Moments Taken for Granted

There was howling last night.  That’s somewhat rare, so close to town.  Oh, there are wolves around — at least two packs have territories that touch the outskirts of town — but no wolf with more brain cells than your average shoelace wants to come anywhere near all that noise and chaos.  Worse, none wants to come anywhere near all those damned humans.

Wolves are too smart for that.

On the other hand, this town is an all-you-can-eat buffet for carnivores right now.  The elk are in winter-mode.  That means they don’t spend any energy they don’t have to.  To us, a field full of elk laying down to warm themselves in the afternoon sun is a wonderful picture. To a wolf, it’s the irresistible call of the dinner bell.

I had to leave the house yesterday (more on that later), but couldn’t actually get to my truck for a good thirty minutes.  Now, I don’t mind when the cute girls are hanging out around my yard…

I don’t mind, even, when the guys are standing around and acting all nonchalant and cool while they scope out those girls…

But the grumpy grandma?  The old biddy with the stink-eye and a chip on her shoulder the size of Montana?  Yeah, she’s less fun to have in my yard.

Oh…and before you ask, waving your hands and saying “Shoo!” to a 500+ pound animal with a bad attitude and a propensity for breaking things with her kicks isn’t generally a recipe for success.

Needless to say, I was late for my appointment.  Of course, it helps that I happen to live in a place where “I couldn’t get out my door because there was a bear/bison/elk waiting…” isn’t just an excuse, it’s one we’ve all had to use.

Hey, at least it was only thirty minutes!  A friend of mine was once trapped inside a bathroom for two hours because of an ornery bison!

Okay, so why did I have to leave?  A test to see if the COVID is gone.  A test to see if I can — finally — rejoin the rest of the world.  Now I just have to sit and wait for the results.  36 hours, the testing lab says.  My friend, the nurse, just laughed at that estimate.  “Minimum 48 hours,” she warned, “and quite probably more at this point.”

It’s the “big” cities, you see.  Okay, “big” for Montana.  Anyway, as soon as Yellowstone “closes” for the winter, my little town once again becomes nothing more than a few hundred people living at the ass end of nowhere.  Hell, even Amazon deliveries take an extra day.

Oh well, there is hope…and that is what matters!  I don’t actually have anywhere to go, nor anything to do, but as soon as I’m officially free,  I’m gonna go run screaming through downtown Gardiner just because I (finally) can!

Streaming shows and movies got old by about day two, by the way.  Since then, it’s been nothing but books and video games* and work on background material for stories.  I did try to actually write some scenes — some flashfiction, too — but my concentration just wasn’t there enough for that.  

*Yes, they’re childish.  On the other hand, I am quite literally nothing more than an overgrown adolescent at the best of times.  C’mon, we’ve already talked about this! I tried being an “adult.”  I spent years burying my sense of wonder and magic and joy at the simplest of things.  I did that, and it almost killed me.  So, now, I take a stupid amount of joy in playing mini-golf, making fart jokes, dreaming about the ways things should be, and in general being an arrested adolescent.

One of the worst things about watching the world through your window is just how much you miss.  You don’t always miss it, however.  Picture the scene…

I’m sitting there, feeling better.  I pop out my door to stand on the deck and get some sun.  The girls are visiting again, of course.  They brought some boys with them, this time.  There are a good dozen elk in front of my place.  But that isn’t what got me.  That is, in fact, pretty normal for this time of year.  No, what got my attention was the tableau at the edge of the yard.  There was a big boy, there…

No, really, a big boy, with a rack to make any trophy hunter go weak at the knees.  And nose to nose with him, nervous as hell, was a teenager.  A young boy whose antlers were nothing more than the shortest of bare poles…

It was so perfect, that scene.  The big bull, in full glory, interacting with the young kid, all spindly legs and awkwardness.  It was almost human, that scene.

Okay, okay…that’s anthropomorphizing to the nth power, but it really was the feeling that came with that scene.  The bull in his prime, sharing a quiet moment with the adolescent so desperate and hopeful that he will, one day, grow up to be like that…

A month ago, it wouldn’t have happened, of course.  Even in the dying days of the rut, that teenager wouldn’t have dared to come anywhere near a bull like that.  Nor would the bull have allowed it.  That particular fight wouldn’t have lasted any longer than a 7th grader in a UFC match.

It was only a minute or two before the two moved apart.  The lure of the still-somewhat-green grass for one, and the warm sun for the other, was too strong to resist.  An all-too-brief moment, like so many others up here.  A moment, like those others, that I take for granted far too often.

