Monday, October 20, 2008

Howling at the Moon

I’m wired. Too keyed up to sleep. I think I’m supposed to post today, but I’m not sure. I’m too tired to check my notes. Tired? I’m exhausted. I’ve had a long, productive weekend, which was capped off by an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Last Thursday, I set out mid-morning from St. Louis to drive to Kingsport, Tennessee. After navigating through the mountains in the dark and the rain, I stopped and spent the night in Knoxville.

Friday morning, I visited Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville, and three independent scrapbook stores nearby.

At 7:30 Friday night, I gave a humorous keynote to a small dinner audience to kick off the Kingsport Times Women’s Expo. We all had fun—which was my intent. Minnie Pearl once said that laughter is God’s hand on the shoulder of a weary world, and lately the world has been plum tuckered out.

Saturday, I spent all day, pitching and selling my book to Expo attendees.

Sunday (which is today, as I’m writing this in advance of posting), I woke up at 7 a.m. and met Karen Travis, a naturalist, for a private tour of Bays Mountain Nature Preserve.

We hopped into my car and wound our way up to the mountain top. I parked, and we walked over to the lake, fringed with trees in shades of dark green, brown and red. The crisp fog roiled across the top of the glassy water like tumbleweed, alternately exposing and veiling the foliage. The scene had a dream-like quality, but the smell of damp, spicy leaves told me it was real.

Inside the nature observatory, I took my time looking at the salamander, frogs, turtles, albino corn snake, rat snake, and timber rattler on exhibition. Then Karen let me into the room where two opossums, a big male and a smaller female, were sleeping in cat carriers. She coaxed them out, and I fed them grapes, holding the treats carefully so my fingers didn’t become snacks. Karen took horsemeat out of the freezer (which I observed would be a great place to kill someone), and we went outdoors. She fed a trio of otters, their sleek coats gleaming as they undulated in the morning light. Next, she gave snacks of horsemeat to three bobcats, eerily large versions of their housecat cousins.

The pack of ten grey wolves was our real reason for coming to the mountain so early. As we started up the path, Karen froze and whispered, “Listen.” From the distance, we heard howls. “They can smell up to two miles away,” she explained. “They know we are here.”

Karen had served as a “den” mother to the young wolf pups, helping socialize them, so she is accepted as part of the pack. She hung back as I went ahead along the trail. When I was close enough to the wolf enclosure to see them clearly through the double fence, she howled. The wolves all howled back—calling her home. The unearthly calls went on and on, first one wolf singing out, then another chiming in. The echoes bounced along the mountain itself and seemed to travel through time. Mesmerized by the chorus, I stood in the half-fog, my fingers pressed against the wire fence, as I stared into ten unblinking pairs of pale eyes.

Karen howled again. Once more, the pack members threw back their heads, their black noses tipping toward the sky, their throats exposing long lines of fur, and their voices calling to her, their pack-mate, each wolf singing with its own unique tonal quality, each one beckoning her to rejoin the group.

Afterwards, I drove eleven hours from eastern Tennessee to St. Louis. I stopped in Lebanon, Tennessee, at Sherlock’s, an independent bookseller, where I apologized for my casual jeans and hoodie. “I spent the morning looking at wolves and listening to them howl,” I said before I realized how odd it might sound.

The bookseller just smiled.

It is, after all, only two more weeks until Halloween


Keith Raffel said...

Karen was accepted as a member of the pack? Oh, is that how Romulus and Remus did it?

Joe Moore said...

Nicely written, Joanna. A memorable experience to say the least.

Felicia Donovan said...

Joanna, this takes on special meaning to me because I often listen to the howls and cries of the animals near my house at night. I find it tremendously comforting to know that I am surrounded by nature as opposed to being in a city (so I was reminded in Baltimore at Bouchercon), and listening to sirens all night long.

But your post also has special meaning to me because of my own "pack" of dogs, one of whom does a very good impersonation of a wolf with the head tilted back, the mouth slightly parted, and a long, deep howl that comes from somewhere I don't know. The other dogs try desperately to imitate her, but generate yelps and high barks. She is the only one that can truly "howl" and when she does, it comes from somewhere very deep. It often makes me wonder. (And she's doing it as I type this.)

They are majestic animals...

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Lovely post, Joanna. And it reminds us all that while running from pillar to post marketing our books that we should stop along the way and see the local treasurers.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Keith, actually we talked about Romulus and Remus--these are myths. Wolves would perceive a baby as prey and eat it.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Joe, I'll never forget it.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I saw how pack behavior at work--at least I saw a quick demo. One of the wolves "disciplined" the others when he crossed a line. Then I saw a male lift his leg to pee, which was strictly "verbotten" for a male who was not alpha. Karen said he was lucky to get away with that!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Thank you, Sue Ann. It's easy to want to hurry though, especially when you are traveling, but I would have missed something incomparable for sure.

G.M. Malliet said...

Sounds like a memorable trip.

Whenever I'm coming down from a long car trip, I can't sleep, either. I still have that feeling of hurtling through traffic.

Eleven hours must have been punishing.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Yes, you know, it's a difficult balance. Enough caffeine to drive and not too much so you can't sleep. I missed the mid-point!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

You better rest up for this weekend, Joanna. You need to be on top of your game for our panel.

PJ said...

Joanna, it was lovely to meet you in Kingsport. Your talk at Friday night's dinner was wonderful and very funny. I'll never look at a mole the same way again! LOL!

Like you, I was treated to a private tour of Bays Mtn. with Karen on Saturday afternoon. The highlight for me was listening to the wolves howl and "call" to Karen. What an amazing experience. I got some great "up close and personal" photos of the wolves but oh, was I ever wishing I had my video camera with me to capture that sound. Next time! :)

Joanna Campbell Slan said...


Your photos were sensational! Thank you for sharing. I'll be posting them on my personal blog.

Glad you liked my mole story. I've gotten a LOT of mileage out of that dead animal.

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