“I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Across the valley from Moran Junction, a five mile road climbs Signal Mountain curling into a narrow tunnel of conifer green. Winding past bare trunks, crowned by tussled canopies of leaves and evergreen, tufts of wildflowers at their feet, the road climbs 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Reaching the summit, the Teton Range looms over the valley. Mt. Moran gazes into Jackson Lake, at peace with her own reflection. To the east, Snake River twirls south, before splitting into blue ribbons. In the distance, caught in early sunlight, the forest appears reddish-brown, the western sky rimmed in scarlet as the last stars retreat into the heavens.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway leads north past Flagg Ranch, Grassy Lake Road and an ever wandering Snake River, before meeting the southern entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Following the Lewis River across the Continental Divide, the road skirts the west thumb of Yellowstone Lake, then begins hugging the shore leading to Lake Village. Resting 7,732 feet above sea level, the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 ft in North America, Yellowstone’s largest body of water covers 136 square miles, its greatest depth almost 400 feet. Lake Lodge, elegant in canary yellow, her white ionic columns at attention, has stood vigil over Lake Yellowstone since 1891. One hundred and twenty-seven years later, I walk in the front entrance, sit in one of many leather chairs and order an ice tea. It’s the fourth of July.
It’s 53 miles from the east entrance of Yellowstone to Cody, Wyoming. Over the Absaroka Range through Sylvan Pass, then into the Shoshone National Forest and Washakie Wilderness, along the North Fork Highway. Teddy Roosevelt once described this stretch as “the most scenic 50 miles in America,” and it’s hard to put up a stiff argument – although I would. After exiting the park the two lane highway runs through the Wapiti Valley, following the Shoshone River. Carved from wilderness, guarded by disfigured cliffs of stone, great ranches spread across harsh landscape. Along the way, oddities speckle hillsides and meadows. A statue of Big Boy prominently stands in an open field, arm outstretched above his head, holding a double-decked hamburger. A dark Alfred Hitchcock-style house, leans from the edge of a 100 foot promenatory. In order to see tonight’s fireworks in Cody, I’ve entered the land of lonely cowpokes. Lonely cowpokes with a rye sense of humor.
A few miles upstream from Cody, Buffalo Bill Dam, constructed 1905-1910, is one of the first high concrete dams built in the United States. Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody made this rugged area famous in the early days of the West. He and his companions were the first to understand the possibilities of turning the sagebrush flats of Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin into a land of agricultural abundance through irrigation. As part of the Shoshone Project, which comprised a system of tunnels, canals, diversion dams, and Buffalo Bill Reservoir, the project now irrigates more than 93,000 acres. If I was wearing a hat, I would tip it to Bill.
As I near the reservoir, dark clouds begin to move across the sky, large drops of rain slapping the windshield. Five minutes ago the clouds were harmlessly white against a blue sky. This storm came up over the mountains in a hurry. I pull off the road and drive to a small picnic area by the shore. The rain is hard, bubbling the lake into a million dimples. Tucked under a wooden shelter as the storm slides north, the air hangs cool and clean over the water. Then as quickly as it began, the rain ended. Where the clouds thinned, sunlight plays along their lower edges. Colors suddenly lift from the water, twins gracefully curving over copper mountains, stunning against charcoal clouds. Perfect symmetry joining heaven and earth, they glow, vibrant in purity of color, before dimming into mere shades of themselves and returning to mist.
Waiting for the fireworks to begin, I spent a couple of hours walking the mostly empty streets of Cody, taking photographs of old neon and hand-painted signs, gazing past patriotic displays into well lit stores. The Irma Hotel Grill, Wayne’s Boot Shop, Silver Dollar Bar. Up and down mainstreet, American flags moved softly in the warm summer breeze, rising and falling against glowing buildings. Frozen in stride, a molded white buffalo adorned with a red, white and blue necklace of halfmoon flags, seems diminished by the decoration. In a window of the local book store, Jerome A. Greene’s, ‘American Carnage – Wounded Knee 1890,’ is prominently displayed. Around a bend in Sheridan Avenue, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, glows against a dark sky, as fireworks begin to burst overhead. I sat on the curb, leaning back as colors blossomed, moving outward in silence, sight faster than sound. White streams of light float toward earth, ducking behind buildings before fading. Images of my three boys, sparklers spinning in circles above blankets on dew softened grass, muffles the present. As ghostly wisps of smoke drift and mingle, a symphony of color explodes into pounding sound that moves through my chest. Somewhere in the distance I hear the faint sounds of applause.
