(This essay first appeared in High Country News, 5/2011, Vol. 43 No. 9.)
It was a mid-July morning during my fifth summer on Grand Canyon National Park’s trail crew, and I arrived at the worksite on the South Kaibab Trail to find an old woman — memory casts her with doughy white skin and frumpy teal-colored clothes — perched on a rock on the side of the trail. She was quite contentedly scattering sunflower seeds about her, and amid the seeds, practically sitting on her lap, hastily shoving the booty into its wadded cheeks, was the One-Eyed Squirrel of Ooh-Aah Point.
I was already in a bad mood. I had woken to the air-raid wail of the South Rim Village’s general alarm, sounding because a man had killed himself by driving his car off the rim in front of the El Tovar Hotel. Plus, I had just spent seven hot, dusty days chiseling chunks of sandstone, and I was frustrated by the incessant stream of tourists shuffling through our worksite, seemingly every one reiterating the “Are-you-building-an-escalator?” joke as though it was the most original witticism of their lives.
Maybe if it had been another squirrel, maybe one of the little, younger squirrels, the kind that still have a nice coat of fur and occasionally stand up on their hind legs — not to beg for Cheetos, but to bend grass stems down and earnestly stretch their necks out to eat the seeds. Maybe if it had been one of those squirrels I wouldn’t have grown so cold. So angry.
But it was Ol’ One-Eye, the ugliest single specimen of Otospermophilus variegatus I have ever seen: fat, mangy, mottled gray, with a hideously empty, furred-over eye socket where, most likely, a hiker had stoned him after noticing the beast deep in his backpack. For One-Eye was a master of gnawing through backpack zippers to get at Oreos and biting through hikers’ water tubes to wash his meal down. For four years now I’d watched One-Eye squirm and beg his way to marmot-sized proportions.
Ma’am. Do not feed the squirrels. Let’s keep the wildlife wild.
I was deliberately calm, perfectly cool — though I recognized, and was surprised by, the edge in my voice, a voice too weary for my years. That in itself should have been a warning, and maybe warning bells did sound for me, but my anger overrode them and the squirrel, in its gluttony, could not hear them.
I bent down and began sweeping the sunflower seeds off the rock into the dust of the trail and kicking the dust of the trail over the seeds. One-Eye had scurried out of the way at my approach, but in a last desperate attempt to get at the seeds, the squirrel slithered across my hand.
And so, on this beautiful July morning, dressed in full National Park Service uniform, right in front of a grandmother who liked furry animals, I flinched back in reflexive disgust and kicked Ol’ One-Eye into the Grand Canyon.
It wasn’t a rear-the-boot-back-and-aim-for-the-uprights punt. It was quite gentle, really: In one motion, I slid my toe under his belly fat and flung my foot out. His body rose, twisted in midair, and disappeared from view over a 20-foot ledge.
I like to imagine now that One-Eye let out a noooooooooooo!!! chirp that echoed through the canyon. I remember Grandma gasping quite dramatically. In my heart I was shocked at what I had done, but my outward demeanor didn’t change. If anything, I grew even grimmer, as though physically manifesting the message: “This is what happens when you feed the wildlife. I am forced to kick them into the abyss.” I stomped away to do maintenance on a rockdrill.
I didn’t look up as, minutes later, the woman huffed past. But as soon as she was out of sight, I hurried down and peered over the ledge. Nothing but rock. All day long, racked by guilt, I glanced down-trail at the spot, hoping One Eye would triumphantly emerge. I looked upward as well, waiting for the buzzards.
That day, I realized that I truly, if belatedly, appreciated the squirrel. As much as I hated One-Eye, I knew him. After all, I’d despised him for years. He was an evil rodent, but he was smart, tough and crafty, and in his fluctuations between wild and tame had taken advantage of both barren desert and obnoxious tourist in a way that I could only dream of.
Two days after the punting, as I walked to work in the morning, One-Eye was warming himself in the morning sun on the rocks of Ooh-Aah Point, seemingly no worse for wear. His one good eye was closed to the light, and his blank eye tilted towards me in a frozen wink.
(A word about this essay: I do really love all animals and like to think of myself as a pacifist. Please don’t get all crazy PETA-y about this. Thank you. NB)