A Child’s Walk in the Wilderness – An 8 Year Old Boy and His Father Take on the Appalachian Trail by Paul Molyneaux: Book Review
Several years back, as my son Josiah was approaching graduation, I became enamored with the idea of he and I doing an AT thru-hike together. One spring near the beginning of my infatuation, Dana, Josiah, and I inadvertently stumbled into that old stone CCC building at Wa-lasi-yi known as Mountain Crossings. While Josiah and I were inside imbibing the magical atmosphere of this incredible outfitter Dana saunters in and informs me that she had just been on the AT. “What?! No way!” Sure enough, the AT actually travels right through Mountain Crossings. Josiah and I burst into a sprint, ran out the door and raced each other to the back of the building where we saw our very first white blaze. Wonderstruck, we continued down the old footpath, blaze to blaze for a mile or so where we paused to let the moment sink in. Josiah climbed down from a tree he’d been sitting in, turned toward me and said, “Dad?…let’s keep going.” I’ll carry those words and that mental image with me till the day I die. How I wish we had.
Last week, with my REI dividend check in hand, I walked into our local branch intent on buying Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire or maybe The Monkey Wrench Gang. They had neither. As I combed the shelves looking for my next adventure-read I saw something new. I picked up A Child’s Walk in the Wilderness, scanned a few pages and made my way to the register with my prize. Within the first 20 pages I was hooked…for an obvious reason. When the author’s 7 year old son had said, “Let’s keep going”, this father had the courage to say yes.
Though by far the most compelling, this was certainly not the only reason I was sucked in. A Child’s Walk is a great piece of writing. This isn’t Molyneaux’s first rodeo. He makes his living by his craft, having previously authored two books: The Doryman’s Reflection and Swimming in Circles as well as writing for the NY Times and other publications. All this I borrowed from the back cover, but even without that info, his obvious skill shines. Instead of the typical linear narrative I’ve come to expect from books in this genre, this tale, like the hike itself, often folds back on itself, revisits significant moments and takes side trails for reflection and contemplation. The author, whose marriage was struggling at the time of the journey, holds little back. At moments raw in his honesty, you feel as if a friend is spilling his heart. He doesn’t try to put a pretty face on the abrasiveness of hurting people, including his own. Balancing this transparency is the wonder, curiosity and infectious, adventurous spirit of his son, Venado. It’s a joy to watch as a father who brought his little boy to the wilderness in order to educate him is educated by his little boy.
“This is why we are leaving now, my son and I, to go off into the mountains and walk the forests for days on end, to watch spring come and feel its warmth, to howl in the wilderness and remember possibilities.”
These words resonate deeply within me. In fact the Manifesto from which they are excerpted (page 34) itself gives voice to the very same cry from my own spirit. Molyneaux seizes upon McKaye’s concept of the Barbarian Utopia. It becomes for he and his son, not a mere literary device but a philosophy of living…a way of life…a way to life. Returning to wilderness to re-discover the life that “civilization” has stunted into mere existence. Did it work? Well, you’ll have to read the book for yourself.
A father and his 8 year old boy take on the challenge of the Appalachian Trail. The author’s evident writing skill is enhanced by quotes from Benton McKaye and complemented by his son’s pencil drawn illustrations. One of my favorite AT reads ever. I didn’t want it to end. Highly recommend.
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5 years ago I wasn’t ready to read this book. I was at a different place on my journey. A place where phrases like “enriched by insights from Eastern religions” would have sent up red flags, raised an alarm in my pharisaical soul and brought about a slamming of the city gates to keep out the new-age-enemy of what I saw as a faith that needed defending and protecting. In those 5 years my expanding view of the love of God has penetrated, softened and enlarged my heart, deepened my intimacy with him and disabused me of these silly notions along with any agenda I may have clung to. I’m coming to believe that this Abba who loves me more than I could possibly imagine has secreted away in people of all ethnicities (and yes, even faith systems or lack thereof) facets of himself and pieces of his story for you and I to discover. Sort of a cosmic game of hide and seek. Because “God likes it when we place nice together,” as my friend Tom Conlon once said. If you’re at the place in the path where your guard is already going up in reaction to this statement maybe you’re not quite ready for this book…but then again, maybe you are.
From the foreword by Parker J. Palmer:
“Jerry May knew he was dying as he wrote this book. He gathered up all the life he could hold with words… as wild creatures gather food against a hard winter…and left us a book so well stocked with love and wisdom, tears and laughter, healing and hope, it can help all of us winter through.”
These poetic and heart-felt words say more about this book than I could ever attempt to. Let’s hear some more. This time May’s own words from the preface:
“I am sick now. The prospect of my death is continually before me. My body is frail, my energy always at the edge of exhaustion. At the same time I am wilder than I’ve ever been before. My soul basks in wilderness, and I am grateful.”
Based on these excerpts one might be led to believe The Wisdom of Wilderness to be a depressing dirge, a dying man’s morose reflecting on the end of his days. Allow me to dispel this misunderstanding without hesitation. This is anything but. May skillfully and poetically weaves together a lifetime of adventure, laughter and wisdom into a raw, honest and triumphant ode to life as it is meant to be lived. He beautifully relates the healing God provides through wilderness (a healing that I myself continue to experience) while catching you completely off guard with irreverent stories that had me buckled over in spasms of gut-wrenching belly-laughs. He and his little boy’s encounter with a Korean Zen Master alone make this book worth the delightful read.
