The Miwok Trail westbound ushered me beneath the shadows of blue oaks anchoring the lower lobes of ridges rippling toward the valley. The shade was welcome; the forecast called for the mercury to hit 98 F. I was hauling all the water I could cram into my pack.
Water would be the least of my concerns.
I came to the familiar Miwok/Hardy Canyon split. Not the least bit unnerving. A mile and a half south towered the hunter-green oak and chaparral of Bob Walker Ridge: my up-staircase to scenic splendor. I lowered my gaze and heard the valley’s tall, dry grasses seethe in a southeast breeze like shale hissing in the retreating surf.
A mile later, just short of the Los Vaqueros gate, and still oblivious, I saw him: a solo coyote loping toward the arroyo skirting my trail. He was about 200 yards left and moving with a purpose, probably to trade the withering light for the darkness beneath valley oaks and arroyo willows. Since he kept coming, it was clear he hadn’t seen me (every coyote I’ve come across has steered the other way). I’d also gotten lucky – the southeast breeze kept me downwind of his nose and ears.
The moment he disappeared behind a stand of buckeye, now about a hundred yards distant, I bounded off the trail toward a large oak on the arroyo’s east bank and set up my shooting zone. Out came the camera. On. Exposure: minus two clicks. White balance: shade. Mode: scenery. Zoom: full. I trained the lens on the only open area across the arroyo: a rock spattered with white lichen and dormant brown mosses. Then I scanned the scene for my quarry.
Animals are infuriatingly uncooperative photo subjects. My dog and cats, for cryin’ out loud, rarely hold a pose. Out in the wild, I’m lucky to get close enough to a coyote, bobcat or turkey vulture – and be quick enough with my equipment – to bag a single respectable snapshot.
But lo and behold, this Round Valley coyote trotted out from behind the bramble, hopped up onto the rock and into a photogenically optimal dappling of sunlight and shade … and just stood there while my shutter went ka-CHEE, ka-CHEE, ka-CHEE.
As if he knew the last shot was as good as it was gonna get, and the photo-op was over, the creature hopped off the rock and disappeared behind the foliage. I reviewed my shots for a minute, all the while shaking my head at the colossal blindness of my luck.
Time to go. I turned on my heel to high-step it through the thistle back to the trail – and jumped straight back. “YOW!” The shock lasted only a moment, but it was a moment of heightened electrification, a single synaptic flash short of panic. The next moment, crouched in a defensive pose, I heard myself laughing at myself.
Some guy was standing right behind me. Arm’s-length behind me.
“God Almighty! You scared the crap out of me!”
“‘God Almighty?!’ Ha!” He raised his eyebrows and nodded, lips pursed, suppressing a smile.
He was tall and spindly, as if he’d skipped a few meals. The ravines in his face were chiseled deep. A scraggly, rust-brown mustache flared across his cheeks. His long face was leather. But the eyes: the eyes were narrow and grey – and something else, something that sent an icy current up my spine and into my scalp. I took a step back. In all my wanderings I’d never seen anything as terrible as those gaunt and hungry eyes. They were not human.
So I blurted out at random, “Nice scenery.”
He paused and the corner of his mouth twitched. “I believe I did a pretty good job,” he said in a tone as smooth as cream but expressionless.
So fixated was I on his eyes that it took a moment to register a disturbing fact: the hills behind him were undulating like a desert background blurred by heat ripples. The anomaly formed an oval just behind his head, like the halo in an Eastern Orthodox icon.
He must have registered my disorientation. “I have that effect on … people,” he said.
I resolved to not admit that this was happening. The procedure was simple: I’d keep the conversation mundane and dispel this bad dream through sheer tedium.
“Did you see the coyote?” I asked.
“Did I see him? Hm. I would not put it that way. Are you seeing yourself right now?
Geez, this guy was hard to distract. “Ger Erickson,” I said, extending my hand.
I stood there, my arm obstinately outstretched in empty space. Hey, this was my dream and I could survive the most awkward posture.
The guy looked at my hand as if it were radioactive, raised his arm and pinched the wide brim of his hat, the crown of which was tapered upward to form two pointed … wings, leaves, ears? Definitely not a Stetson.
“Ohlétteh,” he replied, returning the introduction. “You stole my image with that black box,” he said, his eyes boring a hole through my camera. “Now give it back.”
Uh-oh. Ohlétteh: Coyote deity of the Native American Miwok. Creator of the world. Trickster. I am so screwed.
Click here for the second installment.