Thanks to very spotty wifi at the little hotel I’ve landed in, in Gardiner, MT, I haven’t been able to post for the past couple of days. That’s ok, it’s given me more time to think and experience this adventure I wanted. I keep telling friends that I’m “free falling”… Tom Petty wasn’t my inspiration, but the lyrics: “I wanna free fall out into nothin’, Gonna leave this world for awhile, And I’m free, I’m free fallin'”, do suit me right now. I’ve left my world for a while and I’m just taking it as it comes. Exploring Yellowstone Nat. Park at my own speed.
Freedom is an interesting thing. This probably takes me out of the running for mother of the year, or best wife acollades either, but I don’t really miss my family. I love them, but I don’t miss them. As I drive along all day, alone in my car, I love the freedom: listening to whatever I want on the iPod; turning down whichever road inspires ME; choosing what to do and when to do it, without 4 arguments as to why another direction would be better. No doubt some would call it narcissistic, selfish. But for these 10 days, I’m not listening to those people. For these 10 days, I eat when I feel like it (and so far, Ritz crackers and Peanut butter have gotten me thru’ until dinner each night) and I don’t worry about much. Except bears.
Admittedly, bears have worried me a bit, they always have. But today, I woke with an anxious feeling about bears in the park. This prompted me to do a quick search of what to do, in my guide book and on line, if I were to encounter a bear, out hiking alone in the park. I also checked with my trusty host, at the little motel I’m at. He told me, in typical Montana fashion “Yep, there are a lot of bears right now. Bit of a problem for sure.” However, hiking alone is one of the things I wanted to challenge myself to do and my fear is not new to Yellowstone. I’ve always been a bit nervous about bears and mt. lions.
So, I did some research and actually found myself practicing the suggested position that is recommended in the event of a grizzly attack: hands around head, elbows in front of your face… yes, that is possible, but awkward… in a fetal position. This by the way is only for Grizzlies. If a grizzly attacks, you face it and don’t run. You yell. They often charge and then retreat. The book noted that this would take a great deal of courage. Um, yea. With black bears, you do not take this position, because ironically, when a black bear attacks they tend to be more violent and see you as prey. This, by the way came as a surprise to me. As I set out hiking today, I hoped to see no bears, grizzly or black, while on the trail. A sighting from the car, at a photogenic distance, was much desired.
It’s one thing to brag about choosing the road, food or music you want and being all independent and free while driving: knowing that you have enough Ritz, peanut butter, hot tamales, and water to survive, should that freak storm arrive, when you’ve taken the wrong road and are stuck, and your cell doesn’t work, and you think you may not be found… I have big balls in those circumstances. I even stopped by a high mt stream, with no one around, and took a swim. There were small rapids and I decided to float down stream. Admittedly, when I sunk for a second, it occurred to me that I hoped a car would come by… in case I really was drowning. I exited the water invigorated, cooler (in every sense) and with a small bruise on my ankle, from a tree I hit. But I walked back upstream and did it again, 3 times. When a group of twenty somethings stopped, they were pretty shocked to see me come floating around the bend… but I had them all in the water in about 10 minutes. Yes, it’s easy to be independent when the field seems safe.
However, I have to also admit to much more trepidation and some mild anxiety, when I set out on a 2 mile hike to a water fall. The idea of bears came back to me (not to mention elk, bison and other killers) and it suddenly struck me that I never go hiking alone, at home. I am always with one of my kids or my husband. Frankly, I rarely have much choice in those hikes. I can say whether I’ll go or not, but my husband does seem to pick most of our hikes. I have asked him whether he is actually much worse with maps than he admits, or whether he’s a bold faced liar, each time he tells me there will be limited elevation (climbing) and nice easy trails. I always find myself on some killer switch back, huffing and puffing and whining away. Swearing and cursing myself for not choosing the trail myself. I seem to just hand over the rains, and then complain about the outcome. For the record, he admitted to both: perhaps not reading the maps as well as he likes to believe, and lying to get the hike he wants. I still fall in to the same trap each time… swearing all the way up and exhilerated when I get there.
That my friends is where freedom can be a bitch. If YOU are making all the choices, you can’t blame anyone else when you miss the turn, or end up on a hot trail that doesn’t go where you hoped. You can’t ask someone else if they think there might really be bears on this trail, or whether this seems like the right direction. It’s all squarely on my shoulders and I can only bitch at myself. I can’t deny a moment of goose bumps when I saw a bear track in the mud near one of the geysers, on a long trail I took. There were other people, theoretically, but there were long gaps when no one was there, and I wondered if I would really have the courage to stand and face a charging bear. For the other record: I don’t think so.
