It is dawn in Yellowstone, again. I love dawn here. It is not just because the traffic, especially the RV and bus traffic, has not arrived yet. It is not just because of the glow the early sunlight casts on the trees, meadows, hills, and mountains; or because of the mist that rises from the streams and turns a blinding white as the sunbeams strike it. It is because the world-- the primordial world-- has begun again. A few remaining slivers of it are, by Greater Yellowstone, along with just a handful of other places in the world, preserved in hoped-for perpetuity.
Somewhere, grizzly cubs are playing while their mother huffs in disapproval and tells them to move along, for she knows the urgency of fattening up for the long, brutal, and unforgiving winter that follows the glorious but brief Yellowstone summer. Somewhere, wolves are following the ancient cycle of kinship and survival that makes them among the most-durable, least-understood, most-loved, and also most-hated creatures on the planet; a lucky few humans hear their howls and feel a chill and an emotion they cannot explain but which will stay with them for the rest of their days. Somewhere, a mountain lion silently watches its intended prey; its scream, unlike the wolf’s howl, is alien to us and speaks of an instinct and a fierce solitude that would drive all but a few of us insane. Somewhere, otters clown around in the rivers in between forays for fish. A bull moose breaks the stillness of a pond, its massive head just barely visible above the steam-like fog that shallowly drapes the surface. A pair of bald eagles occupies the limbs of a dead tree above a trout-filled river, their intense, merciless eyes seeing everything. A small herd of elk, weighing thousands of pounds in all, glides effortlessly across meadows and up steep hillsides until gone from view. The elk make no sound. They must make some sound-- creatures so large cannot possibly move so silently-- but I do not hear a thing. Maybe it is their grace that captivates me so that I am oblivious to all but that beautiful movement.
Divide Peak, Gallatins
And there are mountains-- dozens, not hundreds, for most of Yellowstone National Park is more a high plateau than it is mountainous country. But they are there, and they call. Climbing them is not about the challenges or the views, even though some are quite challenging and the views are always spectacular. Climbing them is about the journey into this country, the potential to spend a few precious moments being a part of this place instead of a mere observer. Those who truly understand the magic of Yellowstone country know that being there awakens and inspires them in ways that other places, even ones more visually spectacular, do not and cannot. They understand that in Yellowstone there beats the pulse of the wild world, and that somewhere out there may be the heart itself.
Thus it is all over Yellowstone country, where the mountains number in the thousands and the park itself is simply the central anchor for an epic-sized armada of mountains.
And so I drive through the Lamar Valley, unofficially the best place in the world to see wolves in the wild, on my way to Cooke City and the Beartooth Mountains beyond. I am listening to the soundtrack of Dances with Wolves, beautiful music that accompanies one of my favorite movies. Normally, I shun music as I drive through the mountains, preferring the scenery and my thoughts, but this morning, as I pass by dozens of bison grazing in the dewy meadows by the river, it just feels right. Sappy as it sounds, I feel tears in my eyes. The music, composed by a man who may never have seen the Lamar Valley and maybe has never even heard of it, just works; it is as much a part of the surroundings as are the bison, the water, the grasses, the birds, and the cliffs that form a classic Western backdrop to it all. I am not unaware of the irony in being so moved in relation to nature by a work of man as I speed by in a gasoline-burning machine along an asphalt scar that is almost a mortal wound to a pristine body, but it does not matter. Every once in a while, despite his faults, man rises and gets it right, usually showing it in the words he writes, the images he paints, the forms he releases from stone, the songs he sings, and the music he plays. Now is such a time when the wonders of man reveal themselves in glory.
Wind River Range
As I see and feel all of this, and as the dark, craggy, and mighty Absarokas stand ready to swallow and then funnel me through them into the high plateaus and tundra fields and alpine lakes of the Beartooths, I know, as surely as I have ever known anything, that I am home.
Wyoming Absarokas, and one of Greater Yellowstone's finest servings of eye candy...
This feeling began a few days earlier, though.
As I drove from the Bitterroots out to the Gallatin Range and could finally see it and the Madison Range, I felt as though I was returning home. And while I was out there and in the Beartooths, I felt that I was home. I felt safe and at ease, as though it were where I belonged and where I was happiest. I don’t know quite how to explain it, but maybe some of you understand; Yellowstone just feels right, and I feel as though it is part of me and I am part of it, and there’s no other mountain area, not even Glacier National Park (the most beautiful place I have ever seen), that does that for me. It's a world of its own, the likes of which do not exist elsewhere. That's not to say the mountains there are the best or the most beautiful, just that they sing to me and make me sing in return.
