On Breaking Trail

We pulled into the gravel parking lot at the base of Bunsen Peak, piled out, grabbed day packs and water from the back of the vehicle, and set off. Dust had barely begun to accumulate around our ankles when we saw him: a lone bison, a bull, just twenty-five feet off the trail.

Someone was going to have to change trajectory and it was going to be us–my husband, our children, and me.

First, because it’s the rules. The park service has clear regulations about how close visitors can get to animals: Approaching on foot within 100 yards of bears or wolves or within 25 yards of other wildlife is prohibited. It’s up to the humans to keep the distance. Second, because J and I once visited with a ranger who had worked in close proximity with grizzlies in Denali National Park who told us that she found the bison’s irritable and unpredictable nature to be more dangerous than that of the bear.

So we stepped off the narrow dirt path and began to pick our way through the tangled grass and sage of the hillside. It was hard. It was slow going. And because I was dressed to walk down the trail and not to break it, it sliced up my shins. I don’t like breaking trail.

Apparently bison prefer not to, either–at least in winter.


That’s just opinion, formed after sharing the groomed road with bison after bison. We weren’t on foot that day; we were on a snowmobile. The twenty-five yard rule didn’t seem to apply, but even passing them on the furthest available centimeter of road frightened me. They trotted down the groomed lane–sometimes toward us, sometimes beside us–their unsettled eyes level with mine.

If one decided–and they occasionally do–that they’ve had enough of the pesky, noisy machines that invade their space, their thirty-five miles-per-hour charge was faster than we could weave our way through the small herds that spread across the road.  The air and my snowmobile suit provided no armor against a horned and angry thousand pound female or two thousand pound male.


Bison are made for winter. They are well insulated against the elements. Their shiver response, according to the snow-coach driver who took us from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful last winter, begins–begins–at forty degrees below zero. Their massive heads work like a bucket at the end of a crane, shoving deep and often crusted snow away to expose last year’s grass underneath.

Last year’s grass.

Not a lot of nutrition there. Spring finds them thin and bony, their fat stores depleted. About ten out of every one hundred will die.

Even though they’re made for the rigors of winter, it’s a hard life.

In her book, Yellowstone Has Teeth, Marjane Ambler writes that in the years after the park service began grooming Yellowstone’s roads for snow machine travel, the bison herd grew from two to three thousand. Perhaps not continually breaking trail has its advantages. Walking from one feeding area to another over a road expends far fewer calories than wading through deep snow.

We’re continually breaking trail in our lives because something is always changing. And while we may not be sporting pollen smeared cuts on our legs or wading, hip deep, through crusted-over snow in search of something inadequate to fill the gnawing hunger in our bellies, we’re constantly moving along a section of road we’ve never taken before.

It’s hard. It’s slow going. And it wreaks a little havoc.

No wonder we’re worn.

At our house we’ve been away from the ease of the established trail for awhile now. Even though breaking a new one is hard, and progress is slow, and it wreaks all kinds of havoc with the emotions–it’s how we get from here to there, from where we are to where we’re going. We are not alone. Even when we’re weary.

No matter if you are on an established trail or finding your way through a brambly hillside, no matter if you are in an effortless summer or under a deep winter, even if you are stumbling through the dark over an unknown terrain, you are not alone.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9








Yellowstone Between Raindrops

We went to Yellowstone earlier this month and it rained on our parade. Every day. But it was okay. Not only did it bring a lovely overnight snow, we were able to squeeze in several new and favorite stops between raindrops.

Usually, we find Yellowstone’s autumn grasses dry and done, ready for a covering of winter snow. This year? In many places the grass was fresh. The aspen were more green than gold. And the moss was lush.

Every season is different.

This one showed us a new and unexpected face of Yellowstone’s autumn.

LeHardy Rapids

Just a short walk from one of two pull-outs three miles north of Fishing Bridge, a quiet path leads through the woods along the Yellowstone River as it dances over these gentle rapids.

LeHardy Falls Yellowstone National Park

LeHardy Falls
Yellowstone National Park

Wraith Falls

An easy, half mile trail through the delicious scents of sage and pine leads to a short stairway from which you can see the falls.

