Writing for the budget

When you first start writing scripts, one of the great liberating experiences is the ability to start a scene with something like this:



Smith steps to the curb and hails a cab…


And then, you can follow up with the next scene, with a quantum leap:



Pilar sits across from Valencia…


It gives you a sense of freedom as a writer to be able to jump from one location to another. After all, you just need to type the name of the place in your scene heading and you’re there. A leap from Anchorage to Albequerque is only a matter of characters on the keyboard. This is profound, because most of us spend a huge portion of our lives hunched over a keyboard in some dingy office or in the corner of a coffee shop. Maybe we hang out on the fifth floor of the library next to a stack of books nobody reads. To be able to leap around the globe via our narratives is one of the attractions of this pursuit.

But what I’m learning now is that such freedom can be a dangerous thing. Producers read scripts differently than we do as writers. When they see a location change, numbers start to click in their heads. A change in the setting, and the addition of numerous locations, can inflate the budget in less time than it takes you to complete a scene heading.

I’m rewriting a script now with budget and locations in mind. I’m eliminating action sequences and removing an entire series of scenes that take place two thousand miles away form the main center of action. I’m also collapsing characters, combining several similar roles into a single character to reduce the casting costs. A producer said that I could take the script in two directions: a big budget action film, or a character-driven drama. Their company specializes in the latter. I was presented with a challenge: rewrite the script to reduce the cost of making this film, and they’ll consider an option.

The pragmatic requirements of filmmaking are quite different from, say, novels where you’re only limited by your own imagination. When you set a scene in Cairo, that won’t require you to send the second unit to Africa to get b-roll of the pyramids. Or you don’t have to worry about the fact that a scene set in Havana becomes problematic if much of the cast and crew is made up Americans, who are forbidden to travel there by the knuckleheaded blowholes in Washington.

I’m also finding that it’s not always a matter of collapsing and contracting your script. Sometimes you’ll be called upon to increase a role, attracting a different caliber (and more expensive) level of talent. On this same project, I’m removing minor characters and increasing the visibility and prominence the four lead roles so that they can try to attract four major actors for these key parts instead of just one or two.

Writing for a budget is nothing I’ve ever had to consider doing before, writing as I have mostly fiction. My first two scripts featured international locations. My third script was set entirely within forty miles of where I live, my thinking being that this script might make a nice independent project someday, or at least attract interest from different types of production companies looking for smaller budget films.

Valley Film Festival

One of my scripts took “best screenplay” honors at the SF Valley International Film Festival last night. It was a nice cap to my first trip to LA. Writing isn’t exactly lonely work, as much as it is isolating. Even when you’re working in the coffee shops with other presumptuous writers (where I am right now) you are still required to climb into your own head. I can look around and see all of the same glazed looks. I understand where they are, of in their own lonely little spheres of existence in the second most populous city in the country.

Here I am making some kind of speech.
I don't recall exactly what I said, but I think it came out okay for a socially challenged writer-type.

So it’s very nice to receive validation in the form of nominations, and in this case, an actual prize. I received a trophy and a handshake. Swapped a few business cards. Ate a few cheese cubes and sat in the company of a room full of people who are pretty much in the same situation I am: devoting a portion of their lives to a creative pursuit for which they receive little remuneration.

It’s been a good trip. Without dropping names I had meetings with a small production company of which you’ve probably never heard (though I expect you will by the time their run is through) and a company you will certainly know if you’ve watched any of the best films produced during my lifetime.

And now its time to head back to the real world.

Food in film

I’m in the fog that creeps in after I finish a script, when you wonder what to do next. Of course rewriting is a good idea, but then it also makes sense to get a little distance. I guess I could clean the garage and change the oil before starting the second draft.

But instead we’ve been holding a little German film festival. None of that oppressive Herzog stuff, but rather surprisingly light fare. We watched Goodbye Lenin!, Lives of Others and Mostly Martha. Lives of Others was a bit intense, but still ultimately uplifting. No dark chaos theory here.

Even though Lives was a brilliant film, Martha was perhaps my favorite. This is because I’m a sucker for movies about food. In this film, Martha is a chef who doesn’t eat and needs to learn how, along with the other important things in life, like how to raise a kid and be a lover. I think it has easily cracked my top five food film list, up there with Ratatouille, and Big Night, plus the aggregate of all of those great food scenes in the Coppola films.

This got me thinking about why food plays such a vital part in so many films. The best scenes take place in kitchens, restaurants or even cowboy campfires. Of course don’t forget the cafeteria food fight in Animal House. Capturing the spirit of food in a film is difficult given the fact that we can’t smell or taste what’s going on. Presentation is always part of a great meal, but it’s these other two senses that are critical to the process of enjoying food. It’s hard to get that across in a visual medium. But great films manage to make that happen.

