Because Winter is Inevitable

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Once, long  ago, before babies and moves to houses in new communities, I picked up the beginning of an understanding of the seasons—their rhythms, their tasks, their hard realities. Learning to be a mom to three babies while finding my way in three different towns left room for little else in my brain. I traded a loose grip on the concept of seasons for the clutching fist of survival.

It was not a good trade.

I forgot that seasons really do change. That whether delightful or dry, balmy or bitter, fertile or fruitless, they don’t last forever. That there is a time for every single thing.

SmokeysI still thought about seasons here and there. I even wrote about them. What I didn’t do was believe the truth of them, a truth that drifted around, unanchored, just beyond my grasp.

At least, that’s how it was until I woke up on the hard ground one morning in a tent in South Dakota to a bombardment of missiles launched by a pinecone-gathering squirrel. The squirrel didn’t forget. Because he is a creature of instinct and the outdoors, he knew. Yellowstone 2011 It was September and he was doing the work of the season—gathering pinecones and flinging them down from the tree in rapid succession. They landed on the ground, the picnic table, the tent, and the camper next door. Autumn, the season of harvest, of preparation, of gathering and storing what he needed for the winter, weighed on him. He went to work with the sunrise.

Cocooned between my husband and our littlest one, who’d woken up cold in the night and sought out somewhere warmer to sleep, I listened to the frenzied activities of the squirrel in the tree above as he prepared for the unavoidable days of winter. From the warmth of our double sleeping bag, I considered the cycle of the seasons and acknowledged my own.

Deep winter. There was no other name for it.

Above the Basin

Our babies had grown into big kids, but even years beyond what we hoped would be the last move, the bleak chill of displacement claimed my soul in the same way the afternoon cold settles into my bones and makes them ache. And this frozen season of the heart held on too long, so long that my emotional storehouses—reserves against times drought and famine—depleted to dangerously low levels. With little left to fight off an engulfing depression, I longed for spring, a spring so slow in coming I thought it might never arrive.

But it did.

It came quietly, meandering in soon after waking up to that squirrel. It came on the heels of a long breakfast with an old friend, several perspective-challenging days in the mountains with my dad, and a couple of space-making weeks in South Dakota with my family. It came slowly, spring, with its powers of restoration, and its light, balmy air that took the chill off my soul.

The squirrel gathered because his fields were ripe. He gathered because it was time to harvest. The physical world is tidy that way. The seasons come in turn. Winter, then spring, then summer, then fall. And then it begins again.

101_0915It isn’t so simple in the world of people. Our seasons don’t follow a predictable pattern. They don’t always come in turn. And because of the rich complexities of our lives, we sometimes find ourselves facing deep winter in one place and high summer in another.

What the squirrel didn’t know on that sunny September morning was that within the month his home in the Black Hills would be blanketed by two feet of out-of-season, blizzard-driven snow. Like him, I’ll never know when autumn’s abundance will end. But what I’m learning is that winter is inevitable, that it’s best to gather whenever and wherever the fields are ripe.

For everything there is a season

Linking with Kelly’s Small Wonder and Lyli’s Thought Provoking Thursday.

This post was originally shared at circlingthestory.com.

Because of New Normals

On the eve of our son’s return to college when the kids were snarly and I was weepy, my husband looked at us and said, “Transitions are always tough.”

They are. I know. But I forget.

With his words barely out into the air between us, I remembered Yellowstone’s roads and the rough transition from spring-summer-fall to winter and that it’s hard sometimes to get from where we are to where we need to be. Because I see the road as a metaphor for life, remembering Yellowstone’s roads smoothed my frayed nerves and gave me perspective. And because I know that transitions the road to new normals are not only tough, they’re inevitable, and that it’s human nature to forget what we know, here’s a repost from a couple of years back.


 

IMG_1511The sun dawned in the steely sky and peeked through trees veiled by the falling snow. It had begun the night before and lingered, fine and heavy, through the day. “It’s slick,” my son told me when he returned from his mid-day Calc class. I must have looked concerned, because he amended his statement. “The roads were fine. It’s the parking lot that was bad.”

Of course the roads were in better shape than the parking lot—the DOT turns the crews loose before the first flake hits the ground. They work to keep the roads neat and tidy, safe surfaces for us to navigate between where we are and where we need to be. Their trucks and plows spread through the area with sand, salt, and blades.

The forecast called for snow in Yellowstone that same day, but there no one bothered much about the roads.

It wasn’t because of a strike. It wasn’t because of a government shutdown. It was because–with the exception of the fifty-two mile stretch of road between the North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana and the Northeast Entrance at Cooke City–Yellowstone’s roads are accessible only by snow machine during the winter.

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In spring and summer and the early months of fall, Yellowstone’s roads are just roads. They have their seasonal dangers—potholes the size of small cars, thermal mist which ices the surface on cold nights, wildlife lallygagging just around the bend—but they are roads, meant for us to drive. We belong there.

