Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Yellowstone: Epilogue

Standing on a tiny ledge on a fence of basalt columns, it contemplates its next move. The hillside above is 10 feet out of reach, and the columns extend another 25 down before crumbling into a rocky, ankle-twisting slope. As a cool alpine breeze passes through, it makes a decision. It springs forth from the face and gravity takes its startingly quick hold.

As I see the bighorn sheep release its grip on the rock, I think for sure that it has stumbled. From my vantage point on the other side of the valley, I see only the frightening pace of its descent, and feel only the quickening pace of my heart. The calculated pose of its body, it's eyes, looking downward with intent and no fear, these details are lost in the distance.

But I can make out the sheep landing, its legs taking up the shock of its massive fall. It quickly moves on to grazing on the nearby shrubs, making its awe-inspiring leap look like my step off of my porch in the morning.

On our last morning in the park, it makes for a fitting reminder that the actions of these animals, which we have come to Yellowstone to be amazed by, our to the animals themselves completely pedestrian. When you enter Yellowstone, you are not seeing a show put on for you; you are simply entering the wildlife's world and catching a small glimpse of life under their rules.

And wildlife is what has made this trip to Yellowstone so special, and unique among all of my travels out West. It's been almost a decade since I was last in Yellowstone, and what I remember from that trip is only boredom, crowds and slow traffic. It's true that traffic is bad in August, but it didn't help that at that age I didn't appreciate the wildlife.

This trip was the total opposite; I was enthralled by all of the animals I saw and their interactions. I think a large part of this was because Greg was around to point out the little details that I would've missed. On my own I would not noticed much at all, especially of birds; and I certainly wouldn't have had a spotting scope.

But also, some of it was definitely due to a change in myself. Over the years, my appreciation of wilderness has changed, and for a while, I thought I had lost it altogether. Thankfully it came back in spades on this trip, but in a distinctly different way. I didn't really experience the same intense feelings of wonder that I recall from my trips out west with my family; the feeling that one's entering a magical world from the moment the mountains are in sight. Rather, this time my emotions were effected more gradually and less overtly.

For the past year or so I've been wondering whether I'd just seen enough of beautiful landscapes that they weren't special to me anymore. It was certainly easy to think that I'd just become too jaded to experience the same joys as I once did, but I believe that the truth is more complicated. I've grown to appreciate not just the landscapes anymore, but what actually makes wilderness what it is. With subtler feelings comes recognition of subtler features of the wild. The greetings of two wolves, the cruising of a duck, the fronting up of bison - I don't know why it's taken 21 years for me to enjoy these things in the way that I do now, but I'm very glad that change has come. This trip certainly accelerated it, and for that alone it was well worth it.

Yellowstone, Day 9: Dangerous Burrito

I decided to forgo my Day 8 entry, because I didn't really have anything interesting for that day. So we continue with Day 9 and the Epilogue, coming up shortly.

Sitting under a tree on a high ridge, runners' high coursing through my veins, with a spring rainstorm coming over the next mountain, I lean forward and take the first bite of my burrito. My tongue is enveloped in the dueling richness and sweetness of peanut butter and honey. As I continue to chew, my nostrils encounter the pungent counterpoint of French's mustard. Suddenly, I realize that something has gone terribly wrong. These competing factions in my mouth have united to form a tenacious, amorphous blob that threatens to take over my teeth. In desperation I take another bite, hoping to find the last ingredient. As my life flashes before my eyes, I encounter a familiar crackle.

It is the missing link in my salvation. The marauding mass is overrun by the visceral, satisfying crunch of wheat thins. I increment my blessings and don my raincoat as the approaching cloud's dark tendrils reach our position.

hands grip rock and pull
toes find cracks and hold
I scramble up the errant boulder
to a perch that is full
of views of cliffs far and wide
of drops nearby of dizzying heights
I creep cautiously over, look down
and enjoy the distance beneath my crown

Friday, May 30, 2008

Yellowstone, Day 7: Hippies, politicians and cows, oh my

hippie girls in hippie skirts
hoola-hooping in the dirt
beaver hats and wool slippers
but sadly no time to flirt

Today we visited the ranch of the Buffalo Field Campaign, an organization that raises awareness of the bison brucellosis issue and documents the actions of the government on buffalo outside the park. The ranch was pretty cool. It is their base of operations, houses all of the volunteers, and is pretty much a hippie commune. Volunteers get paid room and board, which means bunks and communal meals. The lady we talked to said that they take volunteers all year round, too. I think I know where I'm spending a summer. :)

ranchers cry wolf
cry rampant disease
politicians are crooks
for lobbyists, appease

majestic beasts cry for release
habitat too small for 12 months of peace
they need refuge from deep snow to browse
but they're slaughtered by thousands for private cows

and your land and mine
is being nickel'd and dimed
undemocratically sold
for a motive so cold

Despite how cool the ranch today was, my enthusiasm is dampened by the reasons for its existence. The bison brucellosis issue is an ugly one. As impressive and majestic as the Yellowstone bison are, they are being slaughtered by two-faced ranchers and politicians who cry wolf about a nearly harmless disease, never admitting that the real issue is one over land. And it's not just private land; it's land owned by you and me, by every citizen of this country. Bison are being killed to protect the use of public property to fill the pockets of private ranchers.