As I passed other families, part of me couldn’t help but think about what my own kids would or wouldn’t like about this adventure. Who would complain and who would be as amazed as I am at what I’m seeing. In those moments, I don’t know if it was actually missing, but it registered that I am in a different skin this week. Lots of people like to say hi out here and many ask if I’m alone. It occurs to me several times a day that I’m doing many of the things that I’ve warned my kids of for years… talking to strangers and telling them “where I live.” Not literally, but who knows if that nice guy who stopped to chat with me while I ate my solitary lunch today, is really a nice guy from “Missura” or the stranger I’ve warned my kids about. You start to notice anyone who ends up at more than one of the same stops as you, in the course of a day. At one point, a young guy who had been on “my” same tour most of the day, finally said hi and we each took a picture for the other one. (That is another thing about being solo: you don’t end up in many of your own pictures). As a woman alone, I definitely have to think twice about a few more things.
I wonder if I should feel more guilty in enjoying my carefree ramblings, than I do. Am I a bad mom for not missing my kids more? A few people who have struck up conversations seem to register an odd expression when I tell them I’m taking time away from home and hearth. Am I reading too much in to their expressions? Some women have said “lucky you!” as they grapple with crying little ones and sullen teens. I do feel lucky. I would be a big, fat liar if I didn’t say I don’t think about my own and my husband. I have been a mom for 21 years now and married for 25. It has become part of me that is impossible to truly leave at home. Some of the connections are unconscious, they just are there. “AJ would love this; EL would love that; I’d like to show EM this”… not fully expressed thoughts, but mere whispers in my mind. Their presence there, whether I invite it or not.
But as I drive, listening to U2s Wild Honey, or Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life (so cliche,but spectacular crossing a wide, sweeping vista), or any other song I choose and sing along to, turning off whenever a sign or road catches my interest, I do not miss anyone. I am grinning like a Cheshire Cat and enjoying the day.
The bear. Tonight, when I finally made it back to Gardiner (a tiny little town just a half mile from the North entrance) and had settled down at the local restaurant I like, I used my cell phone to check up on emails and messages. With a pint of local beer and a steak, and a rainbow across the wide field I was looking at, life looked pretty golden and freedom was sweet. On my facebook page were several notes from friends, the last three asking me (fairly anxiously ) if I was ok. One friend had made a comment about a bear attack… which, I actually thought was a joke. Until other posts popped up asking me if I was ok. I quickly checked the online news, to see that a middle aged man, hiking with his wife, was attacked and killed by a grizzly, in the exact area I was exploring today. Of note, hundreds of other travelers were exploring there too (it’s a crowded park)…. but I did have some moments today when I was totally alone. The poor wife who survived this attack– she was grabbed by the bear but was thrown down. Her husband yelled run (which, by the way they advice not to do… but again, courage would fail most of us given those circumstances) and he was killed, while she ran for help.
Thank goodness, there was also an email from the director of the program that my youngest, AJ, is doing in the back country of Yellowstone. He was very worried about bears, and I reassured him that it was unlikely he’d even see one. It was a huge relief to get the email, right after seeing the story. The director reassured us all that in 39 yrs, their groups have never had to use their bear mace and that they are always in large groups, and well trained in bear encounters. Just the same, I am hoping that AJ did not hear about this story. I know it will scare him, and that is something that I will think about now. It’s instinct. The bear killed the man to protect her cubs. I worry about my son being scared, because, well, I’m a mom…. instinct.
The story brought me crashing back to reality for a big chunk of my dinner. In addition to thinking about AJ and hoping that he wasn’t scared out there, that he’s having all the fun we wanted him to have, it brought my fears front and center. What would I have done if I’d happened upon this same bear and her cubs. Would I have been more prepared, because I had done my research? Or, would I be dead, because I’m “free falling” and there would have been no spouse to yell “run”? Would my spouse actually yell run, or would he run ahead? He’s been known to. Would freedom have cost me more than this adventure is worth?
Though I had asked for a small beer, I drank the entire pint that the waiter brought by accident, and decided that maybe I’ll stick to freedom in my car for the duration. I will hike, but will choose only the well constructed board walks that abound in this park. I will be a little more nervous, so I might just cosy up to other families, and while on the trails, pretend I’m free. The reality: my freedom just took a small detour.