What kind of man wants to be alone on his birthday? Wants to be lonely on that day. Wants to be homesick. Wants to go without wishes for a good one, jokes about getting up there, cracks about being over the hill. Wants to avoid presents, cards, cakes, candles. Wants to go someplace where no one knows him or cares about him or even notices him, hopes to find in this solitude a blinding flash of insight into his existential condition, a serenity that will see him safely through the coming years, a solace he can draw upon like an unlimited savings account, a wisdom that will make him the envy of all his friends. Wants, at the very minimum, to catch a trophy brown trout of such size, strength and vibrancy it temporarily reconciles him to life, the late middle part of it anyway, the upcoming installment in a trial by existence that certainly wasn’t getting any easier in this his fifty-sixth…would you believe it?…year.
There are plenty who have to be alone on their birthday, choice doesn’t enter into it. In making my resolution, I thought a lot about those poor souls who would give anything to have the family I have, and it made me hesitate. You often get what you wish for, especially on birthdays, and asking for solitude tempts a mordant power that is ever ready to oblige. I had been alone on my thirtieth birthday, and not because I was indulging a whim. Alone as in depressed, suicidal, bewildered, suffering the illusion that in a world of the interconnected I was the only one who had failed to catch on. I can remember that feeling all too clearly–what real solitude is like, how easily it can ensnare a man or woman, how difficult it can be to break free.
So I wasn’t going to brag about my intention, far better just to slink away before anyone noticed I was even gone. To my family, I tried explaining as best I could my more comprehensible motives. I’d had a difficult career year in which luck seemed to have turned against me, and I needed to do something dramatic to change the run of play. I wanted (reason number two) to commemorate a birthday I saw as a landmark, the real Big 55, not the phony Big 50 I had passed in a breeze. I wanted to get out from under things for a few weeks–out from under the weight of routine, the burden of responsibilities, the settled groove a life sinks into. I needed to see things from the side, edge-on, in an entirely new perspective I couldn’t manage at home. I wanted to test my eye on a different landscape, sharpen my vision by having to rely on my seeing alone.
I wanted to accomplish all those things, take three weeks like Thoreau had taken his twelve months (and in the inflated press of life, three weeks alone in 2003 is roughly commensurate with one year alone in 1845), but since these motives are difficult to explain, I usually ended up with another of my motives, one that was easiest for people to understand.
“The fishing is supposed to be great in Yellowstone in the fall. Spawning browns. I’ve always wanted to give it a try.”
Which is the nice thing about having an avocation you pursue passionately–it becomes your alibi for everything. For most people, trout fishing is a much handier motive than philosophy. “You’re going fishing? I envy you.” That’s the kind of response I was looking for, and for the most part that’s what I got.
My daughter Erin, age seventeen, was much shrewder; her comment cut right to the heart of the matter, and I didn’t have a snappy comeback.
“Alone? On your birthday? You’ll be homesick, you’ll be home in two days.”
She was probably right–but what I couldn’t explain to her was that I needed to remind myself how good my life was, how far I had come since that thirtieth birthday alone. And even this was minor compared to my prime motive. My prime motive to be alone in Yellowstone National Park on my fifty-fifth birthday was because I wanted to discover why I needed so badly to be alone in Yellowstone National Park on my fifty-fifth birthday.
Yellowstone, after all, was not the obvious choice. Anyone wanting to commemorate a big birthday in a big way might prefer going to someplace truly exotic, backpacking on Baffin Island, say, or fly-fishing for those monster sea run browns in Tierra del Fuego. I thought about this, but decided in the end that this kind of place would be too exotic–that there would be no frame of reference within which I could begin to puzzle things out. This was going to be my year of paying attention, my year of slowing time down, and tundra, exotica, weirdness, seemed the wrong way to start.
Yellowstone can be a weird place, too, with its signature blend of the beautiful and the bizarre. I’d been there several times before this. My first visit was in l988–timed so that I arrived at the peak of the great fires, when two-thirds of the park was aflame. I’ve wondered over the years if this isn’t one of the reasons I fell in love with it so fast–that when I first saw the park, it was very close to disappearing. The great clouds of smoke; the sweet, inescapable smell of burning pine; the long line of firefighters waiting at pay phones to call home to say they were okay ; the black, steaming embers I had to tiptoe around in order to fish. I sensed an awesome-ness inside an awesome-ness I couldn’t penetrate–and when I left, defeated in my efforts to see more than a fraction, I couldn’t wait to come back.
Yellowstone is purest America, Wonderland, the country’s least-known best-known place. Millions go there, but very few see it; the normal park stay is less than 24 hours, and only two percent of visitors ever leave the roads. People know about the geysers, have heard horror stories about the crowds, and most seem content to leave it at that; in the contemporary American imagination it’s become a place that was long since tamed, Jellystone National Park, with photogenic bears and adorable rangers and Old Faithful.
The Yellowstone I’d come to know is entirely different–a place where with only the slightest amount of effort, you can be alone in one of the most magnificent and unspoiled landscapes in the world. (That old poet James Russell Lowell had a wonderful phrase for such sanctuaries: “unmanstifled places.”) For Yellowstone, even now, is the classic American place–and a shot of pure, classic America is something I badly needed, after the year we lovers of America had been through. With all that happened, ever since…and you can insert your own favorite atrocity here…I’d still managed to cling to an unreasoned, instinctive, gut-level patriotism that makes the manufactured, flag-waving version seem puny. In my genes, in all our genes, is a chemical signal that is not quite extinct–a pulse that awakens in us, give it half a chance, the original awe and wonder our ancestors first felt when they came face to face with the continent’s splendors. Each new outrage, each new shabbiness, each new instance of aggression, and the gene grows fainter–and yet in Yellowstone, the wonder comes alive again, the love for the land that, at least in this one middle-aged American, can still be so overpowering it makes me want to sob.
And Yellowstone has always been one of those spots that writers go to for meaning, as in “What is the meaning of Yellowstone?” Yes, I told myself, in planning all the details. I’ll take a crack at that–and maybe there will be enough meaning left over that I can apply some to myself.
For reading material, I brought alone some accounts by early travelers to Yellowstone–the ones who were afraid of being called outrageous liars if they wrote sober, matter-of-fact accounts of what they had seen. These narratives all begin with the long, hard slog to reach the park. Reading these, I couldn’t bring myself to complain about the plane ride out to Bozeman. Yes, it was a good flight; there were no major foul-ups, I was frisked going through security by an unusually polite and apologetic guard, flew right over a brilliantly shiny Toronto, then, later, with the pilot obligingly lowering the wing so we could see, the furrowed hillside of Custer’s Last Stand.
There was some down time in Minneapolis between flights. I noticed something as I waited; I noticed that when you reach my age, no one notices you. Seniors, yes, they’re quick to be scooped up by those golf carts and whisked to their proper gate; kids, too–there are always people on the lookout for lost kids. The teenagers and the twentysomethings check each other out and casually preen…which leaves middle-aged people to cope on their own, no one expects a fuss out of us, no one ogles us or pities us, we’re pretty much part of the plastic.
