Yeah, it would be cool to see one, I thought to myself, pulling my unshowered hair into a bun in the campsite bathroom. As I brushed my teeth I studied the warning signs posted above the hand dryer: “Be Bear Aware!”, right next to a more amusing buffalo sign, complete with airborne tourist, his hat and camera flying: “BUFFALO CAN WEIGH 2000 POUNDS AND CAN SPRINT AT 30 MPH, THREE TIMES FASTER THAN YOU CAN RUN.” I live in South Dakota. We see buffalo on the way to basketball games. But the bear? It’d be cool to see one, I guess. I rinsed my toothbrush and tapped it dry on the side of the sink.
The first thing I thought when the last student crossed the stage to receive her diploma was I need to get out of here. I figured that I had survived this long as a first-year teacher, so I needed to escape as soon as possible. I can’t wait to come back for another year, but May and June hit this teacher hard. Destination: Yellowstone National Park, only eight hours away, filled with enough beautiful things to distract me for years.
“Yellowstone, huh? Great! So did you see a grizzly?”, was my welcome back from a Jesuit in my community.
I felt as if someone had just asked me if I ate peanuts after getting back from an 11-inning barnburner of a baseball game.
On the way to the lake, the road was clogged with cars parked on both sides. Rangers in brimmed hats stood by their cars and with flashing lights waved us on to find a parking spot further down the road. We did and joined the 30 people looking down into a shallow valley.
“Grizzly?” “Yeah.” “Is that it?” “Yeah, that brown lump.” “How long’s it been sleepin’?” “‘Bout an hour now.”
The conversation cycled until, in an instant, we heard the excited flutter of camera shutters: the bear moved. It stood up and all the photographers with their camouflage tripod telescopic bazooka cameras each got 40,000 pictures. From what I saw through my glasses, the bear stood up, turned away from us, and just stood there. Squinting, I noticed it was actually squatting. And whoosh, it pissed with the fury of endless hibernation, took two steps forward, and then laid down again. Fast asleep.
Yes, we saw a bear.
“Yeah? Cool. Well, glad to hear you had a good trip.”
And just like that, 1,300 miles of road tripping, five new birds crossed off my Life List, four nights tenting in campgrounds threatening snow, three breathtaking cliffs, a spontaneous friendship with a Norwegian couple and a campfire jam with a New York rock band all fell into binary code: Bear or No Bear. 1 or 0.
I know the Bear Question is quite useful as a polite acknowledgement of my travel and return without going into depth. That’s fair enough. I am grateful you noticed I was gone and welcomed me back.
BUT YELLOWSTONE IS A SUPERVOLCANO!
It has half the world’s geysers! And it has the mountains of Glacier National Park, the canyons of Zion, the plains of Great Basin, buffalo in the pasture, elk at the forest edge, wolves tracking through snow, pelicans, swans and osprey gliding through water and rainbows brighter than rainbows of color in bubbling hot springs!
I digress. But to be honest, this is what I’m afraid of:
Social work studies: Diploma or No Diploma?
Jesuit life: Difficult or Not Difficult?
Work with refugees: Heartbreaking or Not Heartbreaking? Inspiring or Not Inspiring?
I’m afraid that one day, every privileged moment in my life will be systematically reduced to the Bear Question after Yellowstone – Bear or No Bear? – and I’m not ready for all my experiences and friendships and supervolcanoes to be so hastily gutted of all their meaning and each be reduced to a Y/N, a Scantron bubble, a hanging chad.
Next time, Jesuit community member, be ready for “Yes, but.”
If you’ve asked, I’ve got you – at least for 30 seconds. And if I have 30 seconds, I bet I can hook you for another 30. If Park Rangers can do it, I can do it.
There’s no way I’m going to talk about Yellowstone without the supervolcano, the silvery wolves or the osprey. There are just too many beautiful things hiding in the trees or churning underneath to let a single mammal steal the show.
The cover photo, from Flickr user Chris Heald can be found here.