Saturday, February 11, 2012

Yellowstone National Park #1

Full moon rising.  

The light fades as the snow sparkles amid the shimmering rays of the early evening Yellowstone backwoods sunset.
We put our xc skis on and gently skate out of the snow-bound Yellowstone Expeditions campsite headed to the darkened serrated edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone not far away.
There is a quiet and sense of meaning for these six solitary men as they glide in a row through in the forest of their lives.

A return to nature to find the space for a deeper, richer reflection on their nearly six decades of life.  

Since the morning, we have been on the move from the commercial world outside to deep within the isolation of this unique national park.  Riding modified Yellowstone Expeditions commuter vans raised on caterpillar tracks wound around the small, pugnacious wheels with iron ski tips breaking the snow and ice over the wintry park roads. 

We stayed last night in West Yellowstone, a tourist town on the edge of the Yellowstone National Park.  My friends had arranged a few comfortable, heated cabins with all the amenities that I have long since ceased to expect in the developing country ‘hotels’ where we usually stay in Nepal. 

The degrees of differences between my Nepali and American lives would never cease to amaze me, if I spent much time thinking about it.  But, in truth, it’s simpler and more convenient to compartmentalize (as the modern distinction is described). 

In truth, I’m merely pleased to feel the warm gust of air when I open the motel room in the below zero temperature of winter in Wyoming.  The room’s wooden walls, carpeted floor, plush bed, bathtub and air of cleanliness seduce me as I lay down my tired muscles after my first day skiing in over thirty years.  

Yet I can’t resist smiling to myself remembering my hotel room in Dadeldhura some months ago with the darkened blood red pan stains on the dingy white-washed walls, the stale, musty fragrance, the thin blanket, plastic flipflops and idealized Thai country scene poster on the wall.

But, I remind myself: I’m not in the hills of Nepal now.  Almost a week away from Kathmandu, I’ve reached the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park with my Amherst ’76 friends, Gary, Lee, Cush, Dan and Peter, to join them on their annual adventure in the American wilderness.

I’ve crossed the globe to attend a more personal ritual of male bonding and friendship premised on time away from the daily demands of family and professional lives dispersed across suburban America from New Jersey to Connecticut, Wisconsin, New Mexico to Alaska. 

I’ve traveled ten thousand miles from Kathmandu to renew these ties of youthful companionship and promise after decades away.  When my recent UNDP contract closed at the end of December, it created an opportunity to loop back to reconnect with the distant spirit of my younger life.  

Through the magic of email, I’d observed these friends’ annual cross-country ski pilgrimage from afar for a decade and always felt a tug to join them. 

After having lived far away in so many ways from our shared collegiate experiences forty years ago in a four-story brick and ivy freshman dormitory in the early 70s in western Massachusetts, I sought better perspective on our individual paths through those youthful thickets of hard-earned experience to seek to create caring and meaningful lives.     

From where we had started, where had we come?

From where we had arrived, what did we recall of our youthful ambition?

Had we honored the lives we had been given in ways true to our early hopes?

Since such time opens only occasionally in one’s adult life, I accepted this work interregnum as a message of mindful awareness and personal reflection.  

As I know, once the current of life picks up speed again, it will likely sweep me along the rapids of another decade toward a more final reckoning of my existence.

Thus I grabbed this opportunity in early February to join my five fellow Amherst alumni now swaddled in our winter boots and heavy parkas wading among 6’ banks of snow in rural Wyoming.  

But first, as hale and hearty Americans, it was essential to start the day before entering the Park at a nearby diner for a breakfast of sausage or cheese omelets, pitchers of hot coffee, whole wheat toast and orange juice.  We then proceeded to the Yellowstone Expeditions office for our ride with all of our personal gear packed away and the long, bundled ski bags on the roof of the SUVs.  

My LL Bean duffle, borrowed from Joshua, was full of the hi-tech xc ski clothes Lee and Gary had guided me to purchase over the past two months.  Piles of black shimmering undergarments and silky shirts made of micro-thin, breathable polyprophene and similar polyester fibers. 

Although, after decades sharing life with Shakun and her own beautifully designed, elegant and refined earth tone pashmina clothes, purchasing these polyester clothes felt like heresy on a clothes hanger. 

Though from my friends’ coaching, I learned that in the sub-zero temperatures of northern Wyoming, wool or cotton clothes, even pashmina, would steadily absorb sweat and turn bitterly wet and cold during the day. 

