you can feel the raw…life in that howling.  You can — if you’ve come to know the packs well, and have learned to really listen — even tell the difference between the young and old, between the males and females.

Hell, you can even learn to hear the sheer emotion in those howls.  The enthusiasm of an alpha readying for the hunt.  The fear of a small pack trying to intimidate a bigger pack into staying out of their territory.  The loneliness of a wandering solo male looking for love — and life — in a new pack.

Yeah, those howls tell a story…much better than I ever could.

Even better, by the way, is to sit under the stars…

To sit in the dark of night — the dark that for most humans carries the primal terror and threat of danger and the unknown — and listen to those howls.  That is as close to a religious experience as I get nowadays.  Try it some time: your hackles will rise, you’ll get the chills, you’ll be afraid…and you’ll hear the wolves well-and-truly in their element.

Night changes everything, by the way.  Sounds are different.  Smells are different.  The world is different.  I once explored a geyser basin that I know very, very well with no light but the stars.  No flashlight, no moon, no nothing…just the stars.  My God was that a…disturbing…experience.  I knew the geysers and pools around me as well I knew house in which I grew up.  I knew them, but those sounds — those smells, those feelings — they became dangerous and terrifying.  They were unknown, and nothing is more unnerving to a human than the unknown, than the feeling of having no knowledge or control of the situation.

I love night hikes for just that reason.  Just as I love simply sitting under the stars and staring up at them.  I love, when you boil it down, being out in the wilds, away from life and light and everything else we humans have wrought.  I love being out with nothing between me and my fears — no light to protect me, no company to insulate me, no familiarity to comfort me.  In no other way, at no other moment, can I be so in the moment.  At no other time, in no other way, can I so forget the past and the future, and just…live.

We humans like to think of ourselves as the apex-predators of this world.  And we are…with our tools.  Take away those tools…take away our guns, and our spotlights, and our radios, and our place in the food chain is not nearly so certain.

It is the true predators that own the night.

It is the wolf and the bear and the lion that own the night.  And that terrifies us.

Err…well…it terrifies most of us.

Me?  For me, it reminds me just how much we let fear dominate our lives.  It reminds me just how much we run and hide from that which we cannot understand or control.  It reminds me that, no matter how “enlightened” or “intelligent” or “capable” we become, the night will always belong to those who understand and embrace the unknown.

As a competitive, impatient human, listening to the howls of the wolves in the dark of night reminds me that there is still mystery and magic in the world…

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