I can’t recommend The Wisdom of Wilderness highly enough. Though the library provided me with the version I read, I plan to purchase my own copy to place on the shelf beside John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis and others. They’ll find themselves in good company. I’d have to guess they already have.
The Wisdom of Wilderness is Gerald G. May’s swansong. This wonderfully written account of the healing nature provided for him through his beloved Appalachian Mountains deserves a place among the classics. You’ll laugh, cry (and laugh until you cry) and long to spend more time in the wilderness he so beautifully portrays. You may, like me, not agree with all of his theology but you’ll be moved by a life lived from the heart. And who knows, maybe we’ll find ourselves a little further down the path. This book epitomizes what All Who Wander is about. Highly recommend.
from the back cover:
“Hoping to rekindle the spirit of freedom she once knew, a divorced, single mother sets aside family and societies expectations to seek fulfillment by following a lifelong calling. On the eve of turning forty, Amy Allen reaches for her personal goal of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Accepting the name of “Willow” bestowed by her teenage sons, she settles them into new lives at their father’s house and departs on a 2,000 mile walk.”
I’m a sucker for an AT narrative. I’ve read…dozens. Recently in a gathering of AT thru-hikers I overheard the sarcastic midstream comment, “…and then they’ll write a book because what we need is one more book about the AT.” At this point, I injected myself into the discussion. “I think we do need another book about the AT, and another, and another. Personally, I can’t get enough.” When I started Summoning the Mountains, I thought I might have to eat my words.
I met Amy Allen at an AT festival in Dahlonega, GA. She stood smiling behind a small table covered with several small stacks of her book. I was struck, at first, by the beautiful graphic design and if you can judge a book by it’s cover (I’m convinced that sometimes you can) this is one I wanted on my shelf. From the name and tag line to the font and color selection to the perfect cairn that adorns the cover I was hooked. After thumbing through, I found the design continued throughout the entire book, very tastefully and enticingly done. Amy and I talked for a moment and I assured her I’d be back to purchase a copy.
Later in the day, Dana, Josiah and I sat listening while Amy shared her story of her “pilgrimage into forty” and the role that her thru-hike played in that transition. Her meek, quiet voice was just what you might expect from her tiny, petite frame. We took in her photos of our beloved AT during her slide show presentation, empathized with the frustrations she encountered from not being able to completely leave behind her “normal” life to focus completely on her hike and laughed along with her at the inevitable misadventures that are part and parcel of such a journey. “To be expected on a trip of this magnitude” as a friend of mine is fond of saying. At some point we dropped by and picked up our book and pocketed it away for later.
That same night I snuggled down in my hammock, burrowed beneath my quilt as the North Georgia coyotes and owls began their nightly serenade, and began to read. A chapter or so in and I drifted off to sleep. Over the course of the next several weeks I picked the book back up but struggled to connect. It wasn’t the writing. It is a well-written, well-edited thru-hiker journal. Had I finally had enough of such accounts? It certainly wasn’t the typesetting, as I’d mentioned already. It was the fact that Amy Allen was a 40 something mom, and I…was not. For this very reason, I have historically avoided most books by female writers. There are certainly exceptions to this and the exceptions are most extraordinary (case in point? Jennifer Pharr Davis) but as a rule I’ve found that I don’t enjoy female writers and this had to be the source of my disconnect. Having established this, I continued to read. Once I pushed past my gender bias, Amy immersed me in her story. Like most AT narratives (and most AT thru-hikes) Summoning the Mountains is not a thrill ride but instead a steadily plodding narrative, filled with hardships and happiness, punctuated by familiar landmarks along the Trail and made rich by the characters and friendships that grow along the way. Before I knew it, I was sucked in, pulled along for the journey, as if I were making my way north along with Amy and her cadre of companions. And this is why I read AT narratives. My own Appalachian pilgrimage is years away. A mountain larger than Katahdin looms between Springer and I. It’s name? Mortgage. Until that mountain is conquered stories like Amy’s both sate my hunger and stoke the fires of my longing.
As Willow approached Katahdin (Oops, spoiler alert!) I shared her conflicted emotions. The summit she had longed for was finally within sight but the end of her journey was as well. I wasn’t ready for the book to end. Thank you, Amy for sharing your story and providing me a welcome reprieve from my mundane day to day…until my own pilgrimage begins.
Summoning the Mountains is a 40-something mom’s well-written, well-edited and eminently readable account of her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Recommended. It took me there.
This is Part 3 of our latest series ATKO 2012, which features some amazing talks and audio from last years Appalachian Trail Kick-Off at Amicalola Falls State Park. In this episode we’ll get to listen in as Sgt. Rock and George “Tinman” Andrews help a thru-hiker lighten his load by doing a “Shakedown” on his pack.
Thanks for listening!
George “Tinman” Andrews
Appalachian Trail Kick-Off Event:
“Believe an expert: you will find something far greater in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you cannot learn from the masters. “
~St. Bernard of Clairvaux
This is Part 2 of our latest series ATKO 2012, which features some amazing talks and audio from last years Appalachian Trail Kick-Off at Amicalola Falls State Park. In this episode Gene Espy shares about his 1951 thru-hike of the AT. Once again there’s a lot of ambient noise particularly the woman seated to my left who continually rocked back and forth in a metal chair that was groaning it’s protests, and Gene is a bit of a low-talker. Nonetheless, this audio footage is a piece of history from a legend of the Trail, The Second Thru-hiker.
