Saturday, September 23, 2006

Yellowstone Memories

The background noise of mosquitoes was suddenly shattered by the splash of something crossing the river. I instinctively dropped my book to my chest and looked not toward the noise but toward Julie to see her reaction. “That’s something large!” she said.

We were backpacking in Yellowstone National Park and had camped near the Firehole River. In order to get a backcountry permit we had to watch a video that focused on safety in bear country. I chose not to spend $50 on bear spray but asked Julie’s opinion. She agreed with my decision but asked for my metal cup and tied it with her cup on the outside of her pack to make noise as we hiked to our campsite. That was an indication of some concern on her part.

It was June 21 and the afternoon had been partly cloudy. As we hiked up the Firehole, I felt a sense of elation. A backpacking trip topped my list of things to do. I wasn’t interested in seeing Old Faithful. The lodges held no interest. I wanted to sleep in the backcountry and awaken to a new day some miles from the nearest road.

We arrived at Lonestar Geyser as it was erupting and slowed our pace to watch the steam phase of the eruption. Could it get any better than this? We arrived at our campsite under threatening skies, located the bear pole where we would hoist our food to safety and selected a campsite farther on near a small bend in the river.

We erected the tent and moved back to an area to cook supper. A slight shower had begun but it wasn’t enough to deter millions of mosquitoes. We had anticipated mosquitoes and had nets to protect our exposed necks and faces. Get a spoonful of food, left the net with the free hand, take a bite and pull the net back over the jacket collar.

The rain quit and we explored some geothermal features in the area. Steam rose from bubbling pools and a small warm stream lined with water lilies flowed into the Firehole. Gases escaping from some features made regular rhythmic noises. One emitted a burp-burp-burp-burp sound that reminded me of an old lawnmower trying to start but never quite making it.

The clouds thinned and an unexpected but welcomed sunset spread across the gray evening sky. We retreated to the tent, evicted all living winged creatures and began reading. It was about 9:30 under a golden twilight when we heard the splashing of a large animal crossing the river.

As Julie said “That’s something large” I sat up to look out the mosquito netting on the tent. Was it crossing the river toward us or moving away? It sounded as if it was close. Was it a buffalo? Was it a bear? Perhaps bear spray would have been a good idea. A memory flashed through my mind. Years before, while in Alaska, I had read about a man who backpacked throughout the Artic without a rifle. He said he always carried a knife in order to cut an exit out the back of his tent in case a bear was trying to get in. I didn’t have a knife within reach.

In my mind I saw a large grizzly in full stride moving directly toward us. Honestly, I had mixed emotions. In some ways I hoped it was a bear. That would be a fantastic adventure. Adrenaline rush aside, I thought about Julie and felt a moment of fear for her.

I looked out and stared directly into the eyes of a startled elk! Three elk were crossing the river about 100 yards opposite the tent and were moving away from us. It may not have been a bear but it was an exhilarating sight.

I never have trouble falling asleep when camping so it wasn’t long before I drifted into sleep while listening to the sounds of the river and distant thermal vents. Some time later, I began to feel pain. It was a pain that wouldn’t go away. The temperature had dropped and I didn’t want to leave my sleeping bag but the pain kept growing. When I was young I could sleep all night without being beckoned by the call of nature but I’m no longer young.

I crawled out of the tent into a surreal world. Everything was covered with heavy dew that reflected star light like jewels. The sky was clear and thousands upon thousands of stars seemed more crisp and more numerous than I remembered them as a young boy with good eyesight. The trees were black and silhouetted against the glow of the Milky Way and seemed to lean out and be distorted as if seen through a fisheye lens. The trees were pointed and were holding the heavens above them in some form of exultation. I was wearing only shorts and the damp cold air added to the shock to my senses.

Throughout my life I’ve had several memorable experiences like this. I treasure experiences where the beauty around me was literally breath taking and overwhelming – experiences that make my chest swell as if it is so full of joy that it will burst. There was a snowy day in my early teens when I was tracking a deer through a winter paradise. There was an October day in Kentucky’s Bernheim Forest when the gold, orange and yellow of the trees seemed unbelievable against the perfect deep blue of the sky. There was a Sunday afternoon when I was fishing on the west side of the island beside my house on the Green River and a light rain made the world perfect and clean and healthy. There was a fall day on the back side of the farm when I was cutting firewood and felt so alive and grateful to be standing in the midst of a pasture of yellow and purple flowers. On this night in Yellowstone, these and other memories moved aside and welcomed this new pinnacle memory and I became richer

It’s for experiences and memories that I welcome rain and mosquitoes and muscles fatigued by carrying a pack. I don’t consider myself to be a religious man but I feel a sense of gratitude for the wealth of memories that I’ve acquired and the experiences that make me feel blessed. (June 21, 2006)


Blogger Whitesnake said...

I can almost smell the freshness

9/23/2006 04:46:00 PM  
Blogger Round Belly said...

wow- wonderful job sharing your experince

9/23/2006 08:26:00 PM  
Blogger Alex Pendragon said...

Ah, this brought back Wonder Lake in Denali. Thanks Paul.

9/24/2006 08:42:00 AM  
Blogger Buffalo said...

How many of your essays and vignettes have you had published,Paul. You write so damned well.

9/24/2006 06:35:00 PM  
Blogger MojoMan said...

This story is so rich with images and emotions. I was struck by the irony: How often do we worry about the bear when it's the mosquitoes that get us!?

9/25/2006 12:12:00 PM  
Blogger Gaye said...

It's so inspiring the way you appreciate things... little things... big things... it's touching.

9/25/2006 07:32:00 PM  

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