I saw a post on Facebook two days ago which said something about the last wolf in Southern California. Or perhaps it was the first wolf in Southern California in quite a while, but it was in the obituary section, so I think it was the last one too. We should write more obituaries for animals. Not pets but great dying animals like tigers and Rhinoceri (or is the plural Rhinoceroses? I guess it doesn’t matter really because soon there won’t be more than one Rhinocerus). The wolf had traveled from really far north (or south) and saw this part of the world which no other living member of its species has. I did not read the article but I think this wolf is dead because, as I mentioned, it was in the obituary section. As far as the news I can deliver in this rag-of-note, I can say only this, firmly: there was a wolf in Southern California.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The article is titled The Wolf That Roamed to Southern California and it was written by Susan Orlean, most notable for her book The Orchid Thief, adapted into the film Adaptation. by Charlie Kaufman. The wolf was named OR-93 and was the first wolf in California since at least 1922. ]
I do not know if the article claims it is the only wolf in Southern California but if it does, I disagree. This is how science works so don’t get uncomfortable. I am starting from an un-informed hypothesis. Whether I will stay here or progress through the scientific method any further is yet to be determined but this step is very important, and we are all very good at doing it. Hypothesis looks like a Greek word. Let’s say it is, and it means “Ohana” which, as we all know, means “family.” I insist, there are wolves in Southern California. I could swear it. I’ve never seen one, but I’ve seen coyotes. Hundreds of them, different ones, too, as well as the same one multiple times. Coyotes and wolves are similar, in my opinion. The wolf is just extra-coyote. So why shouldn’t there be wolves in them hills?
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Wolves were driven out of Southern California by early 20th century hunters. Hypothesis is from the Greek hupotíthēmi, literally, “I place under, set before, suggest”)]
I wanted to be fair so I put on my new hat which looked like a hat Daisy Buchanan would wear but olive green and more serious. I turned my brim up like a philosopher or someone collecting rain and drove east for an hour and then north for thirty minutes. As I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I kept my eyes on the mountains causing a few friendly scrapes with drivers surrounding me. No one will chase you through traffic to get your insurance for something a quick buff won’t take care of.
Due to the traffic and the fact that my prediction [it gets dark about 5:30] was established a month ago and tomorrow is the darkest day of the year, it is nearing pitch black when I arrive. My contingency plan [there is a full moon tonight] was made moot by the thick forest and unfortunate mountain between myself and Mama Luna. Luckily, I stole a flashlight from the Greek Theater and was ready to get in there and tell some teens they can’t sneak into the GA pit. Moshing is for children, I tell them. Do wolves come out at night? Sure. Think of the movies.
I do not use footpaths because I do not know who made them. Instead I follow the river, about thirty to ninety feet off the path at any given time, up a gorge between Mt. Baldy and Mt. Baldy’s little sister to the South-West, Ms. Ladylocks. Baldy, for reference, is densely forested and cavernous with six months of snow-coverage. Ladylocks gives more ‘piled rubble’ with the occasional bush/tree collab. There seem to be telecommunication towers up the lesser peak, evidenced by wires shooting up its hillside with semi-occasional regularity. I know there are wolves up here, I can feel it. What are wolves all about, anyways? Woods, mountains, snow, rivers. There are all these things and so there are wolves here. There ought to be.
The wolf would be watching, I figure. It could be a mile away and it would know, I’m sure, that I’m here and I am 6’1 and 190, thin but dense-boned, and that I don’t own deodorant and that I’m worried I might never feel truly vulnerable with a partner. The wolf knows that about me and knows about you, too. Not where you’re sitting now but if you were here, it would know. I know about the wolf, too. Just for different reasons. I was raised, it just so happens, on the second-hand stories of dead Germans known as fairy tales, and am well-equipped on vague details re: construction pigs, bread-crumb trails, lumberjacks and, yes, wolves. They wear garments and eat grandmothers. They find scenic perches and stretch their neck into the night sky framed by a full moon and scream HEAR I AM! I DO NOT MIND YOU NOT KNOWING, BUT I AM INDEED HERE!
Some wolves probably do care that you know, but they wouldn’t ever say that. Though listen closely, you might hear the blues in these wolves’ howls.
