Saturday, September 11, 2010

Write of Passage - Day 11

August 12, 2009: Yellowstone - Billings, Montana (408 miles)

*I am dedicating this post to all those who are remembering 9-11 today. May we always find good, even in the most devastating of times, and remember that above, hope, and love remain. ~Jolene

After the sun had fully broken above our majestic mountain, while its soft rays continued to spread and warm our morning sky, Cote snuggled back down beneath her blanket and returned to that distant world of sleep. It was ok, though. Having her close her eyes and feel so safe, trusting me to watch over her if only for a few more hours, felt good. We had shared the sunrise together, she had read today's letter, and now I had a moment to myself, even though she was curled up right beside me. Meditation and mindfulness filled the moments of silence that followed. It was easy to do, with such a sacred vista before me. I gave thanks for the coming new day, and for the time I would be afforded with my daughter. I was mindful of how precious they both were.
I snapped a few more pictures, then started the car up. Surprisingly, I had no urge to "go," even though I was wide awake, and that ritual is usually at the top of my morning to-do list. A hot cup of coffee would taste wonderful, though. But where could I find one? We had been "homeless" last night and it wasn't even 7 a.m. yet. There was nothing but mountains, fields, and valleys for miles in every direction, and all the Visitor's Centers were closed up tight. Chances of stumbling upon a cup of joe this early in the morning were slim to none, but like Dorothy, I had a magical road before me. Maybe not made of brick, like hers.....but Yellow-stone was proving to be just as full of surprises and unexpected delights. It couldn't hurt to get started, and see where the path would take us today.
Thirty minutes later, we pulled into the legendary Theodore Roosevelt Lodge and Riding Stable. Cote and I were 2 1/2 hours early, but this was where our horseback riding adventure would begin. The place was quiet and subtle, with a warm, rustic flair. Tiny log cabins dotted the perimeter, and hitching posts served as markers for cars instead of horses. Despite the number of vehicles, no one was moving about. The grounds were deserted, and as I left Sleeping Beauty locked inside the Edge and made my way up the wooden planks of the main lodge and dining hall, I felt like a ghost floating through an old western town.
The rocking chairs on the porch were empty but inviting, swaying slightly in the soft morning breeze. I reached for the handle of the large wooden door, thinking it would still be locked tight, but surprisingly found it give freely under my pull. The room before me was enormous. And wooden. Wooden walls, and ceiling, tables and chairs, and floor. Three young workers were silently setting up for an obviously much-anticipated and very large breakfast crowd. I gingerly stepped inside, and the smell of freshly brewed coffee greeted me as warmly as the morning sun had. Oh, was I ever in the right place!  A corral of carafes were lined up on a table by the front window, beckoning me to partake. But I felt like an intruder inside this building. I was not a "legitimate" guest of the TR Lodge. Would the staff know I didn't belong? Or worse yet, be able to tell I was a total stowaway inside Yellowstone, and have me rightfully thrown out? An elderly cowboy smiled from behind the counter across the expansive room, and waved me over. I took a deep breath, and timidly closed the space between us. I was nervous to speak, nervous to make eye contact, afraid I'd give my secret away. But his demeanor was relaxed and welcoming, he was not at all shocked by my early morning arrival. He simply asked if he could help me.
"Um, yes. I know I'm early, but is this where I confirm reservations for horseback riding?"
"Yes, ma'am, you're in the right place. Let me give you the paperwork to fill out, and I'll pull up the rest of your information in our system. (He turned to his computer keyboard.)
"What's your name and where are you staying inside Yellowstone?"
"Um, last name's Witt and well, um, we're not staying here. My daughter and I stopped at the Canyon Corral yesterday and spoke to someone there about booking a ride for this morning."
"Ok. Well, let me see if your reservation shows up in the computer then. Hmmmm..........yep, here you are. I have two riders scheduled for 10 a.m."
"Yes, that's right. Do I pay for it now?"
"Yep, then you'll be all set. Plan on being at the stable across the yard about 15 minutes early."
"Alright. Thank you for your help." (I turned to go, but then decided to take one more chance.) " the way......could I buy a cup of coffee over there? It smells really good, and I could really use a cup."
"Oh, absolutely, but it's free. Help yourself."
"But, I'm not a guest here."
"That's no problem. Just go ahead and get yourself some. It's on the house."
"Thank you. Thank you very much."
Does it get any better than this?? Waking up in Yellowstone, the place to ourselves, a hot cup of coffee, still no urge to "go," and reservations to ride horses in two hours. What else could I ask? The sun was blazing bright when I stepped back outside, and through the windshield I could see Cote was still fast asleep inside the car. With two hours of free time to play with, I got in the car and found Lamar Valley on our handy-dandy Yellowstone map. The brochure said this area held the best opportunity of spotting wildlife for early morning risers. Let's go see what we can find, I thought.
Fifteen minutes later I woke Cote up when we rounded a curve and a mountain goat sunning himself high on top a hill came into view. The morning light glinted off his grey fur, and with the use of binoculars we brought him in close and could see he was totally disinterested in our arrival. It was a far-off and simple sighting. Yet, we were excited to see something so wild and free. Little did we know that "wild" and "free" were going to get up close and personal around the very next bend.
Bison. Buffalo. By the hundreds. Widespread and everywhere we looked. In the road blocking our path, standing their ground on the grassy shoulder, and grazing in the distant fields. It looked like a seen out of "Dances with Wolves." They were poised and picture perfect, filling every rocky hillside and soft green meadow in sight. We could see the breath of the ones right next to us, and hear their snorts as they moved about. From the safety of our car we studied them in detail. Thick woolly coats, large brown eyes, hunched, strong backs. The adults were bulky in size but graceful in movement, powerful yet unhurried as they foraged for their breakfast. The babies were timid, not as sure-footed, and nuzzled close to their mothers for safe-keeping.
