A man and a woman sweep the dust from the treeless main street of Wisdom, Montana. At first this seems a foolish task — one for those with too much time on their hands and an unhealthy craving for tidiness. But if the dust were allowed to settle, this tiny outpost would resemble a ghost town. The couple push the dust west toward Idaho; the wind picks it up and deposits it right back at their feet. But I sense progress somehow. And dignity.
I and my daughter, Rose, watch them through the plate-glass window at Fetty’s Cafe, where loud locals and timid out-of-towners are gathered for their morning-coffee ritual. We have just spent a night camping out near the Continental Divide, at the southern end of the Bitterroot Valley. Our hips are sore from sleeping on the ground and rolling east in our sleep, down the slope of the divide. We are covered with Montana forest duff and road dust.
Rose has just completed fourth grade and has been released for the summer on good behavior. We have abandoned our hometown of Moscow, Idaho, suddenly, without any advance bragging (a trip out of Moscow is always viewed with envy). The mountainous landscape calls us east toward Yellowstone and the cold, smoldering, blackened forests left by the previous year’s great fires. The cooler is packed with cold pasta salad, seltzers, candy bars, dry Italian salami, the sharpest cheese with the highest fat content of any available in the Northern Rockies, and, as a marginal nod to good health, 1 percent milk.
If you throw our tattered road atlas across a room, it will fall open on one of two states: Idaho or Montana. The distances printed in the atlas for Idaho are fairly accurate, but those for Montana are underestimated, I’m convinced. Rand McNally devotes two pages to Montana, and, no matter how many days I drive, I can never get to the second page.
Sleep is a distant memory lately. I am emotionally tired, worn down by single parenting and working a forty-hour week. I feel my heart banging loudly against my chest, and I listen for a minute; I stop counting at ninety beats.
Adding to my anxiety is insecurity about traveling and camping alone with a young child. Uneasy questions surfaced as we drove up the Bitterroot Valley: What if something happens to me? Can Rose get help? Could she use a phone in an emergency? Did I remember to give her a quarter and the necessary phone numbers to keep in her pocket? As if on cue, my lower back starts to ache.
Bridging the gap between my worst-case imaginings and Rose’s hopeful nine-year-old spirit is perhaps my biggest challenge as a parent. I want to caution her about life’s real dangers, but without destroying her trust in the goodness of the human heart. I want her to be street-smart, but I don’t want to scare her away from taking chances. She should be able to walk dreaming in the night air, to camp alone in a Western forest under Orion’s sword.
Inside Fetty’s Cafe, dust tracked over the threshold forms paths that lead to the booths. A giant, lacquered blue marlin fills an entire wall. Two-month-old newspapers lie everywhere, filled with wire stories: a new prison in Crescent City, California; the debate over flag burning; a poll showing that 53.5 percent of Israeli men buy their own socks. We eat our eggs and pancakes quietly, conscious of our status as strangers. Rose ignores the marlin and the newspapers, choosing to read a Babysitters’ Club book instead. She is far from her classroom back in Moscow; far from her friends, some of whom are on their way to Disneyland, with its hotels and fancy pools and fast-food restaurants. There is no fast anything in Wisdom, Montana. We are nowhere glamorous. Between pages, she looks up at me and smiles.
“How are you doing, Rose?” I ask, wanting some long answer filled with fourth-grade wisdom; wanting my daughter to be exuberant, cheerful, and chatty — everything I’m not. As usual, I want too much.
“Are we near Yellowstone?” she asks serenely.
“Just a few more hours. We’re almost there.”
She returns to her book. I count the fins on the marlin, listening to the sound of the two brooms sliding across the asphalt.
I pick the northern entrance — the oldest entrance — into Yellowstone, careful not to spend one cent in the gaudy tourist ruination of Gardiner, Montana, with its inflated gasoline prices and Taiwanese plastic buffaloes. As we pass under the Roosevelt Arch into the park, beneath the words “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People,” I say under my breath, “I am safe now. I am at home base. No one can find me here.” A friend has a saying that once seemed outrageous and cowardly, but is now my motto: “There is no problem so big you can’t run away from it.”