As I mentioned last time, in an effort to post as many episodes as possible prior to this years event, there’ll be minimal editing. Hope you enjoy and thanks for listening!.
This years event is upon us! Friday, March 8 – Sunday, March 10. For more info visit www.atko.info.
Appalachian Trail Kick-Off Event:
“The ideal mountain trail is one which has no end. The ideal trail journey is one which never turns back, but leads forever onward to discover what lies around the next bend and beyond the next crest. Such a trail is the Appalachian [Trail], and such is the kind of journey that, better than on any other trail in existence, may be made upon it.”
~ELMER ADAMS, Walking in the Clouds, 1939
This episode features Bill “Skywalker” Walker, long-distance hiker, speaker and author sharing about his most recent adventure on the Camino de Santiago. This is Part 1 of our latest series ATKO 2012, which will include some amazing talks and audio from last years Appalachian Trail Kick-Off at Amicalola Falls State Park.
Don’t miss this years event!
It’ll be held Friday, March 8 – Sunday, March 10.
For more info visit www.atko.info.
Thanks for listening!
Skywalkers contact info:
Appalachian Trail Kick-Off Event:
“There is nothing like a wilderness journey for rekindling the fires of life. Simplicity is part of it. Cutting the cackle. Transportation reduced to leg or arm power, eating irons to one spoon. Such simplicity, together with sweat and silence, amplify the rhythms of any long journey, especially through unknown, un-tattered territory. And in the end such a journey can restore an understanding of how insignificant you are — and thereby set you free.”
- Colin Fletcher, The River
This is Part 3 of a new series called Big Sky Country. Join Dana and I as we re-live our recent trip-of-a-lifetime to Montana, Wyoming and Yellowstone. This episode includes, among other things, our wildlife encounters.
Thanks for listening!
The music for this series has been provided by Denny Earnest from his album entitled : An Acoustic Hike Through The Jackson Hole Wilderness. His music is available for purchase in I-Tunes. If you’d like to contact him you can reach him at:
or visit he and his wife at the Wildflour Bakery in Emigrant, Montana for some delicious fresh baked artisan bread and pastries .
Angler’s West Flyfishing
Howlin’ Hounds Cafe
Flying Pig Adventures
“Nature is too thin a screen; the glory of the omnipresent God bursts through everywhere” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
Wanna see some pics from our trip out west? Here’s a link to my facebook page with a whole bunch of pics
Note: So sorry about the extra “outro” about 30 minutes in. No charge. Tough for a perfectionist but…I’m gonna “leave it like it is…nevermind the turpentine, “as David Wilcox puts it.
This is Part 1 of a new series called Big Sky Country. Join Dana and I as we re-live our recent trip-of-a-lifetime to Montana, Wyoming and Yellowstone including the dramatic weeks leading up to it. This episode includes the back-story and flight to Bozeman…warts and all! Thanks for listening!
All Who Wander, Episode 14, August 2012.
The music for this series has been provided by Denny Earnest from his album entitled : An Acoustic Hike Through The Jackson Hole Wilderness. His music is available for purchase in I-Tunes. If you’d like to contact him you can reach him at:
or visit he and his wife at the Wildflour Bakery in Emigrant, Montana for some delicious fresh-baked artisan bread and pastries . We certainly did, nearly every day we were in Montana!
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you beyond the next turning of the canyon walls.”
Wanna drop me a note?
or look for me (as well as the All Who Wander fan page) on facebook
Wanna see some pics from our trip out west? Here’s a link to my facebook page with a whole bunch of pics:
John Muir fan? I certainly am. Thanks to Kindle (www.amazon.com), thrift stores and Librivox (www.librivox.org) I own nearly everything he’s ever written. His passion for wilderness…for the Creator revealed in His breath-taking creation throws fuel on an already raging fire in my heart for all things wild. I ache to have at my leisure weeks, months even, alone in the woods. I long to be able, like Muir, to call things: flora, fauna geographic formations…all things, by their true name. When I read Muir I want to cast off restraints, “throw off the bowlines” as Twain put it and as Winton Porter adapted it,
“throw on my pack, dust off my boots and walk away from my everyday. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Each time I pick up one of Muirs writings I wish I’d met him. (Or course, there’s that little issue of us being separated by several generations) I wonder what it would’ve been like to have known him as friend; to have filled our pockets with hardtack and gotten ourselves lost rambling through forests, climbing mountains and sleeping beneath the stars… to share the wonder of reveling in this amazing world our God has created. Samual Hall Young was that friend. It is grippingly clear the impact Muir’s friendship and shared adventure had on this young missionary…even on his writing style. His written voice is so similar to that of Muirs that I can effortlessly imagine a conversation between the two. Mr. Young entered the Alaskan wilderness in the hopes of bringing the “white-man’s religion” to the “savages” but I think both the savages and the wilderness, along with Muir himself had a profound impact on him.