Whereas these modern synthetic materials breath and wick more easily, thereby allowing sweat to escape my clothing as I struggled to traverse kilometers of snow fields on our cross-country skiswith my much more experienced friends.

Clothes make the man’, as they say out in the wilds...  

So as I pulled on these polyester linings and inner socks, fleece jacket, acyrylic neck lining and Sherpa Gear (made in Nepal) nylon and spandex pants, I felt like I’d not only changed continents, but identity.

This simply wasn’t me – at least not the ‘me’ I’d known over the years: certainly not uber-athletic or outdoor adventurer, or triathalon competitor, or mountain man, or sportive wunder-kid. 

None of the above…

C’est not moi.

But for the joy of lasting friendship, the desire of shared experience, an opportunity to reflect on time past -- or merely a winter week in a spectacular environment to challenge the body and soul -- even this, too, was possible. 

As the commuter van on steroids pulled out of the parking lot, sitting next to Gary and Dan, I felt an elation and affection that obscured the challenges and anxiety of the novitiate cross-country skier from Nepal come to the American wilderness.

I think it was Dan who noted that part of the draw of this gathering was the allure of Yellowstone itself. 

These National Parks are the ‘piece de resistence’ of the American West, nature unbound and protected.  

Testaments to the original, unspoiled American wilderness, the pre-Columbian, pre-United States of America, pre-suburban 20th C. worlds of memory: a sacred communion between G-d as nature and our primordial soul.

In fact, 1872 marked the year Yellowstone became the first national park established in the world.  A wise if desperate last minute 19th C. recognition by politicians and environmentalists alike that if nothing was done through the coercive force of legislation and regulation, the grand poetic sweep of these sublimely rare and unique American landscapes would quickly become another crassly commercial Niagra Falls absorbed ineluctably by the inevitable advance of modernizing civilization.

Thus, with a tip of my russet, woolen, head-hugging Sherpa Gear topi to the wise souls who put boundaries around this immense vista, we drove through the Park entrance into a world of vast natural beauty and wildlife.  The strips of tourist shops, diners and motels of West Yellowstone held at bay by the map-maker's delineation of the National Park Service. 

'Three million tourists a year come to Yellowstone,' says our guide Tom.  Yet the whole country of Nepal hasn't even broken a million in one year!

Yet, a friendly, solitary woman ranger in uniform collecting tickets and passes was enough to hold a whole society’s baser urges at bay.  The authority of the NPS allows Mother Nature to rule hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, wildlife and ancient geothermal activity for generations to come.

In winter, the number of tourists or guests is certainly reduced.  We passed handfuls of snowmobiles and only a few other winterized tourist caravans in the Park.   Each waved with the knowledge that we were among the fortunate few to have the Park and its magnificent open, snow-covered landscape to ourselves.

Well, mostly to ourselves…

For soon in the Park, twenty minutes down the road, we stopped as Lee noticed a bald eagle sitting majestically on a short limb of a tall, dead pine tree across the river. 

Cush pulled out his Canon spotter and Peter his amazing array of camera equipment, as we stood by the river’s bend to observe an ambitious black raven unsuccessfully try to irritate and dislodge the bald eagle.  The view through Cush's 20-60x spotter was phenomenal.  Through that enhanced lens, the bald eagle’s yellow, fearless cold eye gazed imperiously on the landscape around.  

As we stood in the snow, surrounded by an open world of forested ridges a bevy of golden-eyed ducks and trumpeter swans floated by on the icy stream.

Not another ten minutes further into the Park, we stopped again to observe a herd of placid dark bison gathered in a nearby field munching peacefully on the stubble grass showing among the distant snowfields.  

We stopped to observe in silent joy and a communal pride in their mere continuing existence.  

An American pride in the resistance and survival of our foundational lives… 

The dark brown hirsute, hump-backed bison of earlier days, that noble ponderous head that once graced the US nickel, a memory of our once open, flowing North American plains and the Native Americans who lived in a more cultural symbiotic spirit with that hoary beast.

Memories that awaken us to possibilities of life, the power of nature and a primordial past...

And yet burden us with man's willful destruction and the risks of continuing loss that surround us still…

(to be continued...)


Rich - PDX said...

Keith, it was great to share space with you and your friends in Yellowstone. It's the people that make places memorable.

Rich Durant
Portland, Oregon

Keith D. Leslie said...

Rich, thanks for your note! Yes, we thoroughly enjoyed being w/ you and Deb, as well. How funny that Amherst '76 meets Smith '76 in the wild. I hope our paths cross again some day.