I look for coyote prints first. Last night, yips then growls and snarls cracked the cold Wyoming air. Nick was running and my mind strayed from logical-think to woods-think. Could the coyotes be growling at him? Could a pack down a lanky, awkward elk calf in running tights? I slid the door open and gave a holler in their direction. Must have been a mighty holler because their chatter stopped.
This morning, we walk the open sagebrush with the jut of the Wind River Range to our east. We leave the main road and are confronted with a script–a history of passage across snow that’s as fluffy as foam. There are no coyote prints, only ski tracks? Long lines grazing the poof of snow are interrupted by jabs. Deer…A mule deer has followed this road into the hills. It could have passed an hour ago or a day because it hasn’t snowed in two.
Next to the deer in long arcs up and down the road are ovular prints, big ones, with great strides between them. Once we followed these prints thinking they were from a cougar when really they were its prey—the jackrabbit. The small, delicate front paws by the large, rear thumper ones give it away.
Fairies have been here! That would be the only explanation for these light tracks that appear from nowhere and barely leave an imprint!
Ah…Looking closer it must have been the mouse or vole scurrying from his den to the surface to find a morning snack without being seen by the red-tail.
My eyes vainly interpret the patterns of the snow like a scent-troubled hound. We stumble on larger, hand-like tracks with claws. Porcupine? The tracks multiply into an interstate of prints, all centering around two large boulders. Pellet-sized scat lies outside a hole in the rock. Not wanting to be an unwelcome visitor, I keep my distance.
We follow the road and cut up a steep rocky hill with sparse juniper and pinion pine. In the draw below we see a mule deer, perhaps the same one that made the lazy tracks in the snow. It sees us and takes off bounding—flighty during hunting season.
From above we see another set of tracks. Two sets, walking parallel, one with bigger prints than the other. They stick to the road and don’t meander much. They wear protective hoof-wear. They’re the most destination-driven animal on the landscape. And they make the most noise too—always chattering, and those big yellow and red and black things they climb in make even more noise and always seem to be close at hand.
On the return we decide to be less predictable. We cut through the sagebrush, forcing us to take a squiggly line instead of a straight one. We approach the big rock and this time the resident is unmistakable—the ripe, wet pungency of skunk. He must have heard us poking around earlier and given a spiff of spray to deter us should we return. We give him a wide berth.
We join the larger road, the one domineered by tire tracks. The script stays behind us, a record of our coming and going, a glimpse into the wandering ways of the world.