From time to time a group of night-hikers come down (always down) from Baldy’s spine, flashlights in hand. I scan the trees with mine to say ‘howdy,’ and toss an ‘evenin’ in as they pass. My boots climb rocks covered in ice like moss. Moss-like ice. I suppose if anyone would ask ‘whatcha doin down in that ravine’ I’d say ‘lookin for snow owls.’ There are probably no snow owls here (I’ve seen one of those before— they live back east. I’ve never seen a wolf, though, so those could be anywhere).
[EDITOR’S NOTE: It would be rare for a Snow Owl to visit this area.]
I start humming that old Leonard Cohen tune, One Of Us Cannot be Wrong. The lyrics say something like
I heard of a saint who had loved you,
so I studied all night in his school.
He taught that the duty of lovers
is to tarnish the golden rule.
And just when I was sure that his teachings were pure
he drowned himself in the pool.
His body is gone but back here on the lawn
his spirit continues to drool.
I think of Leonard every time I’m in these parts. This is where a certain Leonard came when he got too terrified of the world. He shaved his head and sat up here for forty years not to try to understand existence but to forget it. He had had enough. This isn’t the Leonard who said “don’t go home with your Hard-On, it will drive you insane,” or the one who wrote “So long, Marianne. It’s time we began to laugh,” to the wife he was leaving for another woman. This Leonard said “Love is a silly thing and I’m glad we tried it.” Not Leonard but Lenny. It’s hard to know that and not to look at the ground and think, did he have that thought that while standing on this rock or that one?
I cannot see the rock I’m standing on because it is dark out. The flashlight scans the woods often, and when there are no night-hikers I let out soft growls to say ‘don’t mess with me’ to any wolves, coyotes, or snow owls. I shine the flashlight onto the dry spot between two legs of the river to catch my step and notice a strange shape imprinted in the snow. I add to my list:
I make these growling sounds because I want to see a wolf, not surprise one. It does nothing for science if I get eaten. I suppose some other scientist, besides me, could study my carcass, but that is the bare minimum of scientific research and would not justify my grant. My grant is zero dollars, but it is my zero dollars. I also do not need to see a bear. I know there are bears here, and so do other scientists. There is no article on Facebook which says “there is only one bear in Southern California,” because there are many more. I am not confident in fighting a bear. I used to be, then I saw the Revenant and determined that even I could not have fought that bear. I am not a hunter, though, so I don’t know why the bear would be mad at me.
I suppose down the hill back in the real world, Los Angeles, I have not considered being eaten by a bear in a while. I have considered other things, such as someone noticing that I have worn the same shoes every day for a year, but never bears. In fact, where I live, if someone is called a Bear it means they have hairy chests and dominant personalities. I do not fear those people. Many of my friends are bears and they are fantastic. They have all noticed my shoes and don’t say a single mean thing about it. I guarantee you one of these Mt. Baldy bears would say something. I try to think of what Lenny would do if a bear attacked him while he was humming on a rock. He would stop humming, likely, but a bear wouldn’t attack him in the first place because his humming is so sweet. In the end, Lenny never was attacked by a bear. He was attacked by Leukemia.
My subconscious, that part of us which has been pumping fair doses of anxiety into our bodies since the days of fighting saber-tooth tigers, is grateful that I finally got over the shoe thing and started worrying about the real concerns such as: I hope I don’t get eaten. It thinks this is a much more valid concern, and you would agree, I suppose. I just want to see a couple dang wolves and get out. I wonder what the wolf is thinking right now, watching me slip on rocks and get tracked by a bear while tracking wolves. It might feel so safe in my dumb presence that its mind begins to wander. Why do they call us lone? We are not lone, we travel in packs. They travel in packs too, do they call themselves lonely? I wouldn’t think so. I love my pack. I want to be the leader one day, but my uncle was the leader and he cheated on his wife so no one trusts me. He was a nice guy, he just got all tied up by love. What is this idiot doing?
I try lighting a cigarette but the match goes out again and again. I think of Jack London’s How to Build a Fire. That guy was in bad shape, way worse than me. He dies in the end but there is a very low likelihood that I will. For good measure I text some friends my location but I do not have any service. Instead, I take a video so at least there is a record when I get eaten. I really am quite a good scientist.
