Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Yellowstone National Park # 2

As we drive deeper into Yellowstone, a small herd of bison sauntered by enjoying the ease of the modern road.  Gary and I walk thirty meters behind, with their innate understanding that the descendants of the 19th C. hunters would do them no harm in the security of today’s national park world.

Others have joined us: Will and Eric, friends of Cush's from his community medicine world, in their early 60s, gentle, observant souls who live in Pennsylvania and Connecticut.  They are regular xc skiers who have traveled the world, as well, Will on Utila in Honduras and Eric to Ladakh in northern India.  They, too, value this lonesome landscape.

Further ahead, a band of elk by the river, use their hooves and well-endowed snouts to push aside recent snow to reveal a cornucopia of burnished grasses to feed their hunger and ease their survival during these winter months. 

Instinctively, these larger beasts linger near the water as bands of wolves or lone coyotes that prey on them are more fearful of the water.  The elk and bison can protect themselves by moving to the deeper currents of the river in case of attack.

In the distance, to the north, are the snow-covered Absaroka mountains of the Gallatin National Forest, smooth and round, remains of the edges of the great Yellowstone caldera that last erupted some 650,000 years ago.  Mute, exquisite witnesses to the tortured geomorphology above these 6,000’ plains. 

Closer by, our guide, Tom, a Celtic scholar become national park guide, points out 500’ lava ridges frozen in time, now covered by pines and shrub dropping dramatically to the Gibbon river shore.

One cannot travel far within Yellowstone before the intense geo-thermal activity which defines this part is self-evident.  Pillars of smoke on the horizon or the stank of sulphur fumes nearby.   There is no place on Earth with more concentrated geothermal pressure so close to the surface than this corner of Idaho-Montana and Wyoming.  Remarkably, half of the world’s geysers are in this Park.

We stop to take a walk by the Norris geyser basins.  On a wooden path that encircles the mudpots, the gurgling geysers and the colorful bacteria, we stroll in wonder at this realm of Mordor, a sense of wicked foreboding in these over-heated, volcanic beds.  ('By the cracking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes...' Macbeth)

Clouds of steam spray around the overheated pools of clear water, as barren of complex forms of life as the earlier open snow fields driving in were full of four-legged creatures and birds of prey above. 

Yet there are bison track near the hot springs and geysers.  They, too, come here for the warmth during the worst of the winter.  Some fall into the water and are burnt, occasionally to death.

With the temperatures today in the glorious upper 40s and the sun shining brightly, the miniature snowdrifts collected on the Lodgepole pines plop off their branches on to the ground as we stroll by. 

It’s an absolutely brilliant blue-sky day.  Today, my polyester clothing could be replaced by handmade pashmina shawl and a raw silk herringbone jacket with color coordinated earth tone topi to blend in the environment.

Further ahead another guide pointed out a kill not far from the snow-laden road.  We stop, of course, and bring out our viewing gear. 

Cush’s tripod-held spotter quietly observe from 300 meters an ivory-colored vulpine coyote lying down possessively beside the once-bison’s rib cage.  It roughly severs a rib from the rest and chews its few remaining sinews to suck out its marrow. 

It’s a fearsome sight, beguiling, awesome: the coyote intensely cracking the bones while keeping a distant, attentive cold eye on those distant, occasionally dangerous humans observing him.

A cluster of black, wily ravens nibble nearby on the skull and other body parts that have been scattered nearby by various predators over the past few days.

We have left the civilized sprawl of man’s needs outside the Park; inside the basic desires of the animal world surround us. 

Yet we are humbled and powerfully attracted by the sight.

Around 5 pm we reach the camp near Canyon Village in the heart of the Park.  There are a dozen small, two-person heated baby yurts and a double set of large tents where the cooking and dining take place.  Snow is piled nearly as high as the walls of the tents, their tops above the drifts like linen sails on a white sea. 

The guides park the transport while we unpack and move our goods and skis into and beside our tents.
Once again, I am assigned to room with Gary, as the last to commit and newest recruit, the gang laughingly places me with the most notorious snorer in their ranks.  But for me, it’s all good, as Gaspar and I dear and committed friends.  It gives us, as well, some extra precious few hours to speak more openly about issues in our lives that the camaraderie and gamesmanship of the larger male cohort can divert or neglect.

