Friday, July 30, 2010

Write of Passage - Day 10 (cont. some more)

August 11, 2009: Night in Yellowstone

Night Fall in Yellowstone
"Colors of purple and pink, As it slowly must sink. God gave them for humans to treasure.
And I do."  ~Jolene Fischer, 1975

"The colors of a sunset, are never truly gone.
They rest inside the watching soul, throughout the whole night long.
And when the light returns again, to dry the morning dew,
I promise to be mindful still, and begin the day anew." 
~Jolene Witt, today

Cote and I drove away from Mt. Washburn, and began to look for a place to spend the night. It was now after 9pm, and the sun was long gone, only a few remaining tentacles of  light struggled to reach above the mountains in the distance. The peaks were fading, the meadows were slipping from sight. Soon, everything would be swallowed by the encroaching blackness, and no street lamp would be lit to counter the attack. Cote and I drove feverishly to find the best place to park, before the fullness of night arrived.
Several miles passed, along with several pull-overs. We slowed down long enough to scan the features of each one, debating pros and cons.....location, size, view, etc. We finally found one that had everything we were looking for. It was a small half circle look-out point, beautifully situated above a sunken valley, facing east, with mountains bordering the horizon. We could point our car straight towards the picturesque view, and in the morning, when the sun came up, its warm rays would overtake the peaks, spread through the meadow and into our waiting windshield. We would awaken to the magic of Yellowstone. I could imagine it already.
We pulled in and immediately began to re-pack the car. Cote and I had to clear space in the back seat, so that we could lay the front seats as flat as possible. We pulled all our everyday gear and stowed it in the hatch, while grabbing pillows, blankets, books, and flashlights. We brushed our teeth using bottled water and washed our faces with disposable cleansing cloths. We changed into flannel pants and fresh t-shirts, then climbed back into the Edge, to see just how comfortable our makeshift "beds" would be.
Excitement over-rode any other thought for a while. Cote and I talked about our day, the challenges we had faced, the fun we had shared. We talked about our hopes for tomorrow and the adventures another new day in Yellowstone would bring. Night had now fully fallen all around us, but the possibility of a passing car, kept us from being in a hurry to use the "facilities" and closing our eyes to sleep. We were winding down, but not yet ready to call it a day.
That's when it hit me. What if it was prohibited to park overnight in Yellowstone??
"Cote, what if this isn't legal?"
"Parking overnight. What if we're not supposed to do this?"
"What? Why? We're not hurting anything."
"Yeah, I know. But still. If parking overnight was legal, we would see other people doing it. I mean, people would be doing it all the time, all over the place. And think about the mess that would be......there'd be trash left behind and everything. I bet this isn't allowed."
I rummaged through the storage compartment of my driver-side door, and pulled out the Yellowstone Visitor's Guide. Sure enough, right there in black and white was an informational article about the "Do & Don'ts" while visiting the national park.
Rule #8 -- Overnight Vehicular Parking Is Not Permitted
And here we sat like sitting ducks, proudly perched for all to see.
Now what?
I pulled my seat up and put the car in gear. We couldn't stay here, that was for sure. But what could we do? Where else could we go? The campgrounds and lodges were all full. We had no choice but to find a less detectable hiding spot until morning.
We drove down the pitch-black road, slowly taking curves and keeping a careful eye open for any moving nocturnal creature. It was hard to navigate the unknown territory, now that all visibility had been stripped down to only the width and length of our headlight beams. Twists and turns seemed to pop up out of nowhere. After one particular curve, we happened upon a red-tail fox casually crossing our path. Further down the road, a solid wall of rock suddenly appeared on our left, jutting up into the blackened sky overhead, and drastically narrowing our lane. I kept driving, having no idea where we were or where we were headed. I only knew we hadn't "arrived" yet.
Finally, we passed a service drive for a quiet, secluded picnic area. I gratefully took the turn-off, leaving the main road behind us, and then pulled into the deserted eating area off the remote service drive. Tucking the Edge as far back into the pine-tree line as I could, I put the car in park and cut the lights. Everything went black, we couldn't see a thing, and as far as I could tell....(in our jet-black vehicle).....we couldn't be seen either. This was it. Our spot for the night. Cote and I breathed a sigh of relief, and then immediately tensed again when a hoot owl voiced his objection over our unannounced arrival.
This was going to be an interesting night, no doubt. Would I be able to sleep, I wondered? Laying the front seat all the way back turned out to be not that comfortable. Listening for bears, even less so. We grabbed our blankets and tossed them over our heads. Cote and I opened our books and turned on our mini-lights. We thought that if we read for a bit, maybe we'd relax, and sleep would quietly come find us. But this didn't happen. Within ten minutes, we both admitted to rereading the same page over and over, because our minds were preoccupied with other concerns. We were nervous about having our book-lights on (would we get caught?), and more nervous about what might be moving along the brush-line at the edge of the picnic area, (would it get curious?). We closed our books, and decided it would be better to just close our eyes, pretend we were somewhere else, and pray for morning. But there was one more detail that had to be dealt with before we called it a night.
It sat only on the other side of the parking lot, less than 50 yards away. But the wood-planked outhouse might as well have been on the top of Mt. Washburn, for all that mattered. We weren't going over there. No way. Who knew what creature was lurking in the shadows, waiting for one stupid move on our part. Anything could be OUT there......or, come to think of it.....IN there.
"So, what do we do?"
"Well, I think I'm going to quietly open my door, pee right here next to the car, and then jump back in."
"Sounds good to me."
So, that's what we did.
Finally, it was time to call it a day.....and what a long one it had been. With 16 hours of adventure behind us, sleep should have come easily, and with absolutely no interruption. But that was not the case for me. Throughout the night, I lost count how many times I woke up, trying to readjust my origami-shaped spine and my pretzel-twisted legs. Several times the moon shone so brightly through the windshield that I was fooled into believing morning had arrived. Cote slept soundly beside me, though. Her body being so young, so much more flexible, much more forgiving. She could curl, and squish, and flail herself into all different shapes and sizes, and not feel a thing. Not one ache, not a single pain.
Morning Arrives Gently....
By 5:45 a.m., I gave up the fight. I unfolded my body one last time, stretched my legs, and pulled my seat back up into position. A cold chill had crept inside the car over the past two hours and had just reached the point where our blankets weren't enough. Cote stirred as I reached for the ignition, and in her still sleep-like trance, asked me to turn on the heat. I did one better, and punched the button for her seat-warmer. With the engine humming, she curled to the right, bunched herself into a blanket-covered ball, and drifted back into her dreams.
Darkness still surrounded us, but I pulled the car out onto the main road, and did my best to remember how we got here. It was early enough to beat the sunrise and I wanted Cote to wake up where we had originally intended to spend the night......overlooking the meadow, with the mountains in the distance. It wouldn't be long before the first rays of morning would paint the darkened canvass of night, but if I hurried there was time to get us where I thought we needed to be. 
....And We Awaken
Fifteen minutes later, we pulled in. I took a deep breath, and found my camera. We were here, really here. And we had survived our night in Yellowstone. The sky to the east began to warm, and I gently shook Cote awake. I handed her a very special letter, and together we watched as the sun slowly overtook the mountain peak, welcoming us to a brand new day. It was peaceful. It was spiritual. It was everything I had hoped for, and so much more. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Write of Passage - Day 10 (cont., cont.)