I take a swig from my flask and remember something my eighth-grade English teacher told me. We had to pick from a list which object we would choose to save our life if we were dying in a frozen tundra. I realize the statement on education I’m making in saying that this bit of information— a very minor note within the curriculum— is the only bit of education from that entire year of schooling I can still remember. The list had a bunch of good stuff: water, a lighter, a jacket, a knife. I chose what I thought to be good, plain, prospector-wisdom. A bottle of whiskey. The thinking goes that you can warm yourself up with a toast and pass out smiling til the sun woke you up. This was supposedly wrong, and I was told that alcohol takes on the temperature of its environment. I was told that drinking whiskey in this scenario could freeze you from the inside. I took her word for it, but at this point in my life I think the prospectors had it right. I do not remember what object she suggested was the correct answer.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: One should choose the lighter.]
There is no wolf here. I continue up the mountain, turning shadowy corners and learning how to train my flashlight like I’ve trained my eyes, like this: 40% and 40% focus devoted to the ground beneath and the space about 15 feet ahead. The other 20% pops in every so often and scans the land around me, to my flanks. I stomp my feet to scare off any ill-intentioned predators and sing the perfect song to ward off bears: Love Supreme. Just repeat the old Coltrane line over and over again in that low, bassy growl of a tenor and stomp your boots to the beat marching-band style. Any bear will get the message that you’re on one and not to be messed with. Wolves, on the other hand, love Coltrane and will come check out what you’re putting down. If you sing poorly, avoid this method. Both bears and wolves are harsh critics.
More tracks arise and the frequency of hikers lowers to one every ten minutes or so, always down, always down. I begin to see them, these hikers, from hundreds of feet away. They are easy to spot, especially since I’ve put away my flashlight. They are easy to hear as they descend the icy slope with walking poles and crampons. I wish they were not here. They are a cramp-on my style. They are warding off the wolves, and I feel bad for the wolf. The wolf can hear this, and he appreciates my empathy but politely declines it. If you approach my family, she says, I will not hesitate to eat you.
I begin to cross the river and head straight into the gooch of Baldy. It is a rascally nub filled with piled logs and craggy notches. Bears love this stuff. Snakes, too. Snow owls do their own thing. Wolves, I know very little about. The fear sits in my lower chest and I begin to think of promises I have made to others and to myself. I tend to make a lot and am not very good at keeping to them.
The wolf perks its ears.
See, I really do love people, and I really want things to be special for them. I often try to tell them how awesome things can get, and then I do my best to make things awesome. Sometimes, however, I make things awesome, but only for myself. They think: ‘huh, I thought it was gonna be awesome for both of us.’ ‘Did you try to make it awesome for yourself?’ I want to ask. But I don’t ask. I apologize and try to be nicer. I tell myself on this rock to make less promises and plan on leaving it at that when the wolf pipes in.
Why not just try to make the promises happen? Make them not promises.
Because promises are always promises, wolf. Whether we keep them or let them go, they continue to exist, somewhere. And how many promises can I carry around? I really don’t like too much stuff in my pockets, it doesn’t agree with my sleek and slim figure or my frolicky gait.
The wolf doesn’t answer and I find the interruption rude.
I regain my empathy, however, and remember that it might be the only living wolf who has ever been here, and if that is so it might know some stuff about life. But it was just a stupid comment, you know? And besides, the wolf probably didn’t even mean to come here, it was probably looking for another wolf, and they’ll sure be upset when they find out they’re the only one here. Lenny chose to come here, to be alone. The wolf doesn’t know what it’s doing.
The wolf laughs, which makes me mad for a second but I quickly see the humor. I’m sorry, I say to the wolf. You didn’t do anything. The wolf isn’t so bad, after all. Unless I accidentally pee where it pees.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This would infuriate the wolf. Luckily for the author of this piece, there are no wolves in Southern California. There was one and it was killed on November 24th, 2021 while crossing I-5 by the Tejon Outlets, 80 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. It was last photographed on October 1st looking sultry and magnificent as it lay in a thistled glen in Ventura, CA. Its plush fur showed no signs of the thousand-mile epic which arrived it in such a strange land. OR-93 does not seem to project any inkling that his Thanksgiving plans will be spoiled.]
I pull out my cigarettes and realize I’ve only one left. I have two matches, and decide to make the climb without the rope. What I mean is, if I go one by one, the matches will die in the winde and I’ll have no fire. If I do both at the same time, combine their ignitive powers, I’ll stand a better chance, if only just the one.
