A few fitful nights ago, when I was in deep monkey mind and unable to sleep, I got an intuitive nudge to re-read a story I wrote 15 years ago, “Right of Way,” and see how it spoke to me at this time.
December 2001 was the beginning of a winter I spent in the heart of Yellowstone, not far from the shores of Yellowstone Lake. I worked there as an interpretive National Park Service ranger. The nearest paved road was over 50 miles away, meaning snowmobiles and skis would be my primary mode of transport for the next three months. More than a few times during my first weeks living and working here, I wondered what the hell I had exactly just gotten myself into.
Seemingly far away from Yellowstone, out there in the “real world”, our country was still reeling from the September terrorist attacks. That winter, I had limited access to email and WiFi, my cell phone coverage didn’t work in this remote setting, and the only two radio stations I could reliably pick up were a country and western one along with NPR. The learning curve seemed so steep for all of us as to how to move forward in our lives, and how, or whether, to respond and act in the face of what had happened.
I didn’t have any easy answers then, and the same is true for the challenges and opportunities we are living with today. Looking back at what I experienced at that time, and over the last 15 years, I remember that I have navigated incredible challenges in the past that have been largely out of my control. I have also embraced and enjoyed exhilarating and wonderful opportunities. Because of this, I am able to draw from an amazing wellspring of skills, wisdom and life experiences that serve me in the present, and will continue to so in the future.
I am still standing, and I am still an American bad ass. I bet you are, too, if you are reading this.
Don’t let fear, doubt, worry or any other form of negativity, including someone else’s, keep you from doing what you have longed to do.
Be curious instead. Be creative instead. Be resourceful, be supportive, and allow yourself to be supported when you need courage, inspiration and motivation to keep taking action, to take the next step. Act on your heart and soul’s grandest dreams and visions, rather than crawling under the covers and wishing that the world’s ego-generated nightmares and bogeymen will simply just go away.
This holiday season and into 2017, I wish you the very best in being a bad ass in hugely powerful, positive, loving and life-changing ways. Be a ripple maker in the lives of others who will be inspired by your actions and example. The world can no longer wait for us or anyone else to sit on the sidelines. We are the ones we have been waiting for and now is our time.
Wishing you much peace, love and light in the year, and years to come!
P.S. Here’s the original story, “Right of Way,” which was first published in 2002 in Yellowstone Science magazine.
Right of Way
Heading home by snowmobile a few days before winter’s longest night, I encounter a lone bull bison standing on the groomed road just south of Hayden Valley in the Mud Volcano area. He initially gives no sign of noticing me, or of being bothered by my presence. At the same time, he is probably hoping that I will just go away, in the direction from which I came, and leave him in peace. I wait, with my engine still running.
Now wary, the bull moves slowly and deliberately away from me. Yet he stays on the road-his other options are either to move off into three feet of snow to his left, or to go down a steep bank leading to an ice-covered expanse of the Yellowstone River on his right. With the comfort and mobility it offers, this narrow strip of groomed road has become a lifeline, a survival and dispersal corridor that we have both come to expect and depend on in winter.
Standstill. And we do, two lone figures facing off on this empty stretch of road. I remember the importance to wintering wildlife of slowing way down and conserving my energy, which is not so easily replenished at this time of year. The bull shakes his massive head, moves a few unsteady steps, and continues standing in the middle of the road, staring at me with his large dark brown eyes, perhaps assessing my next move.
I get the message. I stop, and turn off the snowmobile. I am awed by the silence and serenity of this moment. I hear and then feel the late afternoon wind shift its direction and velocity, and quickly put a facemask on top of my balaclava to ward off the chill. The wind and cold does not seem to bother the bison, standing silently, his thick coat of fur protecting him from the freezing wind. I hear the rapid, powerful flapping of a raven’s wings long before I see it glide slowly above us, and then disappear from this winter scene.
The bull bison and I watch each other for a long while on this gray and cloudy December afternoon, neither of us acting or reacting. For several minutes I find myself breathing in the sharp, cold air, deeply and slowly, exhaling in unison with the bison.
The bull turns and faces the bank sloping sharply down toward the Yellowstone River. He exhales deeply, as if finally deciding to move on. He swings his head a final time in my direction. Mistakenly, I take this to mean that I can pass to the right while he remains safely on the other side of the road.
Instead, in a burst of energy he jumps from the road, bulldozing his way through the deep-drifted snow to where the riverbank begins to drop off. I gaze down to where he is most likely heading, to the river, where the ice appears unstable and the route across looks arduous.
As he deliberately descends the bank, I make my own move. I start my sled and ride about fifty yards past the point where he left the road, and then stop again, cutting the engine. I glance back to see him looking back at me, then toward the ice-covered river. He steps onto it with his full body weight. I shudder, holding my breath, expecting to hear the ice give way and the bison crash through.
The ice holds. The bull ambles to safety on the opposite bank. Then he begins to move with a more rapid gait to join several other bull bison grazing in the snow about a half mile away.
This final vision remains in my mind as I also move at a faster pace to rejoin my own winter community on the northern shore of Yellowstone Lake. Snow begins to fall and swirl as I head homeward. It gradually picks up in intensity, slowly burying the landscape with a new, sparkling white layer.
That night I watch as the snow continues to fall outside my window, and ponder how this thickening of Yellowstone’s deepening winter blanket will be perceived by both visitors and residents alike. It will be greeted warmly by the many park visitors, winter enthusiasts here to celebrate the holidays in and around Yellowstone. I am less sure how the park’s bison and other wintering wildlife will perceive it, for this season presents great challenges to the animals that visit or call Greater Yellowstone home. I drift off into a deep December sleep, dreaming that in the future we will all be able to find peace, space and room to roam in this increasingly crowded place.