An Excerpt from Lost with Directions: Ambling Around America
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HAVING MADE my phone call, I left Cook City and reentered the park on the way to my evening’s destination – the famous Lamar Valley of Yellowstone. Such is the abundance and diversity of wildlife in this forty square-miles along the Lamar River that it is often referred to as the Serengeti of North America. Indeed, as I entered the valley, many hundreds of bison could be seen out in lush grasslands lazily grazing and resting. But somewhere out there, currently out of sight, was another more frightening resident of this vast expanse.
Although the last remaining wolf pack was killed in Yellowstone in 1926 under predator extermination policies of the day, wolves were eventually reintroduced into the park in 1995 by biologists who were interested to see if the species had what it took to make a comeback. In an experiment in conservation that garnered worldwide attention, fourteen gray wolves were transported from western Canada down to Yellowstone, where in the middle of January people lined the roads to watch as they passed through the northern gates of the park via horse trailer. Broken off into three small packs and released with tracking collars into the Lamar Valley, biologists everywhere now watched and waited, as they held their breaths to see what would happen next.
In perhaps my favorite historical photo from the Yellowstone archives, on a cold January day in 1995, people lined the roads to watch wolves return to Yellowstone for the first time in almost 70 years. Photograph taken by: Diane Papineau, Montana State University (not included in book)
As it turns out, the experiment worked better than anyone could have ever imagined. The original packs immediately thrived in their new ecosystem, taking advantage of drastically overpopulated elk herds, who had previously experienced few natural predators. Soon, the wolves started making happy, healthy little wolf pups, and the rest is history. Now, over twenty years later, they have spread throughout the park and around 100 wolves in ten separate packs call Yellowstone home, while many hundreds more populate the surrounding region.
As I pulled my car over to the side of the road, parking at an overlook by the trailhead, it was early evening and still about two hours from dusk when the wolves of Lamar would start to come out and become most active. Already though, in excited anticipation, were dozens of wildlife watchers lined up along the railing of the overlook, their powerful binoculars and scopes trained out to the valley, slowly scanning from side to side searching for any signs of movement.
Getting out of the car to examine my pack, I double-checked that I had all of the essential supplies I would need to spend the night in camp. Satisfied that everything was in order, I wrestled the hulking bag onto my back, slipping my arms through the straps, and was immediately buried by its overbearing weight once again. My quads ached heavily and my back was sore, still feeling the effects of the painful climb out of the canyon earlier that morning. Fortunately, tonight would be a cake-walk in comparison – a short three-and-a-half-mile jaunt over relatively flat terrain to a place along the Cache Creek, which downstream flows into the Lamar River.
Ready to head out any minute now, I spread my large foldout trail map over the hood of the car and verified the route I was to take on my way out to the campsite. But in the midst of my final preparations, I was startled by a collective gasp from the crowd on the overlook, which caused me to raise my eyes out towards the valley.
Off in the distance, two small blurs raced from left to right, easily several hundred yards away and well out of range of my farsighted eyes. Fumbling about frantically for my binoculars, I finally managed to pull them out of my pack but was now unable to find the speeding blurs in my lenses. Continuing to scan about wildly, at last, they appeared in my sights.
What I saw was amazing – a lone, grayish-white wolf locked in a full-out, maniacal pursuit of a pronghorn antelope that was literally running for its very life. The two of them were absolutely flying.
Not surprisingly, the pronghorn had used its superior quickness (at an incredible 55 mph, they’re the second-fastest mammal on Earth) to open a distance of perhaps fifteen yards in front, but the wolf was relentless . . . desperate even. Against all odds, he seemed to inexplicably be closing down the gap as the two of them continued to race across the valley at almost unfathomable speeds – I had never seen living things move so fast in my entire life.
From our vantage on the overlook, it felt like a movie playing out before our eyes, but in my mind I tried to imagine what the very real, life-and-death struggle must be like up close – the sound of frantic hooves pounding against the ground, grass thrashing, dust flying, the wolf snarling with determination, saliva flying from his mouth as he raced to close the gap.
Frantically he kept the chase, continuing to inch closer, as the two of them raced over a small ridgeline in the distance and disappeared from sight. And just like that, it was over. The valley was once again perfectly still, as if the whole thing had only been a dream.
WHILE INCREDIBLE to witness, the chase had proved to be quite unnerving as well. Sure, I had come out to Lamar because I wanted to see the wolves, and deep down I knew they posed no real threat. But it’s easy to be brave when you’re daydreaming from the safety and security of your living room, watching a PBS Nature documentary on the couch while munching on a bag of microwave popcorn. It’s quite another thing to be brave when you’re actually standing on the edge of that immense, lonely valley and know that once you step foot out there, you’re entirely on your own. Now it was very real, and suddenly, it was quite frightening.