Mostly Martha operates like a routine romantic comedy throwing in that tried and true vehicle–the orphaned kid who shows up on your doorstep. But despite the conventions, and despite its German Lifetime Network soundtrack, it is a brilliant food film. It opens with a narration by a chef in her psychiatrist’s office offering a description that is guaranteed to start your belly growling. And in a moving scene where the orphaned girl who hasn’t eaten since her mother’s death is coaxed into eating a plate of spaghetti, you’ll be in tears and then make a run to the fridge. I’ve made my own attempt to write a great food story with my novel Vintage (due out in 2015 from Touchstone Books). It’s ostensibly about wine, but wine is only so much fermented grape juice without food and conversation, which is the point of the screenplay. I don’t have the audacity to include it in this list of classics, it’s merely my humble attempt to get the essence of a meal onto the screen.

So thumbs up for Martha and now it’s time to get back to work.

Spec season

Regular as fireflies on the Fourth, October is the time of year that Nicholl inquiries begin to roll in. I’ve had the good fortune of placing spec scripts high in that contest two years in a row. Once they release the list of quarterfinalists and above, production companies and a few agencies will reach out the the writers and ask to read scripts that interest them.

I’m a little better prepared this year. I know the difference between an agent and a manager. I understand the concept of a “meet-and-greet.” I know that everyone loves your script desperately and would sacrifice a limb to see it made into a movie…right up to the point where they stop returning your calls.

But I also understand that the film business is charged with creative energy, interesting people and a boatload of talent. I’m still maintaining connections and possibilities from last year’s Nicholl run. Some have provided excellent feedback. I’m still rewriting last year’s script based on producer notes, and it’s getting better. I’m pushing it in new directions I never would have conceived before. Every phone call, email exchange and meeting I’ve had has improved my understanding of how the process works.

And the main thing that I’ve learned is that filmmaking takes time. A writer needs patience and persistence. And a writer also needs to focus on what’s most important: the next script. I’m wrapping up a first draft of next year’s Nicholl submission now. I’ll probably write a half dozen more drafts between now and the opening of the next contest. Then we’ll start the whole process over again.

Top screenplay contests

A couple years ago when I finished my first script, I had no idea what to do next. Unlike fiction, you can’t just send queries to agents and expect any kind of response, even rejections.

Screenwriting contests and script competitions are one avenue to get industry attention. These are the best options based on my experience and research.

1. Nicholl Fellowships – This is the best one out there. You’ll get inquiries even if you’re a quarterfinalist (top 250 out of 5,000). As a semifinalist (top 100), you’ll get blasted with emails for a month, and they’ll continue to trickle in for up to a year.

2. Bluecat

3. American Zoetrope

4. Big Break

5. Scriptapalooza

6. Cinequest

There are hundreds of contests out there, and they mostly cost between thirty and fifty bucks to enter. Big Bear Lake International Film Festival is an example of a smaller competition that has seen winners go on to actual careers in the industry. You can find many other contests at Without a Box.

Are contests a scam? Are they a way just to raise money? I believe they’re largely legit. I’ve done the math, and script contests are not big profit centers. Something on the scale of the Nicholl certainly loses money. It’s the software companies and the expensive seminars and script doctors (and MFA programs) that feed on Hollywood dreams and make serious money from them.

Industry professionals are definitely interested in contest winners and finalists. This route has worked for me.  I’m still a working stiff writer and haven’t sold anything. But I’ve had a lot of good reads and I’m now rewriting one of my scripts for an indy company, so my one sliver of a chance has come directly from my experience with contests.

Do you read your stuff out loud?

I don’t know how many times over the years that I’ve recommended to writer friends and fiction writing students to read their work out loud. Not only will you catch every typo and grammar glitch, but you’ll be able to hear the ring and rattle of the words in your head.

Now that a tiny bit of screenplay success has me focusing all my writing efforts on scripts, you’d think I would have carried this bit of advice over to this other medium.

Right now I’m revising  a script with a healthy dose of feedback from producers, hoping that they’ll pull the trigger and decide to make this film. This script features a very, very long eulogy delivered in the first scene. The extended monologue up front breaks all the conventions of filmmaking, which is one reason I’ve had such good feedback. It’s a well written speech, if I do say so myself. And it doesn’t slow down the film at all.

You’d think I would have read this eulogy out loud before now. I first penned this scene almost two years ago. I’m on draft 7 according to the file name on my Word document, but it’s more likely draft 20 for this specific scene. And I’ve never read it out loud. Until now.

It’s early morning, and I affected my best cheesy Irish accent and read the scene. I’ve sliced it down again and again, and they seem to think it’s still too long. It’s half its original size. I read it out loud, and I cut it some more. That was the first time I’ve ever read an extended passage from one of my scripts. This in a medium that is mostly dialog.

