In 1997, I began writing an autobiography of my summers in Yellowstone. Though I never finished, I managed to write most of the chapters from my first summer in 1993 as well as a chapter of my second summer in 1994. It has been almost four years since I wrote my last chapter, that is, until today. I am re-publishing the new chapter below, though, to get a better sense of it, it helps to read the autobiography, especially Chapter 10 and Chapter 16 from 1993.
Before there was Socrates, there lived another Greek thinker named Heracleitus, who likened Being to Fire. Some claim that Heracleitus also said that we could not step in the same river twice, but I think that’s misleading. In the fragments of Heracleitus that survive, he equated that same river with a raging fire, which in essence is the rationale, the logos upon which any being and its opposite burn, melt, and transform. Heracleitus's unique idea is that the ground of Being is essentially a dynamic and transformative force rather than merely a tablet written on stone.
Yet, Fire is not merely the ground of Being; Being itself is that Fire. However, one cannot simply think about what any being is without at the same time both thinking of what it is not as well as what gives rise to it. Fire is essentially all these things; a transformative force, a being in its own right, and the changing context in which it burns. For being so erratic, it is a remarkably stable notion. God (Fire) in three persons; blessed trinity!
Now, why have I gone off like this again? I did not even read the fragments of Heracleitus, Empedocles, Parmenides, and others until several months after the summer of 1994. Heracleitus was not in Yellowstone with me in 1994; and as for Fire, the famous fires of Yellowstone were in 1988. The tale of the Young Romantics this summer will be a disappointing metaphorical flicker at most, a campfire that extinguished itself less than 7 days after it started. I think that Heracleitus has come to mind here for a whole host of reasons that will be hard to get at in a concise matter, but there are embers giving rise to this conflagration. Among them is the idea that my life and my ideas about things have been a fire all unto themselves. While I remain James Stewart Macdonald Jr.--Jim for short--very little about life has been the same in the long time spans between the writing of chapters, between the inspiration for writing subsequent chapters, and between further episodes involving the Young Romantics. This autobiography has been part of my own story. People read these chapters, they are inspired by them, and we try to carry forward some of the inspiring ideas inside. The Young Romantics met twice in 2003, for instance, and both times the “most profound idea” I had ever had was so revoltingly bad in its effect that one begins to question the whole rise of the idea itself. In previous chapters covering 1993, I talked often about “pure” experiences, as though there are such things. I foreshadow plots later in my life that have long since passed into new plots. A book like this has not been a snapshot but a strange and fitful conflagration, and yet some logic is holding it together. Things not only burn intensely, they themselves are the fire which burns.
In a nutshell, I am changed, my world has changed repeatedly, my ideas have changed, and my memory has faded; nevertheless, here I am writing within the confines of an organizational structure that I set up with a different purpose and a different motivating passion guiding it. When I began this story, I wrote to convey Yellowstone in a manner it had not been conveyed before and to tell the story of a boy growing up as he discovered something completely different and magical. I wrote subsequent chapters several years later to convey some of the story’s compelling moments mostly so that others I was in touch with at that time might be inspired and moved. That inspiring contact with others motivated me during a very difficult period of my life in late 2002, but the writing was also informed by my doctoral studies in philosophy where I lived in a world of Heracleitus, Plato, Leibniz, and others. I told the story from a distance while missing Wonderland and during a time when many of my dreams seemed to be crashing around me. Now, years later in late 2006, why I write this chapter is no different, although I am different. I have met a person who inspires me, who is inspired by me, and I am moved by a magic altogether different. At the same time, I am more cynical about my past, more informed by the injustices of the world that had once inspired me, and I find myself more and more in a crisis of faith not entirely unlike the crisis of faith that Price felt in 1993.
Now, how can we make sense of this all in one narrative? Fire. The narrative is about one life, re-interpreted throughout the changing of that life, in a land of volcanic fury, a land which is extinguished by continuing human vanity and that is dramatically re-ignited by the dynamic process that gives rise to the dreamer and the skeptic, who are found alike in one person. Who is the romantic and the realist but me? Oh Christ, did I just write that?!
