Friday, May 30, 2014

Thanks Teddy For Saving My Patch Of River ©

May is the most beautiful month of the year!  Spring is in its glory, the days are almost perfect. The cool but warming temperature entices one into the sun hanging in the robin-egg blue heaven with puffs of clouds floating by.  It recalls memories of boyhood and the glory of 70 Springs. Spring is so glorious that in my dotage it seems like not only a sin, but a major waste not to use at least part of May to explore the wonders and beauties of the world. I am particularly blessed to live in the western United States where there is an abundance of natural beauty to visit.

We decided to use the last week of May to renew our spirits, one of the most appropriate of springtime rituals, but my wife found that there were no rooms available in the inns of several new places we wanted to visit. After days of searching, I suggested we go back to two old favorites–Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Uncharacteristically, we lucked out and found a timeshare available for two nights in West Yellowstone, Montana and two more in a facility owned by the same company in Jackson, Wyoming, so we were set.

Monday we ambled from Logan, Utah to West Yellowstone. Normally the trip takes the better part of four hours, but we were on vacation.  For me that means photography.  We stopped in two very small rural southeastern Idaho communities–Swan Lake and Downey. As is typical with so many American small towns, these places seemed to be about as lively and agile as the retired seventy-year-old writing this blog. Photographing pieces of vanishing Americana is a favorite with me.  Tall shining silver grain elevators look from a distance to be the center of agricultural communities such as these. On closer inspection broken windows, missing pieces of sheet metal, and absence of life told us these were hollow shells of a passed era.

Plate 1:  Grain elevator in Swan Lake, Idaho, May 2014.
Grain elevators, old barns and out buildings kept us preoccupied and we arrived at our destination about mid-afternoon.  A bit of lunch and an early check-in and we were on our way to “The Park” between 3:30 and 4:00 p.m. The National Parks are some our favorite getaway destinations. A decade or more ago I was permitted to purchase for $10 a “Golden Age Pass which allows senior citizens to visit the National Parks free of charge. We absolutely love this tax-payer’s perk!  We have used it often.

This afternoon’s destination was a point of pilgrimage for me and has been in our last three or four visits to Yellowstone. For me, Yellowstone encompasses some of the most beautiful rivers in America, if not the world. The Yellowstone, Madison, Lamar, Gibbon and Firehole flow through what must have been God’s playground on Creation day. The Gibbon and Firehole converge in the Park to form the Madison. My favorites are the Madison and Firehole. 

One travels along the early stages of the Madison from West Yellowstone to Madison Junction. A good chunk near West Yellowstone passes through high mountain plains covered with sagebrush that has its own western flavor. It isn’t long however, before the sage gives way to pines and to a small and ever widening valley –well more like a meadow than a valley. The grass is green and no willows line the banks as with many other western waterways. Along here it isn’t uncommon in the mornings to see doe elk and their calves slowly working their way along the bolder studded banks on the far side nestled against the foot of the mountains.  Occasionally a moose or two stand in the river grazing on the grasses on the bottoms. These spectaculars of nature always create traffic jams. The likelihood of such encounters is less in the afternoon, so we drove on. One almost gets the sense of entering a paradise while paralleling the Madison toward the interior of the park.  

Plate 2:  Elk along the Madison River, Yellowstone National Park, 2012.
Yellowstone’s rivers this late in May are running high and murky if not muddy.  Where the valleys widen the low flatlands in many places are inundated. The late afternoon sun danced and shimmered from a thousand streamlets, pools and marshlands. 

Plate 3:  Madison River in Yellowstone National Park at flood stage, May 2014.
Where the ground is higher and accessible, small groups of bison lounge on the fresh green grass.  Many were laying down and we accounted it due to the lateness of the day. However, we  also observed there were no calves among them. In June, two years ago scores of calves attended larger herds. They romped and cavorted and played in the spring of their own lives.  Was this why many were laying around now? We thought their size and lethargy suggested calving season was close, but later learned from a Ranger the calving season is in early May. So much for our “rational” explanation.

At Madison Junction you turn right to go to Old Faithful. Along this route you can turn off the main road and travel a one-way-in-need-of-repair macadam road up the Firehole Canyon. Cascades, small falls and narrow passages are the hallmark of this short but hidden gem of Yellowstone. Once, later in the season, my oldest son and I encountered two doe elk and a fawn feasting on the lush grass of a small island along this route, unaware of the human observers high above them. 

Plate 4:  Mother and fawn on small island in the Firehole River Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, June 2012.
When you emerge from the canyon the Firehole river broadens out into large pools just before it plunges into the canyon.  Upstream from here it runs in a fairly straight stretch down a very small valley between some mountains. Here is my place of pilgrimage!  Not too far from the canyon as one travels upstream with the Firehole on your right there is a picnic turnout among the trees along the river which also gives easy access to its grassy banks.  Here is where I long to stop.  This afternoon we are in luck.  The first Monday after Memorial Day traffic in the park is moderately lite. We are alone.  At the far end, just before returning to the main road, awaits my temple.