I am trying to run away from myself.
I contemplate new, solitary careers, careers that preclude broken promises and joint counseling: sheepherder above ten thousand feet, precipitation-gauge monitor in the Bitterroots, ptarmigan researcher. Monasteries are beginning to look appealing.
Another, more important, goal has brought us to Yellowstone: I want to show Rose there is an order to the natural world — an order of flowers and birds and bison, an order that can change at any moment. I’m ambitious this summer. I will teach her to love the land; I will nurture in her a sense of possibilities, a belief in hope. Here at Yellowstone — a park dedicated by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 — we are far removed from the artificial nonsense of the economy. Here, within the heart of a landscape, possibilities still abound. Somewhere out here is an honest country without billboards. Looking around, I see every shade of green and blue and brown and gray. And black — the color of loss and mourning.
Just last week, Rose told me that she wanted to study animals, then quickly added, “but there probably won’t be any left when I grow up.” Her small heart needs mending. I need to show her there is still a place where animals are somewhat plentiful — and safe.
Our first night in Yellowstone is spent between tents and trailers in a crowded campground. I foolishly try to boil water with the weak flame of Sterno, and dinner takes longer than either of us expects. Still, there is a peacefulness that I’ve been seeking for months. Our goals this evening are modest: put up a tent, unroll our pads and sleeping bags, make dinner, take a walk along the nearby stream, and turn in early. Why did it take so many years to come here?
At dusk, while the pasta boils, our neighbors — three men in their twenties — come back from a short hike with news that a cow moose and her calf are down by the stream. The men have returned for their cameras. Rose wants to investigate. I don’t want her to go alone, but I can’t leave an open flame unattended, no matter how weak. I also know she may never have this opportunity again.
The men offer to take Rose — it’s a short walk, they assure me. I look into their eyes and see kindness. Now and then you have to trust, I tell myself. If the human spirit can’t shine here in these ancient woods, then we are all doomed to lives of paranoia and fear. I relent.
As they disappear into the woods, I wonder if I have done the right thing. But Rose returns fifteen minutes later with exuberant descriptions of the moose and her baby. She is full of fresh confidence. This will forever be her experience, one that only she can recount: the time when, on her own, she saw her first moose.
The next night, after dinner and a failed attempt at making popcorn over an open fire, Rose and I take our evening hike up Slough Creek. She’s dressed in a nine-year-old’s version of elegant evening apparel: red pajamas and black sneakers with two sets of colored laces left fashionably untied.
We pass three elk carcasses on our way to where it feels wild, back where the trail becomes a vague whisper and the woods look “like a forest should look,” I tell Rose. Fresh grizzly droppings confirm that we have crossed a boundary of sorts between the tents back at the campground and the great forests of Yellowstone. Instinctively, we become quiet, but we don’t turn back.
I spot a bull moose browsing in the raging waters of Slough Creek. Rose, who has left her glasses back at our camp, cannot quite see him. The moose disappears behind a brushy island near our side of the creek. We hurry in that direction, hoping to get a good view of him lounging in the water, but, as we round a bend, we find him standing on the trail instead, ears back like a cat in fight stance, ready to charge.
I yell at Rose to get off the trail, thinking if we give the moose a wide berth he won’t feel threatened. Rose is frightened. “I don’t want to be here, Papa,” she cries. I don’t feel the same; I think we’re fortunate to be stumbling through the underbrush together, hearts bursting, adrenalin surging, scrambling for our lives.
I find a large, fallen ponderosa pine. “He won’t come in here,” I tell Rose, although I’m not entirely sure this is true. The moose pauses, then, poor eyesight and all, passes by, a mere silhouette in front of us. Frisky and full of himself, he charges back across the creek and up the opposite bank, moving away from us, into the dusk.
I squeeze Rose’s hand. “Are you all right?” I ask.