Yet, you can tell I haven’t changed that much, eh?
So, what fire was there on a cold night in June 1994? What dreams were there, and how did they come true if only for less than a week?
When I write the preceding chapters to this, you will again see the one dominant theme facing me, that being my romantic loneliness. Since I intend at some point to write those chapters, I have to anticipate that it is not worth rehashing the details of Paula and Susanna and Diana and the roles they played in 1994 prior to this chapter. The point was that I was extremely frustrated romantically but very easily attracted. At age 20, I had never been on one date; I had never even had the opportunity of turning one down. It was frankly all I could think about most of the time. During those early days of the summer, I felt the hope of possibility. What I had no idea was whether any of it would come to fruition or how. In fact, I had little confidence in anything happening, but I always hoped for it.
However, I was not entirely lacking in confidence about everything in my life.
Almost immediately upon my return to Yellowstone, I said to Price, “We’re going to start right away with a meeting of the Young Romantics.” In my tone was none of last year’s worry that I could never pull the idea off. Having returned to Yellowstone and now surrounded by a large number of new young people, I had a confidence I had rarely had up to that time in my life. I was no longer someone new; rather, I was someone that people knew, respected, and some say loved. Without a doubt, here was my first chance to make the Young Romantics work the way it was intended, with a group of people who met regularly to strive and reach together for each other’s dreams. Price, as one might expect, was enthusiastic about the idea.
It did not take us long to find others enthusiastic to join in, and in fact, we had to cut the number of participants down, though I am not altogether sure in my memory who it was we ultimately turned down for the first meeting of the Young Romantics. Chris comes to mind, but I cannot say for sure.
What an exciting possibility this was for me. For once in life to have people around like Price, Denise, Jake, and Kim--who were the people comprising the other Young Romantics--as well as all the other friends I was collecting around me, was a welcome and pleasant change to my life. This was the summer of the greatest sustained social interaction that my life had ever seen up to that point; it would be many years before I had more people around me ever again. Now, it might be possible to make the Young Romantics work, to have multiple versions of it going on at the same time, and to explore Yellowstone in romantic grandeur. It sure looked like everything was going to work out and that the Crazy Monday nights of the past would simply continue on into this year.
Of course, I have already mentioned that that is not how things turned out.
At the root of the cancer in the Young Romantics idea was my heart. The reason that the Young Romantics had come off so well the previous summer was that it was one of the only times in my life that I wasn’t in love with someone or desperately hoping that someone fall in love with me. I came into that cave with two young men, and none of us so much as mentioned any romantic aspirations. However, that was the only Young Romantics meeting where that was true. In fact, in Matt’s basement, I had already developed a crush on Noelle, who was supposed to be a Young Romantic. In later attempts at this idea in more recent years, my heart was overwhelmed with one of the participants, and one cannot say that that did not serve as a big part of the subtext as to why the whole thing was bound to fail. At some point, dreams come into conflict, and higher intensities take over. This particular version of the Young Romantics had little to do with who I was interested in but a lot to do with my extreme angst at having never been with anyone at all. As we shall see, that played out in its own peculiar way, and ultimately that bore some bad fruit for the Young Romantics in 1994.
So, this chapter is not a plot mystery in terms of the final place. Although we will not get there in this chapter, it is the story of dynamism in a moment, which foreshadows a massive dousing of the flames, a place where depression comes full circle again.
What frustrates me more than anything was that it was such a beautiful moment! Why did it all have to end up this way?
