by Peter Friederici as published on the Arizona Daily Sun
“We have no precise words for how the wolf was known and loved or feared…”
The story begins with a wolf standing by the side of the road. This isn’t the story you might think. There’s no helpless girl, no feckless pigs, no trickery. What there is, is hunger. Hunger for food, as always, and a hunger to roam. The woods are broad. Even though they are cross-stitched with fences and pocked with houses that must be avoided they extend on and on and they are rich with the tracks and scents of deer and elk and rabbits. The going is not difficult and it’s easy to find places to hide in rocky outcrops, thickets, copses of oak. It is only the roads themselves that are the challenge. It is second nature to figure out the trajectory and velocity needed to intercept a deer fleeing along a grassy meadow edge but the speed on roads is incalculable, incomprehensible, and the crossing is a gamble.
Or: the story begins with a young man, almost a boy still, on the side of the road. There’s no hunger, at least not of the deep-seated kind the wolf feels, the in-the-bones aching for protein. The suburbs are fat and if anything it is too easy to be sated: not only by food in a million varieties, but also by the sinuous winding of the well-kept roads, the smooth expanses of lawn, the houses kept up to a fare-thee-well, the friends and acquaintances who all seem to accept it as a given. It’s all too easy, too shiny, too manicured. No, this hunger is of a different sort. Call it a need for emotional protein.
In my case the result was a pickup truck, the smallest kind you could get, because in my particular Midwestern suburb a pickup didn’t belong and so it was a way of expressing that magic word west. Or West, specifically, meaning far enough west that things were no longer flat, manicured, predictable. And the pathway was those big ribbons of road, so well known and comfortable from all those days and nights spent traversing the broad avenues, the winding cul-de-sacs. You could merge onto one as if you were a piece of flotsam tumbling into a river from a creek, and not emerge from the steady current until hundreds of miles later. Merge is exactly right: on the interstate you can enter effortlessly not only into the flow of traffic but into a comforting anonymity, hiding in plain sight. Camouflaged and safe.
I remember the feel of those early days alone in Arizona, the sense both of boundless possibility and of getting further out on a limb, away from family, away from what I’d known. There were more ways than before that things could go right, and there were more ways that things could go wrong. At that time the story of Chris McCandless immortalized in Into the Wild had come out only recently, the tale of how one young man had gone Way Out West and ended up dead in the Alaskan wild. Dispersing from home—it seemed necessary, but treacherous.
For biologists, the idea is that species need to experience some genetic mixing, so in some species—especially predators—some of the young disperse to find their own place. It’s always a risky prospect full of grapplings with new and unknown landscapes. By October m1572 was traveling on his own, covering long distances on White Mountain Apache land. In November he headed west, onto the Coconino National Forest. This had happened before with individual wolves but only rarely.
It was a wolf, an animal I’d heard in Arizona before but never seen, and we were glad to see that it ran off from the road into the snowy woods, and not so glad to see that it was limping.
But this isn’t the story you might think, about an exciting wildlife sighting and some revelatory or even spiritual message one might draw from it. No, this is a story about how later that day m1572 was killed on the road, a failed dispersal by an animal that couldn’t quite manage the human-managed landscape. It’s a sad story, just as stories of young people who don’t make it through are sad. Though it’s worth noting that m1571 is still out there, at least as of the end of February, roaming with a female wolf from a different pack. So maybe it’s a story about hope too, hope that we can have a world where the young of all species can do the exploration they need to do and end up where they ought to be.