Even though Mom and Dad first took us to the mountains when we were little, little enough that my brother and I had matching blue and white jackets, it wasn’t until we went to Yellowstone that we really hiked. Our early forays on the trail were not entirely successful. We attempted the peak of Mount Washburn but turned back either because of the snow covering the trail or the complaining which it elicited. Honesty requires me to own that the complaining came from me, not from my brother.
Our quest for the Petrified Forest, a destination not situated conveniently next to a well-marked trail, was unfruitful, as well. Midway through our search for the elusive forest of petrified trees, my dad and brother settled Mom and me somewhere marginally comfortable so they could scout it out and then take us directly to it. Mother and daughter alone in the forest, our thoughts immediately turned to bears. The word on how to handle a bear encounter has changed over the years, but back then one instruction was to climb a tree. Yellowstone is forested predominately by Lodgepole pines, tall trees notable for their branchless lower trunks. We looked around at the available trees and knew that if a bear came over the mountain, we would be killed.
We did, all of us, expect a bear to come over the mountain, any mountain, all the time. As Dad drove the Grand Loop Road, we scanned the tall brown grasses of fall, watching expectantly for bears because we all knew that if any one of us had been a bear, that is exactly where we would be.
Bears were on our minds.
A short hike that we did complete was the steep and switchbacked trail down to the brink of the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The thundering strength of the falls gave even my adolescent self a sense of perspective on my place in the universe.
When the time came for us to face the climb back up to the trailhead, we set off. Up one slope. Turn. Up another. Repeat. At one turn, we all, in unison, gasped and came to an abrupt halt.
There, next to the trail, sat a bear.
At least, for a long and breathless second, it was a bear. Just as quickly as we saw the bear, we recognized it for what it was. It was a log. And every one of us mistook it for a bear. A lifetime of merciless teasing would have followed if only one of us had misjudged, but since we had all been duped together, who was there to tease? We were just thankful we were alive.
Dad once asked how many bears we might have driven past in the hours we have spent on Yellowstone’s roads. To number them would be impossible. We have to have done it.
Thirty years have given us all more skill on the trail. Several trips and countless hours on Yellowstone’s roads finally gave us a glimpse of one of its bears. Wandering together in the woods has taught us that success on the trail is not about reaching a destination. It’s about time together on the trail, in the car, and in our life, time that I wouldn’t trade.
Honesty requires me to own that I must be reminded that trail wisdom applies beyond life on the trail. It applies to life. Destinations unachieved and quests unrealized are part of the road that teaches me to walk worthy of the calling to which I have been called. Like my family’s early forays into real hiking, my wanderings might not be entirely successful, but they are not without fruit and not to be traded, even though I sometimes want to. They are part of the journey.