We pulled into the gravel parking lot at the base of Bunsen Peak, piled out, grabbed day packs and water from the back of the vehicle, and set off. Dust had barely begun to accumulate around our ankles when we saw him: a lone bison, a bull, just twenty-five feet off the trail.
Someone was going to have to change trajectory and it was going to be us–my husband, our children, and me.
First, because it’s the rules. The park service has clear regulations about how close visitors can get to animals: Approaching on foot within 100 yards of bears or wolves or within 25 yards of other wildlife is prohibited. It’s up to the humans to keep the distance. Second, because J and I once visited with a ranger who had worked in close proximity with grizzlies in Denali National Park who told us that she found the bison’s irritable and unpredictable nature to be more dangerous than that of the bear.
So we stepped off the narrow dirt path and began to pick our way through the tangled grass and sage of the hillside. It was hard. It was slow going. And because I was dressed to walk down the trail and not to break it, it sliced up my shins. I don’t like breaking trail.
Apparently, bison prefer not to, either–at least in winter.
That’s just opinion, formed after sharing the groomed road with bison after bison. We weren’t on foot that day; we were on a snowmobile. The twenty-five-yard rule didn’t seem to apply, but even passing them on the furthest available centimeter of road frightened me. They trotted down the groomed lane–sometimes toward us, sometimes beside us–their unsettled eyes level with mine.
If one decided–and they occasionally do–that they’ve had enough of the pesky, noisy machines that invade their space, their thirty-five miles-per-hour charge was faster than we could weave our way through the small herds that spread across the road. The air and my snowmobile suit provided no armor against a horned and angry thousand-pound female or two thousand pound male.
Bison are made for winter. They are well insulated against the elements. Their shiver response, according to the snow-coach driver who took us from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful last winter, begins–begins–at forty degrees below zero. Their massive heads work like a bucket at the end of a crane, shoving deep and often crusted snow away to expose last year’s grass underneath.
Last year’s grass.
Not a lot of nutrition there. Spring finds them thin and bony, their fat stores depleted. About ten out of every one hundred will die.
Even though they’re made for the rigors of winter, it’s a hard life.
In her book, Yellowstone Has Teeth, Marjane Ambler writes that in the years after the park service began grooming Yellowstone’s roads for snowmachine travel, the bison herd grew from two to three thousand. Perhaps not continually breaking trail has its advantages. Walking from one feeding area to another over a road expends far fewer calories than wading through deep snow.
We’re continually breaking trail in our lives because something is always changing. And while we may not be sporting pollen smeared cuts on our legs or wading, hip-deep, through crusted-over snow in search of something inadequate to fill the gnawing hunger in our bellies, we’re constantly moving along a section of road we’ve never taken before.
It’s hard. It’s slow going. And it wreaks a little havoc.
No wonder we’re worn.
At our house, we’ve been away from the ease of the established trail for a while now. Even though breaking a new one is hard, and progress is slow, and it wreaks all kinds of havoc with the emotions–it’s how we get from here to there, from where we are to where we’re going. We are not alone. Even when we’re weary.
No matter if you are on an established trail or finding your way through a brambly hillside, no matter if you are in an effortless summer or under a deep winter, even if you are stumbling through the dark over unknown terrain, you are not alone.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9