As soon as I turn on to the old road, my headlights scan the white blanket of snow, unblemished and untouched. I see a set of light indents like miniature roses kneaded daintily into the road. These must be fox tracks. They wind, meander, and twist across the road like a ribbon. The set I am following dips into every driveway I pass, almost as though this animal is making the rounds like a door-to-door salesman.
Once in a while I will see the expanded tear shaped snowshoe hare tracks along the road. They rarely run alongside the road, and are usually perpendicular to it. They scramble from side to side, perhaps to avoid the lazer eyed focus of the owls that hold siege in the aspens along the road. It’s tough road on which to be a hare. Everyone is out to get you, it seems. The hares love the willows, and the owls along the road are fond of the hares, but not in a Platonic sense. Sometimes I will see the crater thud in the snow, with wing cuts off to the side, and I believe that is the mark of success, or breakfast, for a hungry owl. The other day I saw a flash of white out of the corner of my eye; it was an owl flying off with a hare in its talons. It’s a tough, cruel world in the hood.
When I drive through a low area, I see the unmistakable signs of moose tracks. On this morning they recently attacked a stretch of willows, and their tracks drill deep into the snow on both sides of the road. Moose are the true Bohemians of the old road. They never seem to take the path of least resistance. They go straight through everything, diamond willows, young cottonwood and aspen, even fledgling spruce trees.
I am always on the lookout for wolf tracks. Wolves travel through the hood on occasion, but rarely are they seen. I can only remember a couple times in my life when I have seen wolf along the road; for the most part they are Frostian critters, those who prefer to take the road less traveled.
I remember walking along a trail in the Chugach one summer. On the way back down the trail I noticed a grizzly bear track stamped across my very own tracks. To punctuate the matter, he deposited scat right in my right boot track. It seemed a little indignant, a bit uncouth and uncultured, but I did not take it personally. I could have seen it as a challenge, a shot across the bow, to see who really was master of the food chain. Instead, I preferred to look at it as a friendly greeting – a scatological calling card.
As I drive along the road, I am struck by the realization that there is a whole wild world out there, with its own rhythms, dramas, and tragedies that cares little about my movements. But I would hardly know it; I rarely see these animals during the day. It is as though my car is a cocoon of nocturnal bliss that hermetically seals me from the life outside my screaming wheels. Yet an inch of snow during the night forces our worlds to intersect, and I am required to ponder the connection, but the language I read is nothing more than a white sheet of paper with punctuation marks on it. The tracks are like notes written on a page of a musical symphony I will never quite understand.
I don’t have the answer as to what it all means to cross these nighttime visitors’ tracks with my four P245/70 R 16 studded snow tires. When I return in the evening, all the delicate artwork the animals have laid down will be gone,stomped down and scrapped away by the traffic and the Department of Transportation snow plows. No trace of this world will be left; yet I will keep waking up on those snow-dusted mornings wondering what stories lie ahead on the old road.