During the winter they consist of snow, groomed smooth enough by the same machines that tend to downhill ski slopes, their edges marked by tall orange stakes rather than the familiar white line. We can belong there, too, on snowmobiles or in Suburbans retrofitted with treads.

But for a few weeks in between they are roads in transition.

They’re messy. They’re dangerous. And they’re fit for neither tires nor treads.

Some of the people who live and work in Yellowstone’s interior drive them anyway—to the grocery store, to visit a friend, to their winter’s work assignment. Park employees tell tales of white-knuckled travels over slippery, snowy roads. It’s what their life requires while they wait for the snow to build up so that groomers can carve out a smooth surface for them to get from where they are to where they need to be.

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Some of ours are roads in transition.

Stretches are messy. Sections are dangerous. And sometimes our vehicle feels like no match for the way ahead.

Our kids get older and what once worked suddenly is a cumbersome, clunky way that doesn’t get the job done. Our marriages reshape themselves just as we do, and so do our friendships. Our jobs change, and sometimes even the place where our key fits the lock.

In the midst of it all, we keep going. We make our way over roads that are messy and dangerous, in vehicles that feel like no match for the terrain. We wait for the day when it will smooth into a neat and tidy surface, one that feels safe to navigate–even if only for a little while. It’s the process life requires and the way it gives for us to get from where we are to where we need to be.

And while we wait, beautiful encouragement from a Psalm of David: For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. 

No matter the condition of the road.

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And you? Are you on a road in transition today? What helps you navigate?

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.

On Breaking Trail

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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Everywhere

We’ve taken to watching a little football at our house on Sunday afternoons and when the talk turns to the Super Bowl, I remember the day I found some unexpected beauty in Yellowstone. Oh, I expected to find beauty, but not indoors, not around the television, and not watching football.

In memory of that day, a repost–because great good is on my mind, and it can be found in the most surprising places.


We DSC00291dragged ourselves into Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel according to plan, just after midnight Sunday morning. We’d driven twenty hours and that last one was hard. We were all road weary and my husband, who had driven most of the way, was done.

I took the wheel as the temperature plummeted, the wind whipped up and the clouds descended, alternately perching atop our vehicle and on the road in front of us . As I drove, the temperature climbed from fourteen below zero back to thirteen above, the clouds lifted, and snow began to blow across the road, shrouding it more fully than the clouds had done. This cycle–plunging thermometer, cloud-cloaked roads, warming temperatures, and blinding ground blizzard–repeated itself once more, then cleared as we entered Yellowstone through the Roosevelt Arch.

The next morning we slept as late a family of early and late risers crammed into a hotel room could expect to sleep and spent the dawning hours of Super Bowl Sunday walking together through the small community at Mammoth Hot Springs. Soft and substantial flakes floated to the ground, joining the fresh few inches that had fallen in the night. It was cold, not polar vortex cold, but crisp and clear and lovely.

My parents introduced my brother and I to Yellowstone’s winter when I was in high school and my husband and I made a winter’s visit a few years into our marriage. This trip with our children had been brewing since 2002. As much as we enjoy Yellowstone’s autumn, the intense beauty of Yellowstone’s winter is unsurpassed.

We returned to our room for warm layers suitable for exploring away from the civilized settlement. Our destination was the mountainside hot springs of the Upper Terrace. Just two miles away, it was where the grated road ended and the groomed one began. We drove to the end of the road, strapped on our snowshoes, and spent the late morning on our family’s first mountain snowshoe expedition.

The hot springs at Mammoth are different from others in the park. At Mammoth, water rises through limestone and becomes saturated with calcium carbonate along the way. When deposited at the surface, it transforms the constantly growing and changing travertine terraces. Some springs are grey and dry, some white, and others, hues of orange and red, colors indicative of the thermophiles which reside within.

As we walked along a steamy stream of thermal run-off by the road-turned-trail, two mule deer peeked through the trees, then darted deeper into the forest. Our youngest daughter had to be coaxed up one hill, where we found the source of the stream, a spring which resembled Snuffleupagus in both color and shape.

Upper Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone National Park

Upper Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs
Yellowstone National Park

The excursion, was enough for the girls. My husband and son drove Yellowstone’s one open road deeper into the park in search of a more challenging trail to conquer and we went to the map room at the hotel where we read and played games. It was Super Bowl Sunday, so at 3 p.m. an employee entered the map room, unlocked the hotel’s one television, and found the game.

No matter where I am, I never really watch the game. I sit near the game. I visit. I watch the commercials and the half-time show, but I don’t watch the game.

Today was no different. As I read, I heard Queen Latifah’s soulful rendering of “America the Beautiful” and I absent-mindedly wondered where our national anthem had gone. Buried again in my book, I eventually heard its familiar melody and I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. People were standing. It could have been a replay of every high school athletic event I’d ever attended.

This, though, was different.

Of the thirty people gathered on couches and around tables, almost half stood, heads bereft of hats and hands covering hearts. They stood, not because they were surrounded by standing spectators; over half remained seated. They stood because apparently they thought it was right and good and were compelled to do it. As I watched them, I saw the American flag flying between the Post Office, the Visitor Center, and Federal Justice Center through the map room’s paned bay window.