I was amazed at their gracefulness, but even more, at their willingness to share their space. For truly we were the ones out of place here. This was their territory, their home. We were the uninvited guests. Nevertheless, we were allowed to linger and roam this wild and untamed world with them. The buffalo wowed us in return. As the minutes slipped by, Cote and I found ourselves slowing to match their pace, both in our breathing and in our minds. Life in the slow lane had plenty to offer, and I was beginning to realize how much there was for us to learn out here beside the buffalo. Their power was undoubtedly evident, they were a force to be reckoned with, but their peacefulness was just as poetic and present.
Cote and I drove through Lamar Valley, stopping every so often for more pictures, more slowed moments. Before our time was through, our sightings would include several elk, a few osprey (Cote caught sight of one with a prized fish in his talons), a far-off coyote, and a couple small gatherings of pronghorns. We returned to the TR Riding Stable, full of wildlife and ready to trail-ride to explore even more. Who knew what kind of animal was out there......waiting to cross our path.......once we left pavement and motor engines behind. It was time to saddle up and find out.
After we met up with our trail guides, we were given a few quick intros and lessons. Then Cote went straight to her horse, Frito, and flung herself onto his back. I, on the other hand, having never been that bold around horses, walked over to my designated steed, Russell, and patted his neck, trying to make nice. Cote just shook her head at me, and then reminisced about the horse and rider she had seen yesterday, how they had galloped as one across the hillside just outside her car window.
"I can't wait to do that."
"Just be careful, Cote."
"Oh, Mom. Relax. This is going to be fun!"
When all ten riders in our group had saddled up, we set off single-file from the stable towards the wide open space before us. We had an hour's worth of western frontier at our hooves, and we couldn't wait to start exploring it John Wayne-style.
It didn't take long for us to understand, however, no galloping would be taking place. Nor any cantering, or trotting either. Our horses had been trained to proceed at only one speed.....super slow. Liability reasons, of course. But still, after so much anticipation, it was hard to hide our disappointment.
Tracy, Billie, and Mike (our guides), were great though, and filled our time with stories of Yellowstone. They told how the horses (over 100 throughout the national park), were turned loose every winter onto the open prairies of Montana. They were left to their own devices, to survive the harshest of seasons, alone. Then, every spring, ranchers would ride out to round them up. The horses were brought back to the stables of Yellowstone, corralled once again to serve the tourists of summer, who would soon be arriving.
I wondered if this kind of life was confusing to the horses. I wondered how it made them feel. Abandoned? Free? Loved or caged? Lost and lonely at times, or wildly independent? Did they like the security of summer, moving at this required pace, and knowing where their next meal was coming from? Or did they relish the challenge of the winter, and running free, and fast, and at will?
(Then another thought hit me......maybe the hot summer sun was getting to me, and I was just thinking too hard.)
The best (and also most tragic) story told while trail-riding came from Tracy. She recounted the events of the great fire of 1988 to us, the one that burned almost 800,000 acres of Yellowstone, a little more than 30% of the 2.2 million inside the park. Several fires raged out of control that summer, due to drought and high winds, but this one she said had been ignited by a carelessly tossed cigarette in the state of Idaho. The flame from that spark grew into a maddening, out-of-control blaze. It scorched across the sacred grounds of Yellowstone, destroying everything in its path.....a path that was headed straight for the site we had left just an hour before, the one named after our 26th president.  As we rode back to the TR Lodge and Riding Stables, we could see where the trees had been charred on the other side of the mountain. The scars upon the land were still visible, the pain was still real twenty years later. The flames came so close. I thought about the firefighters and how hopeless they must have felt back then. How useless and defenseless against this devastating force. Tracy told us how the firefighting efforts continued, despite what seemed to be a losing battle. Then the unthinkable happened.
On September 11, 1988, it started snowing. Not that a snowstorm in September was totally out of the question, but this one showed up at just the right time and in just the right place. A quarter inch fell that day, followed by several days of rain......all of which extinguished the fires that had been raging out of control for months. In my mind, this was nothing less than a true miracle. The One who had originally created this place, this majestic land of unparalleled beauty, had seen to its protection. Every wooden structure on the grounds of the Theodore Roosevelt Lodge and Stable, had been left intact, untouched. Yellowstone Park, overall, had been spared and rebirth would eventually take root.
We finished out our ride, just as Tracy finished telling her story. Cote and I realized our time in Yellowstone was quickly coming to an end, as we dismounted our trusted horses and said our goodbyes. We had 24 hours of memories safely stored away, when we left Yellowstone by the north entrance. We would take Route 89 into Montana, a highway that would eventually connect us with I-90 East........the interstate which would lead us home. Even though we still had over 1500 miles to cover, in some small way I could feel the end of our journey was as if I could actually see the lights of home flickering on the farthest sliver of horizon.
At the North Gate, Cote and I snapped one final picture, and then said goodbye to this incredible place.....with all its wildlife, and untamed spirit, its freedom and sense of adventure. We made it as far as Billings, Montana that night, where we found a simple room at a roadside motel, and went to sleep with our memories wrapped around us like soft, sure blankets. 

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