Four Years

For four years I’ve made Yellowstone the central focus of my life.  For four years I’ve wandered every inch of those 2.2 million acres, exploring backwoods and treading ground seldom touched by human feet.  For four years I’ve lived and learned among the bison and bears and wolves.

For four years I’ve…stagnated.

And if that ain’t a topic for a post, I don’t know what is.

Look, if Ted from Accounting stagnates and lets inertia take control, just what does it really matter?  No offense to Ted, but spreadsheets and balance sheets are the very definition of stagnation.*  For someone, on the other hand, who has thrown himself into a life of creation and creativity?

*To a non-accountant, anyway.  Sorry, Dad.

Yeah, stagnation and inertia don’t work out too well.

The trouble, as any high school physics kid can tell you, is that inertia continues unchanging and unchanged until some other force acts to change the math.  Well, in writing — and in other creative fields, I imagine — inertia is just as powerful as it is in physics.  When you are rolling along, pounding out the words?  Yeah, then there is a powerful inertia to the creative process.  Then there is a inevitably to the flow of words that gives them all the power in the universe.  Yep, even in the writing world p=mv.  Oh, wait, you don’t know that one?  Err, you should probably go and find that high school kid again.

Unfortunately, the opposite holds true as well.  When the words stop…

When the flow of ideas and thoughts and creation are held in check…

When the v in that equation equals zero…

At that point, all the mass of those ideas and thoughts and words settle down more heavily than a nerd at a nonstop showing of all six of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films.*

*Not that I’ve ever done that.  That would be wrong.  And shameful.  And I would totally never do it.  Ahem.

Look, I’ve given a lot of writing advice in the five or so years I’ve done this blog.  Much of that advice has been complete shit, but some has been pretty damned good.  Kinda like my writing, actually.

Err…never mind, let’s stay on the point, shall we?

As a writer, you can’t give up that inertia of creativity.  You just can’t do it.  If you do, re-starting any form of movement is far, far harder than the slow inertia with which you started the process.  Those creative ideas and thoughts, they don’t like change.  They want either to be flowing freely and fast, or to settle and conglomerate until the world itself erodes and disintegrates in the entropic cascade that is the fate of all unwritten stories.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally had a long talk with myself.  It was a talk about inertia and momentum and entropy.  It was also, as I mentioned to a couple of family members, a talk with myself about existing versus living.

We writers — you and me, and more others than either of us can count — have a way of living through our words that non-writers can never truly understand.  Oh, they can experience it.n  Shit, we damn well hope they experience it, because that is what pays the freaking bills!  But their experience is vicarious; they don’t live the stories and words, they experience them.  

When a writer stops living and falls to merely existing…well…

You either go back to that gray-and-tan fucking cubicle you once escaped, or…

Or you change the math.  You change the value of v.

I don’t care, by the way, how you change the math…just do something.  Try a different brand of coffee.  Go sit on a mountain in Nepal.  Smoke a joint or ten.  Buy three hours with triplets in a brothel.  Abandon paradise.

It’s time for a change.  The unwritten words are a fucking elephant on my chest.  If I don’t change, those miserable little bastards will kill me.

So it’s time.  It’s time for me to give those old words of parting:  Ave atque vale Yellowstone.

It is time, also, to remember that it is the words and stories that define who I am, not the surroundings.

Heading off into the unknown, by the way, doesn’t get any more comfortable or easy, no matter how many times you have done it before.  It is stepping off a cliff into a black void of worry and fear…

But it’s new worry and fear, and that is the change to v that I truly need to keep what little is left of my sanity and recover and re-empower who I am vice where I am.

Oh, and with that black void of uncertainty in front of me?  The old Egyptian blessing* comes to mind: “God be between you and the dark places you must walk.”

*Thank you Stracynski, and B5, for that one!

[Musical Note: I fought with a few songs for this one.  In the end, I went old school.]

I Cheated

Okay, look…I don’t live inside Yellowstone anymore.  Yeah, it’s true that I could pretty much spit and hit the park from where I now live, but it just ain’t the same thing as actually living in the heart of the whole damned thing.

In summer my favorite places are incredible.  In winter they are…magical.

