Dispatches From the Road: Coyote Lake, California

Cows in the foreground with the Santa Clara Valley behind. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

The first night belonged to the four-legged beasts.

My canine companion, Klaus, had just settled in next to the campfire at Coyote Lake in California’s Santa Clara Valley while I prepared dinner when I heard a loud moo that sounded like it came from no more than 20 feet in front of me, followed by a squeal and a grunt.

Sound must travel fast and far here. I wondered if the hills surrounding us amplified it.

When I finally plunked down in front of the fire with my food, I could have been forgiven for thinking we’d entered a strange twilight version of one of those iconic nature videos of the Serengeti, though instead of wildebeest, zebra and other African fauna shimmering in the midday heat, we were treated to cows and feral hogs.

(Chris Marshall/CNS)

Between stoking the fire and chopping up food in the camper, this bureau chief hadn’t noticed that some cows had migrated from the mostly dry lakebed and were using the largely unoccupied middle of the campground as a thoroughfare.

The sounds of the beasts now filled the air, the quiet music from my small Bluetooth speaker a backing orchestra for the evening’s performance.

My dog shook excitedly in his uncovered pen, but he neither barked nor tried to chase the beasts, and believe me, dear reader, my hero the coward would have had they approached his campsite. He fears no beast. Wind chimes, alarm clocks and vacuum cleaners are a different matter.

Though it was almost pitch dark I could see the outlines of the creatures when they stepped in front of lights from campsites across the way. The large cows sauntered slowly. I counted 20 before stopping.

For a moment I thought I might have been imagining the squeals and grunts from the hogs, but then a creature too small to be a calf emerged from the shadows, then another. I was able to decipher snouts on a few. I counted 15 before stopping.

(Chris Marshall/CNS)

Then a rustling in the poison oak behind us. Klaus let out one loud yelp, stood up and pushed his paws against the edge of the pen. I whipped around and trained my headlamp on the bushes as more than 10 hogs rushed by, some not much bigger than my miniature schnauzer but others at least the size of a mid-sized dog. I calmed my beast best I could, and then tried to return to my food that was getting cold.

Just when I thought they were all gone a hog squealed from in front of the campsite. Klaus ran to the front of the pen and stared.

Then silence, except for the Pink Floyd playing quietly from the speaker next to me.

After dinner we ventured out on our evening perambulation. Most of the campers had retired to their tents or RVs, and those who remained conversed quietly in front of dwindling campfires, with the exception of one RV decorated in Christmas lights where the mostly middle-aged campers shouted over each other. I didn’t catch much of the garbled conversation, except that one young girl needed chocolate to wipe the taste of pork rind from her mouth.

We’d almost completed our loop when a hog belted out as we passed an empty campsite.

The campground at Coyote Lake in Santa Clara County, California. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

Bedding down later I could have sworn I heard rustling outside the camper, and maybe I did, though it could have been my imagination, or the wind, or the dog readjusting his position.

While securing a ticket the following morning for a small batch of $13 firewood – one of these trips I’ll remember to bring enough – the park ranger, thinking I’d just arrived, let me know that wildlife abounds, her eyes set on my sturdy but diminutive companion.

I replied that the hogs and cows had put on quite the show the night before. While I’d seen a solo hog here and there over the years, including a large wild boar that crossed my path once in Hawaii (mentioned in this dispatch), I’d never seen roving packs of them.

The ranger said the parks service tries to manage the population, but hogs start breeding as early as six months of age, can have multiple litters in a year and a litter can contain up to a dozen babies. With that image in my mind we bade adieu and the dog and I headed back to our site.

(Chris Marshall/CNS)

We spent the rest of the day hiking the green hills around the campground, which are frequented by deer and wild turkeys and the occasional mountain lion in addition to the cows and hogs. Despite the park’s name, I didn’t see any mention of coyotes or hear them at night.

Our sojourn included a detour down an unmarked and steep cattle-driving route that dead-ended at a locked gate with multiple No Trespassing signs.

I had hoped the trail would turn back to the right and cut a leisurely path back up the hill, as indicated on my map, but no, we had to return whence we came.

It turned out the trailhead we wanted was only another 50 feet from where we’d turned off. One of these years I’ll learn to pay attention to signs, or the lack of them. Who am I kidding? No, I won’t.

We returned late that afternoon to a changed scene. The almost-empty field had been taken over by two-legged beasts.

A large group of 20-somethings at the site across from me stood around a raging campfire, fed now and again by a young man in a large sombrero.

(Chris Marshall/CNS)

I started a small fire soon after dusk and readied for the evening’s show, but the four-legged beasts did not appear, though from the lakebed I could hear one calf bleating.

But that was background to the shouts coming from the far end of the campground.

Curious, we ventured toward the sound after dinner. We encountered a large group of men dancing around a raging fire to the distinct sounds of Indian music.

At a different site, small children threw rocks at each other while their parents laughed and drank.

At another one an inebriated 20-something fed steak to his male friend off a large fork while whom I presume to be their girlfriends talked quietly to each other.

Before nodding off a couple hours later I peered out a window. My neighbors partied on.

I woke with a start early in the morning at the sound of a loud laugh from the same neighbors. Did they even go to bed?

(Chris Marshall/CNS)

Just as I began to think I might not be able to get back to sleep I heard a vehicle pull away. Then silence aside from the chirping of birds, which lulled me back to dreamland.

We headed out a few hours later and had barely made it onto the freeway when traffic stopped. What distracted driver did what to cause today’s jam, I wondered. Not only did the customary police cruisers speed by on the shoulder, so did a beat-up old pickup truck. But no ambulances or fire trucks.

After inching forward for 20 minutes we came upon a small plane sitting on the freeway, the front end in the far left northbound lane, the pick-up truck parked next to it. News reports indicated the pilot, alone in the plane, made an emergency landing.

Now that’s something (else) you don’t see every day.

About our coverage of Silicon Valley:

Courthouse News Service has provided coverage of the superior courts for Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties for more than a decade.

Santa Clara County Facts

County Seat: San Jose

Population: 1.7 million

Named After: Mission Santa Clara, established in 1777, which was named for Saint Clare of Assisi.

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