Isn’t that ridiculous?  That should be your first step upon revision. Read the whole friggin thing. I wonder how often we ignore our own platitudes.

The hearth is your friend

This is the only truth. As much as writers might be in love with the romance in Dylan Thomas’s notion of the hearth killing the writer, a working stiff life can be your greatest ally.

A full-time job requires punctuality. It requires a schedule. And when you start to wedge moments into that schedule for writing, and you repeat the process daily, you start to build momentum. Road trips, drunken jags, backpacking trips along the spine of the Andes…all of these things might fuel stories. But to produce, you need routine. A mind-numbing, automatic routine that you don’t have to think about. This will give you the requisite pockets of space, to live within your own head.

If you write a little every day. At the same times. You build momentum. Writing begets more writing. I’m finally settling in after our cross-country move, and I’m starting to find this routine. A few minutes in the morning. A half hour at lunch. A couple hours at night.

Morning dialog

Cats that wake you at first light are useful. Suddenly you’re stumbling to the garage with a cup of cat food, bleary eyed, wondering where you are. You walk past where the Mac is charging on the counter, and suddenly you’re sitting on the front porch typing (or more likely deleting) dialog on your script rewrite.

When you’re a working stiff writer, you cling to the fringes…5 am, 11 pm…to get you work done. Especially when you have a family that deserves your time, and a job that conspires to take more than its share.

Of course, you’re always thinking about your work…in that critical meeting where you should be taking notes, when you’re watching your kid play in the fountain. My wife used to ask me what I was thinking when my eyes glazed over. Now she asks, “You’re thinking about your latest script, aren’t you?”

So now it’s seven on a Sunday morning and I’ve got a good couple hours under my belt. And I’m starting to mutter to myself, uttering the dialog exchange in my head, trying to approximate the affectation and genders of the characters. Anyone watching me would figure me insane. If you work on a script long enough, this just happens. Lines slip out whenever they will. It’s kind of like when my 4 year old daughter has conversations with her imaginary siblings.

Hurricane Lili: Chapter One

SUN-SPARKLE ON whitecaps, stiff onshore breeze pushing the smell of rotting kelp and turtle grass off of the beach, massing clouds on the horizon dark and promising rain: this was the backdrop to the girl on the day that things changed. I watched her over the top of my book and over the rims of my sunglasses. The instant that I spotted her I was possessed: my mind shifted, my heart warped. I knew I was now a different person, capable of anything, perhaps even murder.

The girl was pale with a slight, orange-pink cast that hinted at tanning creams and sun lamps. Tourist. Judging from her color, she was likely on her second full day in the sun after a cautious first day using a high-number sun block. You acquire skills after being in the Keys awhile: reading water, reading sky, reading skin.

She paced the beach before me, shadowing a child of less than two who scampered ahead and occasionally paused to squat on fat thighs and grasp shells from the coral sand. The mother, still a girl herself, wore a blue floral-print bikini—her exquisite hips decked in a wrap of diaphanous cloth. I studied her in profile as she moved along the edge of the water with the final trailing of the waves kissing her feet in a way that made me jealous. I watched the striations in her thighs appear for an instant as she stepped down on the ball of her foot. I studied the tensing of her calves. My eyes lingered on her absorbingly wrapped rear, the slight paunch of a belly in an otherwise muscled midsection (sit ups/appetite), the confidence evident in her posture where the roundness of her butt curved in toward her spine, the muscle tone in her shoulder appearing as she raised an arm to shade her eyes, turning her head to scan the surf where her husband swam between distant buoys, powering through the growing chop. She wore an interesting collection of bracelets on each wrist made from woven cloth, copper, bone and plastic beads. Her hair might be brownish in the winter, but now it was bleached, lightening at the ends to match the pale tone of the sand. Her chin was strong and her nose blunt. I couldn’t see her eyes for her mirrored sunglasses, but I imagined them green and feline—maybe they’d be her most striking feature if you caught a glimpse of her across a crowded room.

This might seem obsessive, but I’m just being honest. I admit to relishing the image of every woman I see. The practice often leads to a brief fantasy and on occasion to action and a lame pass. In rare instances, a conversation is sparked. But on the whole it remains pure naturalistic appreciation, though it does serve a practical purpose. Since the irregularities of my failing heart began keeping me awake nights, I started reflecting on the details of some woman recently studied. As I lie in bed, I mentally trace the graceful arc of flesh, the painted toenail, the strong chin under a straw hat or the faint blue line of a vein on the back of a leg. Every detail I can muster is turned over in my head, my mind’s eye lingering, of course, on the more sensual details. This practice quickens and studies my pulse, eventually quieting the arrhythmic thumping in my temples that renders sleep impossible. My doctor has insisted that the requisite heart surgery isn’t a wise option given the combined limitations of Medicaid, my genetics, and years of abuse by caustic substances. So I’ve been left with bananas, brisk walks, beta blockers and ACE inhibitors, the shunning of cigarettes and booze in hopes of prolonging my stay in this world. I don’t have much to go on, so I figure I should cling to whatever helps.

