The 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest north of Silver City on the border of New Mexico and Arizona is a hiker’s paradise. Ron and I flew friends up there for the day to scout for elk. Shadowed by tall pine trees, patches of snow, and cool temperatures, the forest was a welcome change from the desert heat. It was morning; the dew had melted making it easy to recognize tracks and scat.
Ron headed off down a ridge in search of elk while our friends, Nancy and James Brady from Anchorage, and I wandered through the woods armed with binoculars and cameras in hopes of capturing moments of wildlife. James took the lead while Nancy and I chatted quietly; all of us stopping occasionally to locate the source of a bird’s whistle or to ponder animal tracks left in the damp ground.
On our slow, meandering hike, we saw wild turkey and a dozen elk. A curious kit fox climbed high onto a branch of a pine tree to observe us. The trail we’d started out on dissolved as we pushed on. Midday, the sun found its way through the trees and warmed our backs. Being avid hikers, it was unusual to roam freely without a destination or deadline in mind.
To the west, we met with a ridge, where at the bottom, the sandy clearing of a seasonal riverbed was shrouded by trees and brush. We were about to turn around when James noticed a Mexican gray wolf some thirty yards away. In silence and awe, we watched as the wolf combed the area with its head down picking up the scent of its surroundings. Its thick, long coat blended in with the landscape, making it difficult to spot as it paced the riverbed. Being upwind, the wolf didn’t sense our presence. James slowly raised his binoculars. Later, he would tell us the animal had a reddish collar that Nancy and I were unable to see with the naked eye. Like us, the wolf moved with confidence and ease. Then it was gone. We remained still for several moments, while our primal inner workings aimed to make sense of the experience.
My days are filled with school work. In between grading papers and answering emails, I keep our daily lives on track. And when there is time, I write. It’s the life most of us live—rushing to finish one task to make room for the next. But, for an instant, I lived in the present when, on a perfect day in the wilderness, a wolf crossed my path reminding me I only have now.
Last summer my mom and I took a road trip to Houston to attend my niece’s high school graduation. With all the activity in the house, a few scuffles broke out between the family’s American Staffordshire Terrier puppy, Eli, and their nine-year-old Poodle mix, Kipper. By the end of the weekend, we agreed it would be best for the dogs if my mom and I took Kipper back with us.
Kipper was a runner, but in the suburbs of Houston, he was confined to the backyard. On his first morning at the ranch, I hesitated to let him off the leash. At thirty pounds, he was no match for coyotes, bobcats, javelina, or rattlesnakes. But this was a dog who needed to run free. With his remarkable human-like eyes he pleaded with me to let him go. Before I did, I kissed his muzzle. He’s in God’s hands, I thought.
That first morning he was gone over an hour. I heard yips and yaps coming from the desert and feared the worst, but he eventually came home. After having his treat, he sprawled out on the living room floor, where his legs twitched as he chased critters in his dreams. He’d been a naughty boy in Houston— peeing in the house, running away, sneaking into rooms where he didn’t belong. After that first run, his behavioral problems disappeared.
Each morning Ron and I walked the airstrip with Kipper and our other four dogs. Kipper would vanish into the creosote and tall grass then pop out only to dash off into the brush on the other side of the runway. Most days, after the rest of us returned home from our walk, Kipper would continue on his adventures. I worried about him being out there hunting and chasing on his own. If he was gone too long, I’d get in my truck to go look for him. Sometimes he’d show up carrying a rabbit or a sun-bleached bone from a deer or cow in his mouth.
Kipper’s eyes danced with newfound freedom. Ron and I dubbed him The Happiest Dog in the World. He did not adhere to the rules of dog obedience, instead he had his own way of doing things and seemed grateful we were willing to go along with his antics, which earned him his nick-name, Ding-a-Ling.
In the past I’ve fostered dogs for rescue organizations, volunteered at vaccination clinics, worked as a behavioral trainer, and sat on the board for the Santa Cruz Humane Society. In short, I thought I knew dogs, but Kipper changed all that. I learned Poodles are not little French fufu dogs made for our laps. Instead, they are skilled hunters and water dogs adapted with webbed feet. The rabbits he brought home were no accident. They were trophies he presented to me. Next to Border Collies, the Poodle is ranked the second most intelligent breed. Kipper wasn’t naughty, he just didn’t have the words to express his disappointment at being confined as a house pet.
With tractors, trailers, trucks, and livestock, a ranch can be a precarious place and accidents happen. Kipper was hit by a truck nearly a month ago, and we are still grieving. Our other dogs are wonderful, well-behaved animals. They wouldn’t think of running off or stealing a sandwich from the counter when I wasn’t looking. I miss the infectious energy Kipper brought to this otherwise quiet place.
We buried Kipper at the end of the runway surrounded by creosote and scrub brush. On our morning walks I still find myself waiting for The Happiest Dog in the World to cross my path before disappearing into the desert.
I’ve been living here along the border for over twenty years. There is much I appreciate about the desert and the culture of this thorny, complicated place. Over time I’ve come to accept the things I cannot change like dry skin, a perpetually dusty house, and a surplus of biting bugs. But in all these years, I’ve been unable to shake the queasiness I experience when I encounter a rattlesnake.
This past season we were besieged by snakes. Some we found in the airplane hangars among garden tools and paint cans. Others had coiled up in woodpiles and under tires. Ron took care of them with a small .22 magnum loaded with snake shot he carries in his back pocket, causing me to wonder, Isn’t there a better way? Then in October, a four-and-a-half foot rattlesnake came out from under our refrigerator and slithered past me trailing one-third of its body across my foot; leaving behind the rattles’ buzz inside my bones. A week later I met another rattlesnake on the stairs leading to our basement. After sensing my presence, it reared up to strike, but instead fell backwards and tumbled to the basement revealing a death-like white belly on its way down.
Because killing isn’t in my nature, I had a difficult time reconciling the dilemma. If I didn’t eliminate the rattlesnakes, the humans and animals that inhabit and visit the ranch were endangered. When I was forced to take a shovel to a snake that threatened my dogs, I reminded myself I had set boundaries. Snakes were not welcome here.
Sensing the frost that hit this country in early December, the snakes hightailed it underground for the winter. In a couple of months they will surface from their dens and join us in the garden, out in the yard, and near the house to bask in the sunshine. Killing them isn’t the answer, so we have solicited the advice of local herpetologists at the Chihuahua Desert Museum who can help us find a better solution to control the problem. We all have a right to be here—my family, our animals, and the snakes, but because of our respective links on the food chain, it will be on our terms.
Since our snake troubles began, I’ve been examining the boundaries in my own life. The ones I break because I want to be liked, or because I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Worrying about what others think has often kept me from standing up for myself. I can’t carry a shovel in my purse to use when I want to make a point, but I can dip the metaphorical tip of my boot in the sand and draw a line. Teachers and mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Today, I thank the rattlesnake for the lessons it has taught me.