Window panes turn to mirrors this time of day, as the setting sun touches the glass. The last reaches of the golden hour fade into a blue dusk.
Birds rustle branches; tires squeal on asphalt in the distance. But there are no voices. No bodies. No human commotion traveling across the brisk evening air.
And then something strange happens.
A clock signaling 8 p.m. plays St. Michael’s chimes through an open window down the street. But the familiar tones are disrupted somehow. There is another sound mounting over the clock’s melody. It is the sound of wolves.
A door opens across the street. A man and woman step through. And then the man is crying out. Pumping his fist in the air. Howling like an animal into the pale blue night.
The howls are bright, staccato bursts. Then they are heavy, indulgent, drawn out. Then they are almost sobs, whip-fast and weary. Finally, there is the unmistakable shape of joy — both in the yelps and in the grin spread across the man’s face as he waves to the handful of neighbors who have joined him in this new nightly ritual.
Disembodied cries emerge from every direction. Howls match more howls. A choral recitation buoyed by a collective need to be together while being apart.
The man across the street thrusts his fist into the air once more. Cheers a few more times. Then he waves goodbye and walks back inside.
A few howls follow him, but within five minutes, the noise has stopped. The neighborhood is lonely again.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced a community apart. Gatherings places have been ordered empty, a necessary but painful measure to reduce exposure. And people have been ordered apart, too.
Frontline workers are isolating from their families. Elderly parents are being kept at bay. Friends aren’t invited over. Trips out are rare -- if at all. It's all in an effort to reduce the spread of a virus that has so far killed more than 30,000 people in the U.S in mere weeks.
Casperites say a consequence of these sacrifices is a feeling of fractured community and separation. Howling, it turns out, might be an antidote. The simple act of roaring into the night has been a sincere way for many to reconnect with that lost body of support.
Erica Smith did not want to howl at first. She just wanted to listen. To hear some voices other than her 2-year-old daughter’s and her husband’s. To maybe listen and know a few of those voices were friends she would otherwise be able to see and speak to and touch in real-time.
“I was just kind of listening, but she could hear it and she started howling,” Smith said of her daughter. “So I just was like, going for it. And so I howled out my howl.”
Smith and her daughter have now howled every night this past week.
“It was really emotional, I didn’t think it would be so emotional, but it was just so good to be part of something again.” Smith said. “It's just really cool to know that at the same moment, we're all putting our positive vibes out there and we're all supporting each other and we're all doing one tiny little thing to come together as a community again.”
Normally, there would be Easter egg hunts, story time at the library, David Street Station, church events, the Y. But everything, or what feels like pretty much everything, has been closed or canceled to quell the spread of the virus.
Those closures have also put Smith and her husband out of work.
Smith said she’s mostly a stay-at-home mom, but is also a census taker this year. The Census Bureau recently announced a plan to move that operation back several months. Smith’s husband would normally be in a classroom, filling in as a substitute teacher for the Natrona County School District.
The cumulative effect of it all?
“We're just super, super isolated,” Smith said.
And things have been the hardest the last few weeks. The end of March usually marks a time of celebration for her family, with her daughter, herself and her husband each celebrating birthdays.
There had been plans for parties and guests. Candles, cake, games.
“All that stuff got canceled,” Smith said. “So it's really hard to have those milestones and those celebrations and have to do them alone.”
Howling has become a surprising reprieve. But it’s about more than wanting to feel less alone for Smith. She has friends in the health care field. Friends working checkout at Walmart. People who she knows are at risk of exposure to the virus.
She said being able to honor “all the people putting in long hours and working really hard for us so that we can be safe and still have the things that we need” is just as much a part of why she howls each night.
Smith’s husband isn’t sold on howling as catharsis. As Smith and her daughter make their nightly journey to their apartment balcony, Smith’s husband watches and laughs.
But Smith tells the naysayers to just “let it be.”
“Let it be, you know, it's 30 seconds out of the day. If it annoys you, I'm sorry. But it brings, I think it brings a lot of people a lot of comfort and a lot of joy. And it's fine if you don't want to participate or think it's silly,” she said. “But just let it be. Let people deal with how they're going to deal with the situation we're in.”
Jane Ifland says let them howl, too.
“Anybody can do it,” Ifland said. “It takes no preparation. No tools or equipment, no special uniform. No nothing extra. Just right out of your chest, straight from your heart.”
Ifland has been struggling with balance and collective grief. The pandemic has taken from people. Lost loved ones. Lost work. Lost memories and experiences. Even touch. Ifland is more vulnerable to the virus, so she hasn’t welcomed a hug in five weeks.
Howling became an unintentional reaction to this mounting communal loss, Ifland explained.
“There was nothing deliberate about it. Nothing at all,” she said. “But I have to tell you that first night when I stepped out on my front porch and just gave voice to everything that was going on and kind of dedicated it to the front liners…”
“I felt better,” she said.
Michael Harkin, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Wyoming, said that makes sense. Harkin is in Romania on a Fulbright Fellowship, so he spoke with the Star-Tribune via video chat.
“Humans have a need for community and ritual, those are really two of the main drivers of human social life,” he said.
