It was two a.m. when the ghost coyote passed in front of me. I was on the Grand Canyon Rim Trail counting shooting stars. It appeared from nowhere, ignored me as it trotted by, then disappeared back into the darkness. I wasn’t scared, but felt a slight shiver go down my spine, surely from the chill of the desert night.
Two weeks before, I’d been in Santa Fe, visiting with family. I’d walk every day in the pinyon pine and cactus shrub open space of their neighborhood just outside the urban core. Once, I saw a coyote a few feet away from me, skulking among the xeriscaping, probably looking to make a meal of one of the many rabbits that inhabited the area. When he saw me, he stopped and stared, met my eyes for what seemed like a long time, then slowly walked away. He was definitely real.
The famous Santa Fe art scene is heavily influenced by the Native American culture of which the coyote is a central figure. I’ve always loved the images, whether an expensive oil painting of the animal in iridescent colors or a cheap wooden carving of one howling at the moon with a bandanna around its neck. I love the way the Native Americans pronounce it ky-ee-oh-tay. I’ve seen them in Yellowstone Park pouncing on a mouse under the snow and in my suburban neighborhood in Portland, Oregon crossing a busy street at dusk. They are survivors: smart, adaptive and flexible. Although I’ve never done a vision quest to find my spirit animal, I’ve often wondered if the coyote is mine.
But instead of seeking my spirit animal, I set out to find the spirit of America. Leaving Santa Fe, I drove south to Albuquerque, then headed west on the famous Route 66 to Flagstaff, Arizona. Driving at 75 miles per hour, the iconic scenery from scores of Western movies flashed by in its grandeur and expanse. But what was happening in the towns? I decided to stop In Gallup, New Mexico to see. Tired 1950s motels sported both a Route 66 theme and Vacancy signs. On Main Street, there were few tourists visiting the lineup of Navajo jewelry and rug peddlers with tacky storefronts announcing, “pawn” or “wholesale” as a way to lure in bargain hunters. In fact, the tourists were primarily small groups of older Harley riders, their gray hair a stark contrast to their black leathers, and more often than not, speaking a foreign language.
I left Route 66 in Flagstaff to drive south to Sedona through scenic Oak Creek Canyon, the creek having cut a deep chasm through the improbable combination of sheer rock walls and leafy trees in the desert. In about fourteen miles, the sinewy road drops from 7,000 feet elevation in Flagstaff, with cool pine forests and the nearby San Francisco mountains (including Humphreys Peak, the highest in Arizona at 12,637’ or 3,852m) to the red rock desert of Sedona at 4,000 feet.
Sedona is a beautiful town of about 10,000 people. Two wilderness areas and the Coconino National Forest surround the town and trails crisscross the area in endless combinations of loops and out-and-back hikes. Red rock pinnacles and monoliths are everywhere, with names like Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, and Courthouse Rock showing our penchant for pretending that nature reflects man-made things, as opposed to the reality of its being the other way around. I was there to visit a friend and we’d take a daily hike before breakfast to beat the summer temps of 90-100 F. Midday was for exploring the town, golfing (with an ice-filled cooler on the golf cart), watching the Olympics, or napping. By evening, we’d venture out for happy hour to watch the setting sun turn the rocks from dull, sun-washed pastels to bright red, gold, and pink.
But after a week of living this life of lovely luxury, it was time to move on. The Grand Canyon beckoned. Truth be told, it was a bit of a whim. I normally avoid our national parks during the height of the tourist season and knew that rooms inside the Park are reserved a year in advance. But when an off-hand Internet search yielded a historic cabin at Bright Angel Lodge right on the South Rim, I clicked Book It.
And so it was that on August 12, 2016, I was hiking in Grand Canyon National Park, hoping for a sighting of a California condor—one of the rarest birds in the world. In 1985, there were only 9 condors left. Thanks to an aggressive captive breeding program, the world total of California condors is now around 400, more than half of which are in the wild. I’ve written a lot about endangered species in other parts of the world, but the U.S. has its fair share too. Whether the gray wolf, the California condor or the Oregon silverspot butterfly, we need to pay attention and not sit idly by and let these species become extinct. I’d seen Andean condors in Argentina and Chile, but never the “local” bird. My goal wasn’t about adding to my life list (yes, as a bona fide twitcher, I keep one), it was about seeing a magnificent bird with a nine-foot wingspan flying above the awesome expanse of two billion years of rock layers in the Grand Canyon.
