Rest Along the Way

Switchback

We sprinted up the switchbacked trail, pausing occasionally to measure how far we’d come, to rest our already used-up legs, to fill our lungs with as much oxygen as the mountain air would give. In previous years, I would have decided that it wasn’t worth it. Not the rush. Not the climb. Not even the destination. But over a lifetime, I’d come to embrace hiking, to believe that forest trails led to worthwhile places, to want to finish what we’d started. So we pressed on, putting one foot in front of the other, making painfully slow progress toward the solitude of one of Yellowstone’s backcountry thermal areas.

We’d tried this trail eighteen years before, on our first trip to the mountains together, just a couple of years into our marriage. We’d left our little red Plymouth Sundance in the pullout and approached the trail. Well, we walked to where the trail was supposed to be, just beyond the sign nestled in the pines, but no inviting packed-dirt path beckoned us deeper into the woods. The only indication that we were near the trail was a slender opening through the trees and a line of footprints in the snow.

That was May. After eight years away from Yellowstone, I’d forgotten about winter’s lingering ways. We’d set off into the snow in jeans and tennis shoes. One hundred yards later, soaked from the knees down, we turned back.

Now we were trying the trail to Monument Geyser Basin again. In September. On a dry trail. In hiking boots.

The intervening years had taught us some things.

The trail was short. Just a mile. Still, the steady string of switchbacks which climbed over 500 feet in that short distance earned it a classification of strenuous.

Under clear skies and over an open trail, this could have been a pleasant, though thigh-burning, hike but we’d chosen to squeeze it in between an already finished long trek and an appointment for a tour at the Old Faithful Inn.

In other words, we had to be quick. We had to hurry. Hurry and strenuous make a bad match. Hurry and hiking are poor companions. We knew this, but in our desire to get to Monument, we ignored it. So we raced up the trail, intent only on getting there in time to get back down again in time to make our appointment.

The trail ended at an opening in the trees, a doorway into a barren landscape of haunting shapes and the familiar scent of sulfur suspended in the air.

I perused the ghostly scene with its grey silhouettes and its gurgles and felt a strange disappointment settle over me. After all of that effort, I was expecting something different, something more. Something more spectacular. Something more worth the climb.

We’d pushed to get to this place. We’d rushed. We’d risked.  And here I stood, dissatisfied.

I knew the problem wasn’t the geyser basin. It was me. In my rush I’d burst through the opening in the trees as a consumer expecting to be entertained rather than as a visitor willing to be surprised by creation’s hospitality.

With the hour of our impending meeting with the Old Faithful Inn bellman driving us on, we didn’t linger long.

On our descent, we noticed another opening in the trees, one we’d missed on our way up. Even in our hurry, we turned toward it rather than following the trail to the car. Stepping through the trees we found ourselves above a wide meadow. A bison herd, brown dots scattered among the tattered grasses of fall, grazed near the Gibbon River. Standing above the river and the road which followed its course, we let our rush, our race with time slip away and I found rest for my disquieted mind and a reminder for my soul that it is possible–and good–to be still.

Monument was our destination. It drew us up the mountain, reminded me again that we miss out when we hurry, and then it offered the gracious hospitality of rest along the road, even though I showed up as an ill-mannered guest. That was its gift. Someday I’d like to return to Monument with a less entitled eye, to see it for what it is, a quiet marvel that God declared to be good. But for now, I’m grateful for the time on the trail, for what I learned, and the rest along the way.

SwitchbackAnd you? What unexpected discoveries have you made when you’ve paused along the way?

 

Sharing at Small Wonder.

 

 

 

She Needed Me to Play

Dance FloorSometimes, when we head west, we land for a few days at a cabin. In a meadow in Custer National Forest, it’s far enough from civilization that the siren song of phone, internet, and television falls silent, replaced by the gentler sounds of wind in the trees and water dancing over boulders. There, the weather unfolds in the sky rather than on radar.

After a series of bright, high country autumn days, the sun succumbed to a veil of clouds which rolled in over the mountain, bringing with them a cold, splashy snow that blanketed everything it touched.

