I knew the day would be a good one when I let the dogs out and saw Lionhead Mountain lit with morning sun.
Choosing the Two Top Mountain loop as our destination, we followed the trail into West Yellowstone's winter wonderland.
But our adventurous side got the best of us, and we soon said good-bye to the groomers and headed for the trees...
The ghost trees, that is.
All winter, the wind blows snow into these trees freezing them into what I call
West Yellowstone's own Stonehenge.
After Two Top and its ghost trees, we stop for lunch with views into Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. Somewhere out there the bison are trying to survive the harsh and unforgiving winter and the grizzlies sleep.
Meanwhile, at one of our favorite pull-outs just before town, a moose drinks from a stream, and I think: this is how it should be. The moose drinks, the bear sleeps, the bison, and all of us, survive. This is, of course, not up to the moose, the bear, or the bison. It is up to us. Only us. I understand- the weight of this responsibility is enormous. But so is the alternative.
Later, the way good experiences often go, we take the long way home. We pass Hegben Lake and the Trumpeter Swans who call it home. The cold is beginning to set in; I can feel its edge creeping through my gloves and under my jacket. As I crank up the hand-warmers on my snowmobile, I'm again awestruck by the animals who call this place home in winter.
The snow squeaks long beneath my skis, the tall trees whine in the tin breeze, ahead a trail bends into wood, I glide along its whitened hood. With summer's sun slipped far away, the chance to walk earth's milky way falls flake by flake across these parts, the heart your only weather chart. I wonder should I dig down deep, if that would make this moment keep, my little dog would laugh and go, for she thinks moments can't be stowed. A day as sweet as honeycomb, I pocket it and turn towards home, the raven calls atop a tree, but I have somewhere else to be.
John Steinbeck wrote, "Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen." I thought about that as I hobbled down the stairs the morning after skiing for the first time this season. Nineteen runs through thick, heavy snow were in the books, and my legs were feeling every page. So, what in the world made me think pulling a 25 lb sled with another 20 lbs on my back through the same thick sludge up the side of a mountain would be a good idea? Rabbit ideas, that's what. One good idea, and suddenly, I think have a dozen.
The challenge hit immediately. My legs, already tired from skiing, screamed with my first step. My sled, with two tie-down straps wrapped tightly around it, had zero glide. Pulling it by hand was a ton of work and quitting crossed my mind, fervently, for the first mile. In fact, I almost did quit a couple of times, but was lucky enough to realize what I wanted just slightly more than quitting was success. I visualized the lake not my car. So, I trudged on with the mantra one foot in front of the other for hours. I'd set a small goal, force myself to reach it, then do it again. Sometimes I only aimed for a spot two trees in front of me. Five feet of trail. That's how hard pulling that deadbeat sled was. But eventually, something happened. The going got easier, my goals grew further apart until they disappeared completely, and I made progress.
My hiking partner had been smiling the whole way,
so eventually, I forced myself to smile too.
It helped. By smiling, I recognized that I was happy. Happy to be me, in the woods, and on this trail. Happy to be under the sun and the tall trees. Happy to be in the snow with my dog, the cold air biting at us, reminding me just how alive we were. I drank it all in and continued on. For we were almost there. Then, the last half mile hit. The half mile that was supposed to be cake. The half mile of downhill coasting. The half mile when I lost my load a total of six times and my mind six times more in frustration. Perhaps I was tired and not tightening the straps correctly. I don't know, but I do know it was hugely exasperating and I was done. Fini. Cooked.
But isn't that precisely the moment we find otherwise? The moment we find some untouched batch of strength that carries us to the goal line? So, I swore and I cursed and I reloaded that sled over and over until finally, I made it to the lake.
Once there, I found a handful of snowshoers and cross country skiers ready to watch me with interest. I also found a lot of snow. Between the two, I immediately lost all confidence. I believed I had no idea what I was doing. What if I couldn't get the tent up in all the snow? What do I do about a fire pit? Would our water keep from freezing in my sleeping bag without me in it until bedtime? I had snow-camped one other time when there was maybe six inches on the ground and much warmer temperatures. Here, I guessed, lay three feet. Everything was covered. I texted my partner, Kimi, and said all I wanted was to be home. I feared I was in over my head. Plus, all these people were watching me like I knew what I was doing. Essentially, she responded with, "That sucks" and "Can you go back to the car?" That's when I knew Wisdom and I were there whether we liked it or not. There was no way in hell I was dragging that sled back to the car. My hands ached from pulling it and I had rope burns on both thumbs. No. We would be sleeping on the snow no matter what. So, I thought, might as well get to it, and I began to make the woods our home. About that time, three of the nicest people stopped to say hello. I expressed to them some of my doubts about the night ahead. They were supportive and so excited for Wisdom and I to be out on such a great adventure, and their positivity was catching. I became excited again too. I got the tent up and knew Wisdom and I would be fine. But I have to work on that confidence thing and not be so quick to discredit and discourage myself. We can do the things we dream.