In the office of the BFC, lined with bumper stickers of all shapes and causes, one quote strikes me deep:

"A true patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government."
- Edward Abbey

Yellowstone, Day 6: One more horseman

stepping steps
breathing breaths
we go off trail
and encounter death

Stepping down from a glacial erratic and descending the slope, we encountered him in a verdant depression. He lurked there in the form of dirtied porcelain spires, torn hide and a blood-stained skull. As I stared into the gaping eyes of the fresh elk kill I was reminded of old westerns, with watering holes full of long dead skeletons, like oasis of death in the desert. But this isn't a western; this is a real death. These eyes I stare into were once filled with hunger, sex, and finally fear.

tourists cried for elk
stop the wolves, they said
seems they wanted a crescent of life
but life comes in cycles
of birth and death

Thankfully, it seems like wolves are here to stay in Yellowstone. Despite controversy when they were first reintroduced, public opinion has swayed in the years since, and wolves are seen by most as an integral part of the ecosystem. To me, Yellowstone without its top predator is like a nature theme park, pristine in many ways, but by no means wild. The kill I saw today was a highlight of the trip so far; it brought close to me the visceral and essential predatory death that makes Yellowstone a true wilderness.

Well, except for all the tourists.

Yellowstone, Day 5: Gently drifting flakes

You have to love snow to live through a Houghton winter. My first couple of years were a honey moon with snow, but somehow in the years since I've misplaced my rose-colored glasses. Although I've recently discovered the joys of bicycling in the snow, by the end of this last winter I was just plain tired of the cold, and worried about my ability to survive the next year at Tech.

But despite becoming a lot more jaded, after a couple of weeks of good weather I was overcome today with the joy of a child when I saw the beautiful sight of whimsically falling snowflakes. Standing by the side of the road, enigmatic mountains hidden by clouds but their presence unmistakable, catching snow with our mouths as it drifted down out of the mysterious, opaque sky, I experienced the wonder of pure excitement, unfettered by the cacophony of thought.

I hope that no matter what happens as I get older, I always experience such moments of pristine emotion, rare though they may become.

Yellowstone, Day 4: Dreary but not weary

raindrops patter
raindrops splatter
on the rainfly
doesn't matter

snowflakes pattern
on the the windshield
making a field
of liquid smatters

slippery road
slippery slope
arkansas wideload
almost elopes

sued left, sued right
sued every which way
this snowmobile fight
just won't go away

here comes the sun
oh what fun
but it's just kidding
it does the cloud's bidding

and the clouds today are dark
the clouds today are grim
the camp is full of wet tree bark
and the prospects don't thrill

but this group doesn't care
we're on a mission here
and no matter how the weather fares
we won't shed no tears

Special Feature: Deleted Stanzas!:

rocking piano
Mike's the man-o
with the beats
to tap the feet

Mmm, bison
You died for my sins
but to eat your flesh
gives me grins

Yellowstone, Day 3: Ice

Knowing that it won't do any good to prolong the inevitable, I step off from the rock. For a brief moment I hang in limbo, committed but not yet experiencing the consequences of my actions. Then the deep cold of water envelopes my body and my mind is cleared of such thoughts. For a few strokes I attempt to swim; then the cold's stranglehold on my lungs sets in and I stand up. The next few seconds are filled with awkward steps and hyperventilation. For these few moments I operate solely on instinct, my body allowing me no other choice when faced with such circumstances. As I lay drying on the bank, I smile and enjoy a rush of endorphins.

This is living.

Sitting on Fred's porch, dark clouds and an electric breeze were ominous signs for the night to come. Sure enough, raindrops began to fall and we arrived in camp with little option but to scurry to the protection of our synthetic shelters. As I lay there listening to the patter of rain, I realized that, although we can have occasional moments of wildness, we really are visitors to the wilderness. Bison require no protection from the rain, but we would quickly perish without shelter. With a new reverence for nature I thanked the geese for the down in my sleeping bag and drifted off to a calm, dreamless sleep.

Yellowstone, Day 2: Hang a lamar

In the morning we set off for the Lamar valley, passing high meadows filled with glacial erratics. I always enjoyed looking at fields of erratics, like some mountain god's toys strewn about after a tantrum. But majestic though they may be, they are only geological evidence of the ice ages. Erratics, moraines and valleys are all impressive, but at the same time relatively common.

This is why I was so impressed when we saw the pronghorn antelope, and I learned about their evolutionary history. For the first time, I saw biological evidence of the ice ages. A literal living remnant of that lost time, right before my eyes.

Yellowstone, Day 1: Enter fireman

With weary bodies but excited eyes we passed under Roosevelt Arch and encountered our first bison, elk and bear. After eating breakfast and setting up camp, our energy was such that napping seemed improbable, and with that we set off on what purported to be a 6 mile hike. Due to a burned-out bridge, we went off trail and up a ridge adorned with a field of downed burnt trees. Our glee overcame the elevation as we climbed the steep slope to the rewards of a patch of snow, a cowpie tripod and a view of the valley. I could see that the trees had all fallen in the same direction, as though they had been blown down by a wind tunnel of fire. I suppose that's what the fire might have been like; I can only imagine the intensity.

Yellowstone, Day 0: The opening

Oh, what a glorious beginning! The hours were long, the bathroom breaks epic, and the mental state bordering on the absurd. Through thick and thin, headaches and the beach boys, we harnessed millions of years of decomposing dinosaurs to propel ourselves across 5 states, 2000 miles and 2 days to the place of wonder that is Yellowstone. Though at times we were waylaid by such formidable foes as the flying garbage bag and take-and-bake pizza, we persevered and spirits remained high.