The most important promise we can make is to ourselves. It is the foundation of every other one. If you are only fair to one person, make it yourself. Promises should be firm and detailed like a good contract. It should have both specifics and scope. It should have contingencies and causality. It should acknowledge and be impartial about the prospect of failure. I do not know what the promise of this experiment is yet, but I know it is a promise. I know the wolf wants to be heard, and maybe even feared and a little loved. It knows, likely, that other wolves will follow their trail one day and Southern California will once again become a quadrant of their map. The wolf in the hills knows this, just as it knows this day may be far away, and that the other wolves may wait years to follow this trail. It knows it may never, will likely never, see another wolf again. It has decided to move forward anyways, because it has made a promise.
I crouch behind a rock and light the entire pack of matches on fire, briefly illuminating the snow-covered soil beside the river. I stomp out the matches just before the pack disappears. The small remaining bit of matchbox says clearly “The Bike,” a casino my friends know to associate me with, once I am missing and the search party comes on these charred remains. I light my final cigarette and notice incoming hikers. These are the last of the night, I can tell. I am struck with a genius idea.
I decide to stay hidden behind my rock for this group. That way I will observe them like the wolf might. My hypothesis: once I see like the wolf, I will see the wolf. They trudge slowly down the treacherous path. They are three: two in front and one behind. They look intensely at the ground before them and let the glare of their flashlights blind them to anything outside the two-foot circle illuminated a yard in front of their faces. They are in small orbs, oblivious to their surroundings. They do not sing Coltrane, they do not even whistle showtunes or hum like Lenny. They are deaf dumb and blind. I lounge, confident that they will not notice my cigarette light or smoke or smell only fifty feet from where they stand. I sit on a boulder in the middle of the river and get bored with them as the wolf got bored with me. This is when I am plunged into light.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: There is no information on whether the wolf is survived by family members/friends. However, from the wolf’s journey through Yosemite and San Luis Obispo it can be presumed that OR-93 met plenty of folk along the way.]
The world around me is illuminated— the strange dark figures emerge as rocks and trees; branches from trees play ping-pong with the snow beneath. I shield my eyes and realize I am directly below a spotlight before sprinting to a boulder for cover from the hikers. On my treacherous and silent way to the safety of the rock I realize they have just passed behind a large tree and could not have seen my suspicious figure dashing through the woods. At this point I suppose it would be intimidating for them to find me as I hid my presence for so long. They probably do not know about the wolf and I wouldn’t want to tell them too much, either, in case they make a cash grab for my grant money. Next to me on the ground is the half burnt matchbook. I am pretty smart, after all, leaving signs not for other people but for myself.
They continue and I realize they never even knew about the spotlight. I have overestimated my fellow human. I see now what the wolf must think of us. When I rest and study my surroundings, I find a neatly disguised staircase made of stones ascending the hill into the thick, unfamiliar forest. The light goes out.
There is width in promises. Suppose the CEO of Exxon-Mobil says the company will be carbon-neutral in twenty-five years. Who are they making that promise to? Seven Billion people, 13ish if you count those who will be born before then (to say nothing of the ones born after). In effect, everyone; and therefore, no one. It is a wide promise. Every person can only be 1/13,000,000,000 power unit (PU) of angry. Maybe a supreme court judge can be 1,000/13,000,000,000 PU of angry, which in effect is moot. That is a very wide promise. If you tell your friend you will keep a secret, your promise is not wide at all but very, very deep. They get one whole PU of angry if you break this promise. Now imagine a promise to yourself. It is not wide at all— it is a vanishing, non-point. The depth of this promise is infinite. Upon it rests your worth. If the promise to yourself is not kept, your worth may collapse. This is the extent to which a promise to yourself matters.
I turn on my flashlight and follow the staircase into darkness. There is no sign of any structure at the top nor is there any sign of a top. I brush off a snow-covered plank and find it not to say “Keep Out.” I consider that the spotlight which illuminated me was not motion sensor after all, but rather that someone up top had turned it on as if to say ‘here, kid. Check out this staircase.’ I decide to continue until someone tells me to stop. I suppose it would be nice to have a gun, but if I kill the only wolf in Southern California then we are in trouble, especially since it may already be dead. I have no tobacco, no fire. I have whiskey, and I am beginning to doubt prospector-wisdom as I never heard of a prospector with a Master’s degree which I presume my 8th grade English teacher had or was at least working on getting. I think I might like to be an English teacher rather than a wolf-scientist which I am very new to and not very good at. I toughen myself. I came here to see a wolf and I plan on seeing one, even if that means getting eaten by a wolf. I turn the brim of my hat down so it is now the hat of an explorer, or a hunter, or most accurately a scatologist. I find it fun that this term could apply to someone who studies poop as well as someone who studies Ella Fitzgerald.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The 2020 Infrastructure Bill allocates $350,000,000 towards building tunnels and overpasses for wolves and other wildlife to migrate safely across major thoroughfares; as nearly half a billion critters die on roadways yearly.]
