I have been coming to Yellowstone for 22 years, and what strikes me about my writings related to those early times
was just how scared I was of everyone around me. While there are so many ways that the boy I was became a large part of the man that I am, there are many significant ways where I diverged and became a much stronger and confident person. Looking backward, I can point to moments in my life that built, one stone at a time, the man that I've become.
One word we use for being scared is petrified, which literally means being turned to stone. Now, I did not literally turn to stone, though there are moments in my life that image would come to mind
. My lack of confidence and assertiveness were so paralyzing at times that I might as well have been a rock. When I came to Yellowstone, I had never had a girlfriend or been on a date, and I felt incompetent in the work environment. One reason I had trouble finding work was that I was scared to look for it, afraid that I would be humiliated by the experience, much as I was during my first work experience at age 16. Now, there were plenty of areas where I had confidence - school, athletics, and (strangely enough) public speaking and acting - but in the aspects of being human where there was no script, I had great difficulty acting the part while staying true to my sense of morality. It was hard to know how to be myself as a non-drinker, non-smoker, non-drug user, spiritual, politically radical young adult who cared about the world and really wanted to do good, all while overcoming plenty of shortcomings, especially as it related to applying all those high ideals into knowing how to care for people. I always felt different and tended to have a bad judgmental streak toward others. It all contributed to this deep paralysis inside me - as if even if I did my best with social interactions, I was bound to fail - isn't that the lesson I always drew from rooting for my favorite, perpetually failing Cleveland sports teams
Life provides many opportunities to find our footing, to grow, and therefore to show that we are in fact living flesh and bone - rather than stone. Over the years, I have fortunately seized many of those opportunities to find my footing and therefore become a happy father, a loving mate, an adventurous soul, an activist organizer and leader, a writer, a dancer, and a baker. However, most importantly, I also learned how to be a friend - that is, someone who can help others find their footing and that sense of safety.
One moment that I look back to on that path occurred in the summer of 1994 during my second summer working in Yellowstone.
Many things happened to me that summer - the first of which being a brief romance with a young woman whom I still consider my first girlfriend, though it lasted only six incredibly riveting days. It may have been only six days, but a lot changed in me from that moment on. I knew I could be wanted that way by someone, could have incredibly romantic experiences (imagine cuddling all night on a geyser boardwalk as elk bugle and as thermal water steams and sizzles around you - imagine if that were the location of your first kiss). After that, I knew that life had a lot more to offer me.
One smaller event may have been just as significant in its own way; it was only a brief moment on a hike that otherwise proved to be unsuccessful. However, I think that moment helped set the stage for becoming the man I have worked so hard at being.
In 1994, my hiking companion and I attempted to discover Yellowstone's petrified forest. I re-journeyed that same hike only two days ago.
I did not know then as I know now that "Yellowstone's petrified forest" is a misnomer in a lot of ways - one being that the Yellowstone area does not simply have one petrified forest. It has many areas with petrified trees, so many in fact that I have heard that there are more than what you find in the famed Petrified Forest in Arizona.
Another distinguishing fact over the more famous Arizona "forest" is that - unlike Arizona's - Yellowstone's actually have many standing petrified trees. Yellowstone has so many marvels like this, honestly, that are incredibly spectacular but go largely unnoticed because Yellowstone simply has so many volumes of wonders that many that would be the pride of entire states go largely anonymous here.
The anonymity, though, of Yellowstone's petrified forests has a much more obvious reason. The Park Service would rather you not know that these trees exist because people often have taken the petrified wood for themselves. Anyone who has driven through the northern part of Yellowstone near Tower Junction surely has seen the sign for the famous petrified redwood tree (no, there are not living redwoods in Yellowstone). What many may not realize is that there used to be other petrified trees at this spot that were subsequently stolen. After so much vandalism of petrified wood, the Park Service is loathe to admit to tourists that the forests exist, and you will not find a trail marked telling you where to find them. A woman I met on the trail to the trees said that she could get no information either from rangers or from workers in the concessionaires about the trees.
Yet, once one discovers that there are petrified trees, and standing trees at that, and that they are more impressive than what you will find at Petrified Forest National Park, how can you not want to go see some of them for yourself? That they are hidden and hard to find makes it all the more exciting. We were always meant to eat that forbidden fruit, weren't we? How would we ever grow up in our relationships if we did not? Only as we grow up do we understand better.