This wonderful little book belongs in the library of every Muir fan, every lover of wilderness if only for the insights into Muir’s beautiful, eccentric personality such as this one:
“Muir at once went wild when we reached this fairyland. From cluster to cluster of flowers he ran, falling on his knees, babbling in unknown tongues, prattling a curious mixture of scientific lingo and baby talk, worshiping his little blue-and-pink goddesses. “Ah! My blue-eyed darlin’, little did I think to see you here. How did you stray away from Shasta?” “Well, well! Who’d ‘a’ thought you’d have left that niche in the Merced mountains to come here!” ‘And who might you be now, with your wonder look? Is it possible that you can be (two Latin polysyllables)? You’re lost, my dear; you belong in Tennesee.”
Did you know that Mr. Young has the honor, also, of being the owner of the infamous “Stickeen” the cantankerous little mutt that accompanied the two on their excursions into the Alaskan wilderness and the subject of Muir’s own classic by the same name? If you enjoyed that little book, you’ll truly appreciate seeing this pup and his relationship with Muir from Mr. Young’s perspective.
I’ve rambled on enough about this book . I own it on Kindle but plan to search for a hardback copy for my shelf.
The Gist? Buy it. Read it. You’ll love it.
Here’s a link to the free kindle version through Amazon:
If you plan to purchase one of the other copies via Amazon, would you consider doing so via the Amazon link at All Who Wander? We’d certainly appreciate it. A portion of the cost will go towards keeping All Who Wander going. Thanks!
013 All Who Wander-Trailfest Series: Trail Days Damascus, VA – Part 3 Long-distance hiker, Krispy Kritter
This is the 5th and final episode in this years Trailfest Series in which Dana and I follow the migratory herd of 2011 Northbound AT thru-hikers from trail to trail town stopping off at hiker celebrations along the way. Once again and finally we find ourselves in Damascus, Virginia for the 2011 Trail Days Festival.
This episode of All Who Wander features retired firefighter and long distance hiker, Krispy Kritter.
Ransomed Heart Ministries
or look for me (as well as the All Who Wander fan page) on facebook
Wanna see some pics from the 2011 Trail Days? Here’s a link to my facebook page with a whole bunch of pics. I bet you can’t pick out Krispy in the parade!
“We can have wilderness without freedom; we can have wilderness without human life at all, but we cannot have freedom without wilderness, we cannot have freedom without leagues of open space beyond the cities, where boys and girls, men and women, can live at least part of their lives under no control but their own desires and abilities, free from any and all direct administration by their fellow men.” -Edward Abbey
When Dana and I landed in Bozeman, the first thing we did was go in search of a replacement for my Samsung point and click. I’m loathe to spend money on myself but I thought, “How many times in my life will I get a chance to capture the beauty of this western landscape?” I figured it a well-justified expenditure. The Samsung had actually served me nicely for several years but due to an open housing acquired moisture spots on the internal optics. I’ve talked a little about a couple of waterproof, shockproof adventure cameras here in the blog section so went in search of one of them. My search ended at the Bozeman Costco where I picked up Nikon’s contribution to the adventure camera category, the AW 100. I read over the specs, played with the display a bit and though it was well beyond my budget, thought good of my purchase and shrugged off my usual buyers remorse. After charging the battery, I experimented with different settings, functions etc. The next day we ventured into Yellowstone where I gave my new toy a workout. Over the course of the week I shot nearly a thousand pics/videos. Here’s what I discovered:
- Panoramic function. Didn’t realize this was one of the perks until I unpackaged it. Simple, easy to use and gives great results. Perfect for the wide open spaces and majestic summits of Montana.
- Video function. “Easy button” on the back of camera gives me video capability with a single click. HD video, I might add.
- Macro. Simple to use, Beautiful, detailed results. Love it.
- Landscapes. Great camera for landscapes. Unlike my Samsung, it gave me nearly perfect focus every time.
-GPS. Though I didn’t explore it fully, the AW 100 boasts onboard GPS which, as a hiker, I consider a phenomenal feature. I often return from a trip, sort through my pics and wonder, :Hmmmm, where was this?” Assuming it functions well, I consider this a huge plus.
- Location of lens. It took several screw-ups before I re-trained my finger away from the top left corner.
- Rechargeable battery with heavy external charger. Neither convenient nor practical for backpackers.
- High maintenance. This is supposed to be an adventure camera. When you peruse the manual you’re given instructions to be careful about getting it wet. Really?! Don’t get a waterproof camera wet? If exposed to moisture of any kind, you’re to immediately dry the camera with a cloth. Nice, Nikon. Really nice.
- Focus issues. Though it performed admirably on macro and landscapes, anything in between was no-man’s land. I have a slough of disappointing pictures of wildlife that I’ll never get another chance to capture. The automatic focus on this camera is a miserable, epic fail. Were it possible to buy a point-and-click adventure camera with manual focus, I’d be a happy man.
- Digital zoom takes waaaaaaaaay too long to initiate. Missed a lot of shots waiting for it to kick in.
- Shutter lag. Pretty severe and at seemingly random intervals.
- Resolution. The AW100 boasts 16 megapixels. Again, great color and detail on macros and landscapes but anything in between is washed-out and sort of hazy in appearance. Dana’s 8 mega-pixel Sony consistently gets strikingly better shots than the Nikon. Without exaggeration, many of the 2 or 3 mp shots from my crappy phone camera look better than the results from the Nikon. No excuse.
-It locks up. No kidding. This happened, not once, but repeatedly. If I left the power on for more than a few minutes without snapping a pic, it would completely lock up. The only way I could restore function was to open the battery compartment, eject the battery, re-install the battery, close the compartment and cut the camera back on. Geez.
