Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Making Tracks
by Stephen J. Lyons

She is ready. I am not.

We donít talk about it. That has become our way, now, this dancing around the elephant in the living room. What would we say anyway about this next phase of our lives, both together as father and daughter, and separately as two individuals?

If my daughter asked, I would tell her these eighteen years have gone by too quickly. I would tell her how in the darkest part of the night I wake up and catch sensory memories of light and odor from her childhood, and how the remembering is bittersweet because it is fleeting and unpredictable.

I would tell her I donít know what is supposed to come next.

Itís an hour and half drive to the Wolf Education and Research Center in central Idaho. I ask questions, simple, harmless ones about friends and school. Rose answers in one-word fragments then falls asleep twenty minutes into the trip.

As we climb in elevation the rain turns to snow. We pass beneath hand-made wooden train trestles and through towns with populations one-fourth the size of Congress.

Nothing changes up here, except us.

At the wolf center, our guide Keith asks us to "think like a wolf." I look up at the tamaracks and rain-swollen yellow pines, the naked limbs of red willow bushes, my silent daughter, and I cannot imagine, for the life of me, what a wolf might think at a time like this. I also cannot imagine my daughter leaving home.

Keith points out marks in the fresh powder where wild turkeys have rested the tips of their wings. We measure the leap of a deer. Red squirrels scold us from a nearby branch. Elk tracks crisscross ours and vanish into the forest. Ravens, who sound like monkeys with their one hundred different vocalizations, tear noisily at the road kill brought for the wolves, who watch our every move.

The Sawtooth wolf pack, raised in captivity, roam a twenty-acre pen. A ten-foot, chain-link fence separates the wolves from us. The alpha male Kamots, whose name means "to go free" in the Nez Perce language, sees us and moves toward our little group. Chemuk "black," and Wahotts "howls a lot" follow in a tight line. Through the most subtle of body language movements, Kamots signals the rest of the pack how to relate to us: show interest, but be wary. After a few steps, they lay down in the deep snow forty yards away, like braided rugs, and stare into our eyes.

Subtitles are what I am looking for in Rose today. A raised eyebrow, a smile, some reassurance from her that we are still connected.

Keith praises Rose for "walking like a wolf," stepping into my footprints in the snow, something wolves do when they hunt to conserve energy in the winter. Walking in my footsteps: an analogy hard to ignore on this January day.

"If you were alone in the woods and heard a wolf howling, how would you react?" Keith asks, looking at me.

This past summer Rose and I camped in a deserted campground high up in the Idaho mountains. A familiar routine took shape. Pasta in a pan. Tea and coffee. Raisins and nuts. With ample room and silence to face each other our old lives took form, too. We still didnít talk much but we let down our guards.

I was trying to relive another moment we had at another campground years before. Near a river no doubt. Maybe in Montana or Oregon. Coyotes singing at night. Elk snorting nearby. Sounds of falling stars and pine needles tapping on the tent roof. Itís as if we need as much space and sky around us to feel safe.

"As a vulnerable mammal I would be concerned for my safety," I say to Keith in answer to his question. I look back at the pile of wolves. Kamotsí ears are turned toward our voices. Nez Perce believe that wolves can be a spirit guide, a "weyekin." I could use a little guidance, too.

"Will you be warm enough on the way back?" I ask Rose, who seems awake now, her tennis shoes soaked, cheeks bright red, and her eyes full of thoughts.

"Iíll be fine. Really." I believe her.

The snow is falling harder now in fat, white clusters, making the wolves invisible. I look behind us to where we have come from. Our footprints have vanished.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart, a single father's memoir. His articles, reviews, essays, and poems have appeared in many national magazines and journals including Newsweek, Salon, Chicago Reader, Sierra, High Country News, Witness, Commonweal, The Sun, Hope Magazine, Manoa, Whole Earth, and New Age. His writing appears in the anthologies Idaho's Poetry : A Centennial Anthology (University of Idaho Press), Passionate Hearts (New World Library), Living in the Runaway West (Fulcrum Books), and Bless the Day (Kodansha Press).

Read more of Lyons's work here