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.
Tim, there is much truth and wisdom in what you say, and you certainly haven't rained on the dream. I am under no illusions that if I lived in Bozeman I'd be out in the mountains every other day; I'd obviously be in them more than I am now (here, the closest mountains require 90-120 minutes to reach, too far for day trips with the kids, who aren't really old enough yet for camping-- or maybe I'm just not ready for that!), but I know I'd still spend most of my time at work and at home. That's the reality of working for a living and having a wife and kids. But what I need, what's been burning in me for years, is to be closer to the places I love most. Just their presence and potential will mean something. It used to be enough to head out West during my summers and spring breaks and winter breaks; I could usually spend a total of around two months per year out there, not bad for a working guy on the East Coast. But my wife has never liked this area, we don't really want the kids growing up here, and the demands of family cut back on the time I can spend in the West without getting into serious trouble with my wife. That last part comes with the turf, I know, but it leaves a hole nevertheless. So Vegas, if we do it, would be a good compromise. The weather's certainly better, the housing is better valued (there, we can get for 250 what here we'd pay at least 400 for), and the lifestyle is better (as long as we stay away from the craziness of the gambling industry, which I believe we will). And there's so much close by and not too far away that will be great for me to play in both alone and with the family. A move has been coming for a long time. Where has been the question. For me, it's always been the West, though my wife has been torn between that and the South, where she grew up and has family. But in Vegas we have a place of common interest, so it seems like the place to look. We've also looked at St. George but are concerned it might be too small for us in terms of economic diversity and opportunity. It's too bad; smallness in a town is something I like, and my dream would be living in some little town at the base of the Rockies somewhere in MT or WY. But that's just not practical, and my reason knows it even if my heart doesn't want to accept it.
Thanks for responding, Tim, and I'll keep you posted about my Glacier plans as summer approaches.
When I read your intro...all I could say was "YES...That's it!" I've been trying to put a handle on my total love of hiking/climbing since I began (about 6 months ago). You hit it on the head...it isn't the DOING (the climbing, hiking, views, etc.) that pull you to the mountains...it's the BEING...being one with it all. What I love so much is that when you are there...I CAN'T think about the office, the house, the family, all the other "noise" that clutters the mind. I'm too busy just putting one foot in front of the other, finding the holds and footing, thinking about staying warm/dry (ha ha ha), and just the primative "survival" stuff. Too busy just being a part of it all with all of my senses.
It is good that you are looking to go "back" to where you belong (even if you just discovered this...like me). I wish I new then what I FEEL now. I would have made some VERY different choices in my life...what I did and where I'd end up. Again, not that I am unhappy at all with my wonderful hubby and 5 kiddos...and wouldn't change them for anything. I just wish I could have lived my life THERE being part of the wild mountains with them. Who knows...maybe someday.
Yup, it seems you have the bug, too! You aptly describe how I feel when out there. Like you, I wouldn't undo the family-related choices, but I would have acted earlier in my career, before kids and getting settled into a certain lifestyle and all, to live somewhere else.
Wonderful article! I think while you point out your yearning to move West, you tempered that well with the spirit of compromise that is necessary to make it happen with a family. Priorities are of course important when you are dealing with more than just yourself. My wife and I have even toyed with the idea of returning to the West, where we lived for only 3 years--but long enough to catch that "bug" that makes it feel like home as much as "home" feels like home. I can't say right now if we will have the courage or spark to actually make it happen, but I admire your willingness to give it a try! I do long to return to the mountains, and I must admit the secure future here in the East does hamper the adventurous spirit despite my extreme want to return to the mountains. In any case, you captured the emotional struggle well, and as you of course know, you are indeed not alone in this!
Thanks, Brad! It's good to hear another Eastern perspective recognizing pretty much the same situation. My advice to you and your wife is that if you do return to the West, you should do it soon, before kids and getting dug in at your job complicate things. Ironically, I've been the bigger impediment to moving all these years (my wife won't give MT a try, but there are warmer places she would have tried long ago); I've been at the same job for 16 years now, so a major change means pretty much starting all over, which is a little intimidating to me. But this change has to happen, so I hope we make good choices. Of course, if our house doesn't sell, we're not going anywhere...