My first instinct was to turn around and leave immediately. The Pebble Creek Campground was just a few miles up the road back towards the Northeast Entrance. Surely, there I could find a nice little spot for the night, surrounded by the comfort and security of other fellow travelers. Heck, I could even go back to Cooke City and grab a nice dinner while I was at it.
But I quickly dispelled the thought from my head. If I had wanted comfort and security, I could have just stayed back home in Iowa. The whole point of this solo-phase of the journey was to test my mettle and push my limits. And there was no better way to do it than by facing my fears – wolves or no wolves, I was going out to that valley.
Allowing several minutes to pass, time which I spent gathering my courage, I took a deep breath as I folded my trail map and began descending down from the overlook. Walking through the crowd, I incurred a variety of confused looks and strange glances as I passed. I attempted to appear confident, trying not to betray the fact that I was shaken by what I’d just witnessed.
I began my journey tentatively, but the further I walked from the road, the more my feelings of uneasiness grew into something more. Soon the people and their vehicles at the overlook became smaller and smaller, until eventually they were just specks in the distance. With each step I took, the more vulnerable I felt. Quickly, I was consumed with fear and began wildly scanning my surroundings, looking for any signs of the wolves I knew to be out here. And while I couldn’t see them, I was suddenly quite sure that somewhere out there, they were most certainly watching me.
Now pulling out the long machete I hauled in my pack for emergencies, I grasped it tightly in my right hand while simultaneously clutching my bear spray in the left. Nervously proceeding through the valley, I slowly climbed the same ridgeline where the wolf and pronghorn had raced over just twenty minutes before and fully expected to see the wolf eagerly waiting for me on the other side.
Now fully hidden from view of the tourists back at the road, I was completely and utterly alone, and my nerves began to play tricks on me – I’d freeze at the slightest sound of the wind rustling the grass, peer over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed, and somehow convince myself that far-off shapes in the distance were predators, though inevitably they were just rocks or fallen trees. Short of breath and with sweaty palms, I was suddenly overcome with a lightheadedness that gave the whole ordeal an almost hallucinatory feel.
Fighting the urge to turn and run back to the safety of civilization, I continued along in this primal, fear-stricken state for well over an hour, until finally arriving at the banks of Cache Creek. It had been the longest, most miserable three and a half miles of my life.
THE CAMPSITE was set in a small collection of trees in an otherwise empty, soggy meadow, perhaps fifty yards from the gravelly banks of the creek. Because of my frequent stops to investigate imagined threats, and an overly-cautious pace which had served to prolong my agony, the hike in had taken far longer than it should have.
It was at this point that I started to question what the hell I was doing out here. I’d set out on this hike trying to prove how brave I was, but had instead spent most of the time double-fisting a can of bear spray and a machete like some madman escaped from an insane asylum. I was dirty, I stunk, I was lonely, I was scared – and for what?
Fortunately, the ritual of making camp and setting up my tent did much to calm my nerves and put me at ease. What’s more, this was the first backcountry site I’d been at all trip where I was finally permitted to establish a campfire. In many places out West the risk of man-made wildfire is simply too great for campfires to be allowed when staying out in the wilderness. But apparently, here at Cache Creek, the risk was sufficiently tolerable for the park service to allow it.
Gathering the driest small twigs and sticks I could find, I arranged them in a small teepee formation around the handful of newspapers I’d brought along as kindling and watched with excitement as they quickly ignited. Soon, with the addition of larger pieces, my humble pile had unexpectedly morphed into a roaring backwoods bonfire. Celebrating my own private Tom Hanks Castaway moment, I didn’t go quite so far as to tear off my shirt and start dancing around the flames screaming “I’ve made fire!”, but I did experience a brief surge of manly pride, nonetheless. I was still far from being a backwoodsman, but it felt good to at least be making progress.
My reward for all of this was a bag of large, extra puffy marshmallows I’d purchased earlier in the day at the Roosevelt Lodge for just this moment. After my tense and stressful evening on the trail, I was now grateful to have a delicious, sugary treat to make it all go away. Sharpening the end of a long narrow branch, I skewered two of them and patiently hovered them near the glowing orange embers of the fire until they were perfectly crisp and golden brown, careful not to get them too close lest they spontaneously burst into flames. At first, I worried the sweet aroma might attract any nearby bears, but ended up ignoring the risks and rationalized this might actually be a good thing. A few bears might help to keep the wolves away.
Biting into the gooey, molten-sugar center, I felt the weight of my stressful evening fall from my shoulders. Making a second batch, I enjoyed this simple pleasure by the campfire as I watched a long and grueling day turn to dusk. Enjoying the warmth of the fire until it gave out, I poured some water over top of it, hung my bear bag, and eventually shuffled back to the tent where I was immediately overcome with a crushing fatigue. The physical exhaustion from my morning climb out of the canyon, along with the intense emotional drain from my hike in the valley this evening, had finally caught up with me, and my body and mind were demanding a reset.
Quickly drifting off to the low, soothing roar of the creek, I was out cold before the sun had even fully set in the sky.
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