by Hilary Johnston
After twenty-three miles of dirt road, I make a right turn and ascend the hill to the wolf sanctuary called Mission: Wolf. As I approach the sanctuary, I dim the bright lights of my car. Although it is only eight o’clock in the evening, everyone appears to be sleeping.
Founded in 1986, Mission: Wolf was established in the hopes of rescuing captive wolves. Hidden in the mountains of Southern Colorado, the founders dedicated two-hundred acres of land to the well-being of the wolves and humans they house. A permanent staff works with volunteer staff to care for the wolves, a task I have taken on to distract myself from the dangers of an all-encompassing broken heart.
A series of tipis lace up the side of the hill, at the top of which is a cabin that provides the only illumination within a twenty mile radius. As I park, a young woman comes out and introduces herself while I lose myself in my fairytale head.
If I close my eyes hard enough, I can still see the silhouette of her Mad Scientist hair. I can trace the shape of her lips as she mouths the three most destructive words known to my existence. Her “I love you” breaks through the still air and, as I whisper the same words back to her, I am resisting the urge to ask to stay. She kisses me and wishes me good luck on my travels. If only she knew she was the reason I had to go away.
The young woman shows me where to pitch my tent and points me in the direction of the bathrooms. After telling me that the ‘big feed’ for the wolves begins at seven o’clock in the morning, she leaves me in the frigid cold night to pitch my first tent ever.
Not that I want to go away. I wish I could spend forever licking the salt from the cracks in her spine. Healing her wounds from all the times she trusted the world to perch peacefully on her shoulders. As much as I want to stay and ensure that the world will never succeed in crushing her, I am terrified that the world will crush me in the process.
When my eyes open, the sun is an afterthought. The howling of the wolves has once again sent a hum reverberating through my spine which shakes me up from the floor of my tent and out into Colorado’s August sunshine.
With the sun behind me, I am able to see the sanctuary in its entirety for the first time. The camp I slept in is separated from the main camp by a dirt road. The road weaves up the side of a hill to the cabin I saw last night, passing a series of tipis on the way. Beyond the main cabin and the tipis are a series of chain-link fences that stretch to the top of the hill. Within these fences I can see the silhouettes of wolves pacing, playing, and sleeping. After eating and throwing on my signature black tee shirt, I gravitate towards the main camp.
The thought process that convinced me to leave her wasn’t a new one. It was the triumph of my head over my heart, my logic over my emotions. I’ve been skipping between cloud shadows my entire life. It has always made more sense to me than standing in the sun; sweltering and vulnerable was never my style. Safe, protected, and meticulous was more my style.
Near the center of the main camp is a gathering of staff and volunteers. The introductions that follow don’t make it through my ears. Distracting me is a dead cow with a sack over its head, hanging from the center of three wooden poles above a blood-stained slab of concrete. A young man throws a pair of overalls my way and encourages me to grab a knife to help prepare the cow for the ‘big feed.’ To my own surprise, I oblige. An hour later, I am throwing pieces of raw cow meat into the mouths of hungry wolves, staining my hands blood-red in the process.
I can see no further than my own hands. My hands are holding and shaping everything that I need to survive in this moment, so anything beyond them is quickly becoming irrelevant. In retaliation, my eyes seem to be playing tricks on me. They are mocking my mind and forcing me to question what it is that I need to be holding onto in order to survive. Although I still see her in everything I do, as I look down at my hands I can see that I am no longer holding on to her.
As the August days pass, I find myself wandering the labyrinth of paths around the sanctuary. One path in particular pulls me towards it, a loop which leads to the chain-link wolf enclosures along the edge of the sanctuary. At one of the furthest enclosures, a jet black wolf named Max freezes as I approach. Our eyes lock for a brief second before he disappears to the back of the enclosure. Once he is out of sight, I retreat back to the main camp.
That evening, the staff informs me that Max is the resident ‘Bachelor’ wolf at the sanctuary. They explain how, similar to humans, wolves seek out companionship in their packs and in their selection of a partner. In captivity, the partnering of wolves is a delicate process. However, Max quickly intimidated and beat up any prospective partner and so, he remains alone.
Seemingly content in his solitude, he is careful to maintain his distance as I approach his enclosure on an unclouded September day. I can see through his trust issues and have persisted each day to visit. He wanders closer to me until we find ourselves face to face, separated only by the chain-link fence of his enclosure. His burning golden eyes meet my illusory blue ones.
The tension begins to simmer after mere seconds of our locked gaze. We can see eye to eye, for in this moment we are not all that different. In pushing away our companionship, we have both asserted our unwavering commitment to protect ourselves from the dangers of holding another close to us. In my eyes, I have failed the one I love and a new form of heartbreak takes hold of me.
I turn my awareness to the sensations I feel within my body. I feel my heart work its way up my spine and, in a swift motion, my heart snakes up behind my mind. My whole body reverberates as my heart and mind stare each other down and finally collapse beside each other for the first time. I don’t know why I’m here. All I know is that I am simply, here.
The growling in my stomach breaks the locked gaze between Max and me. After giving Max a last look, I turn on my heels and continue along the loop back to the main camp. When I arrive the sun is beginning to set and fellow volunteers from the sanctuary are gathered around a campfire. As I sit, they ask me where I’ve been. I smirk and tell them I’ve been out of my mind. They laugh while I look down at the dirt, not knowing how to convince them I am serious. I grab a thin stick from the ground and ask for a marshmallow instead.
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Powerful, moving story, expertly delivered. Thank you!