It was very difficult for me as I drove away from the Beartooths to return to Great Falls, and then to fly home, a few days later. It was even harder to see them slip from view as I drove north from Big Timber; one enduring image from the drive back was of a rolling plain with a huge, snowcapped mountain wall in the background and the thought "Only in Montana and Wyoming." Usually, although I am not excited to go home as a trip ends, I am more or less ready. Not so this time. A great part of me is still back there, drifting through the Beartooths, the Winds, the Absarokas, the Gallatins, the Gros Ventres and so on.
Into the Beartooths
"There's no place like home," says Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
But what happens when home isn't home? What happens when the heart and the soul are (luckily for them) stranded where the body cannot stay?
Okay, let me say that this is not a lament about how awful my life is. I have a good job, a home I like, a great wife, and happy, healthy kids whom I enjoy increasingly as their personalities develop. This is about realizing where you belong while trying to accept that you are far from there. It is about seeing the need to make a major change and seeking the courage to make it. It is about sharing thoughts that many others in the hiking, climbing, and mountaineering communities must experience as well.
So maybe this is really about trying to find comfort in knowing I am not alone in feeling this way.
I don't know. What I do know is that I almost feel lost as I think and dream about Yellowstone country much of the day every day. I have it bad. It is maddening. I think of it more than I do anything else, and I keep looking at guidebooks and maps I have already read and studied over and over again. It is nigh time to do something about it. If I can't be there, I must at least be closer. With a little luck and good planning, it will happen. Will I have the courage to break away from what I know, to break away from the stability and security that comfort us but also build resistance to change? Edmond Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, says it well-- "Wait and hope." The waiting has gone on so long. I hope I will go through.
I think plenty of people struggle with what you're going through. I often joke with people that I wish Colorado was 1000 miles closer - then I would move there. But for a long litany of reasons it’s not in the cards. And that is fine. Life is good here in Indiana.
I don't know if this exactly applies in your case, but I'll quote what Krakauer quoted in Into the Wild. You make mention of this in the last paragraph.
"So many people...are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which my appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future."
Many of us - and more than would care to admit it I'm sure- lean towards the secure future side of that quote.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Hope it all works out for you.
p.s. No need to apologize about music in the mountains. In the Smokies, going up Newfound Gap Road, it’s Dvorak, Symphony # 9, 1st Movement.
Thank you for such a thoughtful response, Mark. You are completely correct that most people lean to the security side, and that's also a perfectly rational thing to do. It's probably better to have security far from the mountains and be able to afford occasional visits than to live in their shadow but struggle. A few manage to get the best of both, and I hope I will one day join their ranks.
For now, we're looking at Las Vegas for next year or the following. Much of my family is considering relocating there or already has. There are areas there that are removed enough from the glitz of the Strip that they are good places to be. It's not Yellowstone country, but there's so much so close-- Red Rocks, Mount Charleston, Death Valley, Zion, and much more-- that I'd have plenty to love and explore. The Sierra are only about six hours away, and I could even reach the Yellowstone area in two days of driving.
Good thoughts-- at least I didn't grow up out there and have to leave it behind! We may be looking for a geographical cure in a year or two; we are discussing the Las Vegas area. There's a lot to do out there, and though it's not Montana or Wyoming, I could reach them in a day or two. Because of my wife's complete aversion to the cold, dark winters up your way, Nevada is probably as close as I'm going to get as a place to live.
Cold dark winters? So far no cold but darkness truly does suck it out of you. The overcast skies during the winter inversions are oppressive and many people do not make it through more than one winter west of the continental divide.
My parents live in Bozeman and they enjoy 300 + days of sunshine per year, that is pretty easy to deal with. Move to Montana Bob but live east of the continental divide. Then you can call yourself a mAntanan!
I lived there for about three years total. Great place. Yellowstone is close, the Bridgers, Hyalite, Spanish Peaks, The Pioneers, The Rubys and of course only 5 hours from my favorite place Glacier N.P.