Wolves, he said, are iconic to the West, and the collective howling may have grown to this level of popularity as a region grasps at something to hold it together.
Harkin invoked Easter and other religious rituals people have been mostly barred from participating in the same way they normally would. But he also touched on secular rituals, like sports.
“All of these avenues have really been cut off for us,” he said.
“If you've ever sung in a choir or done anything like that, you know that it is a powerful sense of being part of a group,” Harkin continued. “I think (howling), for lack of a more deep insight into it, I would say it's just kind of the best people can do at the moment.”
While the howling may be strange, he said these types of collective reactions to grief and catastrophe are typical of the human experience.
How communities are adapting elsewhere is also a good indication of the collective grief people are feeling, Harkin explained. Neighbors are figuring out other creative ways to connect. To be and feel heard. Some in New York City have taken to applauding from their windows as frontline workers switch shifts.
Videos of Italians singing and playing music off of their balconies circulate online.
And Harkin thinks the howling may extend past the pandemic.
“The kind of mass catastrophe that people have survived, there will be a need to commemorate that,” he said. “I would not be surprised to see howling happening from time to time as a commemoration of the SARS COVID pandemic.”
There’s disagreement over where exactly the howling began. Some think California. Some think Colorado. Regardless, the movement popped up in cities and towns across the West. Media reports from New Mexico to Idaho feature communities howling together into the night.
The idea is often hoisted as a way to thank health care workers and other essential personnel.
In Casper, not everyone is ready to howl at the moon. A few nights ago, someone yelled at Erica Smith and her daughter to “shut up.”
But the number of Casper howlers is growing. Johnny Huff can vouch for that.
Huff started the Casper Facebook group that kicked off the trend in the city, but he didn’t set out to catalyze a citywide movement. At first, the idea was much more concentrated.
He got the idea for the Facebook group from a friend in Missoula, who shared something similar happening in their community. Huff thought it was a cool idea and wanted to adapt it for his own purposes.
“I had my mom in mind when I decided to start (the group) because she's a health care worker,” Huff said. “At the point that I made it, I was just hoping there'd be enough people that she'd be able to hear. I knew that she'd support it and then she'd be out there howling her ass off, too, so I just wanted her to hear the howls and know that she's supported and loved and appreciated.”
It seems the idea has resonated. Huff’s group, named “Howl for Casper” on Facebook, had nearly 10,000 members as of Friday morning and averages 570 posts a day.
The first night Huff went out to howl, it was just him and his girlfriend. They didn’t hear anybody else. But the next night “it was a lot louder, like noticeably.” More and more people seemed to be participating each day.
He might have been the one to start the official group on Facebook, but he was still skeptical about the whole thing at first.
“I felt a little silly. Because, you know, I knew for a fact I was most likely going to be one of the only people around doing it and my neighbors were probably going to be a bit upset about it,” he said. “But there’s something just so refreshing about like letting it out. It's almost animalistic. It just feels great.”
Sometimes, the whole thing makes him a little wistful and has even brought him to tears a few times.
“It makes me realize that I'm not the only one feeling like this,” he said. “At first I guess, I knew that I wasn't alone, but it definitely felt like I was. Hearing everybody else do this, it just feels so great to know that I'm not alone and that they're not. And that they can understand and realize that they're also not alone. It feels amazing.”
Huff plans to keep the Facebook group alive “as long as people feel that it needs to be done or that it feels right.”
That group has also become a sea of virtual support, people celebrating each other’s noise.
Tiffany Pyle posted in the group looking for some of that support. Pyle saw a news article about soldiers’ homecomings being delayed by the virus. Growing up an army brat, she knows how important those homecomings are to service members and their families, so she wanted to widen the howl’s dedication to honor military personnel as well.
This is part of what she loves about the howl, it can mean anything to anyone. Plus, it’s something fun for her family to do together.
“It's kind of nice just to go outside and be able to just yell, and nobody's going to call the cops and think you're crazy.” she said. “We have a 9-year-old and she just absolutely loves it.”
Matt Brown’s 7-year-old son is eager to participate as often as possible, too.
“Everyday all day he’s just like, ‘Daddy is it 8 o’clock yet?’” Brown laughed.
Brown’s mom is a nurse practitioner. His stepdad is a contractor. Brown himself works at Firestone Auto Care. The state has not closed any of their workplaces. For him, the howling to honor essential workers has been overwhelming.
“It’s definitely a very lifting feeling to know we live in a community that's so supportive, that something that sounds as silly as just going out at 8 o'clock and howling has taken Casper by such force that no matter where you go at 8, you're bound to hear at least someone howling,” he said.
Brown howls with his mom, his aunt and his son.
For Brown at least, howling gives him some relief “from our confinement from each other and the feeling of isolation that comes with being afraid of this virus.”
His mom wasn’t too sure. She didn’t think anyone else would participate. Worried what the neighbors would think. But Brown said as soon as his mom experienced the howling for herself, her mindset shifted.
“It struck my mom of just how real this is and she's been participating ever since,” he said.
To others who don’t quite understand or who balk at the idea, he asks them to go outside and howl into the sky, just to see how it feels.
Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites
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