The girls and I emerged from the cozy, fire-warmed lobby, braced ourselves against the chilled morning air, and took to the sidewalk that led to Mammoth Hot Spring’s historic chapel. Aware of the cow elk lounging on the lawn between the buildings along the way, I said, “Don’t worry. I won’t risk our lives on the way to church this morning.”
It was the end of September, well into the annual rut, and the local bull was busy defending his harem from challengers and his territory from vehicles and passing pedestrians. It was just the girls that morning because the guys were taking advantage of a break in the rain to hike Bunsen Peak. Even though they were on the trail, we were probably in more danger because of my persistent delusion that the trappings of civilization—sidewalks and roads and such—offer safety from the perils of the wild.
Of all Yellowstone’s developments, Mammoth most resembles an actual town. Beyond the usual–hotel, store, gas station, and post office–there’s a medical clinic, a federal courthouse, and large homes with welcoming porches which front the main road. Appearances aside, our sidewalk was not a safe, civilized place. Its covering of elk scat announced that.
“There’s the bull, Mom,” my oldest girl pointed out.
There he was, in the middle of the lawn at the end of the sidewalk. Abandoning my plan to not risk our lives, I herded the girls off the sidewalk, across the road, and kept moving toward the chapel along the edge furthest from the elk.
“I thought you said we weren’t going to risk our lives,” my oldest daughter said as we climbed the stairs.
“We didn’t,” I started. Then I remembered my delusions about sidewalks and roads and realized what I had done. “Sorry.”
An hour later, after the sermon, the benediction, and the visiting which occurs even among strangers, my littlest girl informed me she needed to find the restroom. The pastor’s wife handed me a key and directed us out the front door and around the side of the chapel. “It’s an old building,” she apologized.
I shepherded the girls out the door, intent on our destination. We were still on the stairs when the oldest–obviously more observant than her mother–said, “Mom, that ranger is talking to you.”
A ranger, a young and uniformed, smiled and pointed toward the grass between the chapel and the trees. A bull elk was circling around the side yard, heading for the cows on the other side. The harem-defender we’d skirted around earlier, threw back his head, abandoned his station on the other side of the chapel, and began a slow run toward the challenger. We couldn’t leave the building.
My daughter’s this-cannot-wait look compelled me to explain our predicament to the ranger. He looked toward our destination and over at the bulls.
“I’ll walk you over,” he said.
I stood outside the bathroom door and the ranger stood nearby, his camera ready. “You don’t see them together very often,” he told me.
We watched the elk, ready for a horn-locking battle. They continued toward one another, one with caution, the other with quick, strutting steps. That confidence proved enough for the challenger, who retreated to the woods. The dominant bull reestablished his watch over his harem, and we returned to our hotel. It was over.
This time the challenger did not slink back into the woods without a making a stand. We didn’t see the fight. We saw the evidence—an antler, half of a matched set, sitting on a picnic table near the herd’s morning grazing site—later that day.
As the line of vehicles we were in crawled through the company of elk camped between the medical clinic and the meadow late that afternoon, we saw a bull. He sat alone, apart from the others. Not until I started snapping pictures through the open window did we notice that one of his antlers was missing, a casualty of the battle.
So he sat alone, defeated and disappointed, thwarted by his broken equipment, legs folded neatly under his tawny body and his one-antlered self situated directly under one of Yellowstone’s signs: DANGER DO NOT APPROACH ELK.
Oh, the irony.
I laughed. For a minute. And then I realized that I do a version of the same. I’m smoother than the elk, blessed with the ability to read, so I wouldn’t actually go park under such a sign, but I put off the signals just the same: Leave me alone.
Or maybe don’t. The elk didn’t want to be left alone. Not really. He wanted a harem and, because I anthropomorphize wild animals, I figured he was pouting. Just like I pout sometimes when I’m disappointed. Or lonely. Or dealing with being broken.
Every year elk lose their antlers and every year they grow back again, bigger than before. This autumn brought the elk another opportunity.
I don’t have to wait that long.
Every morning, every moment really, I get the same. God’s mercies, they’re new every morning. Like the psalmist, I can ask Him to teach me to number my days. What are days but a series of moments? And who wants to spend them parked under a DO NOT APPROACH sign?