On a Monday night in June--my best guess is June 20--the five of us set off in my parents’ Mercury Topaz headed back to the cave in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. For the first time, we had pretty good gender balance in the group. For the first time, I was not the only person in the group who had been a part of the Young Romantics experience. There was a deep sense that this was something special; it had to have come across that way because we had to limit the numbers who were coming along. I had a tangible excitement at knowing I would soon get to learn people I did not know very well much better than I had. Who was Jake? Who was Denise? Yes, Kim and I had spoken one night recently until 4 AM, but I certainly did not know her. How would Price be now that his journey had gone from being raised Catholic, to Taoism, to hopelessly confused, to being drawn into fundamentalist Christianity--much more to the right than I would ever come close to finding myself? And, now that I was more agitated and less inclined simply to be happy that the Young Romantics was happening, what would become of these romantic dreams? Could these people help? It seemed a blessing to me that Diana was not coming along, even though I had so wanted her to come, because there was definitely a deep attraction I felt with her. That was not lost on me even then; I knew that my own romantic impulses could have the kinds of impacts on the group that in fact happened time and time again.
The night was clear and very cold; this is an important fact for understanding the evening.
Despite so many strong memories of the day, I have no memory whatsoever of the journey to the cave. While I can remember the intensity of the car ride to and from Moose Falls not more than a couple days before, I cannot remember this ride, even though I think I was the one driving the car.
Near the cave, things started to get interesting. More than once, we had told people that the journey to the cave was dangerous but manageable; however, I think we perhaps did not emphasize the danger adequately enough. While most of us did not have a great deal of trouble navigating the precision leaps in the dark, we did find some significant problems. Denise, first of all, dropped her camera onto the right side of the canyon. The drop into the canyon from that side wasn’t complete, and we could see the camera along the side of the cliff; however, it was far too dangerous to try and retrieve it about 8-10 feet below. That was the least of our problems, however. The journey to the cave terrified Kim. It looked at points as though we would not be able to coax her or help her across the various platforms and then down into the cave. She shook like a leaf; I can’t remember if she started crying. When she finally had been helped safely into the cave, we were all relieved.
Kim sat down next to me, and I asked her how she was. She immediately hit me very hard and said, “You didn’t tell me how dangerous this was!” I was taken aback and told her that I was sorry that we didn’t communicate well enough but that it was okay and that she was safe. She remained angry with me, though ready to move on and be done with it. In a way, that was inspiring to me because she chose to persevere in spite of her enormous fear and didn’t want to get in the way. At the same time, I felt very hurt for the next couple of hours and wished that I hadn’t been the cause of so much stress for her.
That began a dramatic and intense evening.
The year before, Price had sat very close to the bottom opening of the cave, where it descends without stop down into the bottom of the canyon. He sat in a position that to this day I would never dare go up to for fear of falling out. I had sat on a natural seat a couple feet from him while Reuben had mostly stood above us, often grunting and making noises to deflect both his weariness and the cold. He was the most restless of us all that night. This night, we did not sit in the same place. About halfway along the cave, there is a natural little seat, enough for about 2 people to sit. That’s where Kim and I sat. Price, Denise, and Jake were all up towards the upper opening of the cave. Before the end of the night, as the night grew colder, we grew much closer together. All five of us were like cheetahs on top of each other, entirely entwined, in the closest possible quarters, keeping each other warm as we continued our conversation.
Our conversation went on for several hours, and again I do not dare share that many of the intimate details, which will have to remain in the memories of the participants. However, in order to paint an adequate picture, one must grasp the time, the orderliness of it, and the increasing change in group chemistry. We began mostly as relative strangers; only Price and I were very close. We left with the idea that we had been through one of the most special and intense times of our lives. Now, how can I convey this in this paper to you viewing this on a computer screen or on printed paper, without pictures, and without all the details? You don’t even know where this cave is!
With that small challenge, let me try. The night began as most Young Romantics nights began, with me talking about the history of the group, the rules of the group, making sure that people understood and accepted the rules of complete openness and honesty, and then going over the questionnaire, which served as the icebreaker. We began to know what each other thought was romantic, what movies and television shows we liked, what we liked to eat, and all the things that seemed to take on a new meaning in this context. While many of these things are common conversation talk, they take on a new meaning in a culture that mandates acceptance, in which the participants come in with a mind that they will care for others who are also demanded to care for them. It opens up possibilities and our minds to things we might not otherwise like. There is something forced and artificial about the entire idea, and yet it seemed to melt away a lot of the forced and artificial distinctions by which we judge other people. If someone shares with you something you hate but you are told you must accept, you begin to question whether you had any sound reason to hate the thing in the first place. Being from Ohio, I was almost bound to hate people from Michigan, but why? That is an easy example to overcome, but we would be surprised how often we build artificial moral values around things which are essentially tastes and habits. The questionnaire, as simple as it was, in this context, always seemed to force us to care in spite of our previous inclinations and habits. I think that will always be a beautiful idea that came out of this process.
