It hits me about a mile up the trail along the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park. We pause there on the way to the Cache Creek junction. Utter quiet. Nothing stirs. Light snow falls from a gray sky. Specimen Ridge dives down to meet the valley floor. No people, no noise, stillness rippling away like ocean.
We stop because a herd of maybe 100 bison punctuate the land ahead, on both sides of the trail – shaggy, enduring boulders in the sifting snowfall. Closer still, a northern shrike perches at the top of a small tree.
What strikes me is that, this is what it used to be like everywhere, all the time, not that long ago. Space, quiet, animals going about their business, landscape spreading to the horizon. It strikes me because it is so rare now, the swooping vacuum of silence and uninhabited, undeveloped space. This is what it all used to be like, I think again, walking toward the stoic bison across freezing ground.
To find such sanctuary, now, requires strategy. We come late in the season, just before the park roads close, shedding the ‘animal jam’ traffic and summer tourists. We leave the boardwalks and diorama-studded ‘nature’ trails and strike off. We walk more than the normal half-mile that seems to be the tether for most park visitors. On one level, it’s not that hard to do – a pretty minimal effort of timing and commitment. Still, it is notable how rare it is in the usual round of existence to find such stillness, such calm, in which the earth seems to palpably breathe its rhythms.
We walk on, past the bison, deeper into silence. Some ways up Cache Creek we stop for lunch in the pre-winter day. While we eat, we spread the map between us, outline future hikes, deeper dives into the untrammeled landscape. On the way back, more bison, more birds in the gray sky, a few snow squalls. Through it all, the spell of silence embraces us.
A few hours later, the same afternoon, we negotiate a packed parking lot at the trailhead for the Boiling River hot springs, also in Yellowstone Park. Seemed like a good idea to get in a soak to top off the day, but when we see the glut of cars and people, we hesitate. Nevertheless, we pull on swimsuits and lock the car behind us. Along the trail to the remarkable confluence of gushing hot springs and the Gardner River, there is a steady parade of bath-robed, flip-flop-wearing soakers.
At the hot springs, we jostle awkwardly over rough boulders into the ribbon of hot water, an eddying line of tolerable temperature, with scalding heat to one side and frigid cold to the other. It is like pushing into a crowded subway at rush hour with a gaggle of half-naked commuters. Settling in, literally rubbing shoulders with strangers, I strain to blend the two parts of this same day – the oceanic, quiet wild of the morning, and the human jam I find myself literally immersed in.
It is emblematic of contemporary life, this mind-bending phenomenon of leaping between dimensions of reality. In the period of a few hours I can board a plane in mid-winter Montana and land, the same day, in tropical Hawaii, or the Yucatan, or Palm Beach. Within a day I can leap from American culture to the culture of Kenya or Japan or Malaysia.
Given that potential, the schizophrenic day in Yellowstone Park seems unremarkable. And yet, for me, contrasting the moment of awareness in the company of a herd of bison, with the relative cacophony at the hot springs, has profound significance. Am I capable of truly reckoning with such contrast? Are we humans biologically and emotionally equipped to make such seismic shifts? What does the normalization of leaps between dimensions do to our sense of reality? Do we numb ourselves to contrast in the process?
As we leave the hot pools, stumbling back over slippery rocks, a young couple passes us as they enter. They both carry tall cans of Coors. The man holds tight to his vulnerable cell phone in his other hand, despite the precarious passage, as if the possibility of leaving his electronic appendage behind would be tantamount to amputation. Lord knows, he might have to forgo a ‘selfie’ that will immortalize him on Facebook.
Maybe, I think, as I gird myself for the chilly schlep back to the car, leaps between environments is the least of our issues.