Wraith Falls Trail Yellowstone National Park

Wraith Falls Trail
Yellowstone National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs: The Chapel

This was the last building constructed by the army during their thirty year tenure as overseer of Yellowstone. Because it is hard to heat, services are held in this stone chapel only during temperate months. We attended the final service for the season and I was both challenged and encouraged. During the rest of the season services are held at the hotel. Non-denominational services are conducted park-wide by Yellowstone employees who volunteer for A Christian Ministry in the National Parks.

Chapel, Fort Yellowstone District  Mammoth Hot Springs

Fort Yellowstone Chapel

Mammoth Hot Springs: The Elk

Some of the park’s elk make their home at the former Fort Yellowstone, drawn by the sweet grass that the army planted. For most of the year, it goes fairly smoothly, but the rut brings out the craziness in elk and tourists alike. Bulls gather their harems and defend their mating rights. Tourists risk their bodies, their vehicles, and sometimes their youngsters in search of the perfect photo.

During autumn, my family calls it The Elk Show. Sometimes that refers to the bulls. Sometimes it refers to park visitors and the rangers or volunteers who come each fall to keep distance between photo-seekers and territorial, testosterone-driven bulls. Sometimes the education and protection is carried off with as much flair as the strutting, sparring, and bugling from the elk.

Elk at Fort Yellowstone

 Mammoth Hot Springs: Randy Ingersoll and the Map Room

Randy plays music both familiar and original—some of it inspired by Yellowstone—from from 5:30 – 8 p.m. most weeknights. Sometimes park visitors sing or play another instrument along with him. At 8:30 he presents a program born from his love for Yellowstone. With live music, games available at the front desk, tables, desks, couches, and an espresso cart just around the corner, it’s a relaxing way to spend an evening after a long day on the trail or on the road.


Red Rock Point

This half-mile trail—paved, switch-backed, and stepped—leads to an artful vantage point of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, a graceful drop of over one hundred feet. The fenced deck is distant enough to afford a broad view of the falls yet still close enough to allow the mist to settle on your skin.

Lower Falls from Red Rock Point

Lower Falls from Red Rock Point

Artist Paint Pots

This is a family favorite. A one mile loop into the woods leads to mudpots, unusual and colorful thermal features among the trees. Usually, the contents of the mud pots are gloppy but this year, probably from the rain, the mud was thin.


Upper Geyser Basin: Home of Old Faithful


Old Faithful erupts every ninety-two minutes, on average. Each eruption is different and influenced by the one which came before. Its appearance is affected by the steam, the sky, and time of day. Cloud formations and moonlight add their own influence. You might be able to catch an eruption on Old Faithful’s streaming webcam here.

Upper Geyser Basin

Upper Geyser Basin

The Upper Geyser Basin is home to more than just Old Faithful. Morning Glory Pool, and Castle, Grand, and Riverside are favorite destinations of our family. Prediction times are posted at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.

Fairy Falls

The trail to Fairy Falls is a flat, non-strenuous five-mile roundtrip hike which takes you along the Firehole River and through once burnt but quickly regrowing lodgepole pine forest. We set off on a thirty-seven degree morning and added the steep trip up the slope across from Midway Geyser Basin which warmed us and gave us an aerial view of Grand Prismatic Spring. Grand Prismatic is usually shrouded in steam and so far from the boardwalk at Midway that from that walkway it’s hard to see anything more than a blue haze. The view from the hill was worth every fallen tree I climbed over and every uncertain step I took.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Midway Geyser Basin Yellowstone National Park

Grand Prismatic Spring, Midway Geyser Basin
Yellowstone National Park

Fairy Falls is a long, thin stream of water befitting a fairy. This year, it ran especially strong and full.

Fairy Falls Yellowstone National Park

Fairy Falls
Yellowstone National Park

Pebble Creek

We, along with a few fly fishermen, parked by the gate to the closed-for-the-season Pebble Creek campground and walked to the canyon that the creek flows through. We didn’t venture too far in because some hikers coming out told us that they’d heard a bear on the ridge above. It was late and cold and we didn’t want to risk coming face to face with a bear, nor did we want to have our way back to the car blocked by its movements–even for a little while.

Pebble Creek Canyon Yellowstone National Park

Pebble Creek Canyon
Yellowstone National Park

The Intruder

DSC00776A low rumble of a growl, that’s how it started. Our first camping trip found us buried further down a country road than I had ever traveled, stuck on one of those rural grassy drives between dusty gravel and green pasture.