In 1994, I set out to find the petrified forest with my hiking companion, Sarah.
Sarah - I came to believe later - developed a crush on me. She was an odd girl to say the least. One might have actually thought she might be the petrified person of the story, as her personality was unusually and almost fiercely blank. She was someone who did not express emotions, particularly happy ones. I do not remember Sarah joking or smiling; she willfully tried to convince the world that she was devoid of any warmth in her personality, that she was essentially a machine. She was from England, and it is rather strange to hear an English accent with no sense of feeling in it. For some reason, I took enjoyment in hanging out with her. It's not that she was mean or angry or particularly rude (though she may have had her moments), it's that she simply - to a comic extent - refused to take down the wall that would allow for normal conversation. Because I had some unusually successful social relationships that summer, I was far less shy than normal. So, I took to hanging out with Sarah and her coworkers and would almost tease Sarah relentlessly trying to show her that I saw cracks in her stony demeanor. That I enjoyed her company despite how she was, cracks did show. I was finally able to get her to smile at times; consequently, she willingly accompanied me when I would go for one of my many drives to somewhere else in the park.
Let me share one small anecdote about Sarah to illustrate her eccentric behavior. Once - to my shock - she nonchalantly and without warning decided to take off her clothes and change while I was in the room; I turned my head so fast that I saw nothing. At the time, I thought it might be some cultural difference that women from England were comfortable changing in front of men. I learned later from an English female friend who claimed that was definitely not the case.
Anyhow, I enjoyed my strange friend, though I never thought of her romantically in the least - it's hard for me to connect that way with someone who is so difficult to have a normal conversation with.
One day, I invited her to go hiking with me to Yellowstone's petrified forest, after learning something about its general location.
Now, if you think I'm going to tell you where it is, you are mistaken. You can surely find that information elsewhere, but I am not going to turn this story into a trail guide - my own protective instincts are at work, the same ones I was about to discover I had even then.
When Sarah and I began the hike, the key moment happened almost immediately. As we were hiking, about 150 yards away, a large herd of bison were heading in the opposite direction crossing the main road. Sarah already was becoming uncharacteristically nervous, and this was surprising from a woman who had expressed to me in her bland demeanor that she had no care of whether she was alive or dead. At that moment, I found myself calmly telling her just to keep hiking and that we would be fine. Then, the last buffalo in the herd - a big bull - turned toward us, his body directly facing us. Sarah began to panic - she was shaking and asking me in a panicked voice what we should do. Now, how was I supposed to know what we were supposed to do? Did she think that I'd ever had a buffalo make what appeared to be a threatening gesture in my direction while I was on the trail? She was every bit as qualified as me in that moment to know what we were supposed to be doing. And nothing up to that moment in life had shown me that when push comes to shove, I wouldn't have been just as petrified as she was becoming in that moment.
However, I could see very clearly that Sarah needed me to lead in that moment, to be calm, to protect her, to protect us, and to provide safety. In that moment, for lack of a better way of putting it, she needed me to be a man - and not the indecisive and scared boy I often was. There was no script here. I had no idea what to do. Yet, in that moment, I did not hesitate. I immediately said to Sarah, "Keep hiking. If we keep hiking, we will get to the big rocks up ahead and can shield ourselves if he decides to charge us." She was almost paralyzed by fear - it was audible; this rock of a person had turned almost to tears, and was panting heavily. I had never seen anything like this transformation. But, I was the one really being transformed in a small way in that moment. I was able to get her to move, to keep walking, to keep her calm enough to keep moving and to trust me, to tell her that we were going to be fine, but that we just had to keep moving.
Now, as you might imagine, a buffalo from that far away is just making sure that we were no threat. There never was any real danger here. Eventually, he turned around and ran off to catch up with the herd. That herd, by the way, was amazing to watch. I saw one of them just run almost as if taken by joy at full speed. I had never seen a buffalo run at 30 mph until that day, and wow was it a sight to behold.