"Home is where the heartache is". What a great title and a wonderfully written piece. I moved to Tahoe eight years ago after years of longing to live in the mountains. I was bitten by the mountain bug as a child, and was lucky to spend the last two years of high school living in Idyllwild, California. It was so hard to leave and go back to Los Angeles after the experiences I had.
It has been a struggle to live here at times but the struggle never lessens my feelings of being truly at home.
I can relate to how you feel. I can't get away nearly enough for the Sierra, and I am longing for south-central Colorado, where I'm looking for land.
I'm sure your wife would enjoy Vegas and the warmth, and you'll enjoy all of the areas within a day or two. Hopefully, I'll get to hike with you if you come to the Sierra (if I can keep up! It looks like you have a tendency to cover quite a few miles!).
I only feel sorry for your current group of students, as I'm sure they'd miss you. You are a phenomenal writer, Bob, and I'm sure it rubs off on them.
Thanks again for sharing another beautifully written piece. I have enjoyed all of your works.
Thanks! I will definitely contact you if I do move out there and head to the Sierra; I actually had thought of that already in looking at Vegas. Hopefully, you won't have headed off to CO first. Good luck with that, though!
the majority of my life has been spent in mountains and it is where I feel the most free. I spend most of my time thinking about them if I'm not there! This summer I went to Chamonix and I felt not only at home but totally accepted as well. The bond was the mountains. But when your loved one doesn't share that same passion...it creates some hard decisions. You're braver than I.
My wife enjoys the mountains, just not the same way and as much as I do. What I have to accept is that she's never going to want to live in Montana or Wyoming unless we can afford a summer home there. We're currently leaning to Las Vegas, which has its downsides, too, but I see plenty of benefits and look at it as a compromise of sorts. And there's plenty right by Vegas to keep me happy, just not in the summer. But I can reach snowy mountains in a day from there!
Interesting comment about the mountains being a bond. I agree. In the mountains, I get along with and feel that I like almost everyone I meet. Elsewhere, I feel out of place and find little to like in many of the people I see and meet.
Thanks for the excellent piece, Bob. Like so many others, I really relate to your struggle. I am a Northeasterner who recently had the opportunity to live in Boulder for 2 years. Now I am back in the Northeast and... aaaaagggghh. I am working on finding a way back there, but also have a spouse who doesn't feel as strongly as I do. I am confident we will move out that way again... somehow, someway. I go back to visit when I can, but sometimes I wonder if that doesn't make it worse. Thanks for your wonderful insights and for helping me (and apparently others) to not feel so alone! Good luck to you.
Thank you for sharing; you obviously have struggled with some of the same things I have. Good luck with getting back to the West. We are making our plans, and I hope you are making yours. I am sure you can find a way to make your husband see it your way; you ladies are good at that!
By the way, going back to visit doesn't make it worse, though I know what you mean. Yes, it makes the yearning grow, and the distance greater, but you would be totally lost if you never went back at all.
I spent years after college talking and dreaming about moving out west from my overcrowded New York hometown. I was held back by the fact I knew no one and would going it solo, but knew I must persue my love of mountaineering, hiking and wild country no matter the sacrifices. Finally I reluctantly said goodbye to all my friends and family, quit my job, put all my gear and books in my car and hit the road, settling in Pagosa Springs Colorado far from crowded denver. Fortunately I landed a job on a trails crew with the Forest Service that summer in the Weminuche Wilderness which i loved. Just recently I moved to Bozeman in search of work and fell in love with Montana very quickly. My aquisition of friends has been slow, sometimes I wish I could see my friends and family back home, but the the mountain west is proving to be more amazing the I ever dreamed! cheers, ian
Bob, having lived in D.C. for 8 months now, the Appalachians can't provide what I need, and I can't hold back the desperate urge to be home in Colorado. Like you, I think about it all day every day. Career aspirations notwithstanding, the spirit wants what the spirit wants, and it guides us in the right direction. I hope you find your Yellowstone.
"Bob's Law: The rationality of a person is inversely proportional to the number of political and religious bumper stickers on his car. Around bumper-sticker warriors, smile, speak calmly, and get the hell away as fast as possible."