Three months after a wounded nation plodded toward war and exacting revenge, I plunged into a long winter of self-imposed isolation and reflection in the heart of Yellowstone. Feeling way out of my comfort zone, unnerved, and afraid, I initially resisted embracing the commitment I had made, and constantly wondered what the hell I had just gotten myself into.
The closest unplowed road was over 50 miles away, via a round-trip four-hour snowmobile ride. Everything I brought in had to be carried by snowmobile or sled, and that’s how I also got groceries twice a month on scenic and occasionally scary jaunts from Fishing Bridge to West Yellowstone. Lettuce, bananas and eggs required particular attention when packing for the return home, as I found out the hard way on my first grocery shopping mission, with none of the above among the survivors.
Once on the way home, I got stuck in deep snow during whiteout conditions in the Hayden Valley, then waited over an hour in fading late January daylight for help to arrive. Chocolate, a cool attitude, and singing and dancing to stay warm were part of my survival tool kit that afternoon, as was having a radio link to the Comm Center, and more standard emergency gear.
Bison on the road, along with occasionally unruly, unskilled or unprepared winter visitors, also made travel and work on this high plateau atop a dormant volcano extra exciting and unpredictable. I settled slowly and more confidently into days spent starting and maintaining wood stove fires in the warming hut, reporting weather and road conditions, “roving” nearby areas to meet and assist visitors, and staffing, subbing and giving slideshow presentations, with a four-stroke National Park Service snowmobile as my winter steed.
Compared to many other winter park rangers, I was pretty much on my own at Yellowstone Lake, free to be myself, free to make mistakes, and hopefully wise enough to survive and learn from making them. That relatively TV, internet, and cell-phone free winter provided time and space to reconnect and rediscover my passion for writing and photography. It also reawakened other long-ignored and neglected desires that I didn’t have the courage to begin fully exploring until three years later, when I left the park.
In hindsight, a clear pattern emerges as to how much five years living and working in Yellowstone continues to guide who and where I am today, and to where I may be heading. Nature is where I have consistently retreated to get clearer, to immerse myself in and be o.k. with the unknown, and often, the unknowable.
Nature is also where I’ve felt most comfortable not knowing it all. None of us ever will, in the natural or the “real” world for that matter, and that’s o.k. It’s all pretty much beyond our control. The one thing I have free will and control over is whether and how much I choose to fully explore and bring forth my own true nature, and to share that freely and fearlessly with others.
That magical Yellowstone winter of 2001-02 continues to bear amazing gifts, such as greater trust, wisdom and confidence in a rapidly changing world. A steady knowing that by moving through fears and challenges, in natural as well as human communities, amazing opportunities to grow and change and thrive arise. That through discovering and developing my talents and abilities, the better I can contribute to my own life and livelihood, and to those of all others on the planet.
I’m not without fear. I embrace and engage it every day. It has become a most unlikely friend, often revealing a higher and unexpected way through perceived problems beyond the more limiting solutions society, others or my ego might come up with. As a result, I am better at surrendering and allowing things to happen, being less attached to outcomes, and visualizing positive results for my six billion or so other fellow human beings to also discover their own true nature, and share their talents in the highest way.
Six years ago in early May, I accidentally came within six feet of a Yellowstone grizzly and her two cubs, while responding to a “bear jam” between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs. Managing a “bear jam” actually involves skillfully managing the unpredictable nature of humans, and there were plenty of them emerging from cars parked all over the road, doing their best to circumvent my and another ranger’s orders to remain in their vehicles, as three bears navigated a human labyrinth in search of peace and a calmer place.
I had turned around to stop a family from approaching any closer, and in that moment, I felt the hackles on the back of my neck stand up. On the far side of the car closest to where I was standing, radio-collared grizzly bear number 264 and her cubs zoomed by, ears down, eyes averted, panting hard, fearful perhaps. They ditched the road, meandered along the far side of a mucky meadow, then vanished into a jumbled, regenerating lodgepole pine forest. Bear jam over. I was emotionally spent once the adrenaline fled.
I still get chills when recounting that experience. That same night a crazed grizzly bear came to me in a fearful dream, peeling my scalp and crushing my skull before consuming me alive. I’d like to think that my worst nightmare was only that, and quite different from what my highest hopes and dreams may ever bring.
It’s hard to say whether grizzly bears dream, what they may dream about, or whether their nature is much different from ours. One thing I can say with conviction is that I have tremendous personal power to change my reality. We all do. It depends upon embracing our true selves, as well as befriending and learning from our fears.
Perhaps grizzlies and other wild beings spend less energy being afraid of how things are or look in favor of more fully being themselves, making the most of opportunities inherent in the now. I’m glad places wild and large enough for grizzlies still exist, for if we ever lose such places, we’ll also lose a wilder and wiser part of our own nature. When I really listen and slow down, I hear Yellowstone’s wild heart beating fiercely in mine.