There is a movement to take a lap over to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by twilight ski.  I am hesitant as my first attempt yesterday on skis was exhausting, especially learning the tricks of keeping one's weight back to stay up while going downhill.   I was amazed at how challenging the slight angle of a downward slope that would have almost gone unnoticed while walking proved so agonizing on xc skis.   I learned, through hard-earned experience, that getting up after falling was never easy -- or fun. 

I knew that the skiing part of this expedition would be the roughest part, not having skied in thirty years and joining friends who do this as regularly as others ride their bicycles.  All of whom have lived in North American winter climes for as long as I’ve lived in semi-tropical South Asian Kathmandu. 

In some ways, I think I’d obscured the potential difficulty in my desire to join these distant friends, not to mention the rare opportunity to do so in Yellowstone National Park. 

As Gary said after the first day on the trail, “I’d warned you in the emails that the skiing would be difficult.”  

Maybe I just didn’t listen…

Like so many things, xc skiing looks so effortless, which masks the effort, strength and time gaining such skills.  I’d been doing my running religiously the past two months around the B’kantha School, but this conditioning had to be more rigorous.  In fact, I’d forgotten, or not realized, the necessity of upper arm strengthening, given the reliance on one’s arms for the skiing.

Gary and Dan and others were complimentary about how well I was doing that first day given that I hadn’t skied for decades, and I was able, at times, to keep a reasonable pace going uphill or on some level trails.  However, my initial efforts to control my skiing on the downhill required my friends to spend too much time waiting for me to catch up.

So, given the chance for a first night's ski, I retreat to my tent to sit and read while the others get ready to take this evening ski.  However, after saying I wouldn’t join, and opening Tolstoy on my bed, those second thoughts came swirling in like a tidal pool. 

You’re here now. 

It’s a rite of arrival. 

An opportunity to share deeply with these friends. 

The reason you came so far.

 ‘A short ski’, they said. 

Just a kilometer (or was that a mile…) to the canyon rim. 

It’s soon dark, it can’t be that far away…”

So, closing the book, I lace up the xc ski boots that Gary brought for me, putting those polyester under-socks on beneath the woolen smart socks.  Trying on the heavier black snow pants that Lee had recommended.  Inner fleece jacket, outer fleece jacket.  Turtle fur.  Woolen cap. Gloves.  Check.

As the light began to wane, we head out along the road to a trail through the forest.  The gliding comes easier than the day before.  The tracks in the snow firmer and more defined.  Cush kindly trades ski poles with me so that I have ones with bigger baskets near the tips to hold more easily in the deep , twilight snow.

There is a silence that envelops the skiing that soothes the mind.  The steady sliding over snow, skating past the trees amid the forest.  The light diminishing adds to the atmosphere.  We are not on a road or manicured trail, but along the edge of a precipice to our left.  We can see the shadows of a gorge, but it’s quiet. 

The moon illuminates the landscape, shadows on the snow, shadows in the mind...

As we get closer to the deep Grand Canyon, of the Yellowstone the sound of the river rises up as a surging rumble fills the night-time silence.  The force of tumbling water in a jagged gorge, dropping precipitously and powerfully below.

There is a golden reflection on the rough distant river below shimmering from the almost full moon’s radiant glow. 

From where we stand, we hear only the sound of the river,  see only the light of the moon and feel the darkness of the forest nearby.

This is the moment. For this I came so far.  

The magnificence of nature, the sublimity of her grandeur and the necessary isolation from our modern lives. 

We take photos, even in the dark.  The requisite record of camaraderie and achievement.  Six college friends, forty years after our initial acquaintance here together again in the wild celebrating simply being here, the journey taken, the gift redeemed.

Others gather to depart.  They put their skis back on. 

I stand entranced. 

Gary steps back to put his arm around my shoulder saying, “You have a hard time leaving places, don’t you?” 

He gives his warm, enchanting smile, knowing that there are multiple levels of meaning to this observation for us to explore.

You have a hard time leaving places, don’t you?” 

He smiles...

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