But I’m noticing the late middle-agers even if no one else is. What I’m noticing are men who are a little older than I am, men in their late fifties or early sixties. I can’t remember doing this since I was twelve–looking at older males to find a role model I can emulate. There are a surprisingly large number of men to choose from, a good many traveling alone. The businessmen I quickly skip, finding them too haggard looking, too predictable; the paunchy men a little ahead of their wives on the moving sidewalks I skip over as well. But there are others, comfortable, fit-looking men who sometimes carry briefcases, but are more apt to be carrying fly rods or tennis rackets or even fairly thick books. They’re a damn fine looking bunch; they tend to be tanned, tend to wear chinos, tend to look like football refs.
The ones I stare at longest seem marked by a generous kind of sophistication (they can talk to anybody), and a relaxed sort of acceptance; they’re comfortable with themselves, but far from smug. Role models? The kind of man I’d like to be in ten years time? Well, maybe, maybe not, but it’s interesting to catch myself looking.
The only other part of the trip worth mentioning is the unbelievable miracle of it, something the unsophisticated, nineteenth-century hick in me can never get over. I wake up just before dawn in rural New England, walk to our window that faces east, see in the moonlight the lenticular cloud that drapes itself over the wooded slope of our local mountain, then go to bed that same night in a cabin facing Mount Evarts, the castle-like rampart that seals off Yellowstone’s northwest corner, watching the same moon apply the same milky whitewash against an entirely different texture. The same day! It’s a hard concept to get your mind around–so hard it made me restless, and about midnight, to convince myself I was really there, I threw on my jacket and went outside.
I was there all right. Yellowstone by god! The Mammoth terraces, the reek of sulfur, elk droppings squishing underfoot! I walked gingerly over to the old parade ground, crossed to the middle, stood there looking up at the bright red eye of Mars (at its closest approach to earth in centuries), then at the ghostly steam wafting off the bone-colored terraces behind me.
Wrapped around me with the moonlight was a silence that at first seemed total (and why, I wondered then and later, is silence in Yellowstone more silent than silence in New Hampshire?). But I was wrong on this; my ears simply hadn’t acclimated themselves yet to this new, richer, more pregnant kind of ether, and after a few minutes my hearing, like my vision, started to catch up.
Faint at first, like a distant radio station that isn’t quite tuned in, then much sharper, came the sound of wolves, frantically howling, yipping and barking. Closer, but just as wild, was the sound of elk bugling, showing off for their harems, warning off rivals, enjoying–it was easy to imagine–their liberation from muteness that only comes once a year. Earlier, I’d seen bulls grazing on the lawn outside the old officers’ quarters; there’s a ventriloquist quality to the sound they make, and when you look at the animal that’s emitting the sound, it looks like it must be coming from somewhere else.
Now, in the darkness, listening intently, I tried coming up with a better description. There is definitely a bugle note in an elk’s bugle–a bugle as played by a kid in summer camp who’s got lots of wind, but not much lip. There’s also something bird-like about it, a lonesome bird, someone of the order of a loon. Add a horse whinny–a kind of pathetic and wistful clumsiness of expression, as if the elk, though trying its best, regrets not making the sound sweeter. If you had to guess, not knowing what the sound came from, you might think it was a squeaky pipe organ played at its highest pitch. Pipe organ, horse whinny, bugle, loon. Blend all these and you can start to imagine the kind of primal thrill it must create in a female elk.
But say one thing for it–it’s one of the few sounds in nature worth traveling 2,000 miles to hear. When the chill finally got to me and I went back to my cabin the sound was even louder, the air absolutely lousy with elk lust. But that’s not a bad thing for a man my age to fall asleep to after crossing the continent in a single bound, not a bad thing at all.
Up early in the a.m., a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria, a bag lunch taken for the road, then out I drive on the Mammoth-Tower road, exhilarated from being in the exact place on the planet I want to be at absolutely the perfect moment.
Yellowstone labors under a burden that would sink a lesser place–everyone who visits here expects to be enchanted immediately. The good news is that, yes, you come upon enchantment very quickly, especially in the morning when you’re apt to have the road to yourself and the landscape comes dramatically alive under the sunrise. Take my drive from Mammoth out to the Lamar valley. You follow the golden ramparts of Mount Evarts, crane your head down to see the Gardener River racing through its canyon far below the first high bridge, have the shadows come back again as the road pinches against the cliffs of Lava Canyon, emerge into the rolling, sage-covered meadows of the Blacktail Deer Plateau, pass several lakes, see to your left the tight, hidden folds of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, the wooded left-to-right slant of Hellroaring Creek, cross the surging Yellowstone on the Cooke City bridge, then follow Specimen Ridge with its wildlife and its petrified trees before coming out–as the sun pours down full-strength–into the overwhelming beauty of the Lamar valley, America’s Serengetti, with wolves and buffalo and antelope and the whole Yellowstone nine yards, a basin of magnificence backed up by the Beartooth and the Absarokas.
Not bad for a 45-minute drive–and I didn’t see another car until I came to Tower Junction. The sun was in my face most of the way, so I stopped frequently to get out and soak in the views. I’d heard stories about snowstorms in autumn shutting the park down, had come equipped with layer upon layer of Gore-tex and fleece, but I was never to need them. The weather that first day was the same weather I had for my entire three weeks, with no variation whatsoever. Temperatures in the high 70’s, a good twenty degrees above normal; zero humidity; a perfectly cloudless sky ; hardly any wind to speak of; a sun that, in the high altitude, burned through all the sunscreen I splashed on. It was exhilarating weather, desert-like in its clarity, the famous Rocky Mountain high–lousy for the fishing, but stimulating all to hell.
The only definite sign of fall were the golden aspen trees, which, with the sun pouring through their branches, were absolutely at their peak. They grow in well-spaced groves that stand out even more noticeably than maples do in New England; what’s more, they have no foliage competition, except for the willows along the creek. Aspens tend to be flame-shaped in silhouette; their leaves give the impression of wanting to go up, to sail skyward, rather than maple leaves which ponderously want to go down. They’re one of the stars in the park in autumn, and if passed a grove near the road it was sure to be surrounded by photographers trying to come up with those classic, cliché shots you see when September rolls around on Western calendars.
I did my share of aspen watching during my visit, but on that first morning I was on the lookout for one tree in particular, of another species, a lodgepole pine. And yes, there is was high on the burned-over ridge north of Tower Junction, just where it had been the last time and the time before that. The scars from the ’88 fires have healed remarkably in the years since, with the green fuzz that took hold almost immediately afterwards now grown into teenaged trees taller than I am. The ridge I was looking at had been burned over entirely, and was dotted with black limbless trees that made it look like Verdun in l916, a spiky forest of ugly charcoal. But there on the very crest of the ridge…and I had spotted this first on a visit in l990…was a single mature and flourishing pine, one that had survived when every tree on either side of it in a radius of three miles had caught fire and burned.