What I'm getting at here, though, was that I discovered something really important about myself - that in a moment where someone needed me to be strong, to be their rock, I could be that rock. I would not be petrified, and yet I would be their rock. Time and many events allowed that to be more consistent and not simply require a moment of crisis for that instinct to come out of me. Yet until that moment, I do not think there ever was a case where I was called upon to protect. However, in that moment, I did so without blinking. It has happened repeatedly throughout life - as I had to act when people would attempt suicide in my presence, or as I had to come to the aid of people who were injured or bleeding, or as I had to keep groups together in scary street protest situations facing antagonistic police officers, or as I found myself doing in numerous other situations. Here was a simple moment, but it began to teach me at least as much about myself as I had learned in discovering that I could have spectacularly romantic moments.
The rest of the hike was much more relaxed, even if ultimately unsuccessful. We found ourselves up on a ridge, and there was a man giving a tour and looking over a petrified log turned on its side, which was pretty cool. I asked him where we might find the forest, and he pointed to some trees and said something about the direction we should take. In the end, we climbed a lot and ended up on the top of a mountain with a great view of Mount Washburn, but we never saw anything else.
I didn't discover a petrified forest that day, but it was not lost on me that the event at the bottom of the mountain was significant. Though truthfully, I was as struck by the rare showing of emotion that Sarah showed me as by anything I had learned about myself. I used that knowledge to tell Sarah repeatedly that I knew that beneath her facade of stone, she was hiding a beautiful woman.
I may have accidentally laid that on too thick because when I left Yellowstone that summer and went back to college, one morning Sarah called me from Boston. This was shocking in itself because I had not heard from Sarah since leaving the park. Then, she proceeded to tell me in her normal nondescript voice that her hotel was on fire - at that very moment - and that she'd been evacuated from her room and had almost none of her things. You'd have thought it happened ten years ago by the tone of her voice. What's more, I was the first person in the world she thought to tell this information - not to her family, not to anyone back in England, but to me. I think it was that very moment where I realized, "Uh oh. She likes me." And, that's when I failed, and I became scared, and looking back, wow did I have a long ways to go to grow up into manhood. She wrote me letters in the following months that I would not even open - that's how uncomfortable I felt about not having similar feelings. Whatever I had gained from being there in a moment on the trail, you can see that there are many ways I was still far too small of a person. Who I am now would never shy from that moment, from that emotional reality, from any uncomfortable emotional situation where feelings did not quite match. Perhaps, I learned something from that failure, too. Sarah, if you see this for some reason, I am sorry, and I hope that you have found your own way into being the lovely woman I know you could become. Likewise, I want to thank you for unwittingly playing a small part in me becoming the man I am today.
Anyhow, a couple days ago, I returned to this trail searching for the petrified forest of Yellowstone.
I cannot enumerate all the ways I am different now, but this is what comes to mind. I chose to take this hike by myself, now 21 years older and with many life dramas leading me to this point - but happy to be hiking by myself and not the least bit concerned about whether I'd find what I was looking for. This is not to say that romance is dead in me, far from it - it's stronger than ever. What I am saying is that I am happy and content and strong in my own company. When people express to me worries about hiking alone, I smile and largely feel unconcerned or unworried about it. Yet, I take far more precautions and am far more prepared for what is about to face me. I had a good sense of where I was going, what I might face, and what I'd do if I faced it. All I'm saying is that though in some ways I feel like we are always growing up, I did feel like a grown man on the trail, and that's a very good feeling.
This time, when I set out to hike, there were no buffalo near me at the beginning of the hike. Things were not entirely as I remembered them. The boulders were there, but some of the memories of where things were get jumbled up with dozens and hundreds of other hikes through the years. All I could see was that I had to go up.
One thing that occurred to me when I was hiking was that I might have always suffered under an illusion. It was like a eureka moment that really helped me in the end find what I was looking for. I had always heard there was no trail to the petrified forest; what I should have realized was that there was no marked trail to the petrified forest. Of course, there would be a trail. And, when I disabused myself of that falsehood, all I had to do was discover the trail while keeping an open eye to any stand that looked like it might be a small stand of petrified wood.