She nods and slowly rises. The only sound is the rushing creek. She stares over my shoulder into the forest, almost looking through me.
It is Rose who starts back to the campground first. There is no hurry in her step. She walks with confidence, leading the way, as if she knows the forest. She is moving in time with the rhythm of the creek, belonging to no one.
Later that night in our small tent, Rose tosses and turns, speaking and laughing in her sleep. At one point, she sits straight up in her sleeping bag, eyes open, pursued still by the moose. I reach over to touch her, and talk to her soothingly: “You are safe, Rose. The moose is far away. Papa’s right here. Now go back to sleep.”
She is rigid — hard as marble. Then she gives in. Her white knuckles relax and take on their natural color, holding on to nothing.
I step quietly out into the night air and look up at the Milky Way. I need to breathe deep and fill my lungs with stars. Whenever I walk into the forest, I feel as if I have just woken up. Life indoors, enclosed within the clutter of the modern world, is the dream.
Tonight, as on most nights, I begin a one-sided dialogue with my daughter:
Everything seems fragile tonight, Rose. Here’s the situation: We have only thin layers of nylon and goose down to insulate us from the frigid Montana night, four worn tires, four old pistons, three twenty-dollar bills — no credit cards — and more grizzly bears nearby than pay phones. We almost got trampled today by a stampeding moose, and no one knows exactly where we are at this moment. This is the mess your father has gotten you into. Just look at us: Bones and blood and skin pulled taut. Flecks of calcium. Breath.
Yet each night spent sleeping on the ground is a victory; each hawk circling, each goose honking, each stone overturned a welcome retreat from clamor. We get only a handful of such chances to rub up against sandstone, to crawl under red willow on our hands and knees, to bury our toes in warm mud.
Stay curious, Rose, despite the odds. Keep your eyes wide open at all times. The only risk is to not come here at all; to never know what it means to be fully alive.
Remember the swans, Rose? That’s what I’m talking about.
It was a gray Sunday in February. I don’t recall the year, but you were still small enough to hold my hand. It was a false spring, when winter had just begun to loosen its grip. Your mother was with us then; we were still a family of three.
Our restlessness took us to Rock Lake in eastern Washington, one of a string of deep pothole lakes formed by a series of glacial floods twelve thousand years ago. Geologists say that runoff from the last great flood reached a height of several thousand feet and moved at more than fifty miles an hour across the landscape, sweeping it clean right down to the rock. The region of scrubbed, basaltic canyons and wind-scoured buttes is known, unfortunately, as “the scablands.” But it is this type of so-called worthless country that forever attracts me.
On this day, we trespassed onto private range land. I was probably humming Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” to show my disdain for fences out west. As I stepped down on the lower strand of barbed wire and lifted the middle one, you carefully crawled through and broke the law for the very first time. I approved.
We picked our way around small holes and frozen weeds growing right out of the basalt itself. You were hungry for the lunch we had brought — hot chocolate, egg-salad sandwiches, and fruit. We were hiking uphill along the narrow twin tracks of an old cow trail that climbed to the edge of a tiny, hidden lake.
You saw them first.
Below us, in an area no larger than our yard at home, were gathered two hundred trumpeter swans. I thought of white waterlilies with arched stalks submerged below brackish water, of ice and sky merging.
You immediately sat down and demanded to know the name of the giant ivory birds.
“Trumpeter swans,” I whispered, wondering what images those two words brought to your young mind. “They’ve come a long distance,” I said, “and now they are tired. They mate for life, like wolves.”
Then they saw us and began to lift from the water, seeming to take forever. They rose and circled in a helix, necks straight out, voices low horns sounded in unison, wings stretched to their full six-foot reach. We could feel the air from their wings rush across our faces. We lay on our backs and watched them leave.
It was a long time before we ate our lunches.
Even now, tonight, so far away in years and miles from those swans, I am lying beneath them, wishing I could go with them, wishing them well.
Rose, I live for such moments now. That’s why I brought you here: so you, too, could find something fleeting to love.