Unsuccessful in my attempt to spot the bird during my hikes, I decided to attend the evening ranger talk on the condor recovery. Perhaps there would be some tips about how best to see them. I joined a small group at the outdoor amphitheater on the rim and listened to the ranger describe the mating habits of condors (reproduction begins at age six with only one egg per monogamous couple each year). As if on cue, a dark shadow passed directly overhead, barely twenty feet above us. The bare orange head, the legs dangling from the body during flight, and the massive wingspan guaranteed it was a condor. The bird danced and played, teasing as it flew out of our sight below the rim, then soared effortlessly back up again, wings straight and never flapping. Later, when I asked the ranger if that happened often during her talk, she said, “No, not often enough.”
An hour or so later, I sat at a window table in the historic El Tovar hotel restaurant, a cold martini in hand, watching an artwork sunset. I wondered yet again, for perhaps the thousandth time, why I was so lucky and had such good karma. Oh, but I’ve forgotten to mention what was the luckiest thing of all and why I would be outside later that night at 2 a.m.!
Until I arrived at the Bright Angel Lodge, I hadn’t realized that August 12 was the peak night of the Perseid meteor shower–with a macro burst predicted that wouldn’t happen again until 2027. Instead of the usual sixty shooting stars per hour, it might be possible to see as many as 200. I’d watched the Perseids many times during my life, and remembered the very first time I sought it out: still in high school, I convinced my brother to drive with me outside of town in the middle of the night so I could watch the shooting stars. That was in Pennsylvania and artificial light pollution—even way back then—was always an issue. Although the Grand Canyon has been designated as a dark sky area (night lighting is minimized), the light of the almost full moon would be a problem until it set shortly after midnight.
I slept for a few hours before crawling out of bed when the alarm jangled at one a.m. I donned gloves, hat and down jacket (the night temperature was about 45 F), grabbed my camp chair, and set off down the Rim Trail, away from even the minimal lights of civilization. A small two-foot high rock wall lined the inside of the paved narrow path. I climbed to the bank above the wall to set up my chair, leaned back, and had a full view of a canvas of billions of stars.
But the canvas was being still being painted with the almost magical meteor shower. Shooting stars zipped left and right, some faint with short tails, others brilliantly dragging light behind them. I could hear the laughter of a group of young people in the distance, and, although I wished I had complete silence, I also hoped that a spark of awe would be lit in some of them as it had been lit in me during my first sighting of this annual phenomenon.
After an hour, I started to get drowsy. Not wanting to fall asleep outside and alone, I decided to head back to my cabin after counting three more shooting stars. Or maybe five. I stared without focus at the sky, and saw two more faint meteor trails.
That’s when I noticed the shape in my peripheral vision.
First a shadow, then a form, walking silently along the path. I sat up and tried to focus. A big dog, I thought, maybe a retriever. Why didn’t it come to sniff me? What tourist had let their dog out, unleashed, in this environment? Its coat was golden, almost translucent, as if the moon was shining on it, but the moon had already set. I had an impulse to follow it, but wisely stayed still. As I watched its haunches vanish into the darkness, I decided it was a coyote, But a coyote would have known that I was there. Was it real? Had I actually seen a coyote walk in front of me less than two feet away and not pay any attention to me?
Another bright star with a long tail flew across the sky. I shivered. Three was enough. I wouldn’t wait for five.
Only later did I think it might be a ghost coyote and start to wonder. Was the coyote’s message profound, that he was a spirit animal protecting me no matter how dark the night? Or was it a warning that I needed to go inside because the Navajo skinwalker night spirits were out? Or perhaps it was simply a reminder of the wonders of nature.
In a few hours time, I had seen a nearly extinct condor, a Grand Canyon sunset, and scores of shooting stars, then topped it off with a ghost coyote. On reflection, I think the message was: don’t fear the unknown or let it stop you from experiencing all aspects of the universe. And perhaps a second message: that great things will continue to happen when I keep my eyes, mind and heart open to possibility.