When coyotes get together to party, they start this high-pitched yelping that sounds like deranged laughter. Or like hyenas in a feeding frenzy. In the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, it’s an eerie, nerve-wracking sound. Especially when it’s close.
Let’s back up a bit. After driving for two days and spending a night in Pagosa Springs, I headed to the cabin early Sunday morning. From town, it’s a bumpy, twisting climb over 10 miles of washboarded, potholed gravel roads that give way to a single-lane road, then to the steep two-track that leads to the cabin. There’s a scattering of other cabins and summer homes up here, two of them on the same road as the cabin, but they were empty when I arrived. The mountain gets very quiet after July 4 weekend.
Inside, everything was just as I remembered: the beige couch and matching easy chair, the black wood stove, the bearskin mounted on the wall, camouflage hunting gear hanging from pegs. My friend Eric and his parents built this place years ago as a hunting cabin. Most of the time it sits empty, and they’ve been kind enough to let me stay here for long stretches over the years. In exchange, I put in some sweat equity: clearing brush, building shelves, whatever they need done.
It’s cozy – 16 feet wide, 22 feet deep with a little downstairs bedroom and a half loft with two more beds that you reach by a wooden ladder. There’s a little kitchen area where I keep a propane camp stove. Eric’s parents put in a mini fridge a few years ago. Best of all, there’s a wide front deck with a spectacular view of the mountains.
I’ll be here until I finish re-writing my novel or until I see snow on the high peaks, whichever comes first.
The cabin’s also pretty Spartan. They hooked up electricity a few years back – before that, I used candles and kerosene lamps. There’s still no running water, no flush toilet (there’s a little chemical toilet that’s maybe 16 inches tall, which I use only for emergencies or in bad weather). No TV, no Internet. Cell phones barely work here – if you get a bar or two and manage to get a call through, it usually drops within a minute.
I did my usual quick cleanup – sweep up the dead moths, shake out the floor rugs – then unloaded the car and set up my little folding card table next to the window. That’s my work desk for the next couple of months.
The cabin’s at about 8,500 feet, and the altitude always saps me for the first few days, so I took a nap.
Thunder woke me. Dark clouds gathering over the far peaks. I made some coffee to wake up, and by the time I finished, the rain had started. Then the lighting got close. Really close. Big, pulsing bolts, followed by ground-shaking booms. Lightning storms in the mountains are no joke. And I’m in a cabin with a metal chimney surrounded by tall pines.
I was getting more and more anxious, so I jumped into the car (is it true that car tires insulate you from lightning strikes? I thought I read that somewhere) and drove 50 yards down the hill, away from the biggest trees.
The lighting was on top of me. Flash-flash. BOOM. Flash-BOOM.
Then came the hail. Lots of hail. Imagine being stuffed into a metal drum while a hundred pissed off kids shoot at it with BB guns. It was kind of like that.
Then it stopped. Just like that. The ground had turned ghost white. Instant winter. I went back in the cabin, made myself some soup, opened a beer and popped Goodfellas in the laptop (dinner and a movie, mountain style). When I went back out on the deck around dusk to take care of nature’s call, I spotted what looked like a bright light far in the distance, in the mountains that face the cabin. An orange flicker deep in the trees.
Then I saw a little plume of white smoke. Earlier in the day, I was reading the local paper’s one-year-later story about the big forest fire last summer: 110,000 acres burned after lightning strikes hit a forest full of deadwood (thank you, pine bark beetles). I reached for the phone. Please, please give me a signal.
The call connects. The operator takes my information and says someone will call. A few minutes pass. I get the binoculars. The flames look brighter now. The phone rings and someone with the local emergency operations office asks what I see and where I am. The call drops after 30 seconds. I call back and manage to give her my location before the line goes dead again. I look across the Valley. The flames have disappeared, along with the last of the daylight.
After a half hour I see headlights. It’s Thad McKain, the emergency operations manager for Archuleta County, trailed by two of his staff in another truck. The fire is visible again, a pinprick of orange against the dark mountains. Probably just a single-tree strike, he tells me. Too dark to go up there now. We’ll have a plane check it out in the morning.
I am not sure what to do with this information. I decide to stay in the cabin and hope the fire burns itself out (or at least doesn’t get bigger). There’s no wind, and it’s rained recently, so the ground’s damp and the vegetation is healthy. That’s something, right?
It’s after midnight when I finally decide to try to sleep. I take a last look at the pinprick of light. It’s faint, but still there.
Then the coyotes start their crazy laughter. I’ve heard coyotes up here before, but never this close. They sound like they’re just down the hill from the cabin. I hear a swirl of yelps and yips, broken by one long, mournful, spine-tingling howl. Their little chorus caps the scariest night I’ve spent on this mountain.
Yep. I’m not going to sleep worth a damn tonight.
(post script: Monday morning the fire appeared to be out. Good news. Now, after a stop into town to get on the Internet, it’s back up the mountain)