Fly-fishermen in the Snow

It fell through the afternoon and into the evening. As night closed in, we noticed a dark figure in the distance, a bull moose making his way across the meadow, an inky shadow plodding through the haze. We’d never seen a moose here before and we watched it until it disappeared into the trees.

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When morning came we threw on our coats and burst into the bright day, the snow already succumbing to the warmth of the air and the rays of the sun. Impressions in the snow revealed that the moose had not been the only wildlife to pass through in the night. Deer tracks meandered over the cabin’s wooden dance floor and a coyote left prints for us to follow down the driveway.

Deer Tracks on the Dance Floor

We’d known the animals were there. In the middle of a national forest how could they not be? But until that morning we’d seen only trout at the end of the line and an occasional deer.

Tracks in the snow proved their presence.

Down the Road

We headed to the meadow to search for the moose’s tracks. Unlike those at the cabin, his were gone, concealed by the snow that fell into the night. So we followed the road over the stream and between the frosted trees as it led higher up the mountain and deeper into the forest.  At a bend in the road, our son stopped and pointed down at a series of tracks across the road, fresh tracks, clear like those of the deer and the coyote back at the cabin.

Bear tracks.

The best bear defense is a good offense and a good offense is avoidance, so we retreated. And we let him know we were there by going back down the road in the same way we had come up: talking and laughing, planning for the day ahead, but always, always mindful of the presence of the bear in the forest.

After the snow

With the cabin in sight, I felt the familiar relief of having made it back from the wilds with the whole tribe intact, unharmed and uneaten. J must have felt the same, because he launched a snowball at our son just as our oldest girl, who’d been walking a little ahead of the rest of us, entered the cabin.

I paused, torn between heading in and staying out. Snowball fights aren’t my thing. Playing isn’t really my thing. At least, not playing the way kids like to play. I’ll play the game or work the easy puzzle for a while. I’ll hike. I’ll read a book. But play?

I walked to the door and called to my daughter, the one our littlest girl misses because they don’t play together much anymore, and we followed the laughter and squeals around the cabin to where the battle had spilled, and I bent to make a snowball of my own. It fell short. Woefully short. But every one of us was in the game.

Cabin in the Snow

In the midst of it, my girlie sidled up to me. “Thanks for telling me about the snowball fight,” she said.

“I didn’t think you’d want to miss it.”

“I knew there ‘d be a snowball fight,” she said, “but I didn’t know you would play.”

She needed me. She needed to see me play and laugh, to show her that even though growing up is serious business it isn’t all seriousness all the time. And she needed me to show her the way.

The next morning, the moose was back, a dark silhouette weaving in and out of the aspen and pine that bordered the yard, just one of a forest full of animals always present but rarely seen.

And like the woodland creatures that hint at their presence more than they show themselves, the wandering steps on the winding path between childhood and adulthood are easy to miss. They’re watching us, those kids, looking to us to show them the way.

Watching

Linking at Small WondersUnite, #RARA,  Thought Provoking Thursday and Weekend Whispers.

Tracks in the Snow

tracks by the fenceThe twelve-passenger van made its way down Yellowstone’s snow-covered road not on traditional tires, but on treads meant to traverse the groomed roadway. Gone were the crowds and the fly fishermen of fall, replaced by seas of white broken by swaths of evergreen and dots of brown, bison in search of last year’s grass to fill their bellies. Two adult trumpeter swans, their arched necks highlighted against the steamy Firehole River, swam alongside a grey cygnet, all camouflaged by the white of the snow and the deep of the water. A cow elk foraged alone for food on a hillside and a bald eagle soared in the sky above.

When we left the Firehole River Valley to follow the Gibbon, we passed a thermal feature I’d never noticed before: the Chocolate Pots. Water flowed from its cone down a short slope to the water below, its deep browns a fountain of chocolate in the forest. Situated on the riverbank across from the road, it was obvious and I wondered how I’d never seen it before. I’d passed by  that familiar stretch of road hundreds of times.