It was still there, I was glad to see, though it wasn’t easy to pick out now, with the new green slowly reclaiming the ridge. A younger man (I told myself) wouldn’t have seen my pine, it’s just not the kind of exception his eye would be sensitive to; an older man probably would have seen only dead trees and turned away a little sad. And how old was my tree anyway? Fifty-four? Fifty-five? Old enough to teach some lessons at any rate. Life amid the ruins. Survival when all around you goes down in flames. The random play of chance, and how it can exalt as well as crush. I spent a long time sitting on the warm hood of my car staring up at it, thinking long, deep, Yellowstone thoughts. It’s a remarkable tree. A survivor tree. My favorite tree in the entire park.
The nice thing about driving early is that you miss most of the elk jams, where RV drivers suddenly slam on the brakes in the middle of the road and disgorge the camera-toting occupants who immediately surround the embarrassed squirrel (quite often it’s squirrels) while behind them other RVs screech to a stop and disgorge similar, backing things up.
This time of morning, this time of year, you’re more apt to come across the serious wildlife spotters, the ones who are careful to use the pullouts and sit there behind spotting scopes keeping one particular animal in view for hours at a time. They’re a sociable bunch; quite often you see them sharing coffee with fellow spotters, and they’re quick to share information with any newcomer. Seeing a pod of them is usually a good sign that a wolf is in sight, or a moose, or sometimes even a grizz.
The Lamar Ranger Station is a popular spot for them, with its expansive views of the valley leading up to the Mirror Plateau. They had a herd of antelope spotted, which I could see when I parked one pullout down–gentle whitish things clustered within a bend of the river, keyed up like debutantes at a ball, watching us with as much interest as we observed them.
I’d like to think I could someday be content with just watching nature from a distance making no disturbance at all, but I’m not there yet–I still need a more involved kind of engagement. In pursuit of such, I opened the trunk, strung together my fly rod, donned my new Patagonia waders, pulled on my fishing vest, stuffed snacks in my pockets, applied sunscreen–busied myself with the fly fisher’s equivalent of primping.
For my first morning’s fishing I chose the spot where the Lamar is furthest from the road; a sign of continued youth, I told myself–that distance from the road is still a plus in my eye, not a minus. It was an easy enough walk through the usual mix of sage, buffalo pies and willow. The Lamar is a spate river, which means it has a broad, scoured flood plain that becomes rocker the closer to its banks you come. It means, more to the point, that the trout roam t he river without rhyme or reason, so you have to do a lot of hard walking and careful squinting to locate where they are.
The minutia of an angling day is a fascinating subject, but–to paraphrase Mark Twain–it’s only fascinating to those who find it fascinating. Suffice it to say, I had a hard time conjuring trout from the trout-shaped rocks, an even harder time getting those I located to rise to my fly. A good cutthroat lazily swirled toward my rubber-legged Kaufmann stimulator, but I was too tender with him and he broke free. The sun rose to full strength pretty fast, and its brightness didn’t help; I was soon in that familiar self-defeating mode whereby, not getting much action, you stop paying attention and miss random strikes.
I fished hard most of the morning, then suddenly bagged it; there’s not much shade along the Lamar, and I have a redhead’s sensitivity to the sun. I walked back to the car, drove east past the run where the Lamar is joined by the smaller Soda Butte. The trout proved even scarcer here than on the Lamar, but it was more my kind of water, and after a half mile of careful wading I took what would turn out to be the best trout of my entire trip: a twenty-one inch cutthroat, with that beautiful butter/copper color along the flanks, and the telltale flash of orange/pink below the gills. It was an extraordinarily large fish in water so thin. I played him slowly and carefully, then, once he was in my net, flailed about like a madman to pull my camera out, lay him beside my rod on the bank, snap a picture, and return him back into the water unharmed.
What was a fish that size doing so high up the river? I didn’t find any more like him, though I caught some decent fish in the pockets and pools of Ice Box Canyon. After that, I tried the Lamar lower down, in its own dark canyon, then, needing fish which were easier to catch, switched to my lightest fly rod, stuffed my pockets with grasshopper imitations, hiked for a mile down Blacktail Deer Creek, and fished my way back to the road, catching two or three brook trout–yes, New England brook trout–in every pool.
I enjoyed this immensely; enjoyed the miniaturization of the whole Yellowstone experience, the sneaking around the willows from pool to pool, the generous willingness of the trout to play along, the connection that came between us via the supple intermediary of my fly rod. After the classically Western expanse of the morning’s fishing, this was a more intimate experience, and reminded me what the Green Mountains were like once upon a fast disappearing time. If anything, these trout in their spawning colors seemed brighter and richer than any I had caught at home–their copper so intense, the coral decorations so blinding, I couldn’t hold one in my hand without blinking.
After a while, I didn’t bother trying to hook them, just enjoyed the way they appeared out of nowhere to attack the grasshopper, these little bubbling upsurges that always startled me, no matter how many I saw.
It was late by the time I quit; I drove back to my cabin at Mammoth worn out from a long day. With the weather being so perfect, there were more visitors around than I expected; seeing the families having fun, eating dinner together, pointing at the elk, made me homesick–but maybe that wasn’t bad, to still feel anything at my age that was identical to what I felt when I was twelve.
I went into the Mammoth store, found a pint bottle of bourbon called “Old Faithful.” It was cheap stuff, raw–had they included geyser water in the blend?–but it eased away the homesickness. I shared some with my neighbors as we sat on our joint porch watching Mars rise over Mount Evarts. They were my age, they loved the park as I did, and we clicked immediately. They were curious–about my fishing, about, most of all, why I wanted to be alone on my birthday. I decided, as we drank, that in discriminating out who I would bother with and who I wouldn’t bother with during the rest of my life, my attention and interest would go strictly to those people my age who were still, whatever else they were, curious–that the only fiftysomethings worth bothering with were those who had survived their half century with their curiosity intact.
I wished them goodnight, went back to my cabin, but not yet to sleep. I wanted to try and fulfill another park of my resolution, which was to spend the evenings trying to put my mind around some of the big things I had come here to tackle.
But it’s hard to be profound on cue. I thought deep thoughts all right, lying on my bed in the soft yellow of the porch light, sipping my Old Faithful bourbon, listening to the giggles of children being tucked into bed and the love calls of elk. I thought how deep the pain was in my knees, my back, my shoulders. Before the trip, I had resolved not to fish myself into my usual stupor, and here I had done exactly that on my very first day. “Fishing hard’ is the term the macho boys use to denote such a day; not sitting on a bank dangling a worm into a stream, but actively hunting, searching, wading, for twelve hours at a stretch.
Okay, so thanks to aspirin I could still fish hard–but what of it? I had noticed this in myself for a few years now, a tendency to swing between moods wherein I tell myself I’m getting too soft, and moods where I decide the opposite, that I’m too hard on myself, need to ease up. I had talked to enough friends to know this kind of back and forth was one of the real identifying traits of late middle age. Some people, the self-damning kind, swing too far toward the first, and others, the slackers, may give in too soon to the second, which leaves a few of us trying to keep a sensible equilibrium.
Living in my town are a group of men my age who commemorate the summer solstice by hiking the entire Presidential range in the White Mountains in one long day–twenty-two miles of the most rugged terrain in the Northeast. They invite me to come–but what’s the point of such a test? To prove you can still do everything you could do when you were twenty-five? Yes, there is a certain splendid defiance in attempting such marathons (which have their sexual and gustatory equivalents), but they can also hide changes that are real, imminent, not to be denied. All these tests are ones you’re eventually going to fail, and the real tests you probably should be getting ready for are the moral tests of late middle age, which are an entirely different proposition.