It was a moment that I failed, by the way.  Oh, I didn’t fail it in any metaphysical, spiritual way. No, I failed it in the most practical way: I didn’t record it.  Remember that bit of writing advice I’ve given so often?  You know, the one that says “when a thought comes, you write it.  Right freaking then, you write it.”  Well, that applies to photography just as much as it does to writing.  When a picture is there, you take it.  Even with nothing more than a cellphone camera, you always take the picture!

I didn’t take the picture.  That’s as bad, to me, as forgetting that great idea that came at three in the morning because I couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed and write it down…

The Song of the Wolf

Winter isn’t coming, it’s finally here…

Thank God!

The snow has finally come, and the icy temperatures.  With those temperatures comes “winter mode” for Yellowstone.  I don’t mean winter mode for the Park Service and the visitors, I mean winter mode for everything.

If you weren’t around for my winter posts last year, I would encourage you to go back and read a few of those.  I’m not going to repeat those posts, other than to point to a few of the differences wrought by the change of season for those folks who are new to this stuff:

  1. Winter is the time for wolves. Contrary to what most folks believe, summer up here is a terrible time for wolves and other predators.  In summer, the prey animals — elk primarily — have all the food and energy they could ever want.  In winter, however, food is scarce, and so is the energy to fight or flee.  Food is scarce, I should expand, for those who live on grass and leaves.  For those who live on meat…well…there’s always something on the menu.
  2. Yep, the bison are still effectively armored tanks in winter, just as much as they are in summer.  Everyone still leaves them hell alone if they have any choice in the matter (except, of course, the idiot tourists who deserve their post-bison trips to Urgent Care).  Oh, every meat-eater within ten or twelve miles of a carcass will try to come to the feast if a bison dies naturally, but actual predatory kills are pretty damned rare.  It’s pretty much just “my” pack that does it here in Yellowstone, mainly because that pack’s range has some of the harshest winter conditions in the continental US (the Hayden Valley area, if you’re wondering).  Hooray for Mollie’s Pack, lupine overachievers!
  3. Snowshoes ain’t fashion accessories.  I lost a snowshoe, once, on a solo backcountry hike.  Ever tried to walk ten miles through thigh-deep snow on only one snowshoe?  I had to spend two hours hunting around in sub-zero temps to find my lost ‘shoe.  Trying to get out without that missing ‘shoe, however, would very likely have had a best case result of frostbite and hypothermia.  Ahem.
  4. Cougars are still a thing in winter, by the way.  People ask me if I’m afraid, doing the stupid shit I do in the backcountry.  No, I’m not.  The only wildlife that scares me, honestly, are cougars.  I can read the signs to know what’s going on in an area, predator-wise, and have a pretty good idea how close I am to danger.  But a cougar…  If they’re doing it right, the only time I’m gonna know a cougar is stalking me is when I feel the teeth and claws.
  5. No more tourists!  I have a good month to month-and-a-half before the snowmobilers start coming through, and the number of non-local folks willing to brave the cold and snow to go wildlife viewing is pretty damned small.  That means things are blessedly, happily quiet.  Of course, it also means that there is jack shit actually open in this tiny town, but with every silver lining comes a black cloud…

Random writing thought…or, more accurately, a random language and word-use thought.  Now, I’ve mentioned before that I write naval history, alongside (distantly) my fiction stories.  Well, as part of that, I read and watch a ton of stuff — both fiction and nonfiction — about ships and navies, both in war and in peace.  I watched, the other day, a French movie about subs.*  Now, this movie had some “accuracy issues,” but so does pretty much every US submarine movie (the German flick Das Boot was one of the very, very few to get it right).  The word-use thing, however…that’s what set my writer-nerd nerves to tingling, not so much the movie itself.

The movie (and a plot point of which they didn’t make enough) was called Le Chant de Loup.  Netflix translates that as The Wolf’s Call, but I prefer my own translation of The Wolf’s Song.  That phrase is referring to the eerie, screeching “cry” of active sonar when it is hunting you.  I’ve heard (in recordings…not actively) that sound, both the lupine and sonar versions.  It is not a perfect metaphor by any means, but the emotion and imagery behind it…I hadn’t heard that phrase used in that way, and I absolutely loved it.  Writers for the win!

Yep, I’m still a nerd.