Nice try Nikon. Some cool features but bells and whistles do not a camera make. Let’s start with the basics: A good camera should take good pictures. Fail. Just praying Costco will let me return this since I left the inconvenient packaging in Montana.
Update: Costco was amazing! The store in Greenville gave me a full refund plus an adjustment in sales tax, with nearly no questions asked despite the fact that I purchased the camera in Montana and had neither the original packaging nor the receipt. Thanks Costco! You guys ROCK!
Several weeks back Dana and I found ourselves in Hot Springs, NC where we had the great privilege of meeting and befriending Frank, his lovely wife Debbie, his crazy Jack Russell Rosie and their Airstream Diva. The four of them are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime across America. Frank just sent me this awesome pic of his new t-shirt. You can probably surmise why! Thanks, Frank. I love it! Looking forward to following your journey online.
You can keep up with them too, here:
Happy Trails, DiBona family!
We saw our wolves. To be precise, we heard them first. Several people had gathered by the roadside. We pulled up, quietly pushed our doors shut and, as stealth as coyote, walked up to a wildlife enthusiast equipped with a tripod mounted lens nearly as big as our rented Subaru. “What are we watching?” I whispered. “Listen,” he replied. “ We did as suggested and from far away heard two wolves raising a long, beautiful howl to the cloud covered Wyoming mountains. We lifted our little cameras, zoomed in and just barely made out two wolves, one gray and another that appeared distinctly cream colored.
I had been reading Shadow Mountain by Renee Askins, her well-written account of the role she and her compatriots played in re-introducing wolves to Yellowstone. Due primarily to man once again meddling in the affairs of the wild, the natural wolf population had been completely decimated. Her book details the long, hard battle to bring restoration to the natural order; to undo the damage we’d done. It was a pretty moving encounter to experience firsthand the fruits of her labor. Thank you, Renee.
Our original plan had been to hike to the summit of Emigrant Peak in Livingston, just a few miles from our cabin in Paradise Valley. 18″ of snowfall on our second day in Montana added to an already frozen summit had rendered that dream a risk not worth taking. The boulder covered approach would have been treacherous enough without it’s icy coating. Now? Darn near impossible. In lieu of breathing the rarified air at 11,000 feet we hoped to instead find a few hikes in Yellowstone, at least getting into these woods we’d so longed to wander in. My run-in with the boulder changed that plan as well. We spent nearly all of our remaining 3 days driving through Yellowstone, stopping every 1/4 mile or so to snap a picture. It’s a difficult trap not to fall into, especially when one of us (Uh, yeah…that’d be me) had the misfortune of being run over by a boulder. Would I recommend seeing Yellowstone from behind a car door? No. Definitely not. Friday came so quickly that both of us had to stay vigilant in fighting off remorse for not using our time in this idyllic setting better. It was a blur. I convinced Dana to get a two day fishing license to at least wet a hook in these legendary waters. On our last voyage into the Park we headed toward Cooke City, again taking in the majesty of these spectacular mountains. Along the way we stopped off at Soda Butte (Yeah, I know. Funny. It’s pronounced “byoot”) Creek, where I hung my hammock, lost myself in Norman MacClean’s classic and watched Dana try her hand at enticing a few trout to rise. I watched ground squirrels play beneath my nest and observed the cartoon-like antics of a yellow-bellied weasel as he darted in and out of the ground squirrel’s tunneled home. Although Dana never saw much success we both enjoyed our few short moments of relaxation…something we wished we’d spent a lot more time doing. An hour or so after we arrived the sun was once again swallowed up in grey clouds, while rain and sleet drove us back to the car and on toward Cooke City for lunch. That old adage applies here more than anywhere I’ve visited,” If you don’t like the weather here…just wait 5 minutes.” Unfortunately for us, we saw a mere 12 hours or so of sunshine in our entire week. Take it like it comes, right? Well, as disappointing as the weather and my accident were, the wildlife just about made up for it. Over the course of the week we saw bison, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, coyote, bighorn sheep, bison (Yup, I realize I mentioned bison already), osprey, a yellow-headed blackbird, magpie, a badger, ground squirrels, a hoary marmot, a yellow-bellied weasel, wolves, a moose, bison, more bison, bison calves, black bear, black bear cubs, grizzly, (did I mention bison?) and more. At one point there was so much wildlife in one location I half-expected Rafiki to step out with Simba raised over his head. Instead we saw a herd of bison convince a grizzly to find something other than a bison calf for lunch. Pretty amazing stuff.