The little red Plymouth Sundance that I brought into our marriage lost the battle with the deep ruts that passed for a driveway. My husband’s manly Jeep from antiquity would have prevailed, but we wouldn’t have been able to hold a conversation during the drive. So there we were, in my vehicle instead of his—a vehicle stranded with its undercarriage on the dirt, wheels dangling in the air like a little kid in a grownup chair.

A distant cousin lived this deep in the country so J calmly walked us down the road to their house, where we found him home and able to extract us from our predicament. We thanked him and drove the remaining fifty yards through the open pasture and pitched our tent amid the close timber. J unpacked while I worked on dinner.

That’s when I heard the growl.

I surveyed the surrounding trees, looking for a bear. (Because what else would growl in the Iowa woods?) I saw nothing. Not a bear. Not a squirrel. Not even a cow. Someone rented the land for their herd, but we hadn’t seen any of them yet. I told myself it was a cow, but I didn’t believe me. I grew up around my grandpa’s cows and I never heard them make a sound like that.

I heard it again, closer this time. I turned and there, ambling our way, was a bull. Grandpa’s warning to my seven-year-old-self erupted in my head: “Tillie, I would never keep a mean bull, but if the bull is in the pasture, you stay out.” That was enough. Bulls were obviously dangerous and to be avoided.

Now one was aiming for my outdoor kitchen.

I walked to the car and informed my husband about the intruder. We went to opposite sides of the car and stood, mesmerized by the bull as he plodded toward us. We opened the doors. He advanced further. We got in and sat down, shocked, because who gets stalked by a bovine on a camping trip? He held his course all the way to the front of the car and I wondered if he would crush the roof when he stepped up and walked over us.

bull - Version 2He pressed his legs against the front of our tiny car, stretched his rippled neck, and nearly touched the windshield with his immense nose.  Apparently he didn’t need much personal space. When he pulled his head back we waited to see what he would do next. We didn’t wait long. He bent down, stuck his nose under the car, and lifted it into the air.

And then he dropped us.

J had the vehicle started and in gear before we hit the ground. He backed through the maze of trees with impressive speed and got us to the fence where we could put a gate between us and the bull, the conqueror in full possession of our gear.

Back to the cousin’s house we drove. Once he finished laughing, he told us that yes, he knew the farmer who kept the cattle on the land. He called and miraculously, he too was home on a Friday night.

The farmer met us at the gate and climbed out of his truck with a bag of Cheetos. The bull was a rental, brought in for breeding purposes. He’d been raised as a pet. His owner had shared his cheese curls with him while he chored, so he was unusually interested in people.

The gear extraction plan was simple: The farmer would distract the bull with his Cheetos while my husband made the grab. I waited on the safe side of the fence.

It worked.

We drove even further into the country to the empty farmhouse where J’s grandma grew up. J pitched the tent on the lawn and I restarted dinner. We fell into our sleeping bags in the deep dark and slipped into sleep to the mooing of the cows across the road, mooing broken by an occasional low rumble of a growl.


We shared camping’s trial and by the next morning we shared its laugher, first together and later with J’s great-aunt who roared up in her pickup not long after we peeled ourselves off of the ground. Now it’s one of our stories. Not all of our stories are happy. Some are sad or even dull, but each one is a different type of thread in the fabric of our life. With the threads of faith, hope, and family, they hold our life together.

And you? You have stories. What do you do with them?

This is the final post in a series about the trials of life outdoors and their effect on relationships. Part one is here and part two is here.

The bull photo is courtesy of a friend who risked life and limb, under the supervision of the farmer, because she knew I wanted a photo of a bull. What greater love?

What’s a Little Rain?



Dad and I went to Yellowstone about a year ago—just the two of us, to the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, for a nature writing class—and we did some hiking and camping along the way. Most of the time, the end-of-August days delighted us with warm sun and cool air, but the forecast and cotton candy clouds foreboded rain.

The clouds delivered a couple of afternoon spurts worth dragging out our yellow ponchos for. And once, while we walked the boardwalk to Echinus geyser, they brought hail.


And every night for three nights, while we cooked our dinner, the sky sprinkled. Every night we sat by the fire in a gentle rain. And then, every night, it picked up and rained like it meant it. We wanted to linger by that fire, but how much can worn hikers really take?


