We were careful to pitch our tent far from the floury dust mounds. The humps are near the front of the site. This puzzles me. I look around. Mounds at the front of all the sites.
Of course. Next to the picnic tables. Dinner.
My first clue that these are no ordinary gophers: no holes in the parking spots.
Shaun knocked on the window of the car the next morning, waking me up. She raised her eyebrows: Why are you in the car?
I groan, and wonder: Why am I in the car?
A brooding cloud of scent descends: rotting algae, earth, wet dog, a hint of something dead; sweet and decomposing. Shaun cups her hands, and peers through the window.
Thump thump thump. At least one of us is happy.
I fight the mummy bag, un-kinking myself from the cramped front seat. I clip the leash on the dog and heave crookedly out of the car. Shaun is making coffee. Far away. Smart woman.
“I’m taking the dog for a walk”, I say. Shaun nods without looking up.
Walking will give my brain incentive to find my limbs, and I will not start ranting about the dog mastering tent zippers at 2 am. I need this camping trip to stay…cheerful.
Sunlight brims over the hills, and rolls down like liquid into unshaded camp sites.
It’s a good morning it’s a good morning it’s a good morning it’s a good morning.
Crabbiness is in my every muscle. Crabbiness wants to drive the bus of every neuron. Crabbiness wants a hot shower, a clicker, and something absurdly fattening.
A small furry head pops out of a hole two feet away. The gopher peers at us, then the sun, and then washes his face like an otter, whiskers twitching. Finished, he leans his elbows on the rim of the hole and regards us intently, immobile.
He’s so comical my heart melts. Crabbiness: gone.
“We won’t hurt you, little guy”, I say softly.
Speak for yourself! The dog reacts indignantly, lunging at the gopher: Breakfast!
The gopher remains immobile, even when jaws the length of his body, full of snapping pointy white teeth, loom. He looks leisurely at me.
Is that a…twinkle…in his eye?
I reel the leash in, frantically. One tenth of a second before Christmas reaches him, the gopher turns his head, and with one last glance at me, shoots down the hole, kicking a spit of dirt into the dog’s open mouth.
Christmas shakes his head and rolls his tongue as if he wishes he could spit it out, gagging, trying to cough up the dirt.
The gopher timed that down to the last millisecond. Two other heads pop up nearby, relaxed, baiting, pretending they are alone. I scan the campground. Hundreds of mounds and holes, many heads sticking up.
It’s a Gopher Atlantis. A submerged city. One of the near gophers rubs his face with a forearm, clearing it of dirt particles. It’s our gopher.
The game is “humiliate the dogs”.
I drop to the dirt, and burst out laughing, hugging my retching dog.
Furry little heads turn toward me in consternation. I understand suddenly: I’ve done a new thing. Generations of gophers have lived, bred, eaten, died, teased and watched the world above ground. They have generations of knowledge of what happens in this spot, with differing variables, above ground.
Big humans do not randomly sit down and laugh. That’s what the short wobbly ones do. I watch them add the new information to their knowledge base, looking back and forth at each other. Then, at a hidden signal, they all vanish.
I picture them gathering below ground, pulling up chairs in a conference room to discuss the possibility that abruptly sitting, barking, humans might be a threat. What responses are appropriate? How can they turn this to their advantage?
It hits me. We’re going to spend five days with Mensa gophers.
Hours earlier, after fishing the black dog out of the black creek in the black dark (because I could not locate the…black…flashlight), just before I fell asleep, I thought: “Maybe my skunk karma is over…? This could have been so much worse.”
As we continue our walk, I nibble on a fingernail, sorting through file after file in my brain. I know what happens when you offend the dignity of small, wild animals.
I am looking for a file that might contain “offended a gopher”.
When I get back to camp, I sit in the sun with Shaun, holding a steaming cup of coffee. I hesitate. She looks at me. (My gaps are obvious to her.)
Striving for casual, I ask as innocently as possible…
…”So, have you ever ticked off a gopher…?”