August 11, 2009 - Yellowstone, Mount Washburn (The Climb!)
4:30-9:00 p.m.

"Although you may not be able to reach the peak, I will continue to try. And when I get to the top of the mountain, for both of us, I will fly." ~poster quote, at the top of Mt. Washburn

After leaving Artist Point, we pointed the car towards Mt. Washburn. This was to be our next destination, and our final adventure in Yellowstone......climbing the 10,243' peak. But as life would have it, a curve-ball was thrown before we could get there. This time it came in the form of a galloping horse and rider. The two caught Cote's eye just as they slipped over the ridge from the back corner of her passenger-side window. Cote sucked in her breath, swiveled her head, and immediately began to beg.
"Please, oh please....can we ride horses while we're here?"
"What? Cote.....we don't have time. We still have to climb Mt. Washburn, and then somehow get out of Yellowstone to find a place to sleep tonight. It's too much.....We just can't do everything."
"But riding horses would be the best! How about we just stay here tonight, and then ride tomorrow?"
"We can't. There's no lodging. I saw the sign this morning when we pulled through the gate."
"But it looks like so much fun. C'mon, Mom. When we will get here again? If we don't do it now, we never will. Let's ride horses!"
We found the nearest corral on our map, and pulled in. I thought for sure this would be a hopeless cause. But if someone else could tell Cote it was impossible, then maybe I didn't have to be the bad guy. 
"Hi. Can we book a couple of horses for an afternoon ride?"
"Sorry. The last group of the day just left at 3pm. We won't go out again until tomorrow morning."
"Oh.......huh. Well.....ok then." (I'm ready to leave, but puppy dog eyes from my daughter have me choking out the next question.)
"Ummmm.....well.......what time do you have available in the morning?"
"Ten o'clock has two spots open if you want them."
(Puppy dog eyes, with a head shaking up and down.)
"Ok, put us down. Last name's Witt."