So many people have asked if we’d go back. Absolutely. Would I hope for better weather? Yup. (And less boulder contact as well.) Would we try to return with only a week? Probably not. The jaw-dropping magnificence of this incredible country was other-worldly and more than the eye could take in…especially in 7 or 8 days. It was indeed a balm for two heartbroken and war-weary people. Had we not gone….I don’t even want to think about it. Would we like a do-over? You bet. We’d love to see Paradise Lost redeemed. Next time, closer to summer with a month to spend….maybe a year. Next time we’ll see it from the midst of the wildness, rather than the safety and convenience of a cozy Subaru. Next time, maybe from the Continental Divide Trail. Next time…
I’ve posted some pics from our trip at the All Who Wander Podcast facebook page. Here’s a link:
“Your sunshine’s here,” Dana intoned sweetly while I shook off the residue from the previous nights sleep. (Amazing what a muscle relaxer can do.) I dragged my bum leg and bruised body to the back door where I feasted my eyes on Emigrant Peak, it’s sisters, and the valley below all lit up with sunshine just as Dana promised. Beauty, unadulterated beauty. A perfect day for hiking. Unfortunately, hiking was no longer an option. Nearly all of the day was spent with my leg propped up and covered in ice packs while my new Osprey Aether 70 sat in the corner taunting me. The good news is that it gave me a little time for writing. Occasionally I’d look up at a magpie in a burst of flight, with the Crazy Mountains as a backdrop. I’ve gotta tell you, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a day. It also gave us opportunity to visit Chico Hot Springs Resort and Spa for lunch where I discovered I most definitely do not like the taste of elk. Life lesson. Short and sweet entry today. We plan to be up by 4 am and on our way back to the Park, this time heading through the Lamar Valley toward Cooke City. Hoping to spot some wolves. So early to bed, early to rise…
It’s not a vacation till a boulder rolls across your leg.
We rose early, jumped into our rented Subaru and pointed it toward Yellowstone. The day before, I’d spotted a couple of signs in Gardiner boasting breakfast buffets and despite the fact that “nary a grit were to be found in these parts” (Tom Conlon quote), the organic, farm fresh eggs common to this area more than made up for it. Unfortunately, either I’d imagined the signs or they’d been taken down since yesterday. We ended up having breakfast in a little diner that was overflowing with sightseers as well as locals, staffed by one frantic, flustered and overworked waitress. Almost 2 hours later we finally left the diner and drove under the Roosevelt Arch, the giant monolith that marks the Northwest entrance to Yellowstone. Most everything was still obscured in the billowy whiteness of snow and fog but we held out hope that the God who had made these mountains and had brought us here would lift the clouds to give us a glimpse of his handiwork.
Today’s destination was Old Faithful, 51 miles from the entrance. Neither Dana nor I were overly excited about seeing the geyser itself but moreso in walking for a while in footsteps my dad had left there years before. As a young soldier he had driven his Studebaker through the area, spending his nights sleeping under the stars. The summer evening he spent camping just outside of Old Faithful Lodge a family invited him to join them for dinner. He thanked them for their generosity but explained he had some hot dogs he planned to roast over the fire. They told him to save his hotdogs for later, tonight he would eat steak. Of course he couldn’t say no to steak. Years later the kindness offered to this young serviceman lives on. I have to admit, I was combing the area looking for a soldier not unlike my dad I could extend the same generosity to…pay it forward.
We were told that no matter what we did, we just had to enjoy a meal at the Old Faithful Lodge. Famished, we sat down to what we anticipated would be a sumptuous meal, served buffet style. Unfortunately, like every other meal we’d had inside the park it was a huge disappointment, bland and overpriced. All of the concessions for the park are sub-contracted to a company called Xanterra. Seasonings, apparently don’t figure into their bottom line. Take this not so much as a criticism as a suggestion to bring a picnic lunch. We looked jealously all around us at those who’d had the foresight to do this very thing. Yellowstone is made for picnics…and its unbridled splendor more than makes up for a lack of good food.
The clouds parted just in time for us to see the 2pm eruption of Old Faithful. The old geyser must be getting along in years for it erupted with a whimper, not a bang. In the midst of it’s whimper , the clouds moved in and a cold rain began to soak us as we ran to the car.
If you know me at all you’re aware of my disdain for gloomy, white skies. This had been our weather, with occasionally interruptions of rain, sleet and snow, since we left the airport. As hard as I fought to not let this affect my disposition, the weather coupled with hours of 30 mph driving, stopping every 1/4 mile or so to hop out and snap pictures had left me in a sullen funk. I looked on longingly as I saw 4 guys hoisting their packs for what must’ve been a multi-day backpacking trip into the wild. It didn’t escape Dana’s notice. “Want me to let you out?” “Nah, I’m fine.” “No, you’re not.” I wasn’t and I knew it. Surrounded by this veiled beauty and stuck in this horrid pattern of starting and stopping had made it’s mark on me.
At the sight of a sign marking the Continental Divide, we stopped again to snap a pic. Pointing to a steep embankment, Dana said, “Crawl up there and let me get your pic.” The soil was loose but I made it a little ways and posed while bracing myself on an exposed root from a fallen tree. Once done, I scrambled the rest of the way to the top to find a spot out of view to, ahem, “make water” as my dad calls it. I returned to the top of the hill and warned Dana and an older woman who’d arrived in my absence to move out of the way, in case this went bad. Dana hid behind the sign and the woman moved to the side. Best I can tell, when I began to slip I instinctually reached out and grabbed a boulder that sat loosely in the soil, dislodging it to chase me down the hill. I was nearly at the bottom when it overtook me, slamming into my right calf, driving my knee and right shoulder into the gravel. Dana, the older lady and her husband all screamed as I fell. I hopped up quickly, dripping blood from multiple places and hoping, praying I’d not done serious damage. 7 hours later, after our continued “start-stop-snap-a-picture” method of travel back into Emigrant, I limped bruised and battered back into our cabin and took inventory of my injuries. Best I could tell I had a mild ankle sprain from hyper-extending my foot when I attempted a “Superman” off the embankment, a torqued and bruised knee, one seriously bruised, scratched and swollen calf along with an assortment of cuts scrapes and scratches from my trip through the gravel. Like I said, “It ain’t a vacation till you get run over by a boulder.”
