I dreamt of him again.
My heart raced as I blinked in the claustrophobic pre-dawn gloom of my single-person tent. A long, slow shiver rippled through my body. I pushed my palms against my eyes, trying to convince myself the trembling was just my arms and legs responding to the low temperature. Even in August, the nights in Yellowstone National Park are cold.
I pulled on my fleece and jammed my knit wool hat over my head before unzipping the tent’s door. The first rays of sunlight were just hitting the crowns of the lodgepole pines across the meadow, and the sky beyond the trees shimmered in delicate cerulean. I fumbled out of my tent, stood, and stretched, pressing my knuckles against the small of my back as I gazed across the vast willow and sagebrush expanse of the Lamar Valley.
“Somewhere out there,” I whispered to myself, “are the wolves.”
Yawning, I reached back into the tent for my grizzly bear spray. My bear spray canister was bigger than a beer can, with the same gleaming silver finish. The safety latch glowed in the dark, which was simultaneously reassuring and deeply disturbing. I’m here, the glowing safety latch declared all night long. Just in case a 1,500 pound grizzly bear decides to rip open your tent like a sardine can!
I clipped the bear spray canister to my belt before walking to the tree where I’d hung my food and supplies. The bag was undisturbed, with no tracks in the vicinity.
“Thank God,” I sighed.
My frozen fingers made untying the rope and pulling out my stove a somewhat clumsy affair. A shrill, metallic jangle filled the clearing as I pulled out the instant coffee packets, and I frowned. I hated going into the backcountry with a cell phone, and I could have sworn I’d turned the damn thing off before I buried it at the bottom of the bear-proof supply canister. The phone fell silent for a moment, then started ringing again. With a sigh, I fished it out of its waterproof bag and swiped the screen.
It flashed the name Diana. Weird. I hadn’t talked to Diana in weeks.
“Hello?” I said.
“Good morning, Karen,” Diana’s voice filled the meadow. She sounded disturbingly cheerful. “You’re in the park!”
I blinked. “Uh, yeah, I hiked in yesterday. How did you..? Did I even send you my itinerary?”
Diana made a noncommittal grunt. “There’s a storm coming,” she said. “How were your dreams?”
“Fine,” I lied. Full of running and sex, but that was none of her business. “Did you have some news about the wolves, or something?”
“The moon’s gibbous. Good for dreaming. And the park’s a thin place. Just thought I’d check.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and took a deep breath, ignoring her hippie-dippy blathering. That kind of talk was exactly why the rest of the biologists at Montana State University thought I was wasting my time talking to Diana.
“And you have some news about the wolves?” I asked again.
“The wolves are exactly where they were yesterday,” she said, somehow managing to sound condescending. “It looks like the Leopold pack is about twelve miles west of you, bedded down.”
Diana is not a scientist. She lives alone in a log cabin on the eastern side of the park, just outside Cooke City, with an ungodly array of computer equipment and satellite dishes. She spends her time tracking the wolves. All of her time, as far as I can tell, with the possible exception of hunting season. God only knows how she supports herself. She doesn’t seem much like one of the trustafarians who live in Bozeman, running tiny art studios that are open for six hours out of the week while they live off of the dwindling fortunes of some wealthy distant relative, but she must have some secret source of income.
“Oh, and a few of the regular wolf watchers spotted that male,” Diana said, just as I was getting ready to hang up.
“Where?” I grabbed my notebook.
Every wolf in Yellowstone National Park is under surveillance. They’re microchipped, they’re radio tagged, we have their DNA samples on file. We know who their parents are. We know who their grandparents are.
Last month Diana called to say she’d spotted a new wolf. I told her this was impossible. A new, adult wolf in Yellowstone would’ve had to migrate down from Canada. In the twenty plus years since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, this has never happened.
“He’s near you,” Diana said. It sounded like she was smiling.
For a heartbeat I had the disconcerting feeling she was about to say something like, In fact, he’s right behind you. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled, and I turned around. There was nothing behind me but lodgepole pines.
“I’d say he’s about five miles west of you,” she said. “Moving slowly. Ambling. He’s alone.”