We left the corral with two pre-paid passes, and a whole new agenda. We couldn't leave the park now. Somehow, somewhere, we'd have to find a place to sleep for the night. And the only option I could see was the Ford Edge sitting in front of us.
"Whoo, hoo! Thanks, Mom!"
"Yeah? Well, don't be thanking me yet. We still have to climb Mt. Washburn, and now it looks like we'll be sleeping in the car tonight."
"C'mon. It's all part of the adventure, right?"

Yeah. All part of the adventure.

But we still had to be smart about some things. It was getting late, my watch revealing it was well past 4pm. I wasn't sure if there was a cut-off time to climbing the 3 miles up Mt. Washburn. We had been told, this was the hike to take, if only one hike could be taken while visiting Yellowstone. But the sundial was ticking. Could we do it? Six miles round trip was no everyday walk in the park. Especially if half of it was spent going up. I wondered just how fast night would fall here in the mighty hills, valleys and prairies of Yellowstone. And, just how many wild animals were we talking about? Hiking back down--after dark--in untamed and unfenced wilderness--didn't sound too smart to me.
As luck would have it, a Yellowstone Visitor's Center appeared around the next curve on our way to Mt. Washburn. I pulled the car over. The ranger on duty was an older gentleman, white-haired, with eyes full of untold wisdom. We asked for his expert opinion.
"What's the latest time you would suggest for someone to begin a hike up Mt. Washburn?"
"Ohhhhh, no later than 4:30, I'd say. You don't want to be caught up there after dark."
"4:30, eh? Hmmmm.....It's almost that time now. Do you think we can still make it?"
"Um.....yeah. I think so. Parking lot's not too far down the road. You should be alright."

I can't quite put my finger on it, but somehow I walked out of the center with less confidence than when I walked in.

But, we were here. And we were staying. So, we might as well start hiking. Whether or not we could reach the top would have to be seen, but at least we could make the most out of our remaining afternoon hours here in Yellowstone.
Cote and I pulled into the Mt. Washburn turn-off, and parked the Edge. We grabbed our camera, and donned our tennis shoes. I threw a light backpack across my shoulders, a water bottle tucked inside. We started up the steep incline, thinking that around the first bend, surely things would level out a bit. We happened upon a marmut, nibbling the wildflowers along the path. We stopped to snap his picture, and comment on how cute he was, before continuing on. When we finally rounded the first corner, totally winded, we found ourselves a bit intimidated by what we saw. The path didn't level out at all. In fact, it continued pretty much in the direction of up. Cote and I looked at each other and teased about who's idea this was, but plunged forward. After switchbacking several times along the massive mountainside, we began to brainstorm how we might outfox the daunting challenge ahead of us. We decided to cut our own trails, scaling straight up, from one lower path, to the next, barely visible upper one, picking our way through the rocky treeline. Trying to cut out the switchbacks, proved futile, however, as it took us just as long to recover our breath after conquering each incline, as it did to methodically follow the twisting and turning marked trail. (See pictures below.)

