It was about 1990, and I was ranch-sitting at a friend’s ranch in Bishop, California. The owner was up in the mountains all summer, but there were cattle at the ranch, and somebody needed to be there to look after them.
In this particular case, ranch-sitting was a minimalist job. The cattle were out in a pasture with plenty of water and grass, and cattle don’t need much more than that. Really, all I had to do was walk the pastures once a day and make sure nobody was sick or injured or dead.
The east side of the Sierra Nevada range is mostly “high desert” — not the rolling dunes of sand most people think of when they hear “desert,” but just really dry sagebrush country. The well-watered ranch, by contrast, was an oasis of shade trees and green grass, especially beautiful to someone like me who’d grown up in wet, green country.
My dog loved the ranch too. Ranger was a 5-year-old German shepherd, my big bony 90-pound buddy with huge ears, great floppy paws and, ahem, one other admirably large attribute (of course I mean his nose — what did you think?), whom I called Ranger the Valiant Warrior.
Most of the day I was busy at the ranch with my sign carving business, a portable endeavor that I simply brought with me when I agreed to watch the ranch for the summer. But twice a day I’d put down my tools and Ranger and I would walk out into the pastures to check on the cows.
It was sunny that day, with no hint of a breeze. The sky was cloudless, and that impossible deep blue that only people who live at high elevations ever get to see. I wore a t-shirt for coolness and my cowboy hat for shade. The only sound to break the stillness was the occasional clicking flight of grasshoppers as we stirred them out of the grass. A viny tangle of wisteria covered a decorative arbor near the front screen door of the ranch house, and the sweet drowsy smell of it hung in the air.
I unlatched the creaky gate of the ranch house’s back pasture, and Ranger and I strolled out into the back pasture. The six black brangus bulls – pets all – were cloistered in this separate pasture to ensure they didn’t pass on their muscley genes at the wrong time of year. They concentrated stolidly on their grazing as Ranger and I approached, only raising their heads to make sure we weren’t their solicitous owner, showing up with treats. As soon as they saw we weren’t, the six heads went right back down into the grass. They kicked at biting flies, swept tasseled fly-swatter tails at their flanks and munched their way through life.
The dog and I passed through the cloud of sweet pungency that surrounded them, through a second gate into the side pasture, where we ambled toward the front of it along a well-worn cow path. I usually made one huge loop of this cattle-domain, first patrolling the borders to make sure the fences were intact before cutting in toward the herd itself to observe the individual animals.
We stopped while Ranger splashed into the irrigation creek to cool off. He had a playful way of drinking that was more a lunging snap than the more sedate lapping of other dogs, and he took a couple of jabs at the cold, clear water. This many years later, and now living in the east where all the creeks are murky and warmish, I marvel to remember that, in the high country, even this cattle-pasture water was clear and clean. I drank out of it myself a time or two.
The side pasture was divided into three large sections. This time of the year, the near section — where I now walked — was empty of cows, the grass resting. The connecting gate between the middle and far pastures was open so the herd could wander to either section at will.
On this day, they’d chosen the middle section. The fence bisecting the near pasture from the two farther ones was covered in climbing ivy, and formed a solid visual barrier four or so feet high.
But something strange caught my attention. Even before I looked directly at the cattle, out of the corner of my eye I could tell something was different. They were all standing with their heads raised, and other than the occasional flick of a tail, nothing was moving. Most peculiar of all, they were ranked in concentric rings, a bovine theater-in-the-round, and their attention was focused on some central point.
Mountain lion? No, the cows were neither scared nor aggressive. Lone bear cub? Disneyesque bunnies in tutus? I couldn’t guess. But I knew I wanted to see it.
I crouched down and quietly approached the vine-covered fence. I ever-so-slowly raised my head until I peeked over the leafy upper edge.
And there they were, two coyotes. Playing. Practicing canine karate. Dancing. Something.
For whatever reason, they were leaping, bouncing, dashing, pouncing, giving each other high-fives in midair and then springing back with bright eyes and laughing expressions on their coyote faces.
They bowed, wriggled, looked at each other sideways, wrestled and bumped sides, stood up and briefly tapped lithe paws on each other’s shoulders. All of it in springy-legged delight and some of it almost four feet off the ground, as if gravity had taken a holiday.
They were radiant, brighter than life as sunlight falling through the baked air caught the tan highlights on their grizzled coats.
If ever there was a moment of magic, this was it. The anemic “mysteries” of religion and mysticism pale beside it. Here were real animals doing something I’d never seen, never even heard of, in beauty and delight that even then I knew I’d never be able to adequately describe.
Animals have secrets. Certainly because it’s a necessity of their lives, living as they do in the continual knife fight which is life in the wilds, but also — and mainly — because no modern human has yet taken the time to learn about them.
But on this day, I was briefly able to witness something of the hidden life of coyotes.
To this day, the why of it escapes me. Whatever they were doing is a mystery as far as I’m concerned, and probably will remain so. I’ve never even asked a biologist about it — maybe for fear I’d get a Skinnerian dullard who’d make them out to be biological drones, mechanically responding to some chemical urge with no hint of choice or joy about it.
Eventually, my crouched legs began to ache, and I shifted position ever so slightly. But coyote eyes, ever tuned to danger, picked up the slight motion of my head over the fence. They stopped instantly, happy tails frozen, and peered in my direction for an instant. Tails and ears flat, they loped off in opposite directions. I felt like a skunk dropped into the middle of a birthday party.
After a few minutes, the cattle went back to grazing. Ranger and I went on with our walk in the warm day.
Okay, maybe it WAS some sort of automatic pair-bonding ritual. Until I know that, though, I will continue to see it as the honestly happy greeting of long-separated friends, or just the high spirits of young siblings enjoying a midday break in the warm sun.
To my eyes, it was conscious, deliberate and joyous. I would be very reluctant to see it any other way.
For me, on that day, and for whatever mysterious reason, the coyotes danced.