Exhausted from the previous days adventure we opted to hang around the cabin today. We drove down to the Howling Hound Cafe (www.facebook.com/pages/Howlin-Hounds-Cafe/248852179382) in our snow-covered Subaru for some delicious, farm-fresh organic eggs, bacon and huge-chunked-fried potatoes for breakfast. You’ll not only find some great grub at this family run restaurant but you’ll also feel like you’re one of the family. The effusive, amicable conversation makes this one of our favorite spots so far. As I’m sure you’ve realized this day held little adventure and a lot of food. A rib-sticking lunch at the historic Old Saloon and Livery Stable held us over till the next day. Since we didn’t go looking for adventure, it kind of came to us. Twice our water at the cabin was reduced to a drip. Local plumber Don Hinks interrupted his Memorial Day weekend to get it going again. Thanks Don. Don and his four spoiled-rotten- snow-white Samoyed sled dogs that accompanied him everywhere were a great interruption to our lazy day and good medicine for our bruised and grieving hearts.
Subtle notes of her fragrance drift toward me on the breeze. Intoxicating. My head swims with longing. I imagine her shadowed eyes sparkle with whimsy…a touch of the demure. Draped in opaque, pearl lightness she conceals her breathtaking beauty, teasing my imagination, revealing only a little at a time in her sensuous dance. Seduction is her art and she is a master. We’d traveled thousands of miles, driven for hours and arrived in Yellowstone to discover that the spectacular mountains we’d come so far to experience were draped in mist. The sun and wind would occasionally work together to expose some far-away summit radiant white or a snow-covered grassy slope low on the mountainside. It was most certainly a strip-tease.
2 hours earlier…
Awaking early and finding the sun already up (Had we taken a wrong turn and ended up in Alaska?), I stood in the living room, pointed my camera at the bedroom door and waited like a hunter for Dana to rise from her slumber. She opened the door, laid eyes on the winter wonderland on display through the huge windows before her, gasped and squealed like a little girl. I grinned like I’d planned it that way. Even though we’d been greeted with snowy precipitation, this was late May! We figured there was no chance there’d be any accumulation. Boy, were we wrong. This kind of snow at home would keep us hunkered down, subsisting off of bread and milk. That’s just how we do it in the South. But we weren’t in the South. This is Mon-freakin’-tana. We’re going to Yellowstone! First stop? Breakfast. We returned to our little bakery and enjoyed Montana’s answer to the McMuffin: Scrambled egg with pepper-jack and canadian bacon on toasted Ciabatta and freshly brewed black, dark roast coffee to wash it down with. A hearty, wholesome, tasty start for our first foray into Yellowstone.
As the Subaru took us into Gardiner, the mostly veiled landscape began to change before our eyes. Even the few feet visible beneath the fog stood in stark, geologic relief against the snow covered mountains and meadows. Enormous jagged rock formations came into view just beyond the Yellowstone River paralleling Highway 89.
Main Street in Gardiner boasted a wide array of little shops and businesses. Spotting an outfitter with the compelling name of Flying Pig Adventures (www.flyingpigrafting.com) we parked down the street, blinking at the falling snow as we took the sidewalk back to the entrance. We found a very similar inventory to the other store. We also found the same friendly, courteous staff…if not more-so. We took turns alternately chatting with the owner and playing with her sweet white lab. She listened intently and compassionately as Dana told her of our recent loss of Scooby. I picked up a small container of gas for my stove and our newfound friend threw in a really cool lightweight cordura shopping bag emblazoned with the Flying Pig logo. Her part to help assuage our grief. I responded with, “So if I tell you that Dana’s Dad just had extensive scalp surgery to remove melanoma and my mom just had a stroke…what do we get?” She answered, “Chocolate?” We all laughed and said goodbye.
This, our first excursion into Yellowstone, didn’t provide much in the way of scenery but plenty in the way of wildlife. We were in awe at our first few close-up encounters with these giant, otherworldly creatures called bison. (Apparently, North America has never had a buffalo…only bison. Who knew?) After a while, though it became nearly routine. They were everywhere! Our exclamations of wonder were replaced by, “bison,” or “Another roadblock.” “Bison?” “Yup.” Deer and mule-deer were everywhere, evidenced (even around the geyser vents) by their abundant scat. Every so often we’d come across a traffic jam caused not by bison but by a bear-sighting. Of course, everyone (us included) wanted to spot a bear, especially a grizzly. Sightseers in rented RV’s would often stop in the middle of the road because they caught a glimpse of a black bear. We’d all put it in park, jump out of our vehicles and run to the side of the road, camera’s flashing until a ranger showed up to break up the party. This “start-stop-take-a-pic” mode of travel would become our way of life. Fun for a while but not a very efficient way to get from point A to point B. It took us all day to get from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower Falls and back and left us exhausted. It was well after dark by the time we made if back to the cabin. That’s saying something around here. (Until this moment I wasn’t convinced it ever got dark.) We looked forward to a long soak in the hot tub (this was a 25th anniversary celebration 2 years late, for goodness’ sake). Unfortunately it was not to be. T’was broken and would stay that way for quite a while.
