The Gateway Ghosts of Flagstaff, Arizona
by Mary Sojourner
They worked for free. No budget allocation necessary, no bids for building and installing, no $28,714.99 chunk out of the City budget, no steel, no rock columns, no treated log. Unlike the gateway sign recently approved for 89N’s entrance into Flagstaff, the bad girls and tricky boys of the early Nineties went on about their daily business voluntarily, which had much less to do with welcoming tourists to our town, and everything to do with survival — and what, to my human eyes, seemed to be fun.
They — the teasing females and wily males — were the ever-alert, ever-busy members of a prairie dog colony that once occupied the center of a little traffic circle on which a faux-classy motel and a pseudo-Mex fast food joint now squat. I was one of many lucky humans who watched them — and blessed the red light that often stopped us near their home, and the rare Friday late afternoon traffic jam that would let us sit through two changes of red to green, long enough to begin to see the differences between the individual dogs — the chunky one who was always scrounging food, the two young pups who seemed to chase each other from dawn to dusk. I lived in a trailer in Kachina, worked in town, ran errands on a daily basis. Over time, over seasons, the prairie dogs reminded me to slow down, pay attention, to get my head out of my too human reveries and resentments.
Good hosts are like that. They open the door to their lives. They welcome you into their home. If you are an old friend and wise enough to understand real friends can leave well enough alone, your welcoming hosts will go about their business as if you are not present. You will be, in effect, free to remember how very much you are an animal yourself.
At least twenty years have passed since I watched the colony. In what now seems like two absurdly short decades, a time in which my species was chillingly productive and brutally myopic, traffic jams have become routine. I finish errands long before late Friday afternoon. I’m reluctant to reveal my new route into downtown, except to say that it meanders, there is a dirt road, old houses and the only wildlife has been a handful of scrawny and prolific cats. Cats, not unlike the cat that still stalks in my memory, a cat whose ginger fur glowed in the last rays of an October sun, a cat who was reduced to a slinking … but, I am ahead of myself.
It was late Friday afternoon, just before the prairie dog colony was relocated (that is taken from their ancestral home) so the chain motel and Mex joint could be built. (I am tempted to discuss our local Mom ‘n’ Pop Mexican restaurants and our local motels, how they are a form of wildlife, to be cherished, to be nurtured, to be supported by our bucks and our refusals to eat tacos that seem to have been shipped in from Dayton, Ohio; and sleep in beige rooms in which one is tricked into buying a pint of bottled water for three bucks.)
There was a traffic jam. I rolled down my window to hear better. The prairie dogs called to each other. Years later, an NAU researcher would tell us that each sound was a precise vocalization, but that day the best I could do was notice there seemed to be more frequent and louder cries in the air. I watched the dogs pop from their burrows. One, two, three, then two or three at a time. I wondered what the excitement was about.
Traffic inched forward and stopped. I saw a flash of pale gold near-hidden by a few late grasses at the edge of the colony. Suddenly, a prairie dog popped up. Yelped. Squeaked. Vocalized sharply. The patch of gold halted, changed direction and, as the nearest prairie dog disappeared, a slim and supple ginger tabby skulked toward the hole and stopped. The cat shook its head. Ten feet away, another dog abruptly materialized.
The cat crouched low, paused, then moved forward on its belly. The second prairie dog hesitated long enough for the cat to draw near, yelped and dropped back into its hole. The cat sat up on its haunches. Ten feet away, two prairie dogs popped up. The cat waited. The dogs conversed.
“Hey, check out the C-A-T.”
“You don’t have to spell. Cats can’t understand anything but their own names … if that.”
“You want to mess with him this time?”
“Sure. Hey. Cat. Over here.”
The second prairie dog snickered. The cat laid back its ears, dropped low to the gravel and moved forward.
“No. Over here.”
The cat froze.
“No. Over here.”
The cat, I am not making this up, ducked its head into its paws.
I saw the car in front of me begin to move. I didn’t. As I watched, the ginger tom rose to its feet. Head high, spine straight, tail raised, the cat sauntered with great dignity away from the colony. I waited till he had crossed safely in front of me. As I began to drive forward, I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw the driver behind me extend an arm out the window and flip me a peace sign.
The prairie dogs emerged from their burrows. One scurried down to the late grasses, nipped off a few stalks. The others stood quietly, paws folded in front of them, the perfect hosts seeing off a visitor who had not crashed the party.
Mary Sojourner is the author of the novel Going Through Ghosts (University of Nevada Press, 2010) and the memoir She Bets Her Life (Seal Press, 2009), among her many books, and is the author of numerous columns and articles for dozens of publications — including her essays as a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.