It was beautiful, and it made me wonder how long it had been since I had been compelled to do anything. It was an uncomfortable question.

DSC00288 You know I’m watching. My eyes are open. I went to Yellowstone last week and expected to see beauty, but I was looking outdoors. That I found it indoors, in front of the television, surprised me. And that, I suppose, is something I needed to learn: inspiration is everywhere.

If you’re watching with me I’d love to hear what you’re seeing.

 

Winter in Yellowstone: Things to Do

IMG_1432 Because of our Yellowstone habit, people often ask us what they should do when they are planning a visit to the park. It’s a hard question to answer, not just because of all there is to do, but because we have so many favorites. We have favorite hikes. We have favorite geysers. We have favorite picnic areas. It’s weird. I know.DSC00328

Yellowstone’s winter is an adventure in comparatives. It is more beautiful and less crowded than it is in other seasons. It is more difficult to get around. Even the animals take the road. It is more difficult to do simple and necessary tasks: consider a visit to an unheated vault “comfort station” at nineteen degrees below zero. There are fewer places to go, just two places to stay, and only one picnic area open. This makes it easier to answer the question of what to do in Yellowstone in winter.

Important to Know:

IMG_1485 Of Yellowstone’s 310 miles of paved roadway, only the fifty-two mile stretch between the North and Northeast entrances is open to wheeled vehicles in the winter. All other park roads are either closed or open to over-snow vehicles only.

Things to Do:

IMG_1280 Drive the open road. This will take you through the Lamar Valley, sometimes called the American Serengeti because of its abundant and varied wildlife. Thirty-one grey wolves from western Canada were released in the valley in the 1990s. While some stayed and made it their home, others move in for a share in winter’s prey. Our drive through the Lamar brought us within good viewing distance of  bison, elk, big horn sheep, and even two wolves feasting on a bull elk carcass. The road will take you over the Yellowstone River, along the Lamar River, Soda Butte Creek and Ice Box Canyon, and to the foot of Baronette Peak.

Take a walk. Explore Mammoth Hot Spring’s Lower Terrace; meander through the Mammoth Hot Springs community; along Officer’s Row, named for the homes which housed army officers when the Mammoth area was Fort Yellowstone. The Old Faithful Area has walkable paths between the Snow Lodge and its cabins, the Visitors Center, and the Old Faithful boardwalk. You can watch Old Faithful erupt from the boardwalk or the warmth of the Visitors Center.

Undine Falls Yellowstone National Park

Undine Falls
Yellowstone National Park

Listen. My dad has said that Yellowstone’s winter silence almost sucks the sound out of your head. You don’t have to get far from a building or your vehicle to hear the sound of silence, but you do have to stop. You even have to stop walking: shoes, skis, and snowshoes all squeak on the snow. If you stop, not only will you hear the immense silence, you may hear something you can’t hear in another season. We heard Lava Creek’s water flow below Undine Falls, something we’ve never heard in the autumn.

Nothing. Really. The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel lobby has chairs drawn up cozily around a fire. Its Map Room, named for the grand inlaid map of the United States, has a wall of windows and a gracious bay, a lending library for games and books, and comfortable seating to enjoy it all, as well as musical entertainment in the evening. (See below.) Those and the Snow Lodge’s chair-lined fire, game tables, and snug seating areas are great spaces to spend an hour or even a day reading and thinking or watching the humanity around you.

Devote an evening to live music and Yellowstone history. Randy Ingersoll came to Yellowstone during the 1970s and knew he wanted to stay there forever. Thirty-six years later, he’s still in the park and most evenings can be found in the Mammoth Hot Springs Map Room, where he welcomes and entertains guests not only with the music that comes from the grand piano he plays, but also his warmth and love for Yellowstone. He closes his evening with one of several programs about Yellowstone’s history, including his riveting story of being mauled by a bear. For our family, an evening in the Map Room, visiting with Randy and listening to his music and presentation is a highlight in any season. If you have a chance to hear him, ask him to play one of his original pieces. They are delightful.

Ice skate. Both the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel  and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge have outdoor skating rinks for their guests to use, as well as skates in all sizes. They are lit, well-maintained, sheltered from the wind, and have an inviting fire each evening. Even if you aren’t a skater, it’s worth an evening stroll to sit for a few moments by the fire.

Snowshoe. Snowshoes are available for rent in the park, as are cross-country skis and lessons for beginners. I’ve done both and prefer snowshoeing. We take trails that we can reach from the road or our lodging: Observation Point above Old Faithful, the Upper Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs, the confluence of the Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers, and the Upper Geyser Basin at Old Faithful.

Upper Geyser Basin from Observation Point, Yellowstone National Park

Upper Geyser Basin from Observation Point,
Yellowstone National Park

 More information on planning a visit to Yellowstone National Park can be found here and here.