This particular young woman should have fueled a dozen nights of slumber, but instead the moment I spotted her my arrhythmia, that irregular rattle-clatter in my ribcage, actually began to worsen. The storm clouds massed beyond her and the onshore breeze gusted. It was either the foreshadowing of some sort of disaster or I was falling immediately in love, these two phenomena symptomatically similar and often one in the same. Nothing good will come of this, Jake, old boy, my sixth sense told me, Bury your head in your book and forget her.

But I continued watching her closely, feeling like a stalker, a voyeur, an old creep. We were alone on the gorgeous stretch of beach, the threat of a big storm keeping the less adventurous (or wiser) tourists away. It was just me, the girl and the toddler on this quarter-mile ribbon of pale sand hemmed by the lush green of the hardwood hammock on one side and the vast turquoise of the Atlantic on the other. Her husband splashed from buoy to buoy on the horizon, but he seemed as remote as a ship out beyond the reef. Maybe the sense of foreboding was only a product of the winds that had spun out of Africa to cause the mild tropical depression that was threatening to grow into something grander and less hospitable, swirling now a mere hundred miles off Cuba.

I forced my head down into the book again—it was a dense Russian novel, the kind that demands your full powers of concentration to understand that the two main characters are variously called Vanya, Alyosha, Alexeichik,Vanka, Lyoshenka, Ivan, Alyoshechka, Lyosha and so on. I was having trouble keeping it all straight. I heard a gull overhead and also the hiss of the breeze gusting through the sea oats behind me.

Something pulled my head up. Fate, maybe. I lowered my novel and studied the girl as she stood with her back to me, her toes in the water, her legs spread shoulder-width, her hand raised to shade her eyes. She gazed at the shrinking form of her husband, who was now swimming straight out toward the reef. Maybe I was in luck…wasn’t there some sort of current that might sweep him off to the Dutch Antilles, leaving me to attend to this young woman? I felt the seeds of a fantasy forming. I couldn’t be sure, but I sensed from the woman’s posture that she wasn’t all too concerned about the fellow’s safety. A troubled marriage, surely. My eyes lingered. From this view I was free to study the shape of her backside in detail.

But then I glanced away just for a moment to catch sight of the toddler teetering a dozen yards down the beach. The child was now up to her knees in the water and heading deeper. A largish wave rolled toward her. I stared openmouthed for an instant, heart plunging with the sort of terror only a parent can know.

Then I reacted.

Impulse wrenched me from my supine position and carried me the twenty yards to the child at a dead run. I reached her just as the wave bowled her over, its crest well above her head. I plucked her from the froth and lifted her high out of the water. She squealed, making a face at the taste of the brine.

At the sound of the kid’s voice, the mother rushed to my side. I felt her hand on my shoulder and I smelled her sun-bleached hair. My book floated at my feet, and my heart pounded an amplified version of its imperfect rhythm, blood rushing past my temples, my breathing labored. The child was heavy and wriggling, but I held her up, my fingers sinking into the plush flesh of her midsection. Her softness in my hands was delightful, recalling memories of my Lili. But I felt the permanent sense of calamity that enshrouds every parent; worry is one of the less savory sensations of parenthood, and it is one that I had tried so hard to mute in recent years through geographical separation, not to mention booze and chemical substances.

“My God. Thank you,” the woman said.

I handed the child over and smiled, though my hands trembled. She clutched the girl to her breast and kissed her on the forehead.

“I just turned away for a second and she took off,” she said.

“I know how they can slip away.”

“Horrible. I’m just a horrible mother…”

“Don’t be ridiculous. She’s fine…see.”

“Thank you. Thank you.” She pursed her lips and kissed the child. She touched my shoulder leaving a warm imprint. The kid whimpered and wiped her face with her palms.

“Yuck, Mommy,” the toddler said.

I wanted to introduce myself, but I couldn’t find any words. I shook both from my proximity to this gorgeous creature and the adrenaline of the rescue. I nodded, smiled again stupidly, then bent down to retrieve my soaked book from where it bobbed in the surf (stealing a glance at the taper of the mother’s ankles as I did so) and then walked back to my towel wondering how my wrecked body had managed to cross that stretch of beach so quickly. The scent of her hair and her salt-tinged skin still saturated my senses. I smiled at the notion of my parental instincts remaining intact despite years of numbing. Even now, with my heart beginning to fail, I could still race to the rescue of a toddler. I am worth something. Back when my Lili was small, I had heard all the horror stories of toddlers drowning in a five-gallon bucket or a neighbor’s play pool. And here I had just plucked a child away from salty peril. I felt…almost heroic.