I scribbled in my notebook: 5 miles W, lone. “This is fantastic. What direction was he heading?”
“Toward you,” Diana said, with that same smile in her voice. “I’d say you’ll see him today. If not, then tomorrow.”
“That might be the most unscientific thing you’ve said all morning,” I told her. And then I remembered the gibbous moon comment.
Diana laughed. “I like you,” she said. “You take care.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I like you—”
But the line was already dead. I sighed and slipped my phone into my pocket as I carried my supplies back to the campsite. Once I’d balanced the delicate silver tripod of my MSR stove on a flat slab of granite, I attached the fuel bottle, twisted the knobs, and lit the gasoline. The cool morning air filled with the hiss of the stove. I put a pot of water over the delicate blue flame and filled my titanium mug with instant coffee mix.
And I tried not to think about my dreams.
I always had strange dreams when I was camping, but these had been disturbingly vivid. They were Yellowstone dreams, filled with the rotten egg sulfur smell of the hot springs and the cold chatter of snowmelt over stone. But there had been something odd too, some acrid, burnt smell in the air, something that made me want to run through the pines and sagebrush flats. Something that made me want to run to him.
I hadn’t dreamt of him in years. Not since that horrible winter in my early thirties when I was living with my parents, examining the shattered fragments of my life. He had appeared in my dreams then, tall and handsome, with his wild, dark hair falling down his back in waves. For months he was my constant companion while I slept in my parents’ log cabin, in my childhood bed. At the time, I assumed my subconscious was trying to convince me to stay alive.
But last night I dreamt of him again, for the first time since I’d moved to Montana. In my dream, I had stood in a meadow of tall grass and wildflowers, purple penstemon and indigo lodgepole lupine and delicate shooting-star columbine, surrounded by aspen trees, whose pale green leaves trembled as he approached. My dream lover, his body lean and muscular, his high cheekbones and riot of dark hair exactly as I remembered. He’d smiled at me with his golden eyes. Our bodies came together without words, without thought, his hips pressed against mine, his lips—
I shook my head to stop that train of thought. Even here, by myself in the backwoods of Yellowstone, my cheeks flushed and burned. I hadn’t had dreams that sexy in years. Shit, I hadn’t had sex in years. I assumed that part of myself had just dried up and gone away, atrophied from lack of use, another casualty of the divorce. After all, it had been, what, almost four years? Yes, nearly three years living in Bozeman. One year lost. Equals four.
The stove hissed and sizzled as the pot boiled over. I grabbed the silicone hot pad, pulled the pot of boiling water carefully from my precarious tripod stove, poured water into my instant coffee, and sat back to watch dawn unfold over the valley.
After coffee and a breakfast of instant oatmeal, it was time to deal with the rest of my gear. Our tracking equipment was heavy, so I’d only packed in part of it. My graduate students Colin and Zeke would bring the rest later today, and then we’d really start working.
I inspected the tranquilizer gun and loaded the darts, smiling as I remembered my father cleaning his hunting rifle in the living room. After that, I set up the tiny satellite dish and the receiving antennae, turned everything on to make sure it was still working, and turned everything off again to save battery life.
Once I’d run all the equipment checks and recorded everything in my field notebook, it was finally warm enough to pull off my wool hat. I ran my fingers through my hair, listening to the grasshoppers warming up in the buffalo grass as I pulled out my binoculars and glassed the sagebrush across the valley. Nothing moving out there. Yet.
My phone gave a sharp ding. I jumped, jarring the view through the binoculars. A new text from Zeke appeared on the screen.
Boss Lady. Headed 2 Canyon w Colin. Losing cell. ETA 12:30.
Before I could even groan, my phone dinged with another incoming text.
PS. Colin driving - don’t flip UR lid
“You’re in the canyon now?” I yelled at my mute phone. “That’s almost a hundred miles away!”
Damn it all, I told them to be in the park by noon today at the very latest. They’d never make it here by twelve-thirty, even if they drove fifty miles over the speed limit, which I wouldn’t put past Colin and Zeke.