I climb the stairs and my imagination sprints ahead. Perhaps it is a house and I am about to ruin Saturday dinner. Perhaps it is a lodge housing a crazy woods hermit, and I am about to be Saturday dinner. Or perhaps, I allow myself, it is Lenny. Not Lenny himself, he is dead. But perhaps this was his hut, his monastery. Perhaps this secret staircase was his front lawn, and kids like me kept him up all hours of the night while he was trying to hum. I bet at first he’d get mad, but after years and years of humming he’d chuckle and watch the kid through his window thinking how he used to do the same when he was young back in Quebec. He wouldn’t even think about the humming because he was humming all the time now, even when he stopped thinking about humming, just like how we all go on breathing without considering the breath.
I spy a railing, then a building, then another, and soon I am engulfed in a new, warmer spotlight. I am looking at an outdoor grill with charming brick walls. I hear in my head a beautiful score, Jonny Greenwood, as I remember I do indeed love being human, and that being a wolf is cool too but where are the farmers markets and carnivals? Where are back porches and warm mugs of coffee? There is no one in these cabins, I can tell right away. A saw lies so rusted it is hard to tell where it ends and the table beneath begins. But we made our mark, for sure, and it was a gentle one at that. Just as I bask in the excellence of mankind I see a giant dick drawn in the snow. We are also hilarious.
I stumble back down the slope towards the river and notice the moon has attained its post in the center of the sky and it has been three hours since the sun disappeared and sent this messenger as a token of its care for us.
There is an old Michael Hurley song:
Oh the werewolf, oh the werewolf comes a-stepping along
He don’t even break the branches where he’s been gone
You can hear his long holler from way across the moor
That’s the holler of the werewolf when he’s feeling poor.
Oh the werewolf, oh the werewolf has sympathy,
Cuz the werewolf needs somebody like you and me.
Once I saw him in the moonlight and the bats were a-flying,
All alone I saw the werewolf, and the werewolf was crying.
I follow my traces back through the forest to the path which leads to my car. I am well-lit, disappointed. I suppose I spent so much energy worrying about what would happen when I saw the wolf that I didn’t even suppose that I might not see it at all, or that it wasn’t here to be seen, or even here in the first place. What was the point of all this fear, then, if there never was any danger? Can it be healthy to build like that, to pump it all the way to the max, and then to just turn it off? Is it a muscle, I worry, which gets stronger as it’s used? Or is it a bucket for catching the drops from a leaky roof, meant to be dumped out back every so often.
Nobody, nobody, nobody knows.
How much I love the meat as I tear at the bone.
Crying nobody, nobody, knows of my pain.
When I see that its risen, that full moon again.
Crying nobody, nobody knows of my pain.
When I see that its risen, that full moon again.
An old eagle told me, man this little flute I play,
I never played in the light of day.
Well when you do play your flute, what do you play on your flute?
Robert Moor said it’s a trail even if no one ever used it. Like a line on a map it only appears to begin and end— it is continuous throughout every dimension it crosses. There are stars visible here and they are layered, the layers of galaxies beyond conception. These unfathomable gulfs of nothingness are as empty and filled as we are. The wolf is no more or less lonely than all the other wolves up there in Alberta or wherever wolves are. Not here, apparently.
When I emerge from the woods onto a local street I am met with the familiar sound of the radio. I would not lie to you: they were playing that old song which goes “take me home, country roads.” I find myself skipping a bit as a dog might when his friend comes home from college. I turn to my side to tell the wolf and notice she is not there, perhaps never was. I am sad for a second but smile as I remember. The wolf loved West Virginia, driving through those hills taking hairpin turns at sixty miles-per-hour, windows down and rain beating into the wolf’s face. The wolf was there, it is sure of it. It can even go back one day, if it would like. It can bring its wolf pups and its wolf wives, and it won’t cheat like her uncle did. The wolf promises this.
Ryan Matera is a West Virginia-based novelist. He is the host of a weekly radio show on 88.1 WTSQ and works as a photojournalist for Channel 8 news. He is learning to play the fiddle, and runs a substack called the mouse-car moment.
Original Art by Dilara Sümbül