Men my age run marathons, women my age run marathons; both sexes kick against time by surgery or makeup. I don’t mean to sneer at them–a little defiance it fine–but I sense that clinging to youth so desperately is not quite the right direction for me, not quite my style. If I needed to test anything during my stay in the park, it wasn’t my hardness, but my softness–my ability to open myself up to beauty and splendor and all those things hard fishing, hard drinking, hard screwing can rush you past. And so for the short term…as I lay there writing in my notebook…I resolved to slack off more during the rest of the trip, to be easier on myself, to sit on the bank and smell the flowers (well, the aspen), not deny certain important lessons my joints were trying to teach me. Easy does it fella. Not a bad motto, and I wrote it down in big letters in my notebook.
When you enter the park, in the packet of information the ranger hands you, is a yellow paper with a cartoon of a charging buffalo butting a man hard enough to knock him over. The park service, having experimented over the years, has found that the cartoon is a much more effective warning than the unillustrated caution they used to give out. (But not totally effective; during my time in Yellowsonte, two middle-aged man, approaching bulls for close-up photos, were uncerimoniously gored.)
Bison, grizzlies, horny elk or moose, the earth giving way beneath your feet as you approach a thermal feature–or, a real concern now among geologists, the risk the entire Yellowstone caldera will undergo an enormous volcanic eruption in the very near future. These are all dangers to be respected, but in my visits I’ve found that by far the greatest danger here is letting all the irony get to you. Ironic National Park–that’s what you’ll see of it, if you don’t keep a lid on your cynicism. All those monstrous RVs big enough to transport a regiment, or the SUVs which out West apparently pass for sub-compacts. The highway cloverleaf near Old Faithful, the noisy and rowdy campgrounds, the tacky souvenir shops, the runaway development in the gateway towns (my favorite, cynically speaking, being Grizzly Village, the theme park in West Yellowstone that advertises the complete “Yellowstone Experience” a hundred yards from the west entrance).
These can all be ignored if you make some effort, but it’s easy to let them overwhelm you, too. One of the few convincing lessons life has taught me is that cynicism, while bracingly astringent in small doses, doesn’t lead very far, not in literature, not in philosophy, not on vacation. It’s a sterile attitude–and yet I’m a contemporary American novelist, which means I’m pretty good at it if I want to be, which means, driving through the park, keeping my eyes open, there are lots of mordant zingers that have to be choked back, especially with no one else in the car to share them.
(My kids, in a teenage kind of way, can be pretty cynical; my response to this is to always out-cynical them. Hey, you want to be cynical? Try this on for size… and I always leave them appalled.)
So, on my explorations of those first few days, I tried not letting the RVs towing SUVs towing boat trailers get to me, just like I tried not letting the bison, so placid looking in repose, get a window of opportunity on my rear end. The problem with irony/cynicism is that I’ve never indulged myself in it deeply enough to find positive delight in the experience, a la H. L. Mencken–and now, I suspect, it’s too late in life for that, and, starting here in Yellowstone on my birthday, I’d better learn to temper the irony with some bemusement rather than letting it fester.
One of my finest days that first week began with a hike up Cascade Creek, just west of Canyon. There were no cars parked at the trailhead; I brought my bear spray along and fastened bear bells to my rucksack where they would jingle, hopefully in a key the bears found repellant. Don’t hike alone, the rangers advise, and if you do, make noise. The bells, to my ear, were a bit too mellow, so I attempted to make myself more obnoxious by banging my rod case on the rocks and singing the first thing that popped into my throat, which happened to be Manchester United soccer fight songs, as in–sung to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic–“Glory glory Man Uniiii…ted!”
It worked–I saw no grizzlies during this or any of my other hikes. A mile into the woods, I detoured over to the stream, Cascade Creek, which was set in a beautiful meadow with a view toward Mount Washburn. These Yellowstone meadows are as sweet and secret a place as you can imagine, especially in autumn, when the willows and alders turn golden and you’re guaranteed to have them to yourself. They resemble alpine meadows in their openness, in the way the grass waves in the wind, but they also tend to be surprisingly boggy, so there’s the kind of mystery that comes with being in a swamp. Cascade Creek cuts through the center of this in serpentine meanderings which allow you to take shortcuts over the sandy isthmuses and sneak up on the trout from different angles.
Under drought conditions, the little cutthroats were very wary–much harder to catch than the brookies back in Blacktail Deer Creek. I went down to 7X on my leader, which is to say, I was fishing for them on sheerest gossamer, but anything heavier on the water would send them fleeing upstream in panic.
But that was all right–this was my day of not fishing seriously, and what I did most of the morning was lay against a log in the center of the meadow enjoying the scenery, not thinking about anything profound, just mostly staring. Or at least I tried doing this. Various concerns intruded before I could relax completely. One concern was the possible proximity of grizzlies; traveling alone in the backcountry, you can’t shake this feeling entirely (and it’s not necessarily a bad feeling either). Concern number two was that maybe the trout were bigger and dumber a half mile upstream and I should be up there fishing for them. Concern number three was the ordinary background worry that, when you’re my age, with a family, never goes completely away, even in Yellowstone.
After a while the tug-of-war grew fierce–the brilliant immediacy of my surroundings versus all this worrisome, hateful buzz. I felt mad that I couldn’t relax completely–and when you get mad at not relaxing, the game is up. I went back to fishing, since its concentration is all about immediacy, living in the moment, sharing the same spontaneous time line as the trout. But shouldn’t I be able to achieve that just by sitting on my butt?
I had a companion, I realized now. There under the pine that grew furthest out in the meadow–a buffalo bull, all by his lonesome, brown and stocky and perfectly content, gravely munching on something he found in the little slough where the swampy part began, aware of me, but totally indifferent.
I read later than an older male can eventually become a nuisance to the herd, attacking young ones with no provocation, to the point where the stronger, younger males drive him out, banish him to exile. I was to see a good many lone buffalo during my three weeks; they always seemed waiting at the furthest point of my fishing/hiking expeditions, so I began to believe it was the same buffalo who was following me around the park. This made for a strong fellow feeling, though I had actively sought my exile, not been banished. (Well, not exactly; I’d been grumpy all year, and I don’t think anyone at home was sorry to see me temporarily go.)
My intention was to stay on the creek all afternoon, but my restlessness made this difficult. I got to thinking about the grizzlies again, remembered my promise to call home before the kids went to bed, worried over the construction delays I could expect heading down to Lake where I was to spend the night…well, the list hardly matters. I put it down to illustrate the wretched background worry that makes it hard for a middle-aged man to sit in an unspoiled meadow letting the beauty of it soak in.
Vexing–but I decided to give myself another chance. My drive from the trailhead to the lake took me past the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and I detoured over to take a look. APPROACHING INSPIRATION POINT read the sign, and that was good for a smile–at last, a road sign meant just for me! There were only a handful of cars in the parking lot. Inspiration Point is out on a little boardwalk, and older couples were taking photos of each other with the falls as background.