Cote and I kept going, though. Slow and steady. It was not lost upon us that the few other hikers we did see were coming down, not going up, at this hour of day. Did they know something we didn't? Were we crazy to be heading in the direction we were?
About halfway up, Cote and I came upon a beautiful wooded area to the left of the trail. Here, the forest grew thick, and looked refreshing, inviting, shaded. We rested on a stump, scanning the wooded edges for any more wildlife casually enjoying the late afternoon sun. Within minutes an immature elk moseyed by, munching on the green leaves and rustling a few branches in its wake. Cote and I sat mesmerized. As the beautiful creature drifted into the distant brush, we got up and took a few steps to follow it, venturing a little off the trail and into unmarked terrain. A sudden snort and stomping sound from the darkened interior, snapped us back to reality. We turned and scurried back to the marked path, our imaginary tails tucked between our legs. To this day, I have no idea what we heard. But something was there, letting us know of its presence. We had forgotten for a moment exactly how wild this wilderness was, and could be. Cote and I high-stepped it up the trail, looking back every other second to make sure nothing was following us. After a few minutes we stopped to catch our breath, and close our bulging eyeballs. 
"Should we keep going?"
"I think so. I think we're alright."
"That was freaky."
"Yes. Yes, it was. We better stick to the trail. And we better keep walking or we're not going to make it to the top. It's already 6:00."
"How much longer before it gets dark?"
"I don't know. But why don't we do this. Let's promise that if we're not on the peak by 7:00 p.m., we'll turn around, wherever we are, and head back down. It's already been an hour and a half, and I'm not sure how far up we've even gone."
"Ok, sounds good."
So, with Yellowstone as our witness, we pinkie-promised each other right then and there to turn around at 7 pm. We'd do the best we could, and be thankful for the time and adventure we'd been given.
At twenty minutes to seven, we rounded yet another  switchback, but this time the top of Mt. Washburn came into view. We couldn't believe our eyes. The peak of our pilgrimage was still a ways off, but just to have it within eyesight renewed our energy. Cote and I picked up our pace, as much as we could. The terrain was still very vertical, our legs felt stretched to the limit, yet we pressed upward.....placing one foot determinedly in front of the other. A mountain goat barely gave us a second glance as we passed by his lofty perch. We huffed and puffed, and when necessary, pulled each other forward, mentally and physically.
To our amazement, almost as if our promise had been etched in stone, we reached the top at exactly 7:00. We twirled 360 degrees with the wind whipping against our out-stretched arms, the cool air filling our lungs. No one was in sight. We had the mountain all to ourselves. The panoramic view was incredible. It felt like we were flying, even though our bodies were heavy and exhausted from the climb.
We entered the lookout station and found a book of names displayed in front of a huge plate glass window. Written in pen to prove that they had been here, the notebook contained names from around the country and from around the world. With a dose of thankfulness and a smidgen of pride, Cote and I added our own. We became part of something larger than ourselves that day, joining a group of people we would surely never meet, but with whom we would hold a connection with for all time to come.
We couldn't stay too long on the mountaintop, the clock was still ticking. It had taken us 2.5 hours getting up here. Although we were pretty sure going back down would be faster (you gotta love gravity in these kind of situations!), we still had a full 3 miles to cover before nightfall. Cote and I took one last spin around the peak, and then began our descent. We half jogged, half skipped a majority of the trail back down. The terrain was now nothing new, but the setting sun softened every view, casting a feathery hue across the entire landscape. Nevertheless, it was the conversation that gently and unexpectedly arose with my 18-year-old daughter that I'll forever take with me from this mountain-high hike. 

It started innocently enough. Cote asked a seemingly simple question about choices in life. The dialogue that followed, however, was incredible, and deep, and honest. We talked about how each of us has to decide what is right, what is true, for who we are. I could see her as the young woman she is, standing on the edge of life, and wondering whether her wings were fully developed and ready to fly. We talked about choices that are presented at the tender age of 18, and other choices that come 15, 20, 25 years later. We discussed the prospects of marriage, and what it means to find the "right" person. We talked about not regretting events from our past, because if we're patient enough, we'll see how they eventually shape us into the person we are to become. We spoke of love, and loss, and finding one's footing after being knocked off center. About life being a journey to discover who you really are, and not being afraid to be that person when others are around. We defined the difference between compromising and conceding, and the benefits of being careful but not to the point of risking the opportunity to become.

By the time we reached our car, it was closing in on 9 p.m. We were utterly exhausted physically, but mentally our spirits were good. Our legs hurt, our feet ached, but our minds were resting in a soft, peaceful place. We crawled into the Edge, and let the leather seats cradle our collapsing bodies. Night was falling, dusk had slipped quietly away. It was time to find a place to spend the night......


Powerful Words

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable. ~Kahlil Gibran