At the Annual Coyote Festival at Coulterville Park in downtown Coulterville last month, hundreds of dragonflies floated in the warm air while a lone turkey vulture cruised on thermal winds above the town. A gang of little kids dressed in Wranglers, western shirts and cowboy boots ran past me and then came back around again. A stilt-walker in an Uncle Sam costume roamed through the crowd.
I ran into Doc Holliday, who was strolling past the Harvest Hearth booth. If he had wanted, Doc could have purchased organic jam made from pinot noir grapes at the Harvest booth, but instead he escorted his girlfriend, Dottie, past the jams and around the park. Occasionally, someone stopped them and pointed a smartphone in their direction, asking if Doc and Dottie would pose for a photograph.
When Dottie paused near me, I struck up a conversation and found that she and Doc were members of Sierra Nevada Guns for Hire, and they were there to stage a few mock gunfights and, I guessed, to probably drink a few beers when the gunfights were over. Dottie and Doc were really Dottie and Bill Vasconselles. Later that day, they would team up with other members of Sierra Nevada Guns to compete for a $100 cash prize in the festival’s much-touted coyote howling contest, and they would win.
I had come to hear people howl, though I was diverted by the jam booth. It was run by Terry Hicks of Greely Hill, who explained that he tried to grow most of the grapes for his jams but that he also sourced them from other small family vineyards in the county.
“The grapes are grown using organic methods, but they aren’t certified organic,” Terry said. “Some of the jams are made with sugar, but we also have some jams made with honey. We use red Zinfandel and Chardonnay grapes, and Aurore, too.”
My husband, Matt, sauntered over. “Are you buying a bottle of wine?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “He’s talking about jams. They’re made with wine grapes.”
Though I didn’t buy any jams that day, I did get permission from Terry to publish his email address for anyone who might want to purchase some jam. You can contact him at HarvestHearth@gmail.com.
At the stage set up in corner of the park, Leslie Farrow, the event’s emcee, announced that the howling contest would begin soon, so Matt and I left the jam booth to find a good vantage point for watching grown-up people howl like coyotes in a public forum.
The contest began with pup packs, though, so first we watched eleven groups of kids compete. Leslie knelt down in front of the stage and held the mic close to the kids, who howled with abandon. One boy wore coyote ears and a tail. There was a group of four siblings. Some kids were barely old enough to pronounce “coyote.” They all were impressive yelpers.
During a break between the pup packs and the adults, the stilt-walker, who turned out to be a member of the Groveland Rotary, came up to the mic to announce that $500 dollars had been raised that day to buy winter shoes for needy kids. He received energetic applause.
Then the adult competition began. I expected most of the contestants to be visibly inebriated, given the fact that they had signed up to act like coyotes in front of a few hundred people. But I was wrong.
This was a real competition, with returning champions who had come to defend their title. The packs howled and yelped and barked with a mastery that could only have been acquired through earnest practice. In the end, the previous year’s champions lost to the Sierra Nevada Guns for Hire, who donated their prize money to the Mariposa County Historical Center.
Earlier that day, I had spoken to Leslie, who told me she has emceed the Coyote Festival howling contest for the past three years. “It’s a fundraiser for the Mariposa County Historical Center,” she said, gesturing toward the museum on a hill at the juncture of Highways 49 and 132. “I like the kids best. The kids are so fun.”
Gavin Nimbaugh, who co-hosted the contest, estimated that $2,000 had been raised that day to help preserve the history of Coulterville. He mentioned that this was the biggest turnout they’d had so far.
“It’s the first time we’ve used social media to advertise,” he said. “One of the best things about the Coyote Festival is that it brings the community together. We’re so spread out.”
He had a point. Mariposa County has fewer than 18,000 residents in 1,463 square miles, which works out to about 12 people per square mile.
At 4 p.m., the Coyote Festival ended and people began wandering back to their cars. The stores closed. Vendors loaded their trucks and vans. A few revelers headed to the bar. Most people, though, returned to their homes near Barrett Cove or to ranches far from town.
Matt and I headed back down Highway 49. We drove through hills with grass still gold from the summer heat. For 20 miles, we did not encounter another car.
In a landscape like that, ordinary things – a boulder, a live oak, an abandoned shack – seem worth noticing. And once you are able to focus with unaccustomed clarity on the things you can see, you also begin to imagine all of the unseen creatures that must be skulking and hiding and hunting in those vast spaces.
“Not many people out there,” Matt said.
“Nope,” I said. “But I bet there’re a lot of coyotes.”
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.