*You can stop snorting about “cheese eating surrender monkeys” right now.  The French have a navy that is larger and more effective than the British, as a matter of fact, and behind only the three major powers (US, China and Russia).  They are actually one of the very few (beside the US, British and Russian navies) to extensively use nuclear subs.  

COVID update — erm…if you thought the virus was magically going away, that bubble of yours needs some freaking bursting.  My tiny little town is in the middle of its third outbreak.  Including, I will add, me.  What do you call a bitter, cynical writer in quarantine?  Bored.

Mollie’s pack at work.

The Cutest Girl

So, there’s this little girl who likes to hang around outside my place.

She was born late, this girl.  Her sisters and cousins are all nearby, of course, but she is that annoying younger sibling who tags along at the end of the group and wants to be a part of everything.

She’s irresistible, in her way.  C’mon, you know what I’m talking about: the little girl who is the absolute definition of “cute”…

That’s the problem, however.  This little girl…she’s been all around town.  Everyone knows her, everyone helps her.  Worse than that, everyone has taken care of her.

Everyone is killing her.

She was born in early August, this girl.

That’s pretty late…especially for her family.

This cute little girl — this girl whose charms I can barely resist — she won’t survive to see the new year.

It takes a certain amount of bulk to survive the winters up here.  It takes size and endurance to walk through the drifts and piles of snow.  It takes mass and volume to maintain body temperature in the sub-zero temperatures.  It takes power to push aside the snow and find the food hidden beneath.

But for a little girl born two months after everyone else?  For a tiny cutie the tourists have coddled and fed?

She won’t survive.

Every slice of bread offered up will kill her as surely as would any hunter’s bullet.  She hasn’t learned to survive, she’s learned in her short life to rely on humans for the food she desperately needs.  Except that there are no humans around, now.  Not any that will feed her, anyway.

No, as sad and hard as it is to say about a little one you watched grow up, the wolves need to eat, too.

I’m Ruined, By The Way

This was a day that started all wrong.  A day of driving and dealing with crowds and traffic.  A day of frustration and irritation.

At least that’s how it started…

How it ended?

It’s been fucking stunning.

I don’t use that word very often — stunning, not fucking…I use that one all the fuckin’ time — but when I do use it, I mean it.

The greens were lush and vibrant, bright and alive.  The grass and trees absolutely bursting with new growth.  The black rock and soil of the mountainsides rising in stark contrast above the valley floor, capped by the still-white peaks.  A sky as blue as a newborn’s eyes with just a hint of clouds to provide some contrast and context.

If you’re religious — or even if you’re lapsed and fallen, like me — it’s a reminder that the entire world really is a cathedral.  There was a sense of peace and serenity, to go with the feeling of purpose that seemed to permeate the air itself.

It was magic.

Okay, so what the heck does that have to do with the title of this post?

I went into town today.  When you live in a village of a couple of hundred, by the way, going into town is a necessary deal.  Now, instead of going to my preferred town of under 20,000, I went all the way into Bozeman.

Shit, I thought just seconds after getting off the highway, this is as bad as LA!

Okay, I grew up in LA, so I know just how stupid and wrong is that comparison, but it was still what I felt at the time.

Cars everywhere, driving like nutjobs…

People everywhere, crowding and talking and in general irritating the living crap out of me…

Smells and sounds and a feeling I haven’t felt since I left “civilization” behind…

I hated it.  I hated every single second of it.

I cursed and cussed and stressed until I realized I can never go back to that kind of life.

Not to go all hippy-on-a-commune on you, but my days of living in a place like that are pretty definitely over.  I can’t do it anymore.

But even that wasn’t what made me realize I was ruined.  Nope, it was the drive home.

South of Livingston, Montana lies a place called Paradise Valley.

The greens and blacks…

The whites and blues…

The smell of fields freshly mown for hay…

The pace of life determined by…well, by life itself rather than by the artificial urgencies that so characterized my morning.

That is how I realized I was ruined.  How the hell could I ever leave this?  How could I leave the wilderness and the fields?  The bears and the wolves?  The elk and the bison?  It’s all right outside my damned front door.

Sometimes, living in the middle of all this, it can be easy to take it all for granted.  It can all become “commonplace”, and so be overlooked and forgotten.  But then…

But then…

But then, you have a moment of magic.  You have a glimpse of perfection, and you remember just what the hell it is that truly matters.  You can keep the cities and the cars and the crowds, thank you very much, I’ll take a few seconds of perfection — a moment that’s fucking stunning — over all of that.