Life and Death and Wyoming Natives

When I feel like it I've been writing a series of essays on the years I lived and went to school in Wyoming. This is one of the essays.

Cowboys are not rednecks. I learned that from Shane. They seem like they should be in the same category: they both talk with a twang, both live out in the country, both drive enormous pickups. But there’s a major difference, and to me it signifies many more: Neckerchiefs. If you ever see someone in a cowboy hat and boots and Wranglers and spurs and all that, but they don’t have neckerchief, you are looking at an imposter. A kid dressed up for Halloween. An ambitious redneck. A dandy.

What impressed this upon me was the only time I saw Shane without one. It felt almost disrespectful being in the same room, like seeing my mom without makeup. You feel like you should just bow your head and walk backwards out of the room, muttering, “I’ll let you be.” But it was spectacular. Here was a man who had never, and I’m going to go ahead and say ever, been in the sun without that thing wrapped around his neck. It was white underneath. White white. The line between the always-covered section of neck and the turned-leather swath was sharp, like the stripes on the American flag. Ever since, I’ve drawn the connection: Shane was a man, Shane was a man of the Earth, Shane was a cowboy. Hence, Shane wore a neckerchief.

* * * *

Shane walked up to me, I assume guided by the hand of fate, and asked if I wanted to join him trapping. OF COURSE I WOULD. That afternoon found me in Shane’s pickup, headed down the highway. We turned off onto a dirt path and onto another, crossing the cattle guards and stopping every so often to let ourselves through wire gates. Although I had lived there for years, I didn’t recognize this part of the land. Fall was ending and snow was beginning to dust the hills we crested. The path would lead down into the slight valleys, where we would rev the engine and drive through the shallow creek and onto the next hill.

I was smiling, but kept glancing over at Shane. I regretted my baggy city jeans and my stupid sneakers. So dumb. And my lame jacket. Man, Shane looked so cool in his Carhart. What was that stain there? Was that blood? Awesome. Awesome. My jacket had mustard on it. I reached up and felt my bare neck. Shameful. We stopped next to a stream and got out. I followed Shane to a thicket of branches next to the water, not sure what to do with myself. He felt around for something, a chain that led to the water. He gave it a tough pull, and out came a metal trap. Inside of its rusted teeth was a lump of wet fur. “Muskrat,” he said. “Muskrat,” I replied. What the hell is a muskrat, I wondered. He opened the trap, carefully reset it down in the water, then stood, gently holding and examining the animal. It looked like a big rat. A big wet dead rat. “Is this all you trap?” “You’ll see.”

The next two traps were like the first, with the small creatures caught underwater by the leg and drowned. Shane would later take them back to his shack and methodically skin them. He would cure the skins and drive them into Torrington to sell. For now they sat in the bed of the truck as we bounced over the rocks, further into the wilderness. Shane had set traps throughout the wash. I guess I was confused as to what we were doing. Maybe I thought we were just going to drive out and do some version of setting a cardboard box on a twig, and we would hide behind a blind and wait to pull the string. But what we were really doing was collecting the dead.

* * * *

The fourth stop was under a large oak, which spread its arms over the creek. Wrapped around the trunk was a chain larger than the previous. He looked at me. “Your turn.” I put on my gloves and grabbed the chain. Those stupid gloves. Shane had the good ones, the ones outdoorsmen wore. Mine were the three dollar pair from the general store in Albin. They didn’t keep out any cold. But I grasped and pulled. It barely moved, so I squatted down and planted my feet between the muddy roots of the oak and strained again, harder. It moved six inches and I pulled again. The muskrat must be caught in something, I thought. Or maybe it wasn’t dead and was fighting me in the water like a catfish. I pulled again and slipped, falling on my ass. Shane smiled. “Almost got it.” It was a beaver.

I had never seen one, except for pictures, and now this one sat laid out ignobly before me. I touched its tail. It was soft. I brought my hand back, because it seemed so disrespectful. I doubted the beaver would have let me if it had a choice. I hadn’t even asked. “That’s a good one,” Shane said. “Let’s get it in the truck.” What he meant by that was I should get it in the truck. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but was not used to touching dead things. I should have dragged it back, but didn’t want to go and ruin the fur, so I picked it up like a baby. Well, like a toddler. It was so heavy.

I walked it back to the truck, glancing down at its snout, a few inches from my face. There were the big buck teeth. Its eyes were closed. I could smell it. My jacket was soaked through. Wouldn’t have happened with a Carhart. I finally flopped it into the back of the truck and got in. Shane nodded to me and I smiled back. I wasn’t sure what I felt. It was one of those situations you find yourself in when you are suddenly in unexplored territory. There are just too many new impulses and images being flashed into your head, so many unfinished emotions flying through that there isn’t time to form any coherent thoughts or opinions.