What was most memorable about the night, though, were people talking about their dreams, especially the challenges that faced them in realizing their dreams. I will not share what those are, and you know what mine was. I spoke openly and honestly, my voice shaking this time, talking about all of my romantic failures, about how I wondered dearly whether there was a person for me. I simply did not know whether there was and even doubted whether these people could possibly help.
I should also note how different Price was this evening over the previous time. He was happy; he could not have been more content and more at peace with himself, especially compared with the year before. He was thoughtful, helpful, and wondered aloud what might be possible in aiding dreams, even as his hope was as simple to continue down his current path.
One thing became clear to me as the evening progressed, and other things began to confuse me. The thing that was clear was that Kim was clearly determined to do something special. She was taking note of everyone’s dreams and had taken it upon herself to make everyone’s dreams to come true. I cannot tell you how I realized that that was true, but I do know that she took active, sometimes anonymous steps to help other people out in the time that followed. Even so, I knew it then and there that she had this in mind, perhaps by some of things she was saying. Now, the more I realized this, the more confused emotionally I became. The evening grew colder, we all grew closer, and yet when you have five people huddled over an area of about four feet, how is it possible that two of those people might be growing yet closer still, not simply physically but emotionally as well? I could not understand what was happening, but it was clear that Kim’s anger toward me was wearing off, her fondness was growing, and I was ready and willing to begin feeling the same thing. We did not need to be exchanging a single word; what was this mysterious chemistry? Could I trust it? I was never altogether sure of what I was feeling, but I sensed her very strongly.
So, as the night went on and we continued to all share and all talk about the future and how we might plan, another thing started happening. The group was asserting its own ownership over the process. I was no longer the guru of the Young Romantics. Jake and Denise offered input and shared a vision of what they thought the group should be. They did not want to open it to other people, and they believed that other groups should form separately. We set plans for another meeting, for talking about how to move forward on our hopes, dreams, and fears. We even set a next time and place, at Moose Falls the following Monday evening. At times, I found things I had suggested turned down. This was all wonderful to me.
We were all so cold, but we felt like we were on fire. This cave proved to be the ultimate oven of extraordinary magic. As I remember it, I can almost believe that maybe we had a chance to have done something more with our fledgling little group of dreamers.
Eventually, we had to leave the cave, which meant that Kim was forced to face her immediate fears again. Now, in a way that did not exist inside of me earlier in the evening, I became extremely concerned about her and was at her side every step of the way as she froze up and struggled to make it across the short obstacle course. It was not much easier for her than the way into the cave. However, when she finally was safe, this time there was no anger from her. I was so happy for her, so glad that she could face those fears and move forward. This was Kim at the very best I ever saw her, but I did not know her well enough at that moment to understand that this was more of a peak than a starting place.
We began to drive home to Grant Village but decided that it was worth driving to West Thumb in order to see the sunrise come over Yellowstone Lake and the Absaroka Mountains. These are moments I will never forget. When we arrived at West Thumb, at first we all walked together along the boardwalk moving right along the boardwalk. Kim and I soon found ourselves alone and talking. “What’s happening?” We talked cryptically around what was certainly happening. We were falling for each other; the strange chemistry was happening, but for the first time in my life, it wasn’t just happening to me. Even so, we talked around it. We hadn’t shared that many words the whole evening, and yet we knew what was going on – we just couldn’t say it. She seemed almost to be trembling, though I knew she had been in multiple relationships before.