The day was beautiful; a partly cloudy and cool day that soon felt hot as I climbed and climbed up the steep trail. I kept moving slowly and steadily up just wondering what I'd find, thinking back a lot on what I shared here. Yes, it was all present to me. How could it not be? I would meet a couple on the trail from Eureka, California (didn't I just use eureka in the last paragraph) who asked me if I'd ever been on the trail. I didn't hesitate to answer that I had tried the trail 21 years ago; it did not feel that long ago except when I think about all the many events of my life that have happened between these hikes. Writing this essay was on my mind, wondering where it would go. It was already just following the script that it has so far - I'm climbing and thinking of burning hotels and how to explain Sarah and how the play on the idea of "petrified" would become part of my writing.
Yet, things do go off script, thank goodness! Things happen that add to the experience and do not quite fit the script, things that we must live and react to. I climbed out of one stand of trees, and I saw a pronghorn antelope. He or she saw me, and then stared at me, and I couldn't see behind him or her. I wondered if she - perhaps - had a baby nearby, because this antelope was not going away and was right on the trail. I was thinking that the antelope seemed strangely big - when you see them from your car, they look so tiny. I was also thinking that if this animal decides it has young to protect, I don't stand a chance since pronghorn can run 60 mph. I once was bluff charged by an elk, where I immediately threw my body between the charging elk and my son as well as his mother, and that was pretty scary. However, knowledge told me it would be absurd to be charged by a pronghorn, even if this one did not seem to show the slightest bit of fear. So, I shook my head, laughed, and walked around off trail as the pronghorn decided to eat.
You can tell animals in Yellowstone are not accustomed to being hunted because this is pretty strange behavior by a wild animal in the presence of a human. Did he/she just say to himself/herself, "He smells like a vegetarian"? Or, perhaps, the animal just knew that I clearly meant no harm and could sense my guilt for disturbing breakfast.
That really struck me as I continued hiking - this idea that though I'm reliving my own rite of passage into manhood - that this mountain is home every day to all kinds of animals and plants that simply live without paying heed to some greater symbolism. It's a place to eat, sleep, survive. Soon, I saw a caterpillar on the ground just inching away, and it was remarkable to me that it probably had no concept on any of the things that draw people to this place.
This goes off script - I do not know how to tie it neatly to the narrative I carefully crafted, but I took in and enjoyed the moment, and so I report it here back to you.
I climbed further, and I saw my first petrified wood - against the side of this cliff - pretty substantial amount of wood turned to stone. It looks so much like wood, you have to touch it to convince yourself. Then, you see how clearly different it is from actual wood, and there's no mistaking it, but it is really incredible stuff, and you can see how it was wood and is now stone. As there was a lot of it there, I began to wonder if by standing trees, they simply meant little stumps here and there and that maybe this was all the forest really was. I didn't mind, either way, I was really enjoying the hike, but of course, I just kept going.
As I went up, I'd find more fossilized wood here and there but nothing as significant as a stand of trees. Then, I saw a group of cow elk, who saw me. These ones decided to run, and I really enjoyed watching them move. I continued to climb, and then I saw a trail that forked from the main trail and off into a wooded area. Something told me that this had to be it - that this had to be the trail to the so-called forest.
Yet, as I entered into the wood, I found the elk again, who ran, and there were also female bighorn sheep there, and the ewes apparently don't speak elk language, so when the elk ran toward them, the sheep decided to run from them. It occurred to me again that in the happy cartoons we see of forest life where somehow all the animals in the forest are able to speak to one another, that that worldview is utterly ridiculous. While not a new insight, witnessing firsthand evidence of it was immediately striking. A bighorn sheep is as clueless about what the elk are up to as a human is of what the elk are up to - we all speak wildly different languages. We really are disconnected and do not understand each other, and there is no secret society in the woods where Thumper and Bambi are all able to commune as man hunts on the edge of the woods. For all the interconnection of nature, there is a lot we cannot connect. Does the buffalo charge us or run to its herd? What was that pronghorn doing? Why did emotionless Sarah decide to fear for her life in that moment and rely on me to protect her? What makes the bighorn sheep near the petrified wood become petrified by the movement of elk and yet remain perfectly calm when they saw me?