* * * *

When I was sixteen, a storm hit Florida. They called it the Storm of the Century, as it landed all through the eastern shore of the states. The television stations warned everyone to huddle somewhere in their home and play it very safe through the night. So my dumb friends and I got into a Ford Explorer and drove out into the deserted streets. There were eight of us. Trash and palm branches and parts of homes flew across the road.

We made it out to the beaches, which, in Tampa Bay, are barrier islands. The wind had picked up even more and we were in awe. We watched a gas station’s roof blow off and grinned at each other. It was an eight hour hurricane. The sea had angrily risen and pushed up over the long beach, reaching the motels and highway. We stopped the truck as the water pushed around our tires and went past, into the intercoastal waterway. Again, we looked at each other. The island was underwater, and we smiled and laughed and shouted, safe from the terror in our Ford Explorer.

Brian pointed at a piece of high ground and we all turned to watch a truck sitting in a parking lot. It was rocking back and forth in the wind. We all made sure that everyone else knew how awesome we thought it was. Then, slowly, it moved. Sideways. A few tons of steel and rubber moving like a crab into another parking spot. It banged into a car and kept moving. The haze cleared in our heads. “This is dangerous here, huh?”“Yeah.” “We should go home, huh?” “Yeah.” So we went home.

* * * *

As Shane and I drove up from the valley, I was in the same place, embarking on a new world, or an old one. I felt like I was in the stories… French trappers pushing our canoe through Indian territory, collecting skins and gold, hurrying to stock up our cabins before the long winter. We were Louis L’Amour novels come to life. We were a Bon Jovi song. With all these thoughts flying around, I didn’t realize what I was doing, of what I was being part. I hadn’t considered whether this was something I approved of or not. I was along for the ride.

The snow was getting heavier and Shane turned on his windshield wipers. It was close to dusk, too. We were moving higher, away from the creeks, and I asked Shane where we were going. “One more trap,” he said. I wish Brian had been there, to point out the ominous signs outside, for me to realize that maybe this wasn’t someplace I wanted to be. But he wasn’t, and we crossed one more cattle guard and drove up towards an old tree. Shane put the truck in park and got out. He reached back behind the bench seat and brought out a rifle. I couldn’t figure out where we would find a muskrat up here, but followed him as he trudged towards a barbed wire fence.

I was looking down, mad that I didn’t have waterproof boots. My stupid shoes were getting soaked and cold. Shane stopped. I looked up. There was the coyote. If you ever want to fit in when visiting the western states, don’t say ‘coyote’ like you always do. Leave off the “ee” sound at the end. You’ll seem like a local and sound really cool. To doubly convince a ranch hand you’re one of his kind, also say crick instead of creek. That’s a lesson you’ll want to learn. Hopefully you’ll say it correctly in your head when I write about how we killed that coyote.

His front paw caught in the steel trap. The land around him had been painted white by the snow, but he had carved out a perfect circle of brown earth, with the trap’s chain leading through to the radius, a metal spike in the center. I had never seen a coyote before, and I thought three things: One, they were small. Two, they were basically dogs. Three, those Looney Tune cartoons were full of shit. Wiley Coyote looked NOTHING like a real one. Honestly, I don’t know if the original artist who sketched him out even tried to find a reference photo. But then I remembered that Shane had a gun and was walking towards him, so I tried to be more focused.

The coyote had moved towards the back of his muddy circle, his head held low, eyes glaring. I could see the blood on his paw, the snow catching in his fur. We moved closer and could hear the low growl. Shane reached into his coat and brought out a .38 shell. As he loaded it into the rifle he said that this was a good one. That, because of the late summer, a lot of them had spotty coats. But this one was good. I didn’t ask him how much a pelt like that went for. I wonder where I would find that out. The wholesale price of a coyote pelt in the mid-90’s. I bet it was surprisingly low. I’ve never seen anything made out of coyote.

I wanted to watch the animal for a bit, to hear its noises and see its motions, its wounded grace, but Shane aimed at its forehead and shot. I suppose that was his form of mercy. The animal was in a lot of pain, and it was probably selfish of me to want it to go on suffering for purely observational purposes, but then again I hadn’t set out a trap, baited it with menstruating coyote urine, and come back a week or so later. I didn’t think about any of this, because I was focused on the shocking amount of blood. Nothing really bleeds in the movies the way it does in real life. On television, when someone gets shot in the head there’s a little trickle of blood, or some gory brain flying out the back (if its on CSI), and that’s about it.