I settled back down on my towel. The mother walked up the beach, clutching the squirming child. She turned her head toward her husband: he still stroked through the waves in Olympic fashion. Surely he would soon tire and drown, wouldn’t he? The kid wriggled in her arms. She glanced back in my direction and caught my stare. Her mouth was open, her face blank, haunted.

I pretended to read, but I felt a drama unfolding as the husband turned and headed in toward shore. The woman paced faster as I stared over the top of my soggy book. Soon the husband emerged from the surf, oblivious to what had happened. The water rolled off of his form like rain from an imitation Greek marble. His youth and well-formed shape made me feel inadequate. I was lean for my age and had recently grown fitter at the urgings of my doctor, but aside from the permanent quality of my tan I didn’t compare favorably with this fellow. He had shoulder-length, straw-colored hair and pleasant, almost feminine features. The young mother trotted up to him, proffering the toddler, whom he hoisted above his head.

I was saddened by the sight of the reunion of this handsome family, feeling ridiculous for ogling the girl. My earlier heroism evaporated, and I returned to being a fading beach bum, a failed writer, a lousy husband and a disastrous father on hospice in the tropics, waiting to die in paradise. My earlier foreboding intensified. It was as if I sensed that I would soon want to rip this little family apart.

The young woman gestured with her hands, making the motion of grasping the child and then pointing my way. The husband regarded me for a second, then he looked back to the woman said something in a raised voice. I couldn’t quite make it out. The girl shook her head. She turned away from him. She folded her arms tightly across her breasts and tucked her head. I heard her voice, and it sounded like she was sobbing. He trotted after her, the child bouncing on his shoulders. She stopped and knelt in the sand. He stood over her. There were more words, and he shouted now. She turned then, lashing out at him. She beat his thigh with her fists. Holding onto the child with one hand, he grabbed her arm with the other and pulled her to her feet with a powerful jerk. He shook her. Even from this distance I saw the indentation his thumb was making in the flesh of her upper arm. He shook her some more so that her head bounced back and forth. He released her and she stumbled. The child began to cry.

She staggered away from him and walked a few yards to the edge of the water, folding her arms again and looking out at the massing towers of clouds.

I watched a moment longer and then put my head down.

“You fucker,” I mumbled, the curse directed at the muscle-bound husband, but also at myself. You might be somewhat heroic when it comes to toddlers and knee-high waves, but when you see some fellow roughing up a girl, you whither.

I thumbed through the soggy pages of my novel, finally finding where I’d left off, squinting at the typeface. The print from the reverse side showed through the wet paper, but by concentrating I was able to now discern that Ivan was also Vanya and Vanka, and that his brother Alexie was also Lyoshenka and Alyosha. When I looked up a few minutes later, the family was gone. But the sense of impending darkness lingered on the empty beach. The storm clouds had thickened and darkened, and now a few fat raindrops fell with dull plops on the coral sand.

If you’re interested in reading the full manuscript of Hurricane Lili, drop me a note at dave[at]301media[dot]com.

Disappeared: Prologue

When death came to Angel Hervias on a rock outcropping seven miles north of the border, he barely recognized it.  It wasn’t a jaguar’s cough.  It wasn’t an owl perched on a limb alongside the path.  Nor was it the vision of his sister dressing his own grave with pine boughs on the Day of the Dead, the premonition that had so often appeared in his dreams.  Rather, it was a common buzzard—mud brown and circling the valley below him, wings hanging in a lazy ‘v,’ sloppy pinion feathers outstretched like fingers.

The scavenger was still far away.  It seemed to ignore him.  It dropped over the pale rock of the valley floor, and Angel rolled onto his side to look down on it.  The buzzard was so low to the ground that he could see its shadow tracking the rocks beneath it.  He squinted through the melted glass of shimmering heat.

The sun was straight overhead now.  He felt it cooking him, sucking out the last traces of moisture.  He realized that living things are really made up of the wet stuff:  once that runs out, it’s all over.  The bullet hole above his knee had long since stopped bleeding.  His mouth, which had been coated with a sticky paste an hour earlier, was now completely dry.  His tongue was cracked and it rattled against his teeth every time he exhaled.  His lips were split open and swollen.

Given the bird’s distance, one might assume that it had no interest in him.  But Angel knew the patience of vultures.  He’d seen them sit for days on the carcass of a cow waiting for the hide to soften enough to tear into the stinking flesh.  This bird was in no hurry.

“I’m bone dry, cabron,” he said, “I hope you like jerked meat.”

He laughed.

He knew that his mind was going.  It had been going for some time.  He couldn’t even remember why he’d climbed the mountain.  Was it to signal a plane?  Had he intended to start a brush fire?  Had he expected to catch sight of the highway and regain his bearings?  Whatever the reason, he was now glad he’d climbed because he liked being able to look down on death.

