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.
Let's hope this winter goes be quick, and you will be out here in no time. Antoinette Peak is the perfect cure for your yearning. It is one of my favorites, and it is a great day in the mountains to a perfect summit. I did not get to do much hiking in 08 due to my broken leg, so I am focused on 09 for compensation. Just think, clear Wyoming skies, the sound of a rushing creek below, a cool wind, and the view of the Tetons. It will happen before you know it. I am looking foward to it as much as you are. The Salt River and Wyoming Range, and the Gros Ventres are waiting to inspire you so you can write with your writing talent, and others can share your inspiration.
Talk soon, Mike
Well, Mike, that's making me wish time would move faster than I already wish it would. It sounds pretty nice on a gray, chilly November day here in Virginia. I look forward to it so much.
By the way, your great shot of Antoinette booted your great shot of Black Peak as the Yellowstone Ecosystem page's primary image a few weeks ago. You ought to consider making a page for Antoinette; you certainly have some nice shots of it, Open Door, and Black.
In the Gros Ventres, I'm also looking at hiking up Granite Highline and then off-trail to the unnamed summit (around 10,600') just north of it and east of Pinnacle. If we get together for a Gros Ventre day, we might consider that over Antoinette since it would be new for both of us.
I had many thoughts come to mind that I wanted to share with you as I read your article. But most of what I would say has been covered by those who have responded before me. Like Sarah, I think you have a gift for writing. Thank you for sharing your gift with all of us!
I live in the shadows of 11,000+ peaks. It takes me less than 20 minutes to drive to a multitude of trailheads that lead to some of the most beautiful places on this earth. Yellowstone is about a 5.5 hour drive from here. I feel very fortunate to have such opportunities so easily accessible. Thank you for reminding me how fortunate I am.
I hope things work out so you can get closer to where "home" is for you.
Wade, thank you very much for your comments. I have been to Salt Lake a number of times and think it is a great location-- good people, big and modern enough but not a pit like some of the big cities here in the East, very clean for a city of any size, awesome surroundings. You truly are fortunate to be there, and Salt Lake is actually an area that has been a consideration for us. I would be very happy to live where you do and just might end up doing so.
You most certainly are not the only one that feels that way, and you wrote about it so well. I feel like that everyday and it gets harder everytime I leave the places that feel like home to come back to Looserville, or Louseyville, KY (depending on what mood I'm in). But I'm working my way towards home-let's just say it keeps one going.
A change is the right choice, keep moving forward with it. I was just in Bishop, and looking at "The Range of Light" with it's snow dusted peaks. I'm sure you'll find the Wild in the Sierras and other ranges close to Vegas!
Bishop's a great little town, isn't it? I've more than once thought I'd like to live there, but I don't know how we'd support three kids there. Vegas has a ton of great stuff close by, and even more great stuff, including the Sierra, less than a day's drive away. And I can reach Yellowstone in two!
... until I dropped out of school at Auburn in the third quarter of my junior year to spend a summer in Yellowstone. That summer lasted 6 years. Now I live in Bozeman and it still feels like I'm on the secure side of that quote above since I have this job, and a house and responsibility. But I do take full advantage of the place. As for the cold, just tell her that I cut my grass this weekend, it's warm and sunshiny up here!
Oh, I will tell her. When I realized for certain last summer what I had known deeper down for quite a few years, it was Bozeman that I thought would be the best for us of all the Yellowstone-area communities.
We'll probably end up in the Southwest, likely the Vegas area, which is pretty nice away from the Strip and has a ton of things to do. And at least then I'll be much closer to Greater Yellowstone!
Very well written Bob. I do 'feel your pain.' The specifics may be different, but I long for the vast, wild country of, especially, the northern Rockies. I grew up in Minnesota, moved to Georgia for a couple years after high school and wound up moving to Missoula for college. Talk about finding my place on this Earth. I felt more at home in the 4 years I spent there than I did for the 20 I spent in MN despite the fact that I have more family, friends and heritage there than anywhere else. There was something about western Montana; its sense of eternity, timelessness, unscathed creation, perhaps. Whatever it was I felt special just for being able to say I was a Montanan (which I still claim to be despite having moved to Asheville, NC two years ago) Don't get me wrong, I'm happy with my new home and it's wonderful to be close to my wife's family in Atlanta. I believe we are in a better place for our family (I'm married with 3 great young children) Still, I feel a void that I think only Montana can fill. I find a token of solace in the good fortune that I ever had such a place to once call home and the lessons I learned from my adventures in the wilderness. Anyways, I empathize with you and hope that, at least, you will be able to move closer to such a special part of our planet.
Wow-- that is really well said and nails a lot of my own thoughts. Thank you for writing that. Yes, there is something about Montana and Wyoming that I just haven't found elsewhere, although I've found incredible beauty and inspiration all over this wonderful country.
The next time I head down Asheville way, I'll try to remember to send a message first. From your post, I'm guessing we enjoy many of the same things about the mountains, and it might be nice to get together, if possible, for even a short outing.
There are indeed special places all over this wonderful country! I find it fascinating how profound of an effect a 'place' can have on us. There are some beautiful places here in the southern Appalachians as well. Asheville being one of the few I consider among the built environment. In any case, please do contact me the next time you're down this way. Always could use another adventure seeker with whom to hit the trails. Cheers
Thank you, Jim. I like the prayer, and what I take from it is that although security must be a concern now that I have young children, I do not have to limit myself to the security of just one place. It is not without nervousness that I contemplate a major change in location and perhaps lifestyle, but I also look forward to the prospect of being closer to what inspires me so. With hard work, good planning, and some good luck, I believe I can find the right balance.
Beautifully written! You have done a wonderful job of putting in print what many of us feel but cannot express. My family is near Chicago and I'm in a dorm on the coast of Maine, but my thoughts are never far from the mountains. That is where I am free from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and able to simplify my priorities. I can let go of the matters that are so urgent and pressing while at school and just exist in the present.
Thanks for articulating this so well. I hope to read more.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I see from your pictures that you are no stranger to high and wild places (and I, too, went up Katahdin in the rain, though I took the Abol route, which was super-slick). I know college is busy and has its many distractions, but my advice to you is to take advantage of those nice New England mountains whenever you can; I only wish I had spent more of my time in college exploring the mountains instead of exploring drunken debauchery (though I must admit I had a good deal of fun doing so).
I'm glad you liked the article and would like to read more. I don't know when my next inspiration will seize me, but please feel free when you have nothing better to do to read some of the other articles I have posted here (just scroll down my profile page to "My Articles"); there are a few others that dwell on solitude, wilderness, and wildlife that you might like.
Thanks again. By the way, you're a good writer, and I hope you'll share some more with us, too.