I spent some time digging out the fire pit and finally got to rest and savor camp. The day hikers were gone and Wisdom and I had the woods to ourselves. With the fire crackling at my feet, I enjoyed a hot dinner, a mug of tea, and even drank whiskey with the moon.
But night comes early in the winter and by 730, it had been dark for three hours. With the fire nearly out and the cold creeping in, the time was right to call it a night. I tucked Wisdom into a down jacket I'd brought for her and supplied her pockets with hand warmers. She was asleep in minutes.
It took me a bit longer. My legs ached and the tent was cold. Sometime overnight, however, I noticed the temperature inside the tent had increased. Eventually, I figured out it was snowing. My tent now had insulation! The next morning, I was curious to know how much.
Almost 4 inches had fallen, it was still coming down, and breakfast in bed sounded good.
Without delay, I crawled back in the tent and boiled water for tea and oatmeal in the vestibule from my sleeping bag. The heat from the stove warmed the tent providing the perfect ambiance for a 5 star breakfast. Happy and proud of myself and Wisdom for doing something that took some guts, I began to think what I would change the next time- an improved sled set-up (one that hitches to my body instead of having to pull it by hand), more wood to be able to stay out longer, and a gas lantern for light and warmth inside the tent at night. I almost couldn't wait!
Just before lunch, I broke camp and we started for the car. The hike back was easier because it was mostly downhill, but still, that sled lacked all glide. Not once did it bump up against my snowshoes. Oh well, I wasn't failing now. Wisdom, bounding down the trail in front of me, appeared ready to climb another mountain.
Thud. Traveling at an average speed of 30 mph, this little sweetie crashed into my window headfirst Thursday afternoon. Stunned and laying on the cement steps, she breathed, but didn't move. Fearing a predator would get her or that she would become cold laying unprotected in the rain, I realized I had to move her. Choosing the box my Aunt used to send my Christmas presents in this year for a refuge, I picked the tiny hummer up and laid her on a dishcloth to recover. Expecting her to struggle when I reached for her or moved her, I was careful to place her safely in the box before standing up. I didn't want her falling out of my hands and crashing to the steps again. As it turned out, there was nothing to worry about. She hardly seemed to register that human hands cupped her tiny body, and I moved her with ease. Not wanting to put any additional stress on her, I only held her for a moment, but I packed that moment full of love, and a prayer of sorts too. Please, little bird, live. Fly. Please go back to the yard and catch all the insects your little belly can hold. Please, sweet bird, please. I snapped two quick pictures pictures and let her be. Only time would tell.
Twenty minutes later, I went to check on her. She still breathed, but she showed no signs of being able to leave the box or really, even moving. Only her chest rising rapidly, up then down up then down, proved she was alive. She was so small, too- no bigger than my thumb. I didn't notice that before. Briefly, I thought about trying to take a picture that showed, even for a hummingbird, just how small she was, but ultimately thought that a selfish thing to do. I already had two pictures and she was fighting for her life. I couldn't risk alarming her further for a third. Instead, I closed the box, and knowing she was safe, left to run some errands.
When I returned home a couple of hours later, I went straight to the backyard only stopping to let the beagle out of her crate. Otherwise, the little bird, and for that matter, the entire neighborhood, would have been plagued by incessant barking and howling coming from the living room. I didn't imagine, after flying headfirst into a window at hummingbird speed, that the poor thing needing anything else contributing to what must already have been a very bad headache. So, the beagle and I went to the back together, and as soon as I opened the door, I saw it- a single feather dangling at the opening of the box. She was gone. Once again, she hummed. I hoped to be there when she left, when she soared back to life and flight, but instead, she left me with a different gift- the gift of a feather. A tiny, gray, tree-shaped feather.
Later that night, my friend, upon hearing the story, said this: That must have been amazing. They're tiny right? And their hearts beat super fast? I can't imagine holding something so fragile, yet so strong.
I imagined the hummingbird again in my hands, and the questions come easily: what else do I hold that is at once both exceedingly fragile and remarkably strong? Is it the fragility of the thing or its strength that requires more care? And do I truly honor these apparent opposites for the delicate and exquisite paradox that they are? Yeah, the questions come easily. It's the answers that prove difficult.