Notes From the Chippewa Moraine
If you’ve never woken alone in the middle of the night to the sound of a coyote screaming about 50 feet from your campsite, then drifted nearly back to sleep only to hear it cry again, closer this time, and then lope straight through your camp, you’ve missed out on a truly unsettled night’s sleep.
Even with nothing but a bit of nylon and mesh between it and me, I know that I’m in no real danger from a lone coyote unless it’s absolutely desperate or mad. I know I’m unlikely to be in any danger from even a whole pack of coyotes.
No, it’s not fear of the animal itself that is so unsettling.
It’s the sound.
You see, the sounds a coyote makes are designed to make every hair on the human body stand on end. I don’t know why. I don’t know why coyotes in particular have been given this honor by the universe, but these things speak with the wailing voices of lost souls trapped somewhere between hell and earth. It’s eerie, is what I’m saying.
Haunting as it is, it’s also a sound I love. I grew up in rural Illinois, and coyotes ran through the woods behind my childhood homes. I woke up many nights to the sounds of them howling in chorus, somewhere outside my open windows.
These backpacking trips are an opportunity to get away from the world. Maybe more importantly, they’re an opportunity to get out of my own head.
When I am walking, counting the miles until camp, putting one foot in front of the next, I’m not thinking about work and all the things that have to be done in preparation for our big annual conference. I’m not thinking about the documents I need to edit and the missing content I still need to track down, or about all the other thousand projects I need to keep moving.
I’m not thinking about how my boyfriend is moving into a house with his other girlfriend, whom I am estranged from — a home that I will not be welcome in. I’m not thinking about the fact that I cried in my car the other day over the realization that I’ll probably never see his dumb cats again.
I’m not thinking. I’m just moving. No complex emotions to untangle and process, no problems to solve, no need to be anything other than alive. All I have to do is get from Point A to Point B. Drink some water, stay hydrated. Find a log to sit on and rest every now and then. Eat a Cliff Bar. Look, a frog.
It’s hot, so much hotter than a weekend in mid-September is supposed to be, and I’ve been hiking for miles, dripping with sweat, backpack feeling heavier with every step. I’ve walked out from the shaded woods and through a prairie restoration area, and yes, sure, it’s pretty, but the sun is beating down on me and it’s so hot and all I want is to find the end of this sunny leg of the trail and get back into murky cool of the deep forest. That’s when I emerge from what little bit of shelter the tall prairie grasses — taller than my 5’2” — afford and see that my next step will take me onto a grassy field. No protection from the sun. No pretty prairie grasses. Just regular grass and clover flowers, like a thousand other unkempt grassy spaces I’ve seen in the rural midwest.
I stop, panting, leaning on the “Foot Traffic Only” crossbar that prevents dirt bikes and ATVs and the like from following my path back through the prairie. The forest is just over there, and I imagine how nice it will be to get back into the shade, but first I have to cross this stupid fucking grassy field. Steeling myself to stride across as quickly as possible, I take a few steps forward.
And then I see them.
This whole stupid fucking grassy field is filled with little fluttering wings. Monarch butterflies, flitting from clover flower to clover flower.
And suddenly I’ve forgotten how hot it is, and I’m standing in the middle of this grassy field, the weight of my backpack forgotten, heedless of the sun, trying to take photos of the butterflies.
There’s a footbridge over a lake, and halfway across I stop and look down at the lazy current of water flowing beneath it. It’s just a seepage lake — it isn’t particularly clear or inviting — but the day is hot and I’m hungry and I want to try out my new water filter and my feet are aching.
So I slip my backpack and my shoes off and plop down in the middle of a footbridge across a seepage lake in northern Wisconsin.
There’s some raccoon shit on the planks next to me.
The water is cold and soothing on my tired feet. The trail mix is good. The water through my filter still tastes like lake water. The breeze off the water cools my sweat-soaked shirt.
I should keep going and get to the campsite, I think. And then, why? I think. What’s the rush? It’s just after noon, and I only have a couple more miles to cover. I could sit here for hours and still make it to my destination in time to set up camp before dark.
I sit for about an hour. I don’t make my peace with the world. I don’t discover the answers to any difficult questions. I don’t forgive everyone who has ever wronged me or vow to apologize to everyone who thinks I’ve ever wronged them. I don’t have any grand revelations about the meaning of life.
I just sit and let my feet dangle in the cool water.