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