Our weather-enforced curfew was probably good for us. We logged plenty of miles on foot and in the van during days that started early. Rain delivered the message that darkness and fatigue did not: go to sleep. So, every night after a short fire we retired, Dad to his tent and me to my luxurious pile of memory foam in the back of Mom and Dad’s twelve passenger van.


When Dad and I arrived at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, we brought with us a wet mass of a wadded up tent. Our cabin’s timbered railing provided a place to hang it to dry in the sun. Our camp chairs needed the same treatment, so we set them up on the porch.

Our gear dried quickly in the arid mountain air and when the time came to stow it back in the van, we kept one chair out. Our cabin featured one rustic wooden chair on the porch. Because of the rain we thought to have two–two where we sat together every morning and evening, the kind of together that life rarely bestows once you grow up and move away from home.

Every day I wished it wouldn’t rain, but once again, through the rain came a gift. You’d think I’d learn.

And you? How do approach unexpected and unpleasant circumstances that come your way?

This is the second post in a 3 part series on the pitfalls of life outdoors, especially how those pitfalls may bring us closer together. Why post about camping in September? Its weather is usually an open invitation to step outside.

Sharing stories this week at Unforced Rhythms.

Sometimes the Road is Dark

Harney Peak, Custer State Park, South Dakota

Harney Peak, Custer State Park, South Dakota

We don’t always get it right out on the trail.

We knew it would be close. Still, we hopped out at the picnic area, grabbed a late lunch, and prepared to hit the trail to Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills.

My husband filled our camel paks while I reached into our well-stocked supply of nutritious and frivolous trail food. And then, at 3:00 in the afternoon, after an evening and part of a long day in the vehicle, we set out for Harney Peak. It was a six-mile loop, estimated to take four to five hours.  Sunset was four and a half-hours away.  We needed to hurry.

It was like we had never stepped off of a sidewalk.

Stops for snacks out on the trail were a big deal to all three kids. And from our stockpile of trail food what had I grabbed? Not trail mix. Not granola bars. Not fruit. No, I had chosen one tiny candy bar per person. One.

Our youngest was neither a hiker nor a hurrier. My husband and I were road-weary and stiff.

We were in trouble from the moment we set foot on the trail.

Yellowstone 2011 008In spite of our poor planning, it was a fabulous hike that took us over a sun-dappled path and along breathtaking drop-offs. We climbed the stone fire tower and explored the peak before we remembered that we needed to hurry and forced ourselves back to the trail. When we arrived at the fork in the trail, we decided not to return the way we had come, but to take the other section of the loop.

Down the trail, we stood for too long to watch a mule deer pair graze in the drying grass amidst the trees. While we lingered,  the sky took on the melancholy look it gets when it will soon give up the sun. Now we hurried.

At least, we hurried as much as tired, hungry, somewhat dehydrated hikers with youngsters can hurry.

The sky darkened and our pace slowed. My steps became small and timid as my eyes searched the barely visible, unfamiliar trail before me. Roots and gravel, rocks and holes, enemies to my stability under the best circumstances, transformed a pleasant day hike into a perilous evening journey.

While the eerie light of the closing darkness concealed whatever lurked ahead, behind, or beside of the trail, it revealed my place in the world and in its food chain. I began to envision us perched on a rock, shivering away the hours of the long night as we waited for dawn to light our way to the trailhead.

It was in this moment of desperation that my intrepid husband broke out a flashlight and two headlamps that he had stashed in his pack.

It wasn’t a lot of light, but it changed everything.

Where there had been darkness, now there was light—and right where I needed it—on the trail directly in front of my feet. Now, rather than taking one tiny, timid step after another, I hiked like I meant it. My pace matched our urgency to get out of those rocky hills where the mountain lion dwells. I strode with confidence, all because of a tiny pool of light on the path.

While I never relish distressing circumstances, I do appreciate the unmistakable intersection between the truth of scripture and the circumstances of my life. This night was one of those.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105

This is what I want those words to mean: That light will light up my path and the landscape on every side like a football field on a Friday night. One dark night on the trail is all it took to show me that this isn’t how it works.  A light like this cuts through just enough darkness to make the journey possible, one step at a time.

It isn’t a lot of light, but it can change everything.

Just as we don’t always get it right on the trail, I don’t always get it right in my life. I have forgotten the lesson of our hike in the dark. I’ve struggled against darkness on the path in a vain attempt to see the trail ahead. I’ve even ignored the light because it wasn’t where I wanted to walk.

