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.
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 being 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 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.
As I see and feel all of this, and as the dark, craggy, and mighty Absarokas stand ready to swallow me 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.
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.
"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, and it is maddening. More than I do anything else, I think of it, and I keep looking at guidebooks and maps I have already read and studied over and over again. Maybe 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 me 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.