As we climbed out of the car and walked the twenty-five feet to the bank, I immediately experienced a sense of uplift and renewal.  Reflecting back, that sense was building as we drove along the Madison and through the Canyon.  Now it came unabated.  This is to me, an amazing patch of river.  It is so simple, that when you see it you may wonder why it is so special to me.

I have had deeply moving spiritual and emotional experiences in nature on at least four very memorable occasions. One on a road at 10,000 feet among the “Thirteens and Fourteens” of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  We stood at a vista point, high mountain tundra and tundra vegetation surrounded us. Ubiquitous signs warned of the fragility of the tundra–the tree line was below us.  It seemed as if  we could see forever!   Another, during an early mourning drive past several box canyons while entering the southern part of Canyonlands National Park.  The sun’s rays streamed into these east-west oriented canyons and their tall black-faced walls seemed like the temple of the God’s. Breathless, the beauty so overwhelming, I could not go on without stopping, pondering, praying, worshiping, and weeping. 

Plate 5:  Box canyons at the entrance of the southern portion of Canyonlands National Park, Utah.  The experience described above happened much earlier in the morning than the time of this photo, but this is the place.
The third was an afternoon in June with one of my best friends as we walked into the Muir Woods National Monument north of San Francisco. The sun was dropping into the west; the shadows were long and dark. We came to a small, small meadow with a giant Redwood in the middle shooting skyward, the ground surrounding it covered with the most amazing chartreuse green clover called Redwood sorrel. Here and there the sunlight broke through the canopy. Into this scene wandered a small spotted fawn seemingly unaware of our presence.  Photography was impossible. But here I was with one of the premiere landscape impressionist artists of our day who has traveled many places in the world in search of subject matter for his paintings and he said to me in a hushed tone, “Dan, this is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen!” Through glistening eyes and an inhibiting lump in my throat I struggled to agree.

Why does this patch of river on the Firehole do the same thing to me? I don’t really know. For a half to three-quarters of a mile at this place the Firehole runs fairly straight. The evergreen covered mountains on the far side approach the river but here and there an open space lets grass grow to the edge of the bank. At the right time of the season the occasional wildflower blooms. The river is wide and shallow and calm here. Fishermen and women use the picnic ground as a place to park, picnic and fish.  At the high season one isn’t alone here. On this side of the river as you look upstream the tree line is back from the edge of the river twenty or thirty feet and grass lines the bank dotted by an occasional stump or fallen tree.

Plate 6:  Firehole River, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.  This section of the river is above the Firehole River Canyon and is accessed via a picnic turnout. View is looking upstream.
Three or four trips ago, when we first visited here, we were nearly alone.  Upstream I could see a raptor of some sort cruising up and down the river looking for a meal. On the opposite bank a great heron surveyed the shallow water. Other birds called to each other, the sun reflected off the calm water. Serenity and beauty opened my heart instantly. Breathless once again in nature’s natural beauty. Such a pleasant and welcome surprise. As with the other occasions, a prayerful and worshipful spirit came along with a deep sense of reverence. These are the things that bring me back to this spot.

Today they were here again!  Thank God. As we sat on a log looking upstream on this gorgeous afternoon I once again felt thankful. I am seventy years old and do not know how many more times I may visit this sacred and hallowed spot. So I was thankful that I was permitted to come one more time to find peace to the soul, nourishment and renewal. It is difficult for Pat to walk on uneven ground so I walked alone 100 yards upstream in the newly reborn grass. As I turned around to return, the spirit of prayer stopped me. I paused for a couple of minutes and thanked the Lord for one more time here, for its beauty, and for how it feeds and renews me like few other places do.  On the way back I asked myself why this place seems so beautiful to me?  Words came to my mind–simplicity and peace. Ah yes, simplicity. To me the most beautiful photographs and paintings and much in life in general share this one beautifying quality.

We sat on the log for a few more minutes–mostly silent. My wife knew something was happening inside.  I reflected on my gratitude. It turned toward God, and then to Teddy Roosevelt. He was the one who had the “great American idea” and the foresight to turn Yellowstone into a National Park and preserve its wonders and beauty for Americans for all time.  I said to Pat “I would like someday to say to Teddy Roosevelt...” I could not speak for at least two minutes. She waited patiently. Finally I had enough control to finish, “...Thanks for saving my patch of river!”

Let’s think together again, soon.

1 comment:

  1. Dad,
    Loved the post. Now I know why I seem to have such a thing for nature too. I love the mountains, but the red rock in Southern Utah (Bryce, Arches, etc.) do the same thing to me that the fire hole river does to you. Love you mucho!

    Kim (P.S. I'm not writing this in Sacrament Meeting....:)