My dear friend Vicki set out many years ago in her beloved Laurelheart. She loves travel, camping, people, books, and nature. She also needs to make a living, so, her wonderful Road Stories have gotten further and further apart, but, today, treat of treats, she sends one out, in two parts. They are both very different from each other, and they are the same. The Trickster is alive in the first one, and the second connects.
Here is the wondrous, magnificent, beautifully alive, involved, and connected, Vicki Dern.
62 Orbits of the Sun
Winter Solstice at Chaco Canyon
Part One, A Mouse Story
Chaco canyon in winter. Cold. Only one other camper here this first night, a guy from Texas with a couple of big dogs and a small tent. I’m glad I’m in the recently resurrected Laurelheart. I know what it’s like to be in a tent with the nights so long and bitter and all you can do is curl up like a pillbug for 14 hours or so, snuggled deep inside a sleeping bag. Even in the van it’s a challenge. I huddle close to the little propane heater and after boiling water for tea I leave the burner on low for extra warmth.
Today is my birthday. In two days it will be winter solstice and I’ve come here to celebrate the turning of the year in this place where the precise celestial knowledge of observers more than a thousand years ago is made manifest in stone. I was hoping for just this sort of solitude.
After heating up some leftover Thai curry, I settle back happily to look at the literature I picked up earlier at the visitor center. This is perfect. I can’t imagine a better way to be spending my birthday night.
But what’s that? Something’s scrabbling around under the hood. Mouse or a pack rat probably. I lean forward and bang hard on the dash. That buys about a minute of silence. I bang harder and longer and yell. Maybe 15 seconds of quiet this time. I hear the skittering of small feet then gnawing sounds—on what? Electrical wiring? Water lines? Clearly this creature, whatever it is, is not going to be easily scared away by a little irritating noise.
Sighing, I pull on gloves and jacket, fish a flashlight out of the drawer, pop the hood and lift up the lid. I shine the light on the engine and almost at once a mouse pokes its head up, then comes running straight towards the light. It stops a foot away, turning its head to check out this new aspect of the night. It’s a rather beautiful mouse, golden brown shading to cream at the belly and feet, long silky tail, very large dark eyes and an over-sized head that seems almost too big for its body. Later, when I have access to the internet, I’ll decide it’s probably a pocket mouse.
I keep the light in his eyes, bang ferociously on the metal and tell him to scram. (surely this ballsy behavior must be male!) He ducks out of sight, then reappears running along a pipe near the back of the engine, stops to look at me again, jumps up higher for a better view, darts behind something, then stops again in full view eyeing the light with way more curiousity than fear. I get the feeling he thinks this a great game of skill and daring and he is utterly confident of his ability to play it well. He turns his back to me, stands on his hind legs, and starts gnawing at the edge of some heavy tin foil that must act as insulation for the engine.
Since the light doesn’t faze him, I look around for a stick, then remember my walking stick in the van. When I return with it, he’s nowhere in sight, as if he knew I might return armed. I stand around out there in the cold for a while, searching the engine compartment with the light. No noise. No movement. I prop the hood open, figuring it might have been the warmth of the engine that drew him there in the first place and I can at least eliminate that particular amenity.
Back inside, the van feels deliciously warm in comparison, the light soft and inviting. I take off my coat and settle down again to read. Krrrachh, krraaach, krraaach. Shuddery sound of sharp teeth on metal. Well, with the engine exposed to the night air, this probably won’t go on long. How much tin could he want to chew up anyway? I decide to ignore him and let his adventure run its course.
The gnawing does stop pretty quickly. There are sporadic sounds of scraping and chewing, much less enthusiastic than they had been. Then the sound I hear is the slithery rustle of a plastic bag and I catch a glimpse of movement by the driver’s seat. No! Surely not.
But yes, here he is, nosing around at bits of the YaYa’s popcorn I spilled earlier in the day.
Alright mouse. Enough is enough. I have no desire to cause you harm but you can’t be running around inside my little home here, casually scattering hantavirus or bubonic plague.
I spent a bad night in the van a few years ago when a mouse jumped in the open door and scrabbled around under the bed till dawn. After that I carried mousetraps. I pull out the toolbox where I keep the traps, but there aren’t any. I stripped the van of its staple supplies last year when it died and I was going to sell it. I’m still making a list of things I forgot in the re-stocking process and now here’s another to add in. Great.