I don’t want to ignore. Or struggle. Or forget.

I want to remember.  I’ll be in the dark again and I want to get it right, to recognize that I don’t have to know how far is the journey, what route the trail will take, or how deep it will take me into the darkness. I want to trust that there will be just enough light for each of my steps.

Our hike in the dark was a long series of steps. What is this life but a series of steps taken by faith?

And you? What guides you when the road ahead is dark?

Linking this week with Emily’s #imperfectprose.


This post is a revised version of one of my earliest posts, revised because bullet points are not my style and reposted because it’s one of my favorites. 

The Quiet Walk


Photo by Adam Noll–Creative Commons

There is more to a hike than a pair of boots, a granola bar, and the trail. There’s technique. At least that’s what they taught in the hiking class I took to satisfy a  college P.E. requirement.

I was slow to come to a love of hiking and didn’t yet have it when my roommate and I drove to the Wisconsin Dells to learn everything we needed to know about hiking. Twenty five years later, of that everything, two stuck.

First–and because we hike in the mountains, most useful–how to hike up a hill: Tackle it like you would a staircase, with small steps, lifting your body with the quads rather than the calves. The quads are stronger. They can take it.

Second, how to establish hiking order: The slowest hiker stays up front and sets the pace so everyone stays together and insures that the slow one won’t get left behind if she has some sort of trouble. I suppose that makes sense in the case of a twisted ankle that occurs with a sudden onset of laryngitis.

It took almost twenty-five years of life on the trail before I actually wanted to be there. I was happy enough out hiking along with my parents and brother, and later my husband, and even later with our children, as long as I wasn’t tired or bored and the trail was reasonably flat. I didn’t understand the need to get off the road, away from the crowds, and into the backcountry.

I get it now. Finally. The hours and effort on the trail will take me somewhere worth going.

emerald isle pictures 267

Seven years ago we packed our children, then three, seven, and ten, and drove east instead of west.  On our way to the coast, we drove through new mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains. Along the curved, yellow leaf-lined roads, we saw a sign we’d never seen before: Quiet Walkway.

What in the world is a quiet walkway? 

That was my question as we wound our way through the park, passing sign after puzzling sign. Always curious and unafraid of the unknown, my husband eventually pulled over at one. There was no trail information, just a path into the woods.

emerald isle pictures 270

And down that path we started; no map, no guide, and no destination. It was mid-afternoon and I calculated how much this little stop would delay our arrival at our week’s home on the beach. Questions, the grumbling kind, whirled through my mind: Why are we doing this? How far will we go? How will we know when we get there?

A damp carpet of leaves muted our footfalls. Those which clung to their branches filtered the light that dappled the trail. The air hung with a rich tranquility which even playful young voices could not break. It was, indeed, quiet.

We walked and wandered until we discovered the mild rapids of a mountain stream. With boulders to climb, logs to cross, and rocks to throw, it was an unexpected paradise for our little tribe.

When we had set off it had seemed random, but we got to where we belonged along by a route that was deliberate.

emerald isle pictures 278

Life in a family can be like that. Why else would we play Don’t Break the Ice or read Thomas the Tank Engine hundreds of times? Those aren’t destinations. They’re the stops along the way, boulders and logs and rocks in the woods; worthwhile stops where we belong for a time. We stop with our little people—and our big ones—because we’re on the journey with them, not because we know where we’ll all end up.

A day with my grandma usually included a looking walk. She had a book about such walks. We would read it together and then we would go live it. Evening’s arrival brought Only a Boy Named David and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the rocking chair by the picture window in her living room. I still see the stars and hear her voice. Though hampered by rheumatoid arthritis and walking was hard for her, she took me on quiet walks long before the National Park Service did. She taught me the value of the quiet moment and the gifts which reside within.

Unlike a hike, there’s no technique for the quiet walk. There’s just a walk, a willingness to let go of destination and embrace–for a little while–the road for the sake of the road. It seems like it should be easy, but it’s not.

Just like it’s hard to put the slowest hiker out front, it’s hard to pause while our little people wander the trails of childhood or our big ones–our grownup friends and family–struggle with the switchbacks of adult life. It takes self-control and sacrifice to slow down long enough to wander with someone without knowing where, or why, or how long; but like the years it took to develop an appreciation for time on the trail, the effort is worth it.

And you? What are you more comfortable with–the hike with a specific destination or a quiet walkway?