This day was different. Instead of it being just one part of a sea of deep colors—evergreen boughs on brown trunks emerging from dark dirt—it was framed by winter’s white. Snow crept to its very edge and frosted the trees which framed the opening through which it showed itself. It stood out, revealed to me for the first time.

Chocolate Pots

I’d always thought of snow as something that transforms, something that softens the landscape, accenting every beauty and concealing every blemish.

Transformation, it seems, is not snow’s only offering. Its true gift may be that of revelation, and I value what it reveals more than the loveliness of what it temporarily changes. The year we saw the Chocolate Pots, snow showed us more every day.

Tracks in the snow kept us where we belonged as we hiked the hill to Observation Point. Tracks in the snow woke us up, made us pay closer attention and look more closely for wolves in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley, wolves we eventually found sharing dinner for two. And tracks in the snow showed us, as we wandered over the white and wintry landscape, where we’d been and where we hadn’t.

It’s these trails along the wandering way which may be the best revelation of all. They’re signs of sorts, reminders of the places we’ve been and why they matter. And the open spaces between, those fields of unbroken snow and untried trail, they invite us to carry on.

Wandering is a complicated word. Even though I know the children of Israel’s forty-year tenure in the wilderness was spent waiting, not milling around aimlessly lost in the woods, when I hear a reference to their wandering in the wilderness, it’s milling that I see. And even though I know the dictionary definition means to follow a winding course as much as it means to go astray, it’s the astray part that sticks.

Sometimes what sticks needs to be shed. A little time on the wandering way now and again does us some good. The Fellowship of the Ring is fiction, but the sentiment behind Tolkien’s poem is not:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

Sometimes the long way around is the best way forward. Sometimes the winding course brings us exactly where we need to be. So here’s to tracks in the snow, the ones that show us not just where we’ve been, but all the places we’ve still to go.

IMG_1313And you? Are you willing to wander?

Sharing this week at Small WondersUnite and Weekend Whispers and Thought Provoking Thursday.

Do Not Approach

elkcollage

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.

Chapel, Fort Yellowstone District Mammoth Hot Springs

“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.

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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.

For awhile.

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. 

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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?

Sharing Do  Not Approach  with the writers at the Small Wonders and Thought Provoking Thursdays Link-ups.

The Bird and the Wire

Bird in flightSummer mornings, I walk the gravel line between the drone of highway traffic and the twitter of birds in the pasture. A road that knows few cars and fewer houses, its ditches prosper rabbits and bees and the birds which lay down my morning soundtrack. I rarely notice the animals when I walk. Because I’m prone to tumble, I tend to keep my eyes fixed on at the ever-changing place where my feet meet the road. It’s hard to watch with my eyes glued to the ground.

Even so, one morning I noticed a movement in the ditch. A bird flew straight up the front of the fence barrier that separates our rural road from the local four-lane. She fluttered up, past row after row of squares, squares not wide enough for her wingspan. After passing the top one, she squeezed underneath the sagging barbed wire strung across the top and continued her ascent on the other side.

She could have avoided that precarious squeeze. There was plenty of space on the country side for her to rise into the air, space which looked safer, smarter, and better. In just a few inches she could have crossed over without wedging herself between the wires, if only she had looked up instead of straight ahead.

Because I tend to anthropomorphize the natural world, projecting onto it qualities which belong to humans, I wondered what she was thinking.  Why would she make that squeeze when she would have been free to fly wherever she wanted had she waited just a second longer? Why would she take what looked like a dangerous way when safety waited just inches above? Was she trying to challenge herself?

A bird’s life doesn’t require additional challenge. It revolves around survival. Find food. Avoid danger. Evade predators.

It looked to me that maybe she flew just the way I walked, eyes fixed just ahead, just far enough to see the next thing, oblivious to all the rest.

Like the bird, I’ve sometimes got my eye open for the first out. In marriage, in motherhood, and even in own my mind, I’m tempted to look for the easiest way through even though I know that in everything that matters there is no easy way and the first out is almost always a bad idea.