I’d seen the Lower Falls before, but never in autumn, and the shadows gave a steely texture to the dropping water, made the huge upsurge of spray seem molten. The sun was high enough that it turned the canyon canary yellow; as usual, it was a long way down.
Waterfalls, of course, are meant to induce solemn thoughts. Here is Nathaniel Pitt Langford’s description of his own reaction as he viewed the scene in l870; Langford was one of the first 100 white men to ever see the falls, and probably the first whose education gave him a Romantic frame of reference.
“The rapids were so terrible to behold that none of our company could venture the experiment in any other manner than by laying prone upon the rock, to gaze into its awful depths; depths so amazing that the sound of the rapids could not be heard. The stillness is horrible, the solitary grandeur of the scene surpassed conception. You feel the absence of sound–the oppression of absolute silence. Down, down, down, you see the river attenuated to a thread. If you could only hear that gurgling river, lashing with puny strength the massive walls that imprison it and hold it in their dismal shadow, if you could but see a living thing in the depths beneath you, it would relieve the tension of the nerves which the scene has excited, and with a grateful heart you would thank God that he had permitted you to gaze unharmed upon the majestic depths of his handiwork. But as it is, the spirit of man sympathsizes with the deep gloom of the scene, and the brain reels as you gaze into the profound and solemn solitude.”
A strange, overpowering, existential kind of reaction (and I don’t just mean Langford’s fondness for the verb “gaze). Joseph Conrad could have written this in The Heart of Darkness–but not Langford, who had the soul of a Kiwanian, not unless he was vouchsafed a moment of intense insight that few of those who have seen the falls since could ever recapture, not with the click-click-click of cameras going off on every inspiration point around.
Langford and the other early visitors saw the falls free of the ironic add-ons of the years; to them, “grandeur” and “sublimity” were not just platitudes, but qualities they could grasp between their hands. That’s what I found myself wanting to do–to see the park as clearly as those first visitors had, get past the tourists, past the post card familiarity, take the grandeur and sublimity, even if they shook me, into my soul…and not apologize for using the word either.
It’s hard to see a celebrity place without the cliché halos. When it came to Yellowstone’s marvels, had I already reached the saturation point, one week in? Rudyard Kipling asked himself the same question on his visit to the park in l889. “Miracles pall when they arrive at twenty a day,” he wrote. “The power of the mind for wonder is limited.”
This is exactly what I worried about on Cascade Creek, then again driving down through Hayden Valley toward the hotel. “Wonder”–theme for the day, theme for my trip, theme for the next stage of life. When I was young, I could stare at “wonders” for long minutes at a time, seeing them, focusing on them, realizing them, in a way I’ve seldom been able to do since. These weren’t wonders in the world-class Yellowstone sense, but more near-at-hand kinds of marvels. Views from the top of New England hills; the stars in a dark country sky ; almost any trick of moving water; the leaves on a maple tree in October, under which I would lay with my hands behind my head to stare my fill.
Somewhere along the way, somewhere in the course of daily living, the steady encrustation of responsibility, this ability to just sit and watch and wonder had become atrophied, even in me, a writer, someone who is paid to keep his eye fixed on marvels of every kind. Another visitor to the park, John Muir, took a bittersweet view of the problem. “As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.”
Okay John Muir, I hear you on this–but the truth is nature’s sources were failing me, or beginning to. I could sense this happening; I told myself, well I can always go back to it, that kind of pure absorption in the moment. One day I’ll retire to it the way other people retire to Florida. But here I was three days from turning 55, and between this and that I hadn’t gone back to it; my trips outside at night to stare up at the stars were becoming less frequent, the time I could happily sit staring into the middle distance was becoming shorter; even my love of music, my ability to concentrate on it, was much choppier than it had been when I was twenty, when you think the added years would result in just the opposite. Middle age people complain about “losing it,” referring to strength, speed or endurance; this to me was minor when compared to letting the qualities and sights that make life more than endurable go flying on past without my appreciating them.
Could it be pulled back again, a young person’s sense of wonder, and, more to the point, could it be recaptured in a place that more than any other in the world justified its nickname–Wonderland? F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed America was the last place on earth where man came upon something commensurate with his capacity for wonder, and Yellowstone was one of the last places left in America where you could still test this capacity–and, for that matter, miserably fail.
A flagman stopped me along the Yellowstone, and I waited a half hour for construction trucks to pass. Beside me, the river looked cold and lonely, and I spent most of the time in the fly-fisher’s state of mild hallucination, seeing the rise rings of trout in what were probably only the surges and swirls tossed up by the current.
But then–eureka. Maybe it was the sheer noise and ugliness of the trucks passing between me and the river (they were widening the road for the comfort of ever larger RVs) that crystallized my thinking. Between one moment and the next, brooding about these things, I realized I had stumbled upon one of the answers I had been on the lookout for ever since entering the park. The primary reason I wanted to be alone in Yellowstone on my birthday was that I needed to be somewhere that would shake up my senses, jolt me back to that sense of wonder I wanted very badly to recapture; I wanted to recapture this now, so I could enter the crunch years of late middle age armored with, enhanced by, a talent that required neither money, equipment, nor elevated levels of fitness to achieve: the ability to focus on the grandeur and sublimity that comes…and this is the secret of youth that can be our secret, too…even in moments that are camouflaged and hidden by the weight of the commonplace. Been there, done that, seen those. Yes, these are our excuses for our jaded weariness, the three clauses that sink us, but maybe late middle age is the time to go back and see everything again, and really see this time, these Yellowstones andYosemites of the near at hand.
Deep stuff–but that’s why you go to Yellowstone in the first place, and who was I to break the tradition of two centuries? I was approaching the midpoint of my trip, and had done okay, caught some trout, caught some sublimity, and now here was a resolution worth all the time and trouble I had taken to find one. I got to apply it that very night. The Lake area was much quieter and more deserted than the other parts of the park; it had exactly the lonely, autumnal feel I had been looking for. The old Victorian hotel built on the lakefront wore its venerability well under the light clouds of evening, and there was my friend the lone buffalo, grazing under the pines by the fire escape, totally ignored.
As usual, I hardly bothered with dinner, just grabbed a sandwich and brought it out to a bench on the low cliff that fronts the lake. There can’t be many moments during the season when you can have this view to yourself. Some trick of twilight made it seem the sun was going down in the east over the Absarokas, and then I realized what I was looking at was alpenglow, or something similar, and it colored the ragged ridgeline into a soft gray-lemon that, as the light faded, came down and touched the lake. Nothing stirred on the water, nothing beside the ripples and folds that moved slowly and stately across the surface, slanting ashore on the black gravel shingle below me with the softest, gentlest sound water is capable of making. Inside that softness was the secret of autumn–that’s the effect it gave—and if I listened carefully I would have that secret.
The silence, the light, the way those velvety folds seemed to flow from the mountains to take up residence in the lake. All these things, and then–the true surprise–my own giving way to it, so for those few minutes I had what I was looking for: forgetfulness, immersion, solace, oneness, not me looking down at the lake, but me and the lake together, unbothered, unvexed, unbewildered.
