Each spring I trumpet a phrase to the newest batch of students bound for Tanzania as part of Houghton’s signature study abroad program. We’ve used the phrase: the journey is the destination, so many times over the years that it has become our motto. And I’ve referred to it so many times that I’ve bought into it. I like it because it challenges my tendency to look ahead and refocuses me on being in the moment and the all-important process of becoming. As the director of a program that seems a perpetual journey, it seems imperative my students see the value in it as well.
But there’s another phrase that I also believe yet I never trumpet to my students, or anybody for that matter. My phrase—never pass up a dead coyote—originated when I realized that Houghton isn’t in the middle of nowhere; rather, it’s in the middle of an Amish enclave and a place I’ve coined Coyoteville.
It all began one fateful morning when I was driving to class from our home in the country, late as usual. A dusting of snow on the ground, crystal clear skies, and me craning my neck so that I could look out the little portal of windshield that my defroster had melted. Just as I was rounding the bend on Centerville Road to begin my descent into Houghton, I glimpsed what I gathered to be a dead dog in the ditch. I hit the brakes, jumped out, and approached. Pointed ears, immaculate mottled coat, and unmistakable wild face. This was certainly no dog. Nor was it sleeping. It was dead and I was entranced. I had never expected an animal that I’d only glimpsed in rare moments of furtiveness could be so beautiful up close. I couldn’t just pass it up.
I glanced at my watch and flinched. My class was due to start in mere minutes. Moreover, my day’s schedule was tight with meetings and teaching. Reluctantly, I got back in my car and drove to the science building. But while I taught, I schemed. And two classes later, I found a small gap that afforded me thirty minutes. I jumped in my truck and sped back to the coyote, relieved to find it in the same spot. Unable to pass up a dead coyote twice, I heaved it into the back of my truck and zipped back down to Houghton. As I pulled into campus, I suddenly realized that the temperature was rising fast and the snow was melting. The last thing I needed was a rotting corpse in my truck as I finished out my classes for the day. I needed to stash the body. But where?
Slowly I circled the campus studying every bush and hedge. The coyote was heavy so I couldn’t drag it far. I sped up as I neared Luckey Building, fearful President Mullen would sense my shenanigans and get security on my tail. Finally, I settled on the Nielsen Center (behind it to be precise). Only bona fide weirdos hung out there so likely my corpse was bound to be safe.
After my last class of the day, I drove home, had dinner with Linda and the kids and in so doing, spilled the coyote story. Ezra, four-years-old at the time, was enraptured with the tale. Linda, my steadfast wife, was less so. “So what are you going to do with it?” Linda asked, staring down at her plate.
“I’m not sure,” I replied truthfully.
“Well, you can’t just leave it rotting behind the gym,” Linda said.
“You’re right. Ezra, what do you say we go on a coyote collecting trip?” I said, intentionally avoiding eye contact with Linda.
“But what about his bedtime?” Linda implored.
“We’ll be quick,” I assured her, although this was entirely speculative. “Come on, Ez!”
Fifteen minutes later, Ezra and I were knocking on the large white farmhouse that belonged to the Millers, an Amish family I had wanted to befriend since moving into this hinterland we shared. In seconds, I was explaining my coyote predicament to no less than seven pairs of eyes. Darkness had fallen and I felt suddenly ridiculous interrupting a family I hardly knew on a weeknight to discuss a dead coyote. After a long silence, a teenager who introduced himself Moses finally said, “Well, I guess we’ll have to go get it, won’t we?”
Two hours later, and well past Ezra’s bedtime, Ezra and I had been taught the fine art of coyote skinning under the flickering light of a kerosene lantern in the barn at the Miller homestead. Word must have quickly spread about the gangly guy and his son, who knock on doors at night discussing stashed road kills. For not many weeks later, the local Amish community had welcomed me in and we were soon hosting them for meals and going for wagon rides. More importantly, all of us were seeing life through the eyes of a unique people group that had much to teach us about living.
The coyote pelt was a nice prop this past Halloween and occasionally warms my feet on chilly November mornings. But much like a destination, it is ultimately far less important than was the process of getting it. It served as a door to meet my neighbors, a window to view our cultures, and a mirror to learn about myself. That’s why I keep it, to remind me of the importance of the journey. The journey out of myself and into the lives of others. And that’s why though I let sleeping dogs lie; I never pass up a dead coyote.
Eli Knapp ’00 is Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies, Biology and Earth Science at Houghton College. He also directs the Houghton in Tanzania semester.