Well, my unexpected global ramble has come to a temporary halt and I’m still amazed by the internet as a transcontinental connecting tool. I flew from Phoenix north where I enjoyed a 90-minute nosh with DODR commenter Carol of Seattle at Sea-Tac; then on to Seoul where DODR commenter Christian and his wife Hyun Hee provided welcome sustenance, overnight shelter, espresso, and stimulating conversation for my long layover; then a quick hop home to Ulaanbaatar where, upon our 4pm touchdown, a flight attendant cheerfully informed us it was -4 Fahrenheit, a circumstance my friends who greeted me at the airport described as “a little cold lately, but gaigui -- not too bad.” I love Mongols.
I was most eager to see my kitties again. Flinging open the door, I yodeled, “Yoo hoo! Daddy’s home!” After a two-week absence, Nita wasn’t speaking to me but Mooj greeted me with, “Wow, Dad, am I ever relieved to see you. The lady who was staying with us? Nice and all, but it seems she ran out of cat food and gave us some kind of slop this morning I wouldn’t even feed to a dog, you know? That grim. So put down your bags, there you go, hi, yes, but don’t take off your shoes! Just run out and get us something to eat, OK? Something that cats can eat? It’s been a little cold lately, but gaigui, not too bad. Oh, how was your trip? Actually, never mind, the stores are closing, we can talk about that after you get back. Go! Go!”
So this is exactly what I did. Not finding the nearest place for cat food open, I bought a couple chicken legs. While those boiled, I said, “Mooooojie! I brought something cool from Ameeeerica!” Then I proceeded to assemble, after several bouts of trial and error, the magnificent, and shockingly expensive, Meow Town Cat Gym I had just hauled in its original box halfway around the world. I mean, dig it. What cat could resist?
Nita couldn’t be coaxed out from under the sofa, but Moojie was thrilled, actually. Beside himself. “Wow, Dad, thanks!” you could almost hear him exclaim. “What a totally cool...empty box!!” Plunging into the Meow Town box’s irresistible interior, it seemed you could also hear a muffled plea: “Oh, and we’re fresh out of aluminum foil balls for me to chase. Could you roll up a couple while I play around in here for a while? Thanks, pop. You’re the best.”
Someone small and furry, not naming names, was probably not aware just how close he danced to the edge of felinicide.
There was a moment, though, when he popped out of the box, wrinkled his nose, and said, “Say, were you hanging out with other critters while you were away? Like, gamey ones? What am I smelling?”
Indeed I was. Dakini Valley is our name for the old Ellinwood Ranch, 152 acres grandfathered in as pre-existing private property when Arizona’s spectacular Tonto National Forest was created. We now own this ranch and have lightly developed it both as a place of spiritual retreat and a safe haven for the animals rescued in our Tara’s Babies project. On the road back towards so-called civilization, our nearest neighbor is five miles away. In the other direction lies nearly 3,000,000 acres of virtually untouched, high desert wilderness. When we’re at Dakini Valley, we dwell among lots and lots of critters, domestic and otherwise.
The number of dogs already there increased dramatically with Jetsunma’s arrival, bringing as she did perhaps a dozen of her own. Here is an old stalwart, Maggie the Bulldog, sporting the hat of her best friend Tashi Dorje, her daily playmate for unrestrained games of chase-the-soccer-ball.
The newest arrivals are a brother and sister pair of puppies, rescued from impending extermination in Arkansas. To us, this possibility was incomprehensible. These two, mostly Redbone Coonhound it seems, were dubbed the Perfect Puppies. It wasn’t just that everyone who met them liked them; everyone adored them. Impossibly cute, playful without being wild, ever-happy love sponges. Bella disappeared when it was photo time, but here’s Rico:
(Oh, for Pete’s sake. Nita’s just emerged, sauntered indifferently past Meow Town, and now she’s playing in the empty box. Anyone want two cats cheap?)
After the rains stopped and the waters receded, I took a stroll across the creek to the nearby camp of an hombre named Woody Klein (hmm, that’s actually not much of an hombre name, is it?). He keeps a few cattle and horses and I bumped into a half dozen of the latter grazing contentedly. Upon seeing me, a few started to wander over for a closer inspection. Now, in these situations I’m mostly still a kid from New Jersey. When I’m all alone and animals larger than me start moving in my direction, my instinct is to fire up the Keds and run to where I can slam the nearest door behind me. But they were walking placidly, and I didn’t detect any shades of crimson in their eyes, nor brimstone from the nostrils, so I stood pat and tried to radiate non-threatening kindness.
Seemed to work. I spent about 45 delighted minutes with these lovely beasts. Two of them were the boldest and came right next to me to accept strokes on the nose and neck and peaceful mantras whispered in their ears. At the same time, I turned on the camera and managed a couple of decent shots:
I really loved this shy white guy and his inadvertently Hitleresque hair style. I tried to coax him around his buddy but he wouldn’t approach closer than hand-sniffing distance. Bet I could have made friends, though, if time allowed.
Among the wild animals, the first that one notices, usually, are birds. All my winter buddies were there: juncos, finches, jays, siskins, towhees, doves, nuthatches, and the hawks and falcons that periodically swoop in to try to make a meal of one of them. But two kinds made me laugh in delight every day, as they recalled the descriptions of Buddhas’ pure lands where “even the bird calls resound with the sacred Dharma.” The first were the ubiquitous ravens, who would sometimes loudly chant, “Ah! Ah! Ah!” This is a sacred syllable that expresses the wisdom of recognizing the inherent emptiness of all phenomena. Often, they were joined by a chorus of bold and hilarious Acorn Woodpeckers. Even the field guides describe their ratchety calls as, “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” I caught them in a couple of typical poses:
From feathers to fur, Yeshe and Tara, my companions in the old log cabin, began to suspect there was a squatter resident in our kitchen, specifically under the oven. Initial glimpses provoked guesses from weasel to ring-tailed cat but we finally got a good look and realized we shared our space with an adorable Western Spotted Skunk (fun fact: four different kinds of skunks make their home in Arizona). For reasons inexplicable even to her, Tara immediately declared his name to be Marshall. Jetsunma sent over some cat food as a snack for him, which we augmented with an apple, and this coaxed him out from behind the oven enough so respectable snapshots could be taken. Behold Marshall the Western Spotted Skunk:
But perhaps one of my favorite desert critters is the bristly, cantankerous wild pig known locally as the javelina. A herd of about 15 would trot down to the ranch compound periodically and I patiently stalked them, trying to get a photo of the precious little piglet (javelinita?) among them. Alas, they were far too protective of their offspring, but I did manage to catch the adults in a couple of moods. One is the typical “fight or flight” pose. They’re so strangely skinny when seen from the snout:
But then I had one of those one-in-a-million moments. One of the herd started toward me and I knew enough of the Hannibal Lector tales to feel some alarm. But I hung tough and snapped two quick shots before scooting up the stairs a bit. When I later looked at them I saw one of was an absolute prize-winner. Ladies and gentlemen, I have the distinct pleasure of introducing you to Spirulina Javelina, the Dancing, Prancing, Porcine Ballerina: