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Dispatch from the Edge

By Peter Anderson

I must have missed one of the rock cairns that marked the trail and walked off the map, but I did find a fine camp in an alpine meadow, with an island of spruce shielding me from elk grazing the waning tundra sun in a snow-rimmed cirque a mile or so off toward the Continental Divide. If my inner compass was a little off, so what? This was a fine place to be lost. As the elk herd approached, a slight breeze came with them, floating my scent off toward the sun which had gone down behind a distant ridge. As far as they were concerned I wasn’t there. Even when the walls of my tent billowed out in an occasional puff of wind, I didn’t exist. So they came closer and closer and soon I could hear the cows and calves mewing and bleating to one another on the far side of the spruce.

[InContentAdTwo] Right around dusk, I saw something strange. Two cows got up on their hind legs and faced off toward one another, hooves pressed chest to chest, not in an aggressive way, but rather in what appeared to be a kind of wapiti tango. I was reminded of a seasoned mountaineer who once told me he had witnessed elk sliding down a snowfield in the South San Juans, apparently just for fun. It wasn’t long after the full moon had risen, that I noticed another curious behavior. Over on the edge of the meadow, a cow elk kicked an unidentifiable moonlit object into the air and then jumped back as if she had startled herself with the sparkle of it all. She then did it again and again. And then a few more curious cows came over to see what was going on and they got in on the action. I watched them through the skeeter-mesh wall of my tent until I was too tired to hold my head up any longer. That’s when I zipped up my sleeping bag, the sound of which spooked the whole herd, now forty strong. It could have been a headline: “Camper Trampled by Elk Herd in South San Juans,” but it wasn’t my time. Instead they vanished into the trees and shadows, leaving me to ponder the dreamy weirdness of it all as I drifted off to sleep. The next morning, if only to get a grip on what was real and what wasn’t, I moseyed out into the meadow looking for evidence of the previous night’s follies and found the remains of a deflated tin foil balloon. It doesn’t take much to amuse an elk under a full moon.

Peter Anderson writes about geographical and cultural edges in this column and in a new collection of flash prose and prose poems called Heading Home: Field Notes published by Conundrum Press (