I have a thing for bison. They represent to me the peace I feel in my favorite place … or at least was able to feel during my first two visits, October 2003 and September 2004. Now, even in October, there are busloads of tourists and it’s just not the same.
There’s also something much bigger they represent to me. I’ve written about it a few times and told the story to as many people as will listen. This is an excerpt from a yet-unpublished book I wrote, tentatively titled Go the Wrong Way. [I finished the first draft 5 years ago today and want to get some other projects out before digging back in for the revision. I’m so eager to do so! Gah, if only I could just work on my books ALL. THE. TIME.]
So here, about the bison, with pics I took back then with my first digital camera.
After I graduated college, I went on the road full time performing standup comedy. I had already been working steadily, earning most of my income from comedy. The connections were in place, and my calendar was looking nice for the rest of the year.
I remember the day I booked the Dakotas. I was still in school, then, living in my basement apartment in Knoxville. When I got off the phone with the booking agent, I looked at my U.S. map that just had a few pins in it so far. I touched Rapid City, South Dakota and traced up to Minot, North Dakota. Then my finger slid to the west and touched the Rocky Mountains.
Someone told me once that driving up to the Rocky Mountains was like driving up to an enormous wall. Just suddenly there they are, a wall of mountain stretching into the sky. I’d flown over them before, seen them from the window. I’ve glimpsed the western mountains from Las Vegas, from southern California. But to drive up to them—that sounded magical. That afternoon, in my underground bedroom, I decided I would drive to the Rockies in my three days off between Rapid City and Minot. I identified the square of land labeled as Yellowstone National Park and thought, well, it’s famous. It’s probably really cool. I’ll go there.
Months later, true to my resolution, I went. I drove west from Rapid City, into dusty, cold Wyoming, and I saw that momentous wall. It was all that I had imagined. I summitted the Big Horn Mountains in my Ford Escort and at the top, I parked, stepped outside, felt snow flurries touch my face, and I sensed already that this side trip would change me forever.
When I told people I was going to Yellowstone, they mentioned buffalo. I thought how cool it would be if I saw one. When I was a child, I for some reason believed bison were extinct. I learned later that they were not, but I still carried that memory, that sense, the ghost of a childhood belief, like waking up from a dream, realizing what happened in the dream didn’t really happen, but nonetheless carrying on through the day with the mood the dream incited. I guess I carried on through life with that phantom feeling of extinct bison.
If you’ve been, or if you know anything about Yellowstone, you know the bison are actually everywhere. They cause traffic jams. But I didn’t know this. I just heard they were there and hoped I’d spot one.
Just driving to Yellowstone already had me intoxicated with adventure and joy. It was the first time I ever just went somewhere, without plans, without anything booked. I just had three days off and I got in my car and drove west. I drove through multiple landscapes unlike anything I’d ever seen. I spent the night in Cody, Wyoming. By the time I entered the park, I felt so invigorated, and so removed from anything else that could ever touch or harm me.
Then, after less than an hour of driving around the park, stopping here and there to breathe in a mountain, or feel the heat and steam and underworld power of a geyser’s sulfuric wisp, I found myself driving along a vast field, and I saw in the distance a bunch of brown dots.
It was the first week of October. Very few other guests in the park this time of year. I returned to the park a couple more times since this first visit, and I saw what it’s usually like. People everywhere, always several cars pulled off at waysides. It was a lucky accident I was here at the perfect time.
I hurried down the road to a closer vantage of those brown dots and parked my car on the side of the road. Slowly, as if it was the first time driving my own body, I stepped out of the car and took just a couple steps out into the field. They were off in the distance. I wasn’t going to try to go near them. I just stood there. I hoped to see one, and here was an entire herd. Furry giants with supernatural heads, twisting and grazing.
That phantom childhood belief exploded inside me and as I watched those beautiful monsters, I cried. It was just like seeing dinosaurs. It was just like seeing anything that I thought I would never see. It was a message from the universe telling me that a small hope can be delivered in a massive way. That what I might think can’t be real really can be. That anything I think could happen only in a dream can really happen. All of it can be real. The only thing that’s extinct is doubt.