Really, though, the sinuses are shattered and flooded. Blood instantly streaks out the nose. It pours. It seeps out of the eyes, out the mouth. What I hadn’t expected, though, were the ears. When Shane shot, the coyote’s head dropped to the ground and blood arced out of its ears, as if they were being poured out of pitcher. I thought of cherry Kool Aid. The blood pooled in the mud, and then it stopped. “I did that for you.” “Did what?” I asked. “I normally shoot it in the heart, but I thought you’d think that was pretty cool.” “Oh. Yeah. Cool.” Shane squatted down and undid the trap. How long had that been dug into its paw? An hour? A week? He pulled the spike out of the ground and carried the rig to the truck. “Aren’t you going to reset it?” I asked again. “No. We got our scent everywhere. Coyotes won’t be back here for a long while.”

When he came back, he took hold of two of the legs and looked at me. I wondered what he was doing, and then hopped forward when I figured it out. I picked up the other side and we carried it to the truck. I was holding the bloody paw. I wondered if it was broken, but did not want to find out. We drove away, and I looked back at the fence and the dark brown circle in the snow. The footprints and the tiretracks and the old tree. I looked at Shane, at his gloveless hands. He must have been only twenty, twenty one, but his hands were the same as his eyes, weathered.

* * * *

When I first met him, we were driving. There were a group of us, I forget where we were going. He sat with his girlfriend, Tricia. To our left were bluffs, scattered with bare trees and scrub. “There’s a deer,” he would say. We would turn to look and not see any. “There’s another. Whitetail.” Tricia would nod, and maybe the rest of us would catch a glimpse. Every couple minutes they would spot a group or a loner, and I looked and looked and saw nothing. I thought that if only we were in a city that I could show him a thing or two. I could spot a cop two miles down the highway. My grandpa said I had a lead foot, so I had collected enough tickets to keep an eye out for ol’ Smokey. I looked for police cars, Shane looked for deer.

I guess I have no right for judging him and his kind. Animals play such a large part of his life that I will never be able to grasp it. I assume he’s off in some corner of nowhere right now with Tricia and a couple dogs. Their horses, I bet, are in their stall in the back. Maybe they have chickens. Some cats to watch out for mice in the hay. Maybe they have a hummingbird feeder. Some sort of rabbit and a hawk. Who knows, maybe a cheetah. Shane seemed like the guy who could appreciate a dominance struggle with a wildcat. I don't have a pet. My landlord keeps some turtles in the lobby of our place, but that’s it. I cooked some pork chops for dinner tonight, and probably had some chicken for lunch, and I know that just because I’m not at the slaughterhouse doesn’t mean I didn’t pay for the knife that cut that animal’s throat. Moving to California didn’t change my actions or eating habits, it only made me feel guilty for them. In that sense, California is like church.

* * * *

I saw an owl one night. I was driving back from Scottsbluff, staring at the twenty feet of pavement my headlights lit. I only had three turns in that 45 minute drive, and the rest was straight. The monotonous sound of my tires lulled me. I was lost in my thoughts when it swooped down. It was just a flash. It was white, and it’s wingspan reached from one end of my windshield to the other. Then it was gone. I stopped the car, and got out. It was dark, and the only sound was the wind. I hoped to see it again, to take it in, to have it fly right up to me again and disappear, but I knew it wouldn’t happen. A bird like that only lets itself be enjoyed once.

* * * *

I watched Shane skin the coyote back in his shack. All the animals were lined up on hooks. He pointed at different organs with his knife and told me what they were. He pointed at a little sac. “This is the gallbladder,” he said. “it’s full of bile. You don’t want to cut that open.” He laughed. Shane let me have the head. I took it back and cleaned it. Without going into details, the process included a sharp knife and coat hanger and a lot of bleach. At the time I didn’t think it was gross at all, but ever since I get nauseous whenever I smell bleach in a laundry room. I tried putting the eyes in a little jar with some alcohol to preserve them, but they turned white, like cataracts.

* * * *

A couple years later I was staying with a friend and we went out with his little cousins and their pellet guns. We were in the desert and it was hot. I took a shot at a bird and missed. I think I broke a window. And then I stopped shooting, and never took a shot at anything ever again, because there was snow in the fur, and I could see his teeth, I could see his breath. I saw the trap in its leg, and I looked into its eyes. And then there was the shot and Shane saying, “I did this for you.”