Beyond us, the sun had not yet risen, and the mountains and clouds to the east looked black with a bright orange sky on the horizon. The clouds, as I mentioned, were black puffs in this orange sky. The early morning water reflected these colors magically, but I will never forget that soft orange and puffy black sky or the steam all around us. In fact, it was especially steamy because of the bitter chill in the air. In my heart, I did not feel a chill, just a sudden and confused excitement, like I was riding up into Cloud 9. Or, was that the underside of Cloud 42? I could not be sure. Suddenly, things in my life I never felt possible seemed like they might be this close to happening.
We all descended around the bright blue hot steamy waters of Black Pool and watched the sun rise. All five of us were there at that spot, but two of us stood closer together. During those moments, Kim and I decided that we would need to return that evening to continue the conversation.
I no longer seemed particularly interested in the Young Romantics.
When Price and I arrived back in our room just before I walked back out the door to go to work, I told him what I thought was happening, which of course he could see for himself. He became so elated for me. I remember how his voice would get, almost high and goofy when he was happy about something. Of course, there was the slightest chance that I was wrong, but somehow I knew that this one time I was not wrong. Even though I had had no sleep, you could not have found someone more wide awake.
Perhaps, I was this close to finding my very first girlfriend.
And yet, if you had asked me before the night started who I most liked, Kim would have not been the person at the top of my list.
Thus, as you can see there was all kinds of fire in the cold. It did not take the fire of the sun to burn a new direction in my heart. It did not take the heat of the supervolcano in order to draw five people into a closer bond. Yet, the raging fire of the Young Romantics in the cave of Yellowstone National Park has a rather sour feel to it. Something was perhaps very wrong in this emotional tinder box to think that it was something that could regularly ignite without burning a lot of other things down besides. Are those moments really as precious as they sound? I think that maybe they are not. Yes, for a night, they are wondrous, and perhaps for some nights to follow. However, we do not fill up the story with every tree that burns in this uncontrolled blaze. We think that nature will run its course and set everything in balance. Well, it will not necessarily set everything in balance, and it’s pretty sour grapes for what does get burned just so that we can salvage some integrity to an idea that causes such destruction. I mean, if we are to exempt the Young Romantics from the scourge of its consequences, are we to do the same with war? Are we to suppose that it’s okay when millions of people die just so we can save some great idea? In the moments that are not magical, we do not see how the magic can pierce and destroy and wreak all kinds of havoc, and who are we to try to figure out whether this was a blaze that should ever have been set?
And yet, that night was one of the most amazing in my entire life, even more amazing to me than the first Young Romantics meeting in that very cave! So, what is the truth that allows both intuitions their place? Is there one? I am so hopelessly confused about my autobiographical experience. I want to try this again, but I don't want to go through this again. I can’t pretend that a dream is something that can be managed without succumbing to a fair amount of its wild consequences. Or, perhaps, that is the answer? Perhaps, if we can give up the pretending, we can dream again under the bitter cold flames of this cave and live with what may come. I think maybe that’s it.
I will not abandon dear friends in the name of mutual safety; instead, I will abandon the idea that dear friends can control the outcome of their destiny. Dreams being what they are, they flirt around mysteriously intoxicating us. We cannot harness them like people harness electricity from the waters of the poor Columbia River. They will burn through our dams much more often than not. Instead, we must simply stumble along and do our best. It’s pretty fucking awful when our dreams fail; it’s worse when we try to stop them from happening again.
We will not stop striving for our dreams; the disaster that is the Young Romantics is likely to meet again. Who knows what will happen? A wild, chaotic force created the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone not more than 20,000 years ago. Our cave will crumble, so will we, some of us in a blaze of fire--often of our own making.
That’s not nearly so ugly as it sounds; now, I can’t wait to return to the cave, and I can’t wait for another meeting born of my own wild desperation. So, I wonder where my four friends are today, even my once dear Kim. So, what happened? I cannot help but wonder how many years will pass until that story burns itself into the mortal life of these particular pages, and what will set me on fire to write them? Today, in 2006, I am on fire, and though there is plenty of pain to come in ways I cannot possibly see, I don't think I would have it be any other way.