This is a coming home story, a falling back into the arms, branches, stems, rhizomes, howls, eddies, bugles, wingbeats, and subterranean gurgles of my Yellowstone, the place and consciousness that taught me how to love.
We had come back to the ecosystem for the wedding of two friends, a couple whose relationship, like ours, had ripened in the park. Despite the icy October rain that fell on us as we watched them trade vows in the foothills outside Bozeman, we were warmed by the whiskey, and the company of so many old friends.
It was breathtaking, that sharing of intention, affection and hope, made more epic by the mountains and their mighty clouds; I will always love a good wedding. But the real pilgrimage, the real revisiting of a love affair commenced the day after, as we drove south through Paradise Valley toward the park that had introduced and seduced us.
My husband drove; I sat in the back with our city baby who’s still not comfortable in a car seat. Leaves along the river blazed gold and orange as we remembered curves, homes, businesses, peaks, and moments we thought we had forgotten.
I had been so worried about this. Returning to a place so beloved, so potent with memory, might have been like meeting an idol: fatal to the image, dismissive of the depth and importance of the bond. Would I find that it had all been in the past—that Yellowstone was for me a closed chapter, meant entirely for a younger person—or that the longing was real, and mutual? Could my heart actually explode?
From that first swerving climb along the Gardner River, Yellowstone came alive for us, all her beings piqued and present: bighorn sheep in the canyon, elk rutting in Mammoth, black bears at Tower, grizzlies at Old Faithful. Pronghorn and bison running and wallowing in every sagebrush flat, every river-cut meadow. One shooting star. A timid little fox. And every morning, every evening a hug from Mount Everts, that great yawning span of regal mountain.
The park was loving us out loud, laughing in its creaturely way, connecting with us via the presence of wild life. And it became as clear to me as mountain water that Yellowstone could forgive. She would take us back.
On our third day in the park we drove northeast; I was done with the boardwalking, glad we had visited old haunts like Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic and the Norris Geyser Basin but happy now to spend some time in the wilder places my crew used to range. I needed to feel Yellowstone all around me, underfoot and in my lungs: Yellowstone at a visceral, glandular, cellular level.
So we took the baby up Slough Creek. Not as far as that holy third meadow where my workmates and I would spend August weeks hunting weeds and cooling our feet in the water, watching moonbows and counting owls from the campfire as we swigged—but, at least, up that hill and through the aspens to the first meadow, to a glorious little mudflat where she could properly muck up her shoes.
My husband walked further up the trail, took photos of the bison herd in the distance while Liz and I explored. A mudflat is a wonderland for a tiny person still learning to trust her own feet. We made person-tracks, then I pointed out others, delighted that I could still identify.
We walked to the water, took off our mittens, iced our fingers. I baptize you in the name of the Yellowstone, Slough and Lamar, I whispered, gifting this place one more wild creature to love, as a tiny frog hopped down the bank toward river’s edge.
I remembered these frogs—we’d seen them once before, nine Octobers ago, a friend and I, during a mapping mission for the GIS lab near the park boundary. I remembered so many other spots along this wagon road, too: that fallen tree we’d all took turns axing out of the way so Wally could pass with the horses; that time I lost my radio and Mitch walked all the way back down the hill to help me find it. That bull moose who used to visit us near the patrol cabin. The beavers who let us share their swimming hole.
Everything we saw stirred a different memory: that time we drove all the way out to Pebble Creek without a felling axe; that huge doug fir I took too pridefully during a road survey; the feeling of fish guts on freezing fingers in the gill netting boat. The smell of herbicide, the stain of forestry dye, the stickiness of bar oil, the rev of our work trucks. The silence and rich non-silence of Snow Pass. That time I hiked myself right into a lady moose. Our first giddy summit of Electric Peak, then a second and third. A love that dawned as our first summer faded. Meandering conversations held in the field with sweaty people who became my out-West family. Our bar. Our dorm. Our sky.
Change was evident too: the pygmy pine forests, reseeded by ‘88 fires, were ten years taller than when we’d first met; geothermals had shifted sidewalks; visitor centers and roads had been reworked. We were different too, far less trail-ready with more crow’s (raven’s?) feet around our eyes and one new sea-level baby to boot. But it was also as though we had never left.
This is Yellowstone’s great lesson in continuity, and in love. I was reminded how wholly and forever I belong to this place: to Bunsen and Rescue Creek, to Gardiner, to Little America Flats and Bliss Pass, and God yes, to Slough Creek. I was reminded how easily it all comes back, how still-there it is, and how all you really need to do to feel that love again is to haul your fat and muscle back to these woods, canyons and meadows.
We live too often as individuals, stuck inside our own heads and fears, our prides and needs. When we succeed in busting out of this sometimes we still live just as humans, obsessing over human struggles, structures and economies while dismissing the aliveness that surrounds and sustains.
I live in one of the densest cities in the world, and back in Yellowstone I realized why this hurts me so deeply.
My cells know a Yellowstonian depth of aliveness. They understand what it is to complete the circuit of self, of being, by sharing perception and experience with that degree of biotic diversity and mystery.
Within the Greater Yellowstone you breathe in and are loved, touch ground and are loved, bask in mountain’s shadow and are loved. You feel and know love in a way you will never give or receive from a single person, because there is life so vast and interconnected all around you. It is the wild love of an ecosystem, a web of gifts and demands and colors. A family.
Yellowstone’s is a gift that lingers; I am already two weeks home and am charged, less bitter, stirred up from a stupor I wish I had not let myself fall into. I am reminded that if I love Yellowstone I must also love the Hudson River Estuary, the highlands upriver, the ocean and marshes that support and love us here, now.
And I can always go back home. Just to see what bubbles up from the depths.