Okay. Woman or mouse? Surely if I’m persistent enough I can chase this brash little fellow away. I lay aside the reading, diligently clean up every scrap of popcorn, pick up the walking stick, and for the next half hour I lunge and yell at every appearance. The retreats are short-lived. Then on one of his forays, as he comes within inches of my foot, I see another mouse nosing around where the popcorn was. Oh shit! He’s invited his friends! No telling where that could end.
Time for serious action, but what? Maybe I can trap them after all. I pull out my largest plastic bowl and a plate big enough to cover it. I put a few pieces of popcorn in the bowl, tilt it forward, hold the plate so that it’s covering about 2/3 of the opening, and wait. In less than a minute one of the mice crawls into the bowl and I slide the plate forward, but not fast enough and I lose him. I re-position and wait. It takes a few tries but finally I get the lid in place with a mouse trapped inside. Hah! Success!
I bundle up and march off into the night, proudly carrying bowl with mouse and lid. I walk a good 5 or 10 minutes, clear out past the entrance to the campground, and fling the mouse into the sagebrush where it immediately runs for cover.
Triumphant, I return to the van and repeat the bait and wait process. I have the technique down much better now and catch the other mouse on the second try. I set the bowl with lid on the counter while I pull on my gloves.
The first mouse, once it was in the bowl, went absolutely still. It was so still during the long walk in the dark that I shook the bowl to make sure it was still there. Thought it might have slipped out and I was only walking in the freezing cold with an empty container in my hands. That must have been the guest mouse, friend of the cheeky one. Cheeky mouse is not the passive type, and just as I turn to pick up the bowl he jumps up high enough to flip the plate off and dash across the counter. For a few minutes we play chase and seek behind the stove lid, around the water jar, zigzagging through the faucet knobs, until he finally jumps down to the door well and races up front. Damn, damn, damn! So close!
For maybe five minutes I neither see nor hear him. Then, here he is, poking his nose out near my feet again. Will he be foolish enough to fall for the bowl trick again? I try it and he is. I catch him on the first go. Okay smarty pants, you’re not as sharp as I thought you were! This time I set a heavy book on the lid while I finish bundling up. He jumps and rattles around in there the whole time, trying to bust loose.
We set off down the dirt road in the moonlight, out past the campground gate, even further than I took the other mouse. I’m pretty pissed and I fling with all my might. He lands on his feet and runs not away, but straight back in the direction from which he has just flown. Hmmph! Fat lot of good that will do you, I think. Still, I look over my shoulder several times as I hurry back to the van, half expecting to see him racing along after me. But the only movement is the occasional cottontail darting for cover, and once a clatter of hooves as I startle some deer grazing in the meadow.
Feeling very pleased with myself, I settle down finally with my reading material and immerse myself in facts and speculations about the history of Chaco. At midnight I reluctantly turn off the heat and burrow into my nest of down and fleece for the night. Just as I’m drifting off to sleep there’s a grating kraach kraaach of teeth on tin and I groan. A minute after that there are rustling sounds inside the van. That sucker has found his way back!
It’s already freezing cold in the van. The thought of getting up, dressing, going through the trapping process again and then out once more in the midnight air for what would obviously need to be a much longer walk, is more than I can handle. I pull the covers over my ears to muffle the noise and concede defeat.
I don’t sleep much. I’m afraid he’ll take an exploratory nibble on one of my fingers, or bite the tip of my nose as payback for his imprisonment in the bowl and his long journey back home. Whenever it sounds like he’s somewhere near my head I yell and slap at the wall. I have 3 AM visions of having to get rabies shots because he’ll draw blood, but then think I’ll probably die anyway from hantavirus.
At 5:30 I finally give up, turn on the light, get the heater going, make coffee, and wait for the sun. The little thermometer in the van reads 6 degrees.
Cheeky seems to take this as a sign that it’s time to call it a night and I don’t see him again.
The next night I move to the opposite end of the campground and pray that not all the campground mice are hip to the exciting possibilities of parked cars. Apparently they’re not, for the night was blessedly free of rodent visits.
I would have killed that little bugger if I’d had a mousetrap. I would have regretted the necessity of it, but wouldn’t have been devastated by the act. Now that I’ve had a good night’s sleep I find myself thinking of him rather fondly. It was, after all, an intimate encounter with a wild creature. A bold, fearless, and smart wild creature. He certainly outmaneuvered me and had himself a good adventurous romp.
I came here to wonder at the scale and the mystery of human history at Chaco, and a creature less than 3” long basically had me at its mercy all night long. There’s something satisfyingly humbling about that. What better way, really, to celebrate a birthday?
December 23, 2007