Shasta Road Kill
© Bruce Nichols
This evening I stand at the lookout above the now dry river bottom at the last fading of twilight into night. Behind me the first quarter moon throws just enough light to turn the once washed sand a shining gray. The last glow of day silhouettes the ragged hills and leaves the western sky a luminous purple. On silent wings, the dark shadow of an owl passes through the scene, its talons clutching some small dark prey destined soon to be an evening meal. In a few hours the coyotes will begin to howl again as they have the last few nights - a raucous chorus ringing through the midnight hours in yelps and howls that float around my dreams.
Two days ago, while running up the San Jacinto riverbed, whose waters now appear and vanish in short erratic stretches upstream from where they sink for good into the hot summer sand, I met a coyote that overstayed his nightly rounds. I had turned a narrow, cottonwood lined bend and climbed a bit above the riverbed to avoid a stretch of resurrected water and wet sand when he came into view. A beautiful creature - slim, long legged, with a coat more red than gray. I never saw his face for he had heard my approaching footfall and was already moving away when he crossed in front of me. Perhaps 30 yards ahead, but in full view, he quickly stretched that distance through sparse grass and shrubs, around dark trunks of cottonwood, and finally out of view around the next bend.
I walked to the spot he had first appeared and found fresh tracks, not clear ones - just depressions where his running feet had struck the soft sand. I traced his route around the trees and beyond the hidden twist of river to discover a narrow passage back into the foothills on my left. A natural drainage had carved a twisting labyrinth of a watercourse through a steep defile in the eroded hills. Above, precipitous slopes of grass and sage and yucca rose a hundred feet or more. At the very bottom the water had carved out a narrow hallway sometimes close enough to touch both walls with arms less than half-outstretched. At times the narrow slot would open slightly to the brushy slopes. At some bends the outside wall would rise up almost vertically for fifty feet or more. The bottom of the cut was water worn and mostly barren. Sandy in spots, but predominantly a hardened clay like surface, baked by the 100+ temperatures that held most of last week in their fiery grip. There, frozen in time, were the tracks of other coyotes that had used this natural passage way to descend from the upper slopes of the foothills down to the river bottom teeming with rabbits, quail, and other game - and also water in the dry brown summer months.
My coyote was long gone. Perhaps up one of the narrow gullies that fed the main drainage every 50 to 100 yards. But the twisting passage begged me to explore. At one point, the gully floor rose in a crumbly six-foot vertical wall with just enough purchase for a foothold and shaky ascent. I clambered over an infrequent exposed boulder or half-buried tree limb, occasionally walked through tunnels formed by overhanging brush, and encountered two places where small landslides left chest high piles of debris that needed to be crossed. I ran and wandered up this natural passageway back into the hills for maybe half a mile. Then, reluctantly turned and headed back. Out again into the sun and west along the gravel roads that parallel the drainage ponds still holding water and ducks, egret, killdeer, and black-necked stilts. Back toward Hemet while the air was still cool and the sun still low in the east, before the furnace of the day was fired up. The air that would later shimmer through the midday heat and finally cool in purple dusk, then slowly fade to black and night; when once again the distant moonlit howls would rise around my dreams. Voiced now in my imagination by a red-gray soul encountered for a brief moment on the San Jacinto sand.