We heard coyotes during the movie at Drive-In 32. This establishment in Greenville is the most rural of the now-thriving drive-ins. Other outdoor theaters like Hyde Park, Coxsackie, and Poughkeepsie, are off, or close to, major thoroughfares. (We’ve been to them all.) Drive-In 32 is accessible only by two-lane blacktop. To get there from Phoenicia entails driving past Kaaterskill Falls, through vintage-looking towns like East Durham and Freehold and Tannersville. On a clear night, the stargazing is stunning.
At first I thought the coyotes were people partying, hooting and laughing. The resemblance is uncanny. Maybe these revelers were at a campsite or a nearby house. But there are no campsites or nearby houses to Drive-In 32.
Then my wife said “coyotes.” And I realized: of course that’s the sound of coyotes. My mind clicked on a file. I’ve heard that sound before, occasionally off in the distance somewhere in Shandaken, but more commonly at friends’ houses that are more off-the-beaten path than Phoenicia. Like West Shokan and Olive City, whose agrarian hustle-bustle was removed by the creation of the Ashokan Reservoir at the turn of the twentieth century; towns whose stores and shops are now underwater. Phoenicia was spared that.
Coyotes prefer those less populated spots near the reservoir, away from industry, even of the mom’n’pop variety. Much warier of humans than black bears and deer, they patrol and prowl and scavenge and yip and bark and live their coyote lives mostly in darkness, rarely venturing to back yards and streets. Their combined calls create an eerie, keening, beautiful sound, awakening an uncommon fear in modern-day humans. I.e., they elicit a dawning realization of our not being at the top of the food chain. It’s a humbling experience, and all too rare.
While I’ve heard them a lot in 18 years of living in Phoenicia, I have seen coyotes only once. Driving home one night on Wittenberg Road years ago, I came upon a trio feasting on a dead deer, road kill. In the sudden glare of my headlights, they looked up from their meal, eyes ablaze.
In a millisecond, they’d vaulted into the nearby brush, someone’s yard, and were gone, ghostly afterimages of their rangy, furred bodies and luminescent eyes on my retina.
Finally, I had seen the real thing. For most of my life, my coyote references were Wile E. Coyote from the Roadrunner cartoons, and Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” an ode to Sam Shepard from her masterful Hejira album.
Soon after, I would hear them, and begin to piece together these strange, abiding neighbors, haunting the periphery of my civilized existence. Whether they are laughing, crying, warning, celebrating life, or all of the above, I cannot yet tell from listening. The only thing I know for sure from their cries is that they do not sound afraid.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.