When I could no longer see the ripples, I went back to the hotel, shivering–and not just with cold. My room was the last one on the endless corridor of the third floor, and it was apparent I was the only guest up there. I spent the night waiting for ghosts to appear–not a bad feeling, sort of like waiting for the grizzlies, and it added a pleasant frisson that made me pull the blankets up higher around my chin. Around midnight I heard some bumps and knocks, got up to investigate–and yes, there he was right below my room , the lone buffalo, red in the glow of the exit light, rubbing up against the siding for whatever companionship the hotel could provide.
“You sound like you’re a million miles away. Matt?”
“How are you?”
“We have a tournament, can you come?”
“First, ask me if I’m having a good time.”
“I’m having a great time. Just a little while ago I was fishing this stream called Aster Creek, and three otter came swimming past, plunging up and down just like porpoises.”
“Okay, your turn.”
“We got stuck in the toughest division. There’s a team that’s ranked number three in Connecticut and another team that’s ranked number two in Rhode Island.”
“Well, you’re the hicks from the sticks. You can beat them in an upset, soccer can be a funny game that way. How’s school going?”
“Can you speak up a little louder? Hear that elk? He’s right behind me.”
“Cool. The first game is at eight, which means I have to be there at seven.”
“In Nashua? Which means we’d have to leave home at five a.m., get up at four. I get home at midnight. That’s going to be tough…Well, okay. Maybe. Is Erin around? Mom?”
“Hi Dad, what’s the sound?”
“Elk. Here, listen, I’ll stick the phone out the booth.”
“Neat. Are you homesick yet?”
“It gets bad at dusk.”
“How’s school going? How’s the college applications going?”
“Terrible? Why terrible?”
“I’ve got babysitting. Here’s Mom.”
“Why did she say terrible?”
“Long story. How are you?”
“I miss you.”
“Liar. But I miss you.”
“A change is good for all of us. The kids anyway. Makes them appreciate me. Actually, I’m doing better alone than I thought I would. It’s true, you do see more when you’re by yourself. You take everything in, you don’t waste energy on chitchat.”
“You being careful? Seen any bears? Your dad called. His anemia is worse, and now they’re talking about giving him platelets.”
“That doesn’t sound good. Platelets?”
“It isn’t, not for someone his age. He didn’t want me to tell you.”
“Is he getting ready to move out to that assisted living place?”
“He keeps saying it’s for old people.”
“Hear that elk?”
“Oh my god. It must be really attracted to you.”
“Hardy har-har. I’ll call on my birthday, okay?”
“That’s three days. Call before, too. I’m driving Matt to soccer practice. Love you.”
“I had a pretty special moment last night. I was–”
Three weeks is a long time to spend in the park, compared to most people’s twenty-four hours. But I was determined not to be rushed–to pick up one of the many glorious threads that compose the park and follow it all day, knowing I had plenty of time to follow another thread tomorrow.
I fished seventeen rivers during my stay, plus three lakes, and I’m going to list their names here, for the sheer, evocative pleasure of saying them out loud. Yellowstone River. Gardner River. Lava Creek. Blacktail Deer Creek. The Lamar. The Firehole (Biscuit Basin and Muleshoe Bend). The Gibbon River. Hellroaring Creek. Soda Butte Creek. The Madison (Nine Mile Hole and the Barns pools). Cascade Creek. Aster Creek. Solfatara Creek. Trout Lake. Fan Creek. The Lewis River outlet. Joffe Lake. Nez Perce Creek. The Gallatin. Ribbon Lake. Grayling Creek.
I worked out a good routine most days, up in darkness to make myself a cup of tea, off to the nearest lodge to grab breakfast and the makings of a lunch, a short drive to whichever river I was concentrating on, carefully gearing up, the hike in to the river, a hard morning’s fishing, a long break for lunch, often in the shade of the nearest aspen grove, then another river in the afternoon, not fishing quite so hard now, doing more in the way of sitting and watching, quitting around seven, then coming back to my room to write in my journal.
The leisurely pace gave me a chance to do something that had been on my wish list for a long time, which was to take a closer look at Yellowstone’s geysers. I’m probably the negative world-record holder in this regard; this was my fifth trip to Yellowstone and not once had I seen Old Faithful. I took a snobby, reverse kind of pride in this. Old Faithful was the icon of that other Yellowstone, the RV people’s Yellowstone, the bus tour Yellowstone, the prepackaged side of the park I was determined to avoid. I was going to prove, by ignoring its most famous feature, that there was a hell of a lot more to the park than just some tacky, over-praised bubbles.
This was foolish of me, short-sighted, but it set me up for the best moments of the last third of my trip. As well as splendidly beautiful, Yellowstone is splendid in a loopy, weird, otherworldly kind of way–a performance artist in the theater of nature’s absurd. Early visitors, almost without exception, looked at the hot springs, geysers, mud volcanoes and paint pots, and thought automatically of hell. (Cartographers in the l890’s had to go back and change many of the park’s original names, since too many contained the world “hell” or “devil.”) Modern visitors, conditioned in less Calvanistic ways, tend to be immediately curious about the science that causes these weirdly melodramatic effects, never mind the portals-of-hell metaphors that scared our ancestors.
Old Faithful, I discovered, is still great theater after all these years. The enormous parking lot only had a few cars this late in autumn (things were so quiet that trotting along the middle of the pavement, wearing a look of requited curiosity, was the only wolf I saw on my trip), and if not for three yellow busloads of Idaho Falls school children, I would have had the geyser largely to myself. According to the clock in the visitor center it was thirty minutes before the next eruption. I stretched out in the shade of some lodgepole pine where not only could I get a good view of the geyser cone, but I could watch the people sitting there on the horseshoe of benches waiting patiently to be amazed.
A small enough group–91 I counted, mostly the kids, but with a good sprinkling of seniors, many of who, I noticed, held hands. About fifteen minutes before the eruption, dogs began getting restless–they looked up at their masters and made urgent little tugs on their leashes back toward the parking lot. At the same time, steam began gurgling up from the bone-white cone, surges that slightly exceeded each other in what the rangers coyly call the “pre-play” period. The actual eruption, when it came, was both beautiful and anticlimactic; beautiful in that the strong northwest wind flattened out the spray into rippling sheets of sideways moving rainbows; disappointing in that, because of the wind, the water didn’t form that familiar, classic column seen in so many photographs, calendars and posters.
And, of course, it seemed smaller than I pictured it being–smaller in the way Stonehenge seem smaller, because you’re looking at it not just with your eyes but through exaggerated layers of legend and hype.
It did better the next morning; again, as with so many Yellowstone wonders, the trick is waking up early so you can get them to yourself. I hadn’t bothered looking at the visitor center clock this time, so the eruption took my by surprise. I had crossed the little bridge over the Firehole, and was climbing up along the boardwalk toward the Beehive and the other famous geysers, when I heard a whoosh and looked around–and yes, there it was, Old Faithful blossoming into Old Faithful, high and fresh and sparkling, and no one there to see it but me.
