where the wild things aren’t

Northwest Trek ad, circa 1996

“And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said, ‘Be still’ and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.” 

From Where the Wild Things Are (1963), by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Non-fiction, 5/11/12

The day started auspiciously enough: patchy clouds with occasional sunbreaks, temperature hovering around 52 degrees Fahrenheit. It was Friday, 7:45 in the morning. I had just hopped off the train in Tacoma and was waiting for Greg to swing by and pick me up for work. I was in a great mood, which was strange; these end-of-the-week “team meetings” rarely inspired much in the way of bonhomie. This time, though, would be different. All the previous night it had rained, so I was rather naively expecting the sky to clear up for the task ahead of us: an all-day Americorps “service project” at Northwest Trek, Washington’s premier wildlife park in Eatonville. Rumor had it that the bear exhibits needed cleaning, and the two of us wanted in.

We drove south on Highway 7, and as soon as we reached Spanaway the rain started coming down. “Damnit,” I said, grimacing at the low-hanging clouds. “Well, at least it looks somewhat short-lived.” We continued through the town of Elk Plain, where I saw a statue of an elk and little else, and Greg said, “Hmm…huh.” I looked over at him. “Not quite sure where to go from here,” he said, craning his neck to see the sign ahead. Kapowsin Highway/304th St., it read. At the four-way stop was a biker joint, the no-frills Roundup Bar and Grill. It was open, so we decided to go in and ask for directions. Other than an older couple eating breakfast, eyeing us warily, the place was almost empty of people. On the walls were Budweiser posters depicting biker babes in leather chaps. The barkeep, a blonde-haired woman in her fifties, grew visibly excited when we mentioned our destination. “Oh yeah! That’s a great place! You just go down 304th here, honey, and take a right at the blinking light. There’s a guy selling hay at the corner there, you can’t miss it. You guys’ll have fun! It’s a good time of year to go, too—there’s lots of babies and stuff.” We thanked her and drove down to the intersection. Sure enough, there was a stack of hay bales to our left—evidence of grassy dealings, it seemed. The “blinking light”, though, was nowhere to be seen. “Did she mean the traffic light?” I asked Greg, as we turned right onto Meridian Avenue. “I really hope she calls traffic lights ‘blinking lights’. It’s technically accurate, I guess.”

It was 8:45 when we reached the entrance to Northwest Trek. “I’m gon’ drive real slow,” drawled Greg, “so as not to frighten the animals.” We kept our eyes peeled for anything that moved. The winding road cut through impressively thick, mossy forest, rich with bestial potential, but we saw only a robin and some crows. Greg kept us puttering along at five miles per hour. We weren’t scheduled for work until 9:30, so there was definitely time to kill. Eventually we parked the car and walked up to the office, where posted on the door was a sign stating, “Welcome, WRC Volunteers!” I yanked on the door and it opened. “Well,” Greg said, “I guess we’re invited—according to the sign, at least.” The office was deserted. We bummed around and availed ourselves of the restroom until nine or so, when a man and woman in official-looking olive work shirts and pants showed up, looking slightly annoyed at our presence. “You guys must be Americorps volunteers! We’re so happy to have you here!” she said, a little too cheerily. “So…the bathrooms are across the hall if you need them…And, out through that door, under that big yellow tent, is where we’re going to have all of you guys meet at 9:30, okay?” She smiled fiercely, and the message was clear: Kindly get out of our office, please. We took the hint and walked out to the park.

With more than twenty minutes at our disposal, we decided to check out some of the exhibits. A light drizzle filtered down through the trees, speckling our spectacles with mist. We were the only visitors in the park. The paths to each exhibit were paved and well-graded; it was a comfortable wilderness, one you could navigate with a smartphone. Out and active in spite of the rain were the turkey vultures, the barn owls, the bald and golden eagles, and the gray wolves. Quite a few of the animals were “rescues”: individuals too injured or too tame to fend for themselves in the wild. The raptors, with their broken, tattered wings and maimed talons, looked especially downtrodden—mere shadows of their former splendor. We stopped at the grizzly bear compound to size up our charges. There were two bears, a huge male and a slightly smaller female. The male shambled over to us, snuffling like a pig and flapping his lips, exposing sizable teeth. He sat astride a log and snuffled in our direction. “What’s he doing?” Greg asked. I shrugged and waved to the bear. “I don’t know, but it doesn’t look very friendly.”

We walked back to the tent and met with our “team” to divvy up the day’s responsibilities, which included trail-clearing, landscaping, tree planting, and other mindless moil. Greg and I naturally signed up for the bear crew and were introduced to Angela, the resident bear expert at Northwest Trek. Angela is fair-skinned and fit and looked to be in her late twenties, with dark brown hair tied back in a ponytail and a curiously stern demeanor. After meeting everyone, she tells us that we are to help clear out storm debris—fallen limbs, sawn-up logs, other arboreal leavings—from the black and grizzly bear exhibits. “I want everyone to take off any pins, badges, bracelets, etc. before we go in,” she said to the twenty-odd volunteers gathered around her. “Anything that accidently gets left behind could end up in the bear’s stomachs.” We would be working in the bears’ roaming space, tidying up, remodeling, renovating—basically doing some exterior design, so to speak. Somebody finally asked the question on everyone’s mind: Where would the bears be while we putzed around their living room? “Oh, they’ll be locked away in their pens,” Angela said matter-of-factly. “If they were in there with us, we’d be eaten alive.” A few people laughed. Angela didn’t really seem like the type to joke around. Everyone of course knew we wouldn’t be thrown in with the bears, but it was somehow disappointing to be told so, all the same.  Suddenly the work ahead seemed far less adventurous—and much, much more mundane. We grabbed our gloves and followed her to the exhibit.

As it turns out, the work was pretty boring. Greg and I and the other members of the “brush crew” spent hours hauling tree limbs and logs out of the muddy enclosures, straining our tender arms and fragile, slouch-prone backs. Another crew busied themselves with building a terrace of sorts, and yet another shoveled gravel into a hole for no discernible purpose. It was difficult to tell what sort of appreciable effect—if any—we had on the exhibit. The more sticks we dragged out, the goopier the mud became, and with each trip to the dump truck we ended up trampling down some hapless flora in the process. Things almost looked worse by the time we finished—I swear they did—but Angela and the other staffers continued to heap on praise throughout the day, lauding us for our heroic efforts. We were “getting things done,” as per the Americorps dictum, so it was all worthwhile, right? Who knows. I just hoped the bears dug their new digs.

By mid-afternoon we were finished, everyone tired and muddied and content. The bear exhibit was locked up, the electric fences powered on, and the bears themselves were released from their enclosures to roam about and search for the vittles their keepers had hidden away while we were working. No one at this point had the energy to tour the park; people just wanted to go home. Tourists apparently flock to Northwest Trek to “walk on the wild side” (this from one of their recent ad campaigns), witnessing “up close and personal” the native habitats and inhabitants of our region. Toiling on the inside, however, gives one a rather different impression: Life at the Trek ain’t no walk in the park, but it’s a tame substitute for the real thing.

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