I’m dreaming. It’s late July, 2000, Cody Stampede Rodeo, Cody Wyoming. The announcer has just invited all the kids in the stands to come down to the infield and ‘catch the calf.’ The old man next to me turns and says, “God damn son, get that boy down there.” He has thin white hair and a short, scruffy beard which is also white. He’s gesturing with his arm toward the ring below. “Let him get a little shit on his shoes. Won’t hurt none.” Oliver is just shy of 7 years old. He’s wearing his shit-kickin’ boots, the ones with cowboy scenes painted on the sides. Boots he had to have when we visited a flea market in Morehead, Kentucky the previous summer. The boots he hasn’t taken off since we left Michigan a week ago. Oliver is already in the aisle.
I watch as Oliver and his cousin Meagan scramble down the steps and enter the arena. Kids are coming from all sections of the stands. “Release the calf!” From one end of the arena, a small calf jogs into the open and stops, bewildered. Immediately, fifty kids begin running toward the calf, sending it into a blind panic. It starts running back to where it was released, chased by a screaming mob. Finding the pen door closed, it runs in circles, squealing in fear or joy. I don’t know which. Arms and legs flailing, the mob runs through ankle deep mud. Oliver is small and his fancy painted boots are a size too big, so he stumbles through the mud, holding up his blue jeans with his left hand, waving and balancing with his right. He is relentless in his pursuit. Kids fall, shrieking when they realize what’s mixed with the mud, then bounce up and slog in the direction of the calf. A young girls finally slaps the calf on its rump and the chase comes to an end. Boots covered in mud, his jeans splattered, Oliver bounces up the metal stairs toward his seat. There is a dark smudge across his cheek where he has wiped his face. His smile would light the darkest night. “I almost had him,” he says, holding his hands a few feet apart. “I was this close.”
Looking down into the canyon toward Lower Falls, the first thing you notice isn’t the falls tumbling from the far horizon. It’s the canyon walls sloping down to the Yellowstone River. Flecked with green, heat and time have turned once brown rhyolite rock into shades of red, bright yellow and burnt orange. Shaped by 160,000 years of wind, water and hydrothermal activity, the canyon’s skirt of color drops toward the thunderous mint green river below. It is several minutes before I begin to take in the 308 foot falls flowing over volcanic rock.
Descending a steep set of wooden steps, the dull roar of Upper Falls begins to hum into my body. Sound as a physical presence, it becomes a second pulse. Leaning over the rail, only feet from the water, the power is frightening to see and feel. A slight breeze raises the water’s mist onto the viewing platform. The day is hot and the thin layer of mist on my skin is welcome. I walk to different points along the rail, each with its own perspective of the falls. Finally I settle on one where two wooden rails meet to form a 90 degree angle. I rest my body against the smooth wood and let the fury of the water block out every other sound.
North of Canyon Village, Chittenden Road turns south, a spur off Dunraven Pass. Narrow and rocky, the highest road in Yellowstone immediately begins to climb. Yellow bells and Glacier lily sprinkle fading yellows into dingy green grass and lines of fire blackened lodgepole pines. Purple Phacelia looks across the high meadow toward pink Lewis monkeyflower. North toward Specimen Ridge and Lamar Valley, the sun slants from the west, bathing distant folding hills in dazzling golden light. Thin clouds, white overhead, rest a dim violet at the edge of an evening sky. The air is cool above 10,000 feet and I grab a thick green sweater before climbing a short ridgeline to sit and watch the sunset.