I had big fishing plans for the day, I was going to concentrate on the Firehold, that strangest of all the worlds’ trout streams, with active geysers on one side of you, boiling hot springs on the other–big plans, but I stayed around for three more eruptions, mesmerized, enthralled, converted. Why had I waited so long to become a geyser freak? All around me, as far as I could see stretching across the valley toward the escarpment to the west with its fire-blackened trees, jets of steam shot skyward in the chill morning air. I wanted to laugh, to shout, to point–at no other time in my trip did I feel so strongly the need to have someone to share all this with. I realized, in that instant, how the most overwhelming imperative those first explorers had experienced must have been to immediately race back to civilization to tell people about the wonders they had seen, even if they risked being called liars.
In the most inspired moment of place naming in U.S. history, General Henry Washburn and his exploring party of l870 named this great geyser almost immediately upon seeing it. The words “old” and “faithful” had spontaneously come to their minds, when almost everything else they named in the park tended to be “hell’s this” or “devil’s that.” To these frontiersmen, it must have seemed the highest virtue–fidelity, steadfastness, dependability–and I thought how far we had gone in the opposite direction in the century and a half since, to the point where almost the only time you heard the word “faithful” now was in its sexual and entirely negative sense, “unfaithful.”
But maybe, I thought, as I watched each new eruption with its subtly different variation, it’s time to get back to restoring “faithful” to its place on our short list of virtues, not just faithful as in marriage (though, quaint as it sounds, I see no harm in honoring it there), or faithful in a religious sense, but in the meaning I was watching here–of something that not only manages to be young and fresh and inspiring, but manages to be that right on cue. Stars are faithful in that sense, sunsets, even some heroic and inspiring people who seem to draw upon a never-failing inspiration in a way that manages to be young and old at the same time. Fountain of youth, fountain of experience, drinking from both simultaneously? Yes, I was staring at the proof–young and old weren’t necessarily opposites after all. It’s an absurd thing for superheated water to suddenly pop its cork, but if it does this faithfully…every 65 minutes if its last eruption lasted less than 2.5 seconds; every 92 minutes if the last eruption lasted longer than 2.5 seconds….then you have something that serves, even in our sardonic age, as a tonic to our souls.
The next three days I was locked inside a smaller enchantment set within a larger one. The Upper Geyser Basin, Midway, the Lower Geyser Basin, the huge Excelsior Pool, the Grand Prismatic Spring. I shuttled between all these, found it all but impossible to leave their radius. Even later when I arrived home, that’s what I ended up talking about the most. “Dad,” Matthew said, with the expression thirteen-year olds get when they’re leveling with you. “You’ve got geysers on the brain.”–and he wasn’t far wrong.
My actual birthday, the Big 55, I spent hiking up Fan Creek, a beautiful tributary of the Gallatin running into the western side of the park. The river (going upstream) starts in one of those expansive Yellowstone meadows, rises through a steep forested canyon, then opens into a second, higher meadow surrounded by low ridges and the foothills of the Gallatin Range. As on all the streams I fished, the water was low and the fish spooked by the sunlight, so it took some careful stalking to find them. The corner pools where the creek twisted, had all the fish–good rainbows, and now and then a decent cutthroat. As usual, I wanted to shout out loud from the splashy surprise of their rises, then, as I knelt to release them, from their classic beauty in my hands.
Later in the afternoon I retraced my way to Mammoth where I was going to spend my last night. I stopped at Norris to see the havoc some brand-new thermal activity had wrecked in the parking lot, stopped and listened to Thunder Mountain (which in a park of oddities ranks way up there), and then–and this was all new to me–drove along the beautiful Swan Lake Flats, the cliffs of Obsidian Mountain, the spectacular Golden Gate Canyon…or, in other words, enjoyed the usual miracle-a-mile kind of Yellowstone drive.
A quietly satisfying day, and I followed it up with a quietly satisfying evening, beginning with what was virtually a first on my trip: a genuine bona-fide full course dinner in Mammoths beautiful art-deco restaurant. My notebook had dinner with me, not only to provide some company, but because I wanted to jot down some resolutions in keeping with the occasion. Profound resolutions would have been nice; there was something about the almost empty dining room, the candlelight, the lonely looking waiters, that made profound seem like a real possibility. But the most I could come up with were garden variety resolutions, the kind anyone might make. Pay more attention to friends in the coming year, don’t neglect them like I’d been doing. Don’t micro manage the kids’ lives, draw back a little on the details. Try to avoid turning family life entirely into a matter of small business management. Encourage my wife to indulge her love for hiking the way she indulged my love of fishing. Be there for my father in the trials that would soon be upon him.
Later, alone in my cabin, I went at it again. Mammoth was in the process of closing down for the year, at least the cabins, and only four were occupied beside mine; our lights in a little semi-circle made me realize how it must have been for the soldiers stationed here in Fort Yellowstone back in the early 1900’s when the army patrolled the park. The lonely, autumnal mood made it easier to feel 55. “I don’t feel any older,” is what people say on their birthdays, starting with their fourth or fifth, but if I really examined the issue it was clear I did feel older, and this was coming not so much from any physical changes (though they were there), or any lessening in my imagination (that, at any rate, was as strong as ever), but in my entire relationship to time.
That was the big one, far past the mere resolution stage of a typical birthday. At 55, our rules of engagement with time are rapidly changing, already differ significantly than what they were ten years before. No longer does the future spread before you like a blank and wonderful map, yours for the coloring. This is the future my son faces, my daughter. Nor was it critical in the other direction–time wasn’t ticking so fast it scared me into immobility, as if now frightened my father, age 86. It was somewhere in between, but, if I was honest, moving closer and closer to that better-do-it-while-you-can third of the dial, adding an urgency I hadn’t felt when I was in my forties.
Take a simple thing like that lavish restaurant dinner I had treated myself to earlier than night. AT 45, at even 50, I may have decided it’s a luxury I could do without. But now? Well, what was I waiting for? Why not be nice to myself, I argued, I’ve earned it, haven’t I? This is one of the turning points that makes late middle age it’s own unique stage of life; advertisers know this, which is why you see so many men my age driving brand-new Corvettes. But the same kind of resolution has a spiritual side. Serenity? Calmness? Acceptance? All those virtues and strengths you told yourself you’d grown into someday. If not now, when?
A life is protected by so many milestones and landmarks it can seem a fortress time can’t storm. School age looms before you, first communion or bar mitzvah, voting age, drinking age, the Big 30, the Big 40, social security eligibility, retirement age…and every landmark and each birthday forms another barricade protecting us from old age. And yet the barricades are falling, and when 54, like all the others, crumbles into dust, the 55 that replaces it seems to offer very little in the way of shelter, at least when compared to those solid 25’s you sigh for, or even those rock-hard 44’s. Every new birthday adds substance to a person, at least when you’re young, but when, I wondered, does every birthday begin to subtract?
At 55 you begin to play around with the notion of how much time you actually have left, not just to be morbid, but as a real calculation that influences many different kinds of decisions. Take my decision to visit Yellowstone in the autumn, something I had long wanted to do. What am I waiting for? I told myself that summer. I’d better do this before it’s too late. The flip side of this, when I actually went and did it, is wondering whether I’d ever have the chance to visit again, or whether this was a farewell tour.