And yes, that's what happened, as I kept moving into the wood, I soon saw some of the sheep again just looking at me. I was hoping that they might scurry off as I knew I was nearing the edge of the cliff and had to be nearing petrified trees - how I knew this I wasn't so sure. They did not. They just looked at me, almost as if puzzled. It was like, "Who is this stranger in our home?" I felt nervous about it, again worried about a situation where an animal backed into a corner might lash back, even if I don't recall anyone ever mentioning being attacked by bighorn sheep. Still, young were involved, and this may have been their most private area for the time being. Bighorn sheep migrate, but they consistently migrate to the same areas. I was so close to seeing the petrified wood, and yet I did not want to be charged by a sheep any more than I wanted to be charged by that buffalo 21 years prior.
They were so beautiful, though. I was behind some trees and snapped pictures of them. Ultimately, I realized that they were pretty calm, but I remained wary. I edged along the forest closer to the cliff. Then, I saw a huge petrified stump. I looked to my right, and below me I saw yet another bighorn sheep - so bummer, I was now really between them, and that was not a great feeling, but they didn't budge. So, I inched a few feet more and saw near that sheep a couple large standing petrified trees. There was evidence that much more was there, but that's all that was visible. That's all I could safely see, and I wanted to give the sheep back their area. I snapped another picture that I thought was awesome with the one sheep and the petrified trees.
All of this was going well beyond what I expected from my experience, and I was loving it - I was loving the new information, the new situations, the encounters with wildlife - the preeminent wildlife of pre-park Yellowstone - the bighorn sheep - in the prehistoric forest.
I climbed to the top and had a magnificent view of the northern part of Yellowstone, including Mount Washburn. It was already such an epic hike for me - tying my past to my present, adding small new sublime moments with my gentle wildlife encounters. At this point, when I saw another bighorn near the peak, I did not worry - they clearly were going to stay gentle. Nevertheless, I kept my space and did everything I could to remain respectful.
On the way down, many of the bighorn had moved on to the trail, so, I found another route down, which led me to another trail back into the so-called forest (it is hard to call a few standing trees a forest, though I could tell there were many, many more trees along the surface or beneath my feet buried in the ground). So, I went back, this time without bighorn sheep on the trail, but each time that I thought I was alone, I'd look out at a petrified area and see yet another sheep. They blended in so well with the landscape. I was able to get closer to the large petrified stump and take much better pictures and get a feel for it. I felt like I was in a holy place where the stone even feels alive, where the life that is there is so unusual. I mean, who spends a morning hanging out with stone trees and wild indigenous sheep? That it was blending with my tales and past in the way it was just made me feel like an incredibly blessed man. I have lived a good life, and there are so many more adventures to come. My mind turned to my son River and hoping to bring him to this spot at some point. My mind turned to my heart and the dreams of future tomorrows and future adventures and future romance. I can't wait to take her to Yellowstone and discover new dreams while dancing together.
At the very bottom, it was only appropriate that things would come full circle. As I approached the boulders, I saw three buffalo crossing the path of the trail. Two of them stopped to graze right on the trail path. So, I smiled and calmly climbed on one of those boulders and watched them as I ate some lunch. I watched and watched peaceful and calm, not a concern in the world but hoping that at some point they might move off my path. That did not happen. So, I eventually took a very wide loop around them, giving them probably 200 or 300 yards. I do not think they even looked up at me. All of it was realization that I was no longer reacting simply in the moment, but that I understood how to act appropriately, and there is a peace of mind that comes with that. If I took a loved one, I'd keep her safe; there's not a doubt in my mind. We would ultimately have the adventure that Yellowstone allows us to have. Maybe, we find the trees; maybe we don't. Maybe an animal blocks our path; maybe the animal lets us gently enter. However, we would enjoy each other's company; we would be safe, and I would know how to navigate all the things that took us off our script. I have been there and done that. I have seen what it is to keep someone safe, and I've learned in the end how not to run from situations whether they be physical, emotional, or spiritual.
When you have that sense of yourself, when you do find yourself growing up, it is really quite a good feeling. When you've had the great fortune to have Yellowstone play a significant role in that process, you have to drop to your knees and thank God for that opportunity. I have been blessed to be freed from being petrified, so that I might truly be a rock, a stone in the great edifice of nature - alive and human and romantic and dancing and free to explore either alone or with the people I love.