He laughed again.

And so death was here and his mind was leaving him.  The pain would end, which was good.  But he was loath to give up his mind.  The thought panicked him.  Out of desperation, he tried to picture the girl, but couldn’t conjure the details.  He could trace her outline…the shape of her silhouette in the moonlight, the curve of her hips, the taper of her calves…but everything between the edge lines was a blur.  Her eyes…what color are they?


His heart pounded.  Her name?  What is her name?


He felt a strange pain in his head, even through the heat that simmered the fluid in his braincase.  The new pain blossomed up from the inside, from behind the bridge of his nose.  His lips pulled up into a weird grimace, and he felt them splitting deeper, flesh cracking like old leather.  Then he understood that he was crying.  He had been unable to recognize the sensation because there were no tears.  His body was too dry.  This left only the strange burning behind his nose and the ugly grimace.  The buzzard would think that he was still laughing.

“What is her name?”

She was the reason he was here.  That much he still remembered.  It was why he’d crossed on his own.  “The Migra will just send you back,” the others told him.  “The polleros will shoot you and take your money.”

He reached down and pulled at the leg of his pants.  He touched the bulge against his calf.  A year’s wages were stuffed into his socks.  They were good, wool socks.  He had good boots.  He’d filled his belly in Sasabe before striking out across the desert.  He purchased three gallons of water.  He left his mother down in San Cristobal and told her that he was going to El Norte for good this time.  He assured her that he knew where it was safe to cross the border.  He promised to send money.  There was work for him in the north.  There was a girl that waited for him.  He had money.  He had good boots.

But he also had a hole in his leg and he couldn’t walk.  Death circled the valley, waiting patiently.  And his mind was cooking.  And the wet stuff was gone.  And he couldn’t remember the girl’s name.

He was eighteen.

The Last Ramble of Wolf 18

A century after timberwolves had been officially declared extinct in Missouri, one wolf traveled 460 miles with hopes of recovering this lost frontier. This article originally appeared online in 2002.

WHEN WALKING AT NIGHT, I’m tempted to howl. I have a feeling that a wolf might respond. That’s a strange impulse in central Missouri. Howling is a scientific technique, an easy and inexpensive way of surveying if wild wolves have settled new territory, but until recently the only response you might expect would be from dogs or coyotes. For more than a century, officials have considered wolves extinct in Missouri. But all that has changed. Now, if you live in central Missouri and you decide to step onto your porch at night and howl, you just might get a response.

It’s a remote but very real possibility. Last October, Wolf 18 was discovered in north-central Missouri. He was a long way from home, a bona-fide Michigan gray wolf as wild as they come. Wolf 18’s arrival in our state is a singular journey opening a new chapter in Missouri’s natural history. He’s the first proven wild gray wolf to be found here since the 1880s, having completed an unprecedented odyssey traversing at least 460 miles and likely more, meeting countless dangers to arrive here relatively unscathed by his journey. If you would have howled under an October moon in Grundy County last year, Wolf 18 might have howled back.

If it still seems far-fetched, consider the Howard county couple who recently heard what they suspected to be a gray wolf this past winter. This sighting, smack in the middle of the state, opens up the whole geography of Missouri for possible wolf activity. Lending credibility to their encounter is the fact that they are both trained biologists. They heard a howl at night after noticing huge tracks in the snow on their property and on an adjacent conservation area. True to their training, they measured and saved the prints, took photos and made molds, submitting them to conservation officials. They even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to record the animal, luring it back with the recorded howling of other wolves. Mammal expert Dave Hamilton from the Missouri Department of Conservation eventually secured the molds of the suspected wolf’s footprints, and after conferring with a network of wolf biologists wasn’t convinced that this animal was a true wild individual. It could be a dog or hybrid wolf. Despite the credibility of the witnesses, there wasn’t enough evidence to verify the sighting.

WE KNOW A LOT MORE about Wolf 18. We know that he was a true endangered gray wolf. We know where he started and where he wound up, though there’s a whole lot of speculation surrounding what happened in between. Wolf 18 was born into the Chaney Lake Pack in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s a rugged and sparsely populated spit of land wedged between Lakes Michigan and Superior, covered with pine forests, cedar swamps and plenty of whitetail deer. It’s an ideal habitat, so much so that since the first mating pair of gray wolves returned in 1989 after the species had all but vanished from Michigan, the population has climbed steadily. It’s now fast approaching 300.

Despite the prime habitat, Wolf 18 had it rough from the start. The Chaney Lake Pack was large, numbering as many as nine individuals, which meant that pups would be under intense social pressure to fit in or get out. With two other packs in the area vying for game, there would be no tolerance for hangers on.

