Taken Back North

I stare up at it, looming a dozen or so feet above my head. The life-size zebra is still here, though quite weather-beaten. It’s a landmark that holds a permanent space in my mind—like a file that can never be dislodged from a hard drive, even if Chloe from 24 was hired to take care of it. Why won’t this zebra leave me?

My early-childhood home was a mile north of here along Highway 2, so it was a daily thing, staring out the window from my car seat in the early 1980s, completely in awe of the exotic striped animal in its regal stance atop the Knopp Taxidermy sign. This was probably early enough that I would have just whispered horsey, not yet able to identify the beast.

There are places my mind goes at times, seemingly at random—not propositions or statements or fully formed thoughts; just real-world physical spaces, conjured in vivid detail by the fusion of a thousand memories, clumps of sensory data, and childhood daydreams. It’s time travel and teleportation at once, set off unexpectedly, the fuse having been lit by something I probably didn’t even notice—a chainsaw starts in the distance, a mix of casserole and old carpet fills my nostrils, a wisp of wood smoke moves with the breeze—just visible against the night sky. And I’m gone, taken back against my will. One of the places I go is the Knopp Taxidermy sign.

I suspect this phenomenon is a common occurrence, but we don’t often speak of it. Maybe it’s because people will think we are high. But I want to speak of it, because it’s just so enjoyable. I don’t want to Google it—I don’t know what I would type in.

*

My mental association with the zebra may also be with the long, thick stand of ponderosa pines just beyond the sign. The wild places north of the city begin, in earnest, after you drive past that zebra. Long after we moved from that area, instead of a daily drive-by, it became a sort of gateway to the north country; it was an unspoken tradition of mine to gaze at it en route to an outdoor adventure. A grouse hunting daytrip with my dad would pass by this way, and every winter weekend the cheap-ride ski bus would lurch onto the highway here, pointing my pre-teen pals and me toward a day of freedom on Mt. Spokane. My newly drivers-licensed days included an escape out north to Bear Lake with a girl I was trying, unsuccessfully, to date.

I never went into the taxidermy studio itself. I’m sure I considered it creepy, associating it unfairly with some Norman-Bates-esque scene. But the sign was an oddity that came to symbolize, for me, the strange beauty and goodness of nature.

*

Walter emerges from his massive 25-year-old Cadillac station wagon; he’s smiling and walking over to shake my hand. He has an earnest way of speaking that isn’t quite an accent, or maybe it is: midwest maybe? My business here is to rent a storage unit from him in one of the brand-new pole barns he had built for such purposes. “My retirement project,” he says. Walter appears to be well into his eighties.

The cold morning is hinting at the oncoming winter, and Walter is bundled up. Even so, he promptly returns to the car, and motions for me to get in. A bit confused, I do so.

“It’s sort of my mobile office, you see,” he says. Inside, a glance around reveals that it is also his mobile living room, dining room, library, and packrat’s nest. Charmingly, Walter launches into a story or two about classic American-made vehicles; he quickly catches himself before going too far, asking if I’m in a hurry. I have to admit I do have a meeting downtown soon. I wish I didn’t. I feel like I’m filming a movie with the best character actor in the business—that guy who is nameless, but you see him in everything, stealing the scene.

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He fires up the Caddy and drives me to my unit, though it’s maybe 150 feet from where we were standing. I finish filling out the paperwork against a metal clipboard while he explains the dozens of bumper stickers that adorn the Cadillac. “I’m a bit of an environmentalist, you see. An animal lover.” He pauses, considerate of my time, uncertain whether to continue.

“Yeah?” I say.

“As a matter of fact, I was a major supporter of the zoo, you may remember we had one here in Spokane,” he says. “I was very involved with it. Finally, it had to shut down. The powers that be decided they had some other ideas on how to use that land.”

I tell him I remember visiting Walk in the Wild Zoo as a young child with my classmates. The memories are fond, and I express regret that it didn’t work out.

We finish our business. “Call anytime with questions,” he says, grabbing an old flip phone out of the car’s ashtray to show me he is always available. Before I leave his office, as we shake hands, he gives me his full name. “Walter Knopp. You know, Knopp taxidermy, with the world-famous zebra.”

I had entered his property from a back road, so I quickly orient myself and notice we are actually quite near Highway 2.

“Yep,” I say. “I know.”

*

Walking away from Walter, I get into my car and I can’t help but do some phone research. I quickly pull up a YouTube video of an old Walk in the Wild Zoo television ad from 1984. I hadn’t thought about the place in decades. Some rough, through-the-fence footage of animals is paired with Simon & Garfunkel’s “At the Zoo,” followed by a screen that reads “It’s Your Zoo” almost pleadingly, followed by the address. I wonder if Walter was behind the camera, or if he selected the soundtrack.

Something about this old gentleman in the station wagon fills me with simultaneous happiness and sadness—yet another momentary phenomenon that is tough to describe but makes life worthwhile. I consider how my childhood fascination with wild animals and the woods were, in a small way, connected to Walter and the things he worked to promote and preserve. There was a real sense of wonder that grew in me when I looked at that big zebra and visited that little zoo.  

I search a little more, and I learn that, in addition to the taxidermy studio and school along Highway 2, Walter and his brother Jerry operated a tannery on Division Street many decades ago, having improved on an old German tanning formula of salts, acids, and oils. The shop by the highway is still going strong, though the Knopps haven’t owned it since 1978.

I turn my car around, giving Walter a quick wave. I drive off toward my busy day, for the moment leaving behind the old gentleman, the zebra, the North Spokane of my childhood, and the wild country further beyond. I’ll be back again soon, in body or in mind.


-Ross Carper

Photo originally posted on  Flickr by SwellMap

Photo originally posted on Flickr by SwellMap