Every year, Steve and I fly-fish a stretch of the Yellowstone (the ‘Stone) River near Tower Fall, a 132-foot waterfall that empties into the Yellowstone. We generally park at the General Store at the top of the canyon and hike the switchback trail to the bottom. Then we hustle up river three or four miles, trying to leapfrog any fly fisherman. The farther you hike, the better the fly fishing (and the greater the risk for encountering a grizzly bear).
One year, while returning at dusk, we plodded along the trail along the river and looked up to spy a herd of bison lying like lazy milk cows in the trail. Maybe eight or nine bison, including a calf or two. I’m terrible at judging distance. Perhaps the bison were 150 yards ahead of us.
“What do you think we should do?” Steve said.
There was no alternative way back to our car at the top of Tower Fall. The swiftness of the ‘Stone’ and its slippery rocky bottom was too treacherous to cross, even (or especially) with waders. And there was no route around herd to get to the switchback that would take us to the top of the canyon. There was no going back upriver. Darkness was falling.
“Let’s keep walking,” I said. “They’ll get up and move up the ravine.”
We did, and they did. Well, at least all of them except one. One of the bulls.
He did not appear overly anxious with our oncoming presence and when he finally scrambled to his feet, he switched his tail and began to saunter toward us.
It is now conventional wisdom that the male brain does not fully mature until its mid-twenties and even thirties, and my over confidence simply confirmed that the prefrontal cortex brains of our late forties had more room for development.
There was an uncomfortable and silent moment when Steve and I stared at each other, at the uncrossable river to our right, and at the oncoming bull, who seemed curious to meet his new trail mates.
We edged our way the few feet off the trail to the bank of the ’Stone and held our collective breath. We could wade out only a couple yards into the river before needing to turn back. There was no trail less traveled. There was no escape hatch.
I don’t remember who blinked. But at about 50 yards (again, I’m a lousy judge of distance, just as I am the size of trout I catch), the brawny beast simply switched its tail and turned up the ravine to catch up with the rest of the herd. Steve and I hiked in silence most of the rest of the way to the top of the canyon, which was still almost an hour away.
Like many guys, I’ve always found a greater sense of the grandeur of God while in the outdoors than while sitting on a pew in a church. The pew has its role, though maybe more of a kind of Puritan stocks to force discipline on my restless mind than anything else. And while feeling close to God in nature is always pleasant, there is another dark and important narrative to the outdoors. Beauty is over-rated when you think you’re going to die. I really could die out here.
There is the bison, the grizzly bear, the snow squall, the slip of your boots while wading into the ‘Stone, the rattle snake bite with no bite kit, or the turn of an ankle four miles upriver with no cell coverage.
It’s not morbid, just a reality that strangely helps me see the tenuousness and beauty of life.