For my birthday, I spent a week on a raw food and yoga retreat at Hacienda Del Sol in Costa Rica. I’ve heard that once you plan a retreat vacation, you never want to vacation any other way. While I have found that to be true, having a birthday experience like mine also changed the way I view gift-giving. Now, I try to look at special occasions as an opportunity to give my loved ones memorable experiences rather than more material items.
My girlfriend, Keri, is an incredible gift-giver. She also happens to be one of the kindest humans I know. When her 30th birthday started approaching (and by that, I mean six months in advance), I began trying to plan a meaningful and memorable weekend getaway for us to ring in her new year.
A few months into our courtship, Keri was recalling a 6th grade writing assignment she was given to explain where she would be for her 10 year high school reunion. She told me, “I wrote I couldn’t make it because I’d be releasing a pack of wolves into the wild…” and that was the first time I told her I loved her.
Since then, I have come to realize she is completely obsessed with any and all canine creatures, so I knew I wanted to give her a birthday experience that would make her wolf spirit howl. I researched several wolf sanctuaries, but when I came across THE ONE, I was won over by the reviews (especially those highlighting the care and treatment of the animals).
Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (WSWS) is nestled in remote New Mexico in the tiny town of Candy Kitchen. Their mission is to rescue wolves, wolf-dogs, and other animals that are unable to be adopted and provide a safe space for them, while educating the public on the proper treatment of animals. Many of the animals at the sanctuary came from the unethical exotic pet industry or from individuals who purchased them as pets, eventually realizing they didn’t have the ability to care for them. Due to their upbringing, the animals at the sanctuary are too acclimated to humans to be released back into the wild. When Keri and I visited the sanctuary, there were about 60 wolves and wolf-dogs as well as a few New Guinea singing dogs, several coyotes, some domestic dogs (that were mistaken for wolf-dogs and isolated in a shelter during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath), dingos, and one friendly little fox.
Because I wanted this trip to be a surprise, Friday morning, Keri and I headed out for her mystery road trip from Austin to Albuquerque. Around the time we hit the boarder of Texas she guessed we were going to New Mexico, but our final destination remained a secret. We stopped for the night in Albuquerque to visit a few breweries and celebrate her 30th year in a traditional way. That night, I gave her a card (hand-made by FawnandThistle) containing a full agenda for the next few days. I couldn’t believe I was able to keep the trip a secret for that long, but her reaction made it worth it!
The next morning, we drove from Albuquerque to Candy Kitchen after stocking up on some vegan camping essentials from Trader Joe’s and getting a nice sunrise walk in.
WSWS has a few educational rescues, or ambassadors, that are able to interact with humans. Almost immediately after our arrival, we got to experience a hands-on wolf encounter with a loving high-content wolf-dog named Dakota (Note: My favorite part of the WSWS’s website is that they feature an extensive bio for all the animals!). During our drive, Keri confessed that she was nervous to be so close to the animals, but the second Dakota exited his enclosure, he excitedly walked up to her and greeted her with wet kisses and love nibbles, melting her worries away.
Crystal, the assistant director of the sanctuary, accompanied us during the visit. She taught us about wolf hierarchy, explaining that she would let Dakota decide when he was ready to go back to his enclosure. His alpha, Powder, would be waiting for him to return, ready to give him a sniff of approval or potentially rough him up a bit as an attempt to scold him. According to his bio, “Powder occasionally gets annoyed by Dakota’s exuberance, especially around food and people. Because he’s the alpha, Powder makes sure to let Dakota know when he’s being annoying and pressing his luck.” Dakota spent about ten minutes with us before heading back to Powder, who, sure enough, greeted him at the gate for a thorough scent check. Luckily, Powder approved of our visit. It was fascinating to watch the interaction between the two—each instinctively knowing exactly where they stood in their hierarchy. I was really happy to see that WSWS respects this social order, giving the ambassadors the opportunity to choose if they want to visit with humans and the freedom to determine the duration of each encounter.
In the afternoon, Ramon, the research and development lead, took us for a guided hike with Leia, a mid-content wolf-dog. If you check out the pics in her bio, you can probably already see Leia is an attention-craving love muffin. During our hike, she jumped up on each of us and laid at our feet, insisting we give her belly rubs and giving us some quality photo opportunities. Ramon told us about Leia’s devastating but interesting rescue story. Her mom was found roaming a California neighborhood and was saved thanks to the efforts of Grammy-nominated Meredith Brooks and reality star Joanna Krupa. It was a sad story to hear, but it made me grateful to see Leia now being well taken care of.
The next morning we had the opportunity to help feed the wolves. Each pack had clearly defined feeding procedures to avoid creating conflict amongst the canines. Some had to be moved into isolated enclosures before they could be fed, while others had to be thrown a frozen block of meat in a specific order. Despite the fact that temperatures in Candy Kitchen had significantly dropped overnight, getting to learn more about the animals and their dietary needs was an exciting experience.
As soon as the feeding tour ended, snow began to fall, and Wild Spirit transformed into a powdery white wonderland. We still had one more tour to take, which was a brief introduction to every animal in the sanctuary. Many people backed out of the tour due to the weather, but with chapped lips and red noses, we spent the following hour roaming the sanctuary with a guide. Although we were nearly frozen and soaked in melting snow, seeing the wolves prance and frolic in the snow was the most memorable part of the trip. They were clearly in their element and enjoying every second of the icy morning.
After the morning snow storm, the sun came out and the temperature warmed up. We took a half-day excursion to visit El Morro National Monument (~40 minute drive). Because of the icy ground, most of the trails were closed, but we still got to hike a short trail around the monument to learn about it’s history and take a few selfies.
On our way back, we found a local organic
shop paradise not far from Wild Spirit. We purchased some locally grown, organic spinach, a few snacks, and local birthday steak for Keri’s dinner.
During our time at WSWS, We spent two nights in an off-grid, solar-powered cabin on the sanctuary’s property. Unfortunately, there were fire restrictions at the time of our visit, so we didn’t get to light a camp fire, but the cabin was fully equipped with all the cooking essentials we needed to make a few meals. Due to it’s remote location, there wasn’t wifi or reception at the sanctuary. This eliminated any feelings of obligation to check e-mails or respond to texts and made our stay incredibly grounding.
Our trip to Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary can only be described as magical. The weekend of our visit marked a time of transition for both of us. Keri was preparing for eight weeks on business in Tokyo and I had just resigned from my tech job and would be dedicating the next few weeks to redirecting my career into the health & wellness field. Before our stay, we were wrapped up in our lives, anxious about what the next several weeks would hold. Spending a few days with new furry friends and spending our nights under the brightest stars I’ve ever seen listening to the calls of the wild was a reminder that we need to slow down and enjoy our time on this beautiful planet.
We stayed two nights and two days at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary for a reasonable cost, and it left us with priceless memories. This experience reminded me that every special occasion is an opportunity to put your money towards an unforgettable adventure or find a gift that gives back.
“When a wolf shows up, it is time to breathe new life into your life rituals. Find a new path, take a new journey, take control of your life. You are the governor of your life. You create it and direct it. Do so with harmony and discipline, and then you will know the true spirit of freedom.” — Ted Andrews, Animal Speak