The young wolf had his first run-in with humans in July of 1999 when he was captured in a leg trap by Michigan conservation officials trying to locate his family group. Weighing only 28 pounds, he was fitted with a radio collar made for a larger animal and tagged in his ear with the number 18. The conservation officials expected him to slip out of his collar soon, and they never thought they would find him wearing it two years later, let alone find him wearing it in Missouri. Scientists tracked him for the next nine months, noting his whereabouts during regular observation flights. But on March 26, 2000, there was one less blip on their monitor. Wolf 18 had dispersed.

Gray wolves disperse for various reasons. Some strike out on their own to find a mate rather than bide their time trying to climb their pack’s social hierarchy to win breeding privileges. Others are driven out because of social pressure. The pressure on a pup like Wolf 18 would have been intense. Jim Hammill of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources notes, “When we lost him he was approaching his first birthday, so you would assume that he was a lower ranking member of the pack.” Dispersing is a natural drive in wolves. It keeps packs healthy, ensuring that there will never be too many mouths to feed. It also allows for the settlement of territory previously uninhabited by wolves. It encourages genetic diversity as dispersing wolves from far-flung packs meet to form pair bonds. Distances vary, but one wolf in Canada was recorded dispersing 829 miles. Michigan wolves have dispersed to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada, the longest venturing 450 miles. The longest, that is, until Wolf 18.

WOLF 18 BLAZED A NEW TRAIL. Michigan wolves rarely venture south, and two predecessors were found dead on the highway in southern Wisconsin, testament to their clash with the more developed world. The southern route adds more danger to what is already a perilous undertaking. Dispersing wolves are at a disadvantage. Wolves have evolved into the perfect teams, hunting in groups with skill and efficiency, but Wolf 18 had to hunt alone. What’s more, he ran the risk of overstepping the bounds of one of the Wisconsin packs. Wolves rarely tolerate the trespassing of others of their own species, and most transgressors are killed at once. Dispersing to the south would also bring Wolf 18 face to face with lethal interstate highways for which his youth in the Upper Peninsula would have left him ill prepared. There would be the unfamiliar terrain of farms, cities and suburbs, conflicts with domestic dogs, and the formidable barrier of the Mississippi River. And the southern route brought him more encounters with the greatest danger of all–humans. Lots and lots of humans.

WOLF 18 WAS MISSING for a year and a half. It is unlikely that he traveled from Michigan to Missouri in a straight line, so the actual distance covered is sure to be well above 460 miles. A healthy wolf can travel as much as 40 miles in a single day, so when that is added to the amount of time that Wolf 18 went missing, a lot of ground could have been covered. This left unlimited possibility for human encounters. Somebody had to see an animal of his size. Does this mean that human attitudes have changed? After all, as recently as the 1950s, wolves were considered a scourge. They were hunted, trapped, poisoned, driven to extinction in many states where bounties were offered until the last gray wolf was eliminated from the wild. While Jim Hammill agrees that a change in human attitude, combined with the success of the Endangered Species Act and the environmental revolution of the 1970s, is a leading contributor to the unprecedented recovery of wolves in the Great Lakes area, he doubts that this helped Wolf 18 get to Missouri. “It’s not so much that people are tolerant of wolves in places like southern Wisconsin and Missouri,” he notes, “but people will see the animal and misidentify it.” The gray wolf is, after all, the closest wild relative of the domestic dog, a cousin to the coyote.

Environmental revolution aside, old attitudes die hard. Wolf 18 ran a gauntlet of dangers and traveled farther than any Michigan wolf in recent memory to arrive in one piece in north-central Missouri. A Grundy County man returned home from a bowhunting excursion, discovered the gray wolf eyeing his sheep and assumed it was a coyote. On October 23, Wolf 18 was killed, an arrow piercing his left hip.

The necropsy report gave a clinical summary of Wolf 18’s life. The fur around his neck was matted and worn from the radio collar. His coat contained burrs from his journey, and one foot was slightly misshapen from the leg trap–evidence of his first encounter with humans as a pup. His weight was good: at 80 pounds he was right on track for a two and a half year-old wolf. He’d eaten well on his trip. His stomach contents showed, however, that he was ready to eat again when he was killed. The Missouri man who shot Wolf 18 may have misidentified him, but he might have accurately judged the endangered animal’s intentions as it eyed his sheep.

So what is the future of wolves in Missouri? Can they survive here? Dave Hamilton feels that it’s technically possible for wolves to exist here: we have the game and the habitat, and after all, wolves used to live here. “The question is,” Hamilton notes, “can people tolerate wolves?” So far, signs indicate that we can’t. Evidence of this is that another wolf-like animal was killed south of Columbia, Missouri prior to 18’s amazing journey. All signs pointed to that animal being a true wild gray wolf: wolf-like features, no dog food in its stomach, no marks from a collar, no wear on its paws from cement. But there’s no way to know for sure if it was a wild animal dispersed here on its own, or if it was a pet or captive wolf or hybrid that escaped. Wolf 18, on the other hand, was definitely a wild wolf, and he has a file in Crystal Falls, Michigan to prove it. But like the other animal, his first encounter with humans in Missouri shows that perceptions haven’t changed, and until they do it’s not likely that we will soon have a population of wild wolves in our state. Our only hope of seeing a wild wolf will be to run into that rare adventurous individual that heads for distant horizons. Our only hope is Wolf 18.

