I went to grad school in Los Angeles. Before moving to LA proper (read: the hood), I lived in The Valley for a while in a great neighborhood in a 1BR apartment that was WAY too expensive, but less expensive than it would’ve been had it existed in the city. I’d take walks every other day. I love walking alone because there’s no need to curb my daydreaming, and desert landscapes make it all the easier to let your mind rove. There were hills everywhere, and each of my moneyed neighbors took great care in beautifying their property. Spiky Aloe Vera and spiny cacti in varied sizes and colors were eye candy of a sort I’d never before considered, but they looked lovely and like they belonged (because, of course, they did).
I drifted through neighborhoods and ambled down wooded trails. Along the footpaths were signs warning that wild animals made this place their home, so visitors should keep a weather eye. Immediately after reading those words, I’d always brace for the sudden attack part of my brain knew wouldn’t come, but another, smaller part of my brain feared nonetheless. But larger than the part of me that feared a sighting of something dangerous was the part of me that was excited by the thought. I love animals, of all kinds, and had always had a Snow White-like affinity with the domestic breeds. I wished with child-like fervor for that affinity to extend to the wilder breeds as well. I wanted to meet a feral fox or a bear cub, lock eyes with it, extend my hand, and make a new friend, proving once and for all that you don’t have to be drawn and animated for strange and wonderful things to happen to you. But each time, I’d make it to the end of the trail without spotting a single furry creature, and would unclench the muscles I hadn’t even realized I’d been tensing. Another walk without incident.
One day, I decided to walk someplace new. It looked like a construction site. It was an area piled high with dirt and clay — heaps of it. It lay between a golf resort and a gated community. I had no idea what they were building there, but I saw a gnarly tree at the top of one hill that I wanted a closer look at. Full disclosure: I’m the kind of person who sees a “No Trespassing” sign and wants to know what’s on the other side of it… and if given the chance, I’ll take it upon myself to find out. Where I grew up in Maryland, there were tons of hills, especially around the Ellicott City area (which is this small town brimming with weird shops and local history. It’s the Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade of Maryland — or at least that’s how it seemed to me as a kid). Driving up to Ellicott City, there were houses tucked away from either side of the road up steep slopes. The driveways went up and back into the trees with no indication of where they led. Every time we rode past, I’d say out loud, “I wish I knew what all was up there” (hoping, in vain might I add, that one of my parents would take the hint already and drive me up there. Those “Private Property” signs were really just meant to keep out the riffraff, after all… right?).
So, with headphones blasting the appropriate soundtrack, I made my way onto the site. If they were building, they were still in the beginning stages, meaning lots of digging had taken place but there were no materials or half-built structures around. There were pathways made by feet and machinery, which I gladly took. When I made it to the top of the knoll with the tree, I saw how much of the site was actually obscured from the road. There were mounds of dirt, and a giant concrete tunnel that I assumed led to the sewers or somewhere industrial and not at all meant for people. There were also a couple of guys nearby practicing tricks on their bikes. I descended the hill and walked past them, deeper in. I followed the path and came up to the concrete tunnel. There was a gate over it. I skirted its edge and wandered onto the as-yet undeveloped green area ahead. There was overgrown flora everywhere. It occurred to me, as I strode up a dirt incline lined on one side by a tangle of leaves and brambles that looked like giant bunches of spilled yarn, that anything could be waiting in there to leap out and take a bite of me. No sooner had I brushed the thought away than I looked to my right…and met a coyote’s eyes.
We weren’t face to face; it was a small ways down the hill to my right, about 5 paces. I froze and stared. It stared back. I know it’s not possible yet to know what an animal is thinking or to interpret their expressions with any real accuracy, but the thought, (S)He looks sad, still popped into my head while I held its gaze. We looked at each other for about 4 seconds that stretched into infinity. Then, the coyote turned away and kept walking toward its destination, wherever that was. Not wanting to press my luck, I turned around and went home.
When I came in, I sat on my bed and replayed the whole thing over again about 10 times. I met a coyote. It didn’t kill me. I’m alive! But wow, it really did look sad, huh? These thoughts whizzed around my brain on repeat until the high from the whole thing finally wore off. When I think about it now, I still can’t believe it happened and am grateful for the memory. What sticks in my mind most though is the coyote’s expression… like it was waiting for me to attack and was already resigned to that eventuality. But it wasn’t exactly surprised when I didn’t attack, either. Hmm.
If coyote’s could shrug, I get the feeling this one would have.
Do you have a favorite memory of being outdoors?