Out and Back

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On a recent trip to Australia, I spent much of my time in the great outback, an expanse of wild land where human population density equals roughly 9/100 of a person for every square mile. To grasp that statistic, I pictured myself divided into 100 pieces, then imagined nine of those pieces roaming one square mile of land.

When I returned home to San Francisco, I felt irritable and discontent. Life here, where over 17,000 of us pack into one square mile, could never replicate the amazing experience of the Australian outback. When would I ever again see a crocodile sunning himself on a riverbank, a kangaroo hopping through a eucalyptus forest, or a dingo lurking in the shadow of a big yellow moon?

Seeking an escape one afternoon, I Googled the words “unpopulated wild places,” but just as Borneo popped up on the screen, I was interrupted by a phone call from my husband. “What!” I said, annoyed at the intrusion into my travel fantasies.

“Listen,” he said.  “Just listen.”

A long mournful howl erupted on the other end of the line. A coyote was perched on a log just twenty feet from where my husband stood as he called from a neighborhood park. Closing my eyes, I recalled another day not long ago watching a pod of dolphins cavorting off a San Francisco beach while a flock of elegant terns flew in from the ocean to feed their newly fledged chicks in the sand. I remembered the grey whales I had seen in the same place only a few weeks before while a pair of red-tailed hawks circled quietly above. I thought of the animal tracks I had discovered a few months before that while hiking a nearby trail, tracks, I was told, of a California mountain lion.


As another long howl pierced my reverie, I closed my computer and gazed out the window at the fog swirling over Twin Peaks. “Thank you,” I said, both to my husband, and to the coyote. Thank you for reminding me that the outback I long for can also be found in my own beautiful back yard.

With a Perspective, this is Carol Arnold.

Carol Arnold is an environmental planner and writer who lives in San Francisco.