“Look! It’s in there—can you see it? Do you see it?” My mom pointed into the woods by the side of the road in Yellowstone National Park. Cars had heaped themselves on the side of the road, a sure sign of a wildlife sighting in Yellowstone, and sure enough, the hushed voices breathed the word with reverence: Bear! Bear!
“I don’t see it! Please, please, where is it?” I heaved my eyes at the woods and searched the trees for movement. “Mom, where?” Desperation slipped into my heart. At nine years old, patience came to me in transient bursts. It’s only slightly better now. I had wanted to see wildlife in the wild my entire life, and until the previous year such a thing proved difficult, for my family had lived in Reno, Nevada, and we were so fascinated by the occasional deer spotted in the nature near the city that we have hourlong videos of the animals staring blandly at the excitedly-wiggling video camera. Now that we had moved to Montana, a deer spotting was old news. I saw them often, especially on the sides of the I-90 freeway, dead from crossing without looking both ways.
But a bear was something else. A bear, a real bear–why, I dreamed of seeing a bear! And that day in Yellowstone my mom was looking straight at a bear and I could not see it.
“It’s gone. I think it went farther back into the forest,” my mom said. We walked to the car, and I sat inside, my young heart devastated at my failure to see the bear.
But a few hours later, my dad stopped the car behind a line of traffic on a road in the park. “I wonder what’s going on,” he said as he rolled our windows down.
“Bears!” I squeaked as the black mother bear and her two mini-me cubs crossed the road and sauntered into the field below. Rangers had come to the scene and were keeping tourists out of the bears’ way, but the bears did not give the humans a glance. They were not afraid, nor were they belligerent. The scene stayed in my mind for days, and it remains there now.
A year later, on another trip to Yellowstone, I sat staring out the window in the backseat of the Toyota 4Runner, letting my imagination run wild among the hills and forests and cliffs and mountains that grace my favorite national park. A movement on a hill to the right snagged my eye, and I gasped. “A grizzly bear!” I whispered. The golden beast plodded up the hill, its humped rump and shoulder outlined in sharp curves against the cerulean sky, its fur rippling like prairie grasses in the low wind.
I lost myself in what I saw, and by the time I managed to tell the others of my discovery, the bear had gone over the hill.
“Are you sure it was a grizzly?” they asked.
“I’m sure,” I said, and though I was only ten years old I knew, after two years in Montana, what a grizzly looked like and what it could do, and that picture, like that of the black bear, sunk into my mind.
In the spring of 2012, I took my last trip to Yellowstone before my family moved away from Montana. I told my family and Louis, who was my boyfriend at the time, that I had seen many animals in our time in Montana: more black bears, the grizzly, coyotes, a fox, skunks, moose, elk, bald eagles, and countless rabbits and deer and squirrels but that I regretted not having ever seen a wolf.
“I want to see a wolf before I leave,” I said as we drove into the park. The early spring had left the hills and riverbeds yellow and patchy with snow and mud, but their beauty still reached into me and bound me to the land. Please let me see a wolf today, I thought. Please.
I did not have to wait long. Though I had visited Yellowstone numerous times and had never seen a wolf, that day a pack was feeding on a carcass almost right inside the park’s entrance, and a devoted group of wolf-watchers (who followed the pack all day with their expensive cameras and binoculars) allowed us to look in their equipment and see the wolves closely. I stared through the lenses and watched: there were a few black-colored ones, and a few grey ones. The carcass lay limply on the ground, and the wolves ate it in bits. If you’ve ever seen The Grey, you’ve seen giant wolves lunging for flesh with murderous breath and gleaming fangs. These Yellowstone wolves did not do that at all (and I hate that movie). They simply sunned themselves, got up, took some bites of the carcass, and laid back down.
The sight engraved its beauty into my brain, and I left the park that day thanking God and the wilderness for the many visions of natural grace and life that run through my head and inspire my writing every day. I write about Montana—nonfiction about my childhood in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, fiction set in its rugged, serene beauty. Granted, most of Yellowstone lies in Wyoming and I’m not sure if the animals I saw there were in Montana or Wyoming, but both states are wonderful and someday I hope I can live somewhere where people have not smothered the wilderness with pollution and crowds and noise. But for now, those scenes—the black bear and her cubs, the grizzly going over the hill, the fox disappearing into the trees by Bear Creek, the wolf pack in Yellowstone—give me the peace I crave, the stillness that settles deep in my soul and allows me to think, and for that personal, eternal gift, I am thankful.
This week I’m linking up with Kristen Oliphant and other wordsmiths for Not So (Small) Stories. Our prompt this week is ‘personal’. http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/03/24/small-stories-seventh-edition/
(I still don’t know how to make the pretty link-picture appear here…sigh…oh well.)