After a decent nights rest in the Holiday Inn (Don’t they have great beds?) we had a delicious skillet breakfast in the hotel restaurant, packed up, bought a few necessities for the week and made our way toward Paradise Valley (or more specifically, Emigrant), Montana. Just a mile or so down the interstate, we were welcomed to the area by a snowstorm. Undaunted by the white stuff, our rented Subaru just kept on going (Oh, we could get used to this! The Subaru, that is.) Of course we stopped and snapped a few pics; snow is a rarity in our neck of the woods. On the way in we stopped for lunch in a town called Livingston, eating at a little cafe/ coffee shop (the name eludes me) where we enjoyed a chicken wrap, organic fair-trade coffee and friendly conversation with the owners. We were there quite a while. We’d soon learn that the pace of life is slower out west…at least in the restaurants. We visited the local outfitter, Timber Trails (http://timbertrailsmontana.com), where we were welcomed by friendly staff but a limited inventory. It was a small store. This seems to be the case for most of the outfitters we’d visit. Instead of catering primarily to hikers, most of them were bonafide outfitters offering guided horseback and/or river rafting trips. The stores usually offered less in the way of gear than they did in apparel. I mention this to encourage you to bring most of what you’ll need in the way of adventure gear with you unless, of course, you plan to avail yourself of the guided trips. We did find that nearly all of the stores carried both iso-butane propane as well as bearspray, two items not allowed on commercial airlines.
We arrived in the sprawling metropolis of Emigrant (Population 372…make that 374) around 4pm. Since we couldn’t check in until 5pm we wandered through a few of the local haunts: The General Store, Howlin’ Hounds Cafe (www.facebook.com/pages/Howlin-Hounds-Cafe/248852179382), the Old Saloon and Livery Stable and our favorite, the Matson Rogers Anglers West Fly-fishing Outfitters (www.montanaflyfishers.com). We swapped fishing stories with two great guys whom I suspect are the owners. Dana picked up some Smartwool baselayer at a drastic discount. If you think backpacking gear is expensive, and it is, you’ll be shocked at the price of fly-fishing gear. Finding a bargain in a fly-shop is unheard of. So, needless to say, next time you’re in Emigrant drop by and see these guys. You’ll be glad you did.
We made one last stop at The Wildflour Bakery where we picked up a fresh-baked loaf of flax-bread loaded with sesame, poppy, flax and a dozen other seeds I couldn’t identify. It made hearty, delicious toast!
We arrived at our cabin via a series of telling road names such as Aries, Sirius and Hilarion, taking note of an interesting trail nearby called the Buddhist Path. After the last week we wondered just what we’d gotten ourselves into. The cabin itself, however, did not disappoint. Though the surrounding peaks were obscured by fog and snow, the house itself would make a nice home for a week. We loaded in our luggage and gear and fell asleep while it was still light to soft snow falling on the grassy meadow surrounding the house.
I peered out the window just beyond my new friend Ed at the awe-inspiring mountains that encircle Bozeman International airport. An absolutely perfect, stunningly clear day displayed the beauty of the snow-capped mountains as if created just for us. The past week had left us stunned, senses-dull and wondering if we’d ever see this moment. Dana’s dad had undergone a scalp removal and skin graft (taken from his abdomen) in order to remove his melanoma; Our big, beautiful, goofy, lovable friend, trail-guide (and yes, retriever/ St. Bernard mix), Scooby had undergone a series of daily seizures culminating in one that lasted over an hour forcing us to say goodbye to the best dog ever; and My mom experienced an eschemic stroke which brought her to the hospital by ambulance and destroyed her short term memory, caused hallucinations and rendered her speech 70% gibberish. We hadn’t slept much in over a week and up until 12 hours ago weren’t sure whether we wouldn’t end up cancelling this trip of a lifetime after all. But at the last moment Mom had haled and improved pretty dramatically, Dana’s dad had shown continued improvement and though we were still devastated by the loss of our Scooby, we excitedly packed and re-packed last night missing yet another nights sleep.
“Two things pierce the human heart, beauty and affliction.” -Simone Weil
Terminal to plane to terminal to plane to terminal to plane to terminal since 4:30 am. Dazed and stunned by pain and beauty…here we were. Wheels touched runway and the pilot locked down the brakes. Our bodies strained against the seatbelts and I asked Ed,” I wonder if he’ll pull a Starsky and Hutch at the end of the runway?” We laughed, said our goodbyes and filed like cattle out of the puddle-jumper into the handsome, lodge-like terminal. Dana and I stared out the window at the mountains, still wondering at the idea of it all. Were we really here? Surrealistic is the only word that captures the moment…and it’s insufficient. We wandered into the gift shop and after what must have been a half-hour, it occurred to one of us that we hadn’t picked up our luggage. We scurried down the escalator and found our bags had either been tossed or fallen off the conveyor. At least they were here. We picked up our Subaru Outback from Hertz, loaded in our luggage and set off toward the city of Bozeman to find a hotel for the night. We’d planned to camp the first night but I realized we desperately needed a little comfort from a Holiday Inn. We found one, surrounded by majestic mountains, showered and headed to the restaurant for dinner. Moments before my Black and Bleu Sirloin Salad arrived my internal organs seemed to dissolve in my gut. My body had had enough. The weeks of stress, sleep deprivation and a day of airport food had caused my digestive system to revolt. I stomached a few bites then raced back to the hotel room while Dana finished her Four-cheese Penne. Bedtime early tonight.