“Ugh, when am I going to find a grad student who’s not a complete fuck off?” I asked the empty meadow as I shoved the phone back in its waterproof bag. Just for good measure, I kicked the dirt in front of me.
Five miles west of you, Diana said this morning. Moving slowly.
I picked up my daypack, the water bottle, and a bag of granola bars. Then I headed west.
The area to the west of my campsite was tough traveling, full of burned, fallen trees from the fire of ‘88. I walked slowly, picking my way around and over the downed pines and scanning the forest edge for movement. I found it disturbingly hard to focus, despite two cups of instant coffee. I tried to watch the ground for scat or tracks, but my mind kept sliding back to last night’s dreams, to my imaginary lover’s strong body and soft lips.
I balled my fists in frustration. Even if I wasn’t distracted by my stupid dreams, it wasn’t like I could accomplish anything this morning anyway. If I was lucky, I might be able to spot the Leopold pack. Maybe. But I couldn’t tranquilize a wolf by myself, and it was highly doubtful I’d get close enough to make any meaningful observations. I leaned against a fallen tree and tilted my head to the sun, enjoying the quiet. Being in the backcountry always made me feel like a kid again, playing by myself in the woods behind my parents’ house.
The soft murmur of running water teased me, beckoning from somewhere close by. I turned to my phone, expanding the topographical map I’d downloaded. It looked like I had almost reached a tiny tributary of the Lamar River. I grinned. It was just past noon, and there was no way Colin and Zeke would make it to the campsite for another full hour, at least. And, in the direct sunshine, the day was almost hot.
“Well,” I told myself, “if I’m not going to accomplish anything, I might as well take a bath.”
The little creek was cold and clear. I followed its gentle meanderings, twisting in and out of clumps of willows and threading my way around downed logs, until I found a clear, pebble-lined pool. Perfect.
Out of nervous habit, I looked around with the binoculars before I took off my shirt.
“You’re being ridiculous,” I told myself as I slipped the binoculars back into their leather pouch. “This is backcountry Yellowstone. You’re seven miles from the nearest road, five miles from the nearest trail. No one is going to see you naked.”
Still, I stepped behind a big willow bush before slipping out of my pants. Once naked, I folded my clothes and stacked them on the grass near my daypack, making sure the gleaming, silver canister of bear spray was within easy reach. The pool was clear and so still I could almost make out my reflection in the shifting surface. I plunged my arms in the stream, disrupting the image.
The water was freezing cold. It may have been snow this morning, melting off the high shoulders of Druid Peak. I pulled my arms out, took a deep breath, and decided I’d better do this quickly if I was going to do it at all. I stepped in up to my thighs, gasping before I crouched low enough to dunk my head under the icy water.
I exploded out of the stream a heartbeat later, falling back onto the grassy banks and laughing. I spread my arms, soaking up the bright August sunlight for a few minutes before grabbing my little plastic vial of biodegradable soap. Nothing in this universe smells quite like Dr. Bronner’s soap, and soon the scent of willows and grass and running water was drown out by an odd combination of peppermint and eucalyptus.
I rubbed the soap through my hair, down my arms, and over the curve of my breasts. My body tingled with peppermint and the memory of the cold water. It made me think of last night, and the feel of my dream lover’s lips against my skin. He’d spent a long time kissing the inside of my wrist as his hand moved down the curve of my stomach—
“Stop it,” I muttered, shaking my head. “What is with you today?”
I gave my arms a final scrub of peppermint eucalyptus soap before stepping back into the stream. It felt even colder this time around. Quickly, I rinsed the soap off my arms and chest. Then I crouched down and leaned back. Holding my breath, I dunked my head under the icy water and ran my fingers through my hair, shaking out the soap.
My chest tightened with the sudden, unshakable conviction that I was no longer alone.
A jolt of panic surged through my body, and my eyes snapped open. I saw only dancing sunlight on the underside of the ripples. I stood up cautiously, blinking as cold water ran down my face. My clothes, soap, and bear spray were all still stacked neatly on the bank, just out of reach. Very slowly, I turned toward the opposite bank.
There, standing so close I could have spread my arms and touched him, was the lone wolf.
He stared at me with golden eyes.