In summer, an erupting geyser is a reminder of the power and processes under our feet that we never really consider.  In winter…in winter, that superheated column of water and steam, in the right place and at the right time, turns to the finest of ice crystals in the blink of an eye.  Watching that diamond dust erupt and blow, watching it turn the nearby branches into “ghost trees”…  Yeah, it’s not the cold that gives you the chills at that point.

In summer, the trail from Wolf Lake to Cascade Lake is well-trod as a long(ish) day hike.  It is crowded, even.  In winter?  In winter, it is not a trail, it is a two-day marathon of snow and ice.

And then you have Mount Washburn, at the north end of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon…

The country north and east of Washburn has been closed to human traffic for several years.  This is because of the bears, of course.  Oh, it is not to protect humans from the bears.  Quite the opposite, actually.  This area (and a couple of others) are closed as “bear management areas” in order to provide space where cubs and juvenile bears can learn and grow without ever so much as sniffing a human.  No contact means no acclimation, and no acclimation means they will be far more prone to avoid humans for the rest of their lives.  That’s good for both of us, human and bear.

Unfortunately, the area north of Mount Washburn also hosts the only section of the Howard Eaton Trail that I have not yet hiked.


It’s a weird goal, I know, but ever since my first week in the park almost four years ago {Edit – five years, actually. Math is hard}, I have wanted to complete the entirety of the Eaton trail.  That trail, if you don’t know, is pretty much the original “tourist trail” in the park.  Howard Eaton himself was a local rancher and early guide who would lead 3-week horse tours through the park.  From up here in Gardiner, those tours went down to Old Faithful, and on to what is now Grand Teton National Park.  Coming north again, they would pass Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, the Gand Canyon of the Yellowstone, then skirt the west edge of Lamar Valley and cross Blacktail Plateau to return to Mammoth and Gardiner.  The trail still exists, for the most part.  A couple of sections are “lost” and no longer maintained, but you can still find them if you know where to do the research, and what to look for.

I know. I know where to look, and what to look for.

I had completed seven of the eight sections by the time I left the park to move into Gardiner itself.  All I had left was the most “lost” of those sections, the one that left from Canyon Village, skirted Mount Washburn’s eastern shoulder, and continued north to Tower Junction.

Remember that closed area I mentioned, the one just north of Washburn?  Yep, you got it right, that’s it.  The trail goes right through the heart of that area.  In winter, however…

In winter, you can snowshoe/ski it.  If you know what you’re doing.  If you’re confident in your backcountry skills.  If you’re more than a little insane.  I am — ahem — all three.  

Along with a couple of friends who share my insanity, I just had to complete that last section.  Wait…“a couple of friends?” I hear you ask. “But you hate hiking with other people!”

Let’s put it like this — I’m insane, not stupid.  It was actually the hardest thing, in a physical sense, that I’ve ever done.  If you’ve never snowshoed, let me offer a little homework for you: go to the softest and deepest sand you can find, put on your heaviest boots, grab a fifty pound pack, now start slogging.

Congratulations, that’s still a world easier than snowshoeing over several feet of untouched snow and ice in some of the roughest terrain in Yellowstone.  We predicted a two-day trip, but prepped for four.  In the end, it took three, so let’s hear it for splitting the difference!  Yeehaw!  The two day prediction  would have been spot-on, by the way, except for that oh-so-fun shortness of breath that COVID left me with…

It’s tough to get into the heart of the park in winter, by the way.  The roads are closed, the few snowcoach trips are as expensive as they are limited, and snowmobile tours are even more tightly restricted.  Now, I have no problem with those restrictions.  I think they are a very good idea, as a matter of fact.  But, for a local, those restrictions make getting in to the heart of Yellowstone a pretty damned significant trip on skis or snowshoes.

Unless you cheat.

If you…umm…happen to have a friend or two who still live full-time inside the park, you can hitch a ride on their snowmobile.  You can also, if you bring offerings of booze and food (in that order), usually crash at their place for a day or two…

It’s not luxurious, and it certainly isn’t easy, but it also isn’t on any tour company’s list of offerings.

God, I needed that.

Post Script — I get tired of people asking about the “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” thing. I have heard far too many tourists say, “It’s just marketing, honey. They borrowed the name from the real Grand Canyon.” *sigh* A picture, at least, might help to explain the name. And, yes, I have hiked down into the Canyon. I have camped on the river. And I have hiked (inevitably) back up that steep-ass wall…

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.