Growing up a flatlander and loving mountains, is like not having any limbs.... to scramble with lol.... beautiful pic, wonderful place, Ive been there 2x and I hafta drive from Michigan lol, yes the flat place with big lakes lol.
I also spent a long time in an excellent job and a priviledged position in flat and featureless place - Southern Ontario in my case.
As you must know from reading my stuff, Vancouver Island is my Yellowstone equivalent. I ached to be here as much as you clearly ache for your own place in the mountains. Twenty years ago I made it happen.
There is always a way Bob. It's only a question of finding it. I found mine and I know you'll find yours.
My wife's climate preferences will probably preclude us from moving to the Yellowstone area, but we are strongly considering a move to the Southwest, which has plenty of great places and from which I can reach Yellowstone in two days, even one very long day from Las Vegas, which is the area most under consideration right now.
I consider your own story an inspiration and hope mine will be similar, Martin.
The unfortunate thing is that although my wife and I are on board for a change, we are far apart on exactly what kind of change. She misses the South, where she grew up, but she knows I really do not want to live almost anywhere there. I love the northern Rockies, obviously, but my wife wants no part of the winters there. We are currently really considering the Vegas area for a number of reasons, and if we go there, there will be plenty of mountains and desert to enjoy and explore, and the Sierra would only be about six hours away, and Yellowstone one or two days. Not too bad of a compromise. Thanks, Augie.
Good advice. One reason we are considering this next year or the following one is that our oldest starts school soon and we don't want him switching around right when he's trying to adjust to the whole school thing. I know about that from experience, too, because my dad was in the Air Force. Fortunately, he left active duty when I was seven, but there was one move just before that where I had to leave all my friends and a place I really liked, and that was hard.
As much as I'd love to hide out in Montana or Wyoming, I know my wife doesn't want those winters and that we are, for better or worse, probably going to be creatures of the metropolitan areas during our working lives. Thus, we've considered areas like Phoenix, Vegas, and Salt Lake. Phoenix is unlikely, but Vegas currently has several things in its favor, not least of which is that several family members are already out there or want to go.
I felt right there with you as I read. There must be many kindred spirits here on SP who struggle with reconciling these two worlds both good, both loved, both so wonderful and polarizing. I so envy the few who have picked up and struck out for awhile to live in those places like you mention. All three of our rafting guides this past summer plan to travel the world this year - two in Thailand and one in Canada and South America. They finished college, guide on rivers and do some climbing and skiing. Go guys while you can!
As for people like many of us with families, the question is complex but you gave it heartfelt clarity. And no doubt we all find different ways to answer it...
Kathy, thank you very much for your great remarks. Our solution will definitely be to get out there somewhere but settle in a place not so alien to what we know now. It won't be Yellowstone unless my wife suddenly develops a tolerance for very cold winters, which is going to be hard for someone who grew up in the South, but we will get closer than we are now.
Good luck with making your decision. If it's meant to happen it will. My wife and I did it 33 years ago and have never looked back, though we had very little baggage at the time, only what we could fit in the Volkswagen. I think many of us feel the same as you about being in the mountains. There's a feeling of being at ease, a feeling that your soul has come home. I first noticed it when I was 5 years old. and my family was visiting my dad's boyhood farm in the mountains of West Virginia. I didn't realize what the feeling was at the time, but I came to recognize it.
Before we moved west, I used to think often of the verse from Stairway to Heaven that goes something like, "there's a feeling I get, when I look to the West, and my spirit is crying for leaving."
My spirit was crying for leaving, sounds like yours is too.
You know, Bill, that anecdote about WV resonates strongly in a way that I hadn't considered too much until now. I usually trace my passion for the mountains to a single moment a few days after I graduated from college, but it really goes back much deeper. As a kid, I always liked nature-- playing in creeks, exploring woods, the usual-- and always felt at peace there, but there were no mountains. However, my favorite place was my grandfather's home in upstate NY near the Catskills. I loved the lakes, the rolling hills, and the meadows in ways I couldn't articulate, but they were the places of my dreams. I found peace, adventure, and inspiration out there.
So we'll have to do something soon. Most likely, we're moving to the Southwest, probably Nevada or Utah. And although the top concerns will be economic ones, it is already given that wherever we end up will be much closer to the places we love than we are now. I'm a little tired of flying to get to those places.