Time would require some thinking about as the year went on, but I could already see other implications in this new relationship. For more years than I could remember, I’d been spurred on by the dream of future achievement, not in the go-go American “success” mode, that old bitch goddess to which many sacrifice their lives, but as an artist who longed for aesthetic success, that rarest of all rare ambitions. Now, though this still drove me, more and more I was turning from the glittering allure of future achievement to looking back at the achievements I had managed, god knows how, to pull off. This was potentially a major switcheroo, and while it wasn’t complete yet, I could see a more than subtle part of me preparing for the moment when looking back at the past would seem a more fruitful occupation than dreaming about the future.
A man’s work, a man’s victories, are largely behind him at 55–or is this a self-defeating cliché, one of time’s dirtiest tricks? Maybe that’s why most Presidential contenders tend to be about my age–that these are men and women who detest the fact that possibilities in their life no longer seem unlimited, and so they lust for one of the few entirely new achievements left for a late middle aged person to pull off.
And as for the increased pace of time, how years go by in a bewildering second, this was and remained the most surprising fact of adulthood, something that nothing in youth prepares you for. Would it ever level off, or would the speed only increase as I got older?
I wrote down a few thoughts on the subject, knowing even as I did so that they were the kind I’d probably angrily scratch out first thing the next morning. When I left on my trip everyone in the family had written cards for me, not to be opened until my actual birthday. I remembered they were there now, in the bottom of my duffel bag with my extra fly reels. Celeste’s note was short and sweet, and contained one line that got me smiling. “Remember, the fish like you!”–and yes, this was true, any time I felt down or homesick the trout had all but sprung from the water to pat me fraternally on the back. Matthew’s was a soccer anagram; by filling in the blank letters in various soccer stars’ names I ended up with the words “I love you.”
The longest letter was Erin’s, and this is the one that shook me deep and hard, so as I finished it, laying there on the bed in the soft light of my table lamp, I began unashamedly to cry.
“Hi Dad! I hope you’re having a good time, and that you’re not getting too comfortable without us! It must be nice just to get away some times from all the arguing and complaining and stress. Do you ever learn things you didn’t know about yourself on solo trips, or when you’re by yourself? You seem to want to be alone a lot, but maybe that’s the writer in you. I’m still learning stuff about myself, but that’s to be expected. Umm…Please remember that I am as scared/excited about going to college as you are about me going. It will be easier if we both know that. I hope you have a good 55th birthday and make sure to eat a bison burger and a Montana Monster cookie for me! Happy birthday, love Erin!”
Throughout my stay in the park I carried around in my head, the way you do a catchy jingle an idea for a novel. Writers are always doing this, of course; this particular idea was the harmless, non-tormenting kind that probably wouldn’t ever lead to much, but was fun to roll around in my imagination. (There’s an opening here; Yellowstone has never been the subject of a great book.) The hero would be a man my age who, acting on a whim, never having been there, decides to visit the park just before some calamitous something shakes the world–9/11 say, or the start of the Iraq war. He immediately becomes fascinated, falls in love as he’s never fallen in love with a place before, its beauty, its peacefulness, even its primness (and yes, Yellowstone, wild as it is, also has its prim side). So deep is this enchantment, so bad is the news in the outer world, he can’t bring himself to leave when his allotted time is up; he extends his reservation, e-mails some excuse to his wife, keeps staying on and on right through the summer and then the fall.
He’d have an affair, of course…maybe with one of those woman rangers who now seem to outnumber the men…and between this and his adventures in the backcountry, comes face to face with what the reviewers (unanimous in their praise) call his “essential core values.” As winter comes, he’s taking a job as a dishwasher in one of the park lodges just to keep the connection going…or should I give him a fatal disease, have him crawl off to die in an empty beaver lodge as the snow falls down?
An autobiographical novel? Well, partly. I had become just as enchanted by Yellowstone as my hero; yes, I hated ferociously to leave. (The shortest sentence in John Muir’s rapturously lyrical essay on Yellowstone is the following: “It is a hard place to leave.”)
But unlike my hero, I had strong ties puling me out from the enchanted zone, bonds that, if you looked at them correctly, were just as wondrous themselves.
I had done okay during my three weeks–I had done okay. I learned that I still have the stamina to fish hard, learned that my eyes were still quick to respond to a trout’s subtle rise, that my reflexes were still fast enough to enjoy this kind of big-league fly-fishing. I remembered enough about tenderness that releasing trout carefully was still a big priority; only my children when they were babies ever got the TLC I lavished on that big Soda Butte cutthroat. I discovered that I could still take care of myself alone, not only in the backcountry, but in that wilder jungle of airports, highways and motels–learned that traveling alone makes you filter everything through the screen of your own seeing, with no compromises blurring things up. I had reconnected with the boy in me–not just through fishing, but through my renewed willingness to sit and watch and wonder. Yellowstone had once again given me an unsurpassable standard by which to measure beauty, wildness and perfection. It had supplied me with a deep reservoir of solace to help me through the coming year.
A good trip. A good life to match? Well, I could total that up, too, while I was at it. At 55, I still had my health and 7/8 of my energy. I still had my curiosity left. I was still trying to puzzle things out. I still had a surprisingly high number of traits left from youth, the bedrock fears, inclinations, attitudes you apparently never totally leave behind; even a good deal of innocence remains, which you would think would be the first quality to go. I was still asking a lot of myself, asking a lot from life in general. As for the demerits, the down side, virtues I had lost, places where I’d better improve quick…
They could wait. It was my birthday plus one, I was entering this 55 business slowly, and one of my resolutions, jotted down as a final entry in my notebook, was to give that oh-so-serious side of me a little more vacation.
I say it for a second time. Alone, I’d done okay. But the biggest lesson to take home, along with the souvenir visors, t-shirts and mugs, was the fact that I wasn’t alone, not in any sense short of the ultimate metaphysical one. Any definition I could come up with about who I was on this landmark birthday involved my being a husband, a father, a son–that these connections were real and vital, and (coming late in life, the first two) all but miraculous.
And demanding. I can’t pretend it wasn’t welcome, a vacation from being chauffeur, teacher, dishwasher, cook, but if I had any illusions that the true me was a solo me, the painful wave of homesickness that washed over me on my last night proved otherwise.
On that first trip to Yellowstone in l988, the plane ride out had taken me right over the park, which was invisible except for one monstrously large boiling cloud of red-veined blackness, a cloud that, for all anyone knew at the time, was erasing the beauty of Yellowstone for an entire generation. It hadn’t managed to do this, of course. Fire had renewed its beauty–and there, I saw it now, as our flight took the same shortcut it had fifteen years before, slanting high across Yellowstone Lake. That early in the morning the cold tightened and showcased all the hot springs and geysers within the enormous caldera, so the park seemed the base for a thousand columns of the lightest most ethereal gray imaginable, holding up the sky.
I watched these as long as I could, twisting around in my seat to look out the window behind me, then turned with the greatest reluctance away. People were donning headphones now, taking out laptops, unwrapping their breakfast bars and peanuts. My thoughts turned eastward as the plane turned eastward. The birthday boy had done okay in Wonderland–but how would he do at home?
(first published in the Fall 2005 issue)