The bird made it through the barbs and on to freedom. She avoided the hazardous wires. She survived.

That was enough for her.

But you and I were intended for more than a song bird’s life, crafted for more than mere survival. We were made to sing, but when our vision is focused on finding the first out, the song can get lost–if ever it is sung at all.

A bird’s song is its song. It can’t sing a new tune. A cardinal sounds like a cardinal, a chickadee like a chickadee.

We, however, can sing most any tune we want. Often the most beautiful melodies are hard-won, springing from waiting places, dark places, places of weariness and discouragement that try the soul, the ones where the temptation to take the first out is strong.

But we weren’t made for escape. We were made for something more, to be drawn out by the God who loves us and to sing his song. And sometimes, it’s in those hard places that we discover the melody.

Bird New song

Grown up life brings with it more hard places than easy ones. What is the nature of your place today? What is your song?

Linking this week with the writers at Thought Provoking Thursday and Small Wonders.

Of Bison and Geysers

IMG_1511Our breath bit our lungs as J and I trudged toward Norris Geyser Basin, our boots squeaking beneath our feet. Yellowstone’s winter landscape of sculpted snow stills and silences the atmosphere around it. To step outside even the quiet of a single family cabin is to enter a world that, in my dad’s words, “almost sucks the noise out of your head.”

I could use a little more silence like that.

We were on our way to Echinus Geyser which, at that time, erupted on a regular, predictable schedule with regular, predictable indicators. It began with the gradual filling of its earthen bowl–from the bottom up–until the water spilled over the top and spread out across the slope followed by sudden bursts of steam and water forty to sixty feet skyward. Then the bowl would drain and thirty-five to seventy-five minutes later, it would begin again.

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We arrived at Norris on rented snowmobiles with four-stroke engines, quieter than the traditional two-stroke now required in the park. The quiet, so much a gift to a weary human mind, is for the animals–an attempt to disturb less their efforts to survive Yellowstone’s harsh winter. We left the parking lot and walked through the deep winter cold over the boardwalk. It wasn’t shoveled and we made our way over a path of packed snow left by visitors who came before us.

Provided you have some way to keep from getting lost, it’s permissible to wander off-trail many places in Yellowstone. In the thermal areas, however, both rules and sense require that you keep to the boardwalk. The surface is thin in these volatile places. Some who have gone cross-country in thermal areas have gotten burned or even died.

The animals get to go where they will. During the winter, warm ground and steamy air draw the bison in. There they’ll be, gathered near a pool, or a spring, or a geyser and resting on a plot of thermal earth, hoar-frost built up on their fur like suit of armor.

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When I see them converged around a geyser I always wonder what they do when it erupts. I wonder if instinct tells them it’s coming. Or if somehow they know how close they can get. If they get scared and run away. Or if they just get burned.

When we arrived at Echinus, we took a seat to wait for the eruption in company with a small group of bison congregated at the edge of Echinus’ bowl.

Some sat on the snowless ground, their legs tucked neatly under their bulky bodies. Others stood motionless in the rising steam. The bowl began to fill. The bison did nothing. The steamy tower thickened and grew in size. No visible response from the bison. Hot water overflowed the bowl and spilled down the slope. The bison just sat there. And then superheated water, trapped in the earth long enough that it rose above the boiling point, burst from the bowl and into the air.  Finally, after years of wondering, I learned what bison do when a geyser they are perched next to erupts.

They move. Slowly.

They hoist their immense bodies up and lumber away, just out of reach of the water.

It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t what I expected because it’s not what I would have done. I would have rushed.

But they just moved away, and not until they needed to.

Just like I could use some of Yellowstone’s winter silence, I could use some of that slow, timely movement. Because here’s what happens when I rush: I run right over the most important things and like the saying goes, The most important things in life aren’t things. They’re people. And while I don’t usually run directly over them, I squash their feelings. I miss the details that matter to them. I miss them.

So here’s what I’m trying to remember today: Just move. Slowly.

Sharing today at Thoughtful Thursday and Small Wonders.