Tower Fall campground is only a few short miles from the base of Chittenden Road, but by the time I came down Mt. Washington, everything was black except for what was caught in the slender beam of my headlights. Ahead on my right there is a sudden shifting. A movement out of place. I slow to a crawl and angle my lights into the brush. A coyote is leaving the road, a disruption in his darkness. Against the dark he glows a brownish yellow. I watch as he skitters away from the road, stopping to look back, then head lowered, continuing into knee-high scrub and out of sight. He is an eerie, solitary figure, moving through the blackness of night.
About a mile down the road, I turn around. I want to see if the coyote, this ghostly scavenger, has returned to the road. Seeing him a few minutes ago felt like a primal experience. An animal moving silently in a world he owns. An innate hunter being observed by man in the stillness of night. Just as before, he is walking along the side of the road. I circle around and begin to follow. Instead of moving into the brush, he saunters to the middle stripe of the two lane highway. He is centered in my lights, but stays. Skittish, he looks to each side and behind without breaking stride, creating a jerky motion in his step. I trail behind for a few minutes, a wild creature only steps away. Efficiently, in a matter of strides, he moves to the side of the road. He is only a few feet in front of the van when he stops and looks back. Just for a moment. Then I watch as he moves out of the light and into the black.
Following the Lamar River, the Lamar Valley rests in the northwest corner of Yellowstone. Often called America’s Serengeti, for its vast expanse and large animal populations, the Lamar Valley landscape spreads flat then upward into Douglas fir forests and east until meeting Mt. Morris and the Absaroka Range. Genetically pure herds of bison, with a lineage reaching into the prehistoric, roam the valley. Descending from the treeline, packs of wolves hunt the valley during early morning and dawn. Pronghorn rest in the tall grass. Grizzlies forage on roots and pine nuts. Bald eagles and osprey soar over the valley, before plunging to earth in search of prey. Nature at play in an American Eden.
There are multiple turnouts as you drive through Lamar Valley. Small parking areas, designed for viewing wildlife. Most have a few cars and a couple of photographers with tripods ready to shoot. I pulled into one just west of Buffalo Ranch, on the south side of the road. There was a single empty SUV in the tiny lot. A skinny dirt trail led across the valley and up into the woods. On either side of the trail, perhaps 100 yards in each direction, a herd of buffalo graze and sleep. I pulled on my backpack and started up the trail.
It took about 30 minutes to reach the treeline. A large boulder sat to the right of the trail, like a sculpture placed in a courtyard. I climbed up the boulder and took off my pack. Directly behind me, a deep forest. In front of me, the Lamar Valley lay open, an uneven seam of blue stitched across a vast space of textured yellow and green. I watched as buffalo slowly bend to eat. Then lifting their woolly head, they move a few steps forward before bending toward new grass. Where they have grazed, the land is light brown. I watch as buffalo burrow into dry, solid earth, dust settling on their shoulders as they come to rest.
As the sun begins to drop lower in the sky, I start back down the trail. Dusk is when wildlife starts to move. Begins to wander out in the open. I’m at the edge of a dense treeline. Grizzlies and wolves emerge from deep places like the one behind me. I’ve been fortunate enough to see grizzlies and a lone wolf, but I would love to see a pack of wolves roaming the Lamar Valley. I just don’t want to see them up close. As I walk down the trail, sitting in tall grass, a pronghorn remains still, never looking in my direction. It is a beautiful animal, graceful even in stillness. Near the bottom on the trail, where it begins to level out along the valley floor, a buffalo crosses my path, only 10 yards from where I stood. They are methodical in their pace. Deliberate as kings. He moved from right to left, head steady, timeless dark eyes staring ahead. I could see his matted fur hanging in rivlets. In places where his coat had fallen, his brown skin looks creased and light. A low sun glints off his smooth curved horns, giving them a brightness. Flies dance around his head. He’s close enough to smell. I can hear his deep breaths, his hooves rubbing the grass. He never slowed, never turned. I stood, watching him move toward the herd, wondering why he was alone.