AND THAT BRINGS US TO A QUESTION. Is there something different about the Michigan wolves that disperse to the south from those that head west or north? Why do some wolves choose the more difficult path? Maybe there is something that separates them from others of their kind. Perhaps it’s a similar impulse to that found in our own species–the drive that propels explorers like Missouri trailblazers Lewis and Clark. Wolf 18 was missing for one and a half years. A wolf can travel up to 40 miles in a single day. If you do the math, he could have traveled well over ten thousand miles. Wolf 18 is officially credited with traveling 460 miles, but as Jim Hammill notes, “for all we know, he went farther than that. He may have gone to the Gulf and been on his way back.” With an unscientific stretch of the imagination, it is comforting to think of Wolf 18 gazing out over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, echoing fellow explorer William Clark in his own wolfish way: “Ocean in view! O! The joy.”

But that’s a stretch, so let us get back to sound science. During the next full moon, if I were to step onto my porch to conduct a howling census, I could do so with full faith in the possibility, as remote as that possibility may be, of a response. In that distant place, the wild reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula five hundred miles to the north, there are more animals like Wolf 18.

Back from Ciudad Juarez

Spent a few days on the border. The border patrol didn’t believe me when I said that I was, “just walking around.” I suppose there aren’t many gringos who just wander the back streets of Juarez unless they’re looking for drugs or sex or some sort of nastiness.

But the residential districts close to the city center were actually pleasant. I’d spent a good part of the day sitting in a park. There were two old men in straw cowboy hats and work shirts sitting on a wrought iron bench. The shady plazita’s gray-bearded caretaker hosed the pigeon shit off the sidewalk. The sound of playing children rose from behind the massive cinder block wall of the neighborhood school.

Two kids walked by, mop-headed and wearing rock tee shirts. One held a gut string guitar on which he plucked a pop song while they waited for the bus. An old dog walked by, gingerly, smiling at me for a moment in hopes of a handout. Her tail stirred but didn’t have the strength to wag. But like the old Indian women on the port of entry bridge, she didn’t hold out much hope. It was merely instinct to feign affability, part of her nature. She moved along, her belly sagging like a Holstein milk cow’s–evidence of a lifetime of litters. She squatted to relieve herself, her back legs quivering with arthritis.

A mother passed with a little girl, the child skipping and laughing as she stirred the pigeons off the hot cement. A field truck rumbled up the empty street, the bed in back arrayed with mops, plastic garbage pails, bottles of cleanser and brooms. A loudspeaker on the roof hawked bargains on house wares like an ice cream truck. There were no takers.

I had just walked at least five miles, the coating of grit on the streets thickening as I neared the town center. Now I was on my way back to the border and I needed to rest my feet. I didn’t want to leave the bench.

The Avenida de 16 Septiembre had been lined with wooden telephone poles, and it took me a while to notice the pink squares painted on the side, each containing a black cross. These were symbols of all of the murdered and missing women of Juarez. The boxes were now covered with soot.

The proprietor of the flophouse told me to stick to the tourist quarter and not to go at night. Some say that it is the most dangerous city on the border. But in the plazita in the midday heat, I saw no evidence. The only hint of something amiss was the occasional police officer arrayed in full combat gear or the surprised way people looked at me when I said “buonas diaz.” But then people in New York would also be surprised if you pulled them out of the gray concrete world of their urban routine.

I forced myself to stir, my blistered feet protesting. A male pigeon puffed his chest and grumbled, chasing a female who’d been hovering near my bench hoping for crumbs.

Still all about the content

It’s funny, after years designing for the web, how often I forget the old mantra: content is king. This site is proof. It’s a simple concept (the best concepts always are) where folks send in anonymous postcards revealing a secret. The best are posted to the web.

It doesn’t get any more basic…it’s a virtual corkboard. But I spent more time perusing this simple site than I have on any art or concept website in recent memory. These postcards (some artistically brilliant) contain some of the most powerful sentences I’ve read in some time. In many ways it’s even more striking than the bittersweet group therapy of sorryeverybody.com, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The developer, Frank Warren, uses a basic template on Blogger with no frills, bells or whistles. The site even caught the attention of NPR(where I heard about it). Lovely designs and attention to detail are fine, but a solid concept and strong content, partnered with an easy avenue for audience participation, wins out every time. End of article