In a Warm Country

By Beacon Staff

I took a trip on the time machine Thanksgiving weekend, flying home for the holidays.

Riverside, Calif., isn’t much of a destination. But it is where my family lives, and it can be quite nice this time of year. In fact it was downright hot on this visit, with highs approaching 90.

Holiday visits are usually dominated by family and feasting, but I did manage a walk in the “hills” before I left. When I’m back home I often stay with my sister, who is now raising a good-sized brood in the home I grew up in. When I was a child, the open space of the hills leveled off into a good-sized flat that ran up against our backyard. Cottontails, quail and morning dove often moved down into the backyard and I occasionally spied them just under our back fence taking advantage of the green stuff that grew within range of our sprinkler system.

The field beyond the fence was the playground of my youth. Countless hours were spent reenacting scenes from whatever John Wayne movie we’d last watched. As the subdivision filled out and our neighbors added pools, dump trucks would deliver mounds of fresh soil to the field.

Once the soil settled we rode across the mounds on our bikes, creating tracks of whoop-de-dos that helped prepare us for the motorcycle racing that occupied our teen years.

Today the field behind the house is gone, our BMX track eventually claimed by the ever-expanding subdivision. The houses now crowd up against the hills and a locked gate blocks access to what’s left of the playground that filled incalculable portions of my youth. On my stroll down memory lane I walked up to that locked gate and looked up into the hills. An overweight dachshund, looking like a mangy bratwurst, bounded up yapping in that annoying tone of a dog too small to do any real work.

That got the attention of a coyote I hadn’t noticed. The coyote had been bedded down in the rocks not more the 50 feet from the gated territory of the barking sausage. With all the commotion the coyote stood up, noticed the dachshund and its culinary potential, then noticed me noticing him.

Urban coyotes are a very different animal from the ones I’m used to in the rural West. This coyote kept its eyes on me as it slowly moved off. Slowly is the operative word here, as he even paused long enough to poop. A coyote that casual about humans would soon be a dead coyote out in the country where most trucks are outfitted with at least one firearm and coyote are often shot on sight.

The coyotes I see when I’m out driving around on rural roads usually keep a close eye on me, and when my truck stops, they run.

The coyotes were in the hills in my youth, but were rare and cautious. And seeing as our parents were a bunch of bell-bottom wearing, fondue-party hosting, suburban hipsters, we were all pretty clueless about wildlife. So when a coyote strolled through the neighborhood one spring afternoon, raising heck with the kids playing wiffle ball in the yard, the neighbors knew just what to do: they called the police.

A handful of squad cars responded, as did a unit or two from the local fire station. The street was cordoned off and a couple of uniforms took a look in the dying citrus grove where the coyote was last seen running from The Mod Squad (hipster parents). Order in suburbia was restored.

The comparison with Kalispell makes me laugh. We had a wolf run through town a year or so ago, and I’m not sure anyone batted an eye. But then that’s kind of the thing, isn’t it? There are a lot of folks living in the northern Rockies who tell stories like mine, about a place where we once lived and then left, trading it for a place where nature and wild things are close at hand.

When we see a wolf running through the yard we don’t dial 911. We just put down the fondue fork and enjoy the view.

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