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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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.




Silver Linings

I wrote this last winter but I couldn’t bear to post one more piece about snow. Winter had been too long and too deep.

Summer always brings a day, usually in August, when I step outdoors and know that I will again be ready for snow. This is not that day. This strangely cool summer may not even give me one, but winter is long enough past to allow the enjoyment of its memory.

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Flakes were flying when I arrived at the orthodontist. Both ground and sky were clear twenty minutes later when I walked out of the office and into the nearby Panera. After just a few minutes of quiet reading, I looked up to discover that everything – the parking lot, the cars, and the trees – were coated with snow. Within a moment I packed and headed to my vehicle, and in the few feet between it and the restaurant found myself covered with the same slippery snow that clung to the road.

The swirling squall delivered a blizzard’s whiteout to the streets of Des Moines, so I sought refuge in another Panera. I had books and pens and my iPad, which would usually be enough to keep me occupied for days, but a cold booth and a bagel are poor substitutes for home and the white chicken chilli that my daughter was so excited to make for our family’s dinner.

From a seat chosen for its view, I watched the huge flakes pelt the earth and I understood. For the first time, I knew that regardless of its beauty and wonder, I had to set aside my romantic notions and admit that I’ve been wrong. Snow is not always welcome.

The concept of seasons has wound around and in and out of my mind for the past thirteen years and wedged like a stone in my soul last autumn. A surprise snow, an unexpected blizzard, delivered new perspective: Even a season’s silver linings are sometimes hard to bear.

How about you? Does your current season have silver linings? Are any of them hard to bear?


Sharing Silver Linings with KelliHolley and Lyli.


The Road Ahead: May


Sometimes it’s the road behind that illuminates the way forward. A year ago we had a rare May snow. It was wet and heavy and didn’t stick around. It couldn’t. Our orbit around the Sun was too deep into the warmth of spring.

So far, this spring is cold. It could snow again this May. Chances are that it won’t but if it does, it won’t be like last year. As Aslan told Lucy, “Things never happen the same way twice.”

Our circumstances change and so do we. From this May we can glance back. A glimpse of where I stand today in light of where I’ve been changes my perspective on the road I walk. Peter, who to me is the disciple of perpetual hope, reminds me that the journey is not about perfection; it’s about progress:

100_1425“Now for this very reason, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1: 8- 10

Take a look back. Think of it as a scenic pullout along your road. Does what you see give you hope to carry on or does it urge you to make a course correction? Sometimes I find both.

Happy May!



After the Rain


Artist Paint Pots Yellowstone National Park

Artist Paint Pots Yellowstone National Park

It was hot when we arrived in Montana. Ninety degrees hot. In October. After sweltering for a couple of days, we drove toward Yellowstone over the Beartooth Highway, where the balmy morning temperatures plummeted into winter, one degree at a time. By the time we made it to Mammoth, the front had chased away the heat. Second-summer had been usurped by cold and a grey, sunless sky.

With our eyes fixed more on our plans than on the forecast, we began our journey to the summit of Mount Washburn. Questionable clouds morphed ominously and delivered a biting wind that blew our cloak of warmth away and reminded me–again–of how frail we are in the face of weather. Rain followed the wind and drove the girls and me down the mountain to the dry interior of our car. The guys made it but were denied the view by misty clouds over the mountain.

Rain kept us in, or at least near, the car for the next several days. Our subdued moods matched the sky. It wasn’t that we didn’t have any fun. We did. Our plan, though, had focused on miles on the trail, not hours in the car.

We drove south through the rain to stay at the Old Faithful Inn. The rain stopped and the sky cleared as we approached Artist Paint Pots, a thermal basin made up primarily of chalky, thick, bubbling thermal features. Set among the trees, it’s a favorite, especially of our youngest, and we were itching to get out and hike, so we risked a soaking and set off into the woods. The rain held off almost–but not quite–long enough.

Yellowstone 2011 263

Old Faithful from Lookout Point Yellowstone National Park

As we dried ourselves, we noticed snow on a nearby vehicle. And when we pulled onto the road to resume our journey south, the cars that were driving toward us were covered with snow. Covered. As we made our way toward Old Faithful we accumulated snow of our own. Our moods were no longer influenced by the clouds, they were buoyed by the swirling snow. By nightfall of the next day all five roads in to and out of the park were closed. The Inn’s cellist added Winter Wonderland to her evening’s program. We relished not only the snow but the surreal fact that we were snowed in. In October.

The Inn is a place of early activity, of quiet door closings and muffled footsteps, of subdued voices and idling tour buses. The next morning, though, we were among the few who ventured out. The high mountain passes had not yet been cleared, so the people who would usually be scurrying to their car to get to their day’s destination were probably either still asleep or prowling the halls as they waited to hear they were free to go.

We weren’t interested in going anywhere by car. We left on foot to walk Geyser Hill in solitude, swathed in the hush of a fresh blanket of snow.

I could have lived without the intense heat that greeted us when we arrived in Montana. I had no interest in the rainy, sunless days which followed. But without the rain, we would never have gotten the snow. We would have missed the warm excitement of being snowbound, not only in our beloved Inn, but in the park. We would have missed the sound of silence broken occasionally by the squeak of shoes on snow or the splash of water from a geyser. We would have missed a wonderful morning and a favorite memory.


And you? Has anything wonderful followed the rain in your life?

Sharing this week with AngieEmily and Lyli.

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.