The Old Bison

I had been fishing up the Gros Ventre that day.  It was along toward evening, in late summer.  We were driving home, just the dog and I.  Both of my daughters had set off into their own lives, on the far coasts, so I almost always fished alone anymore.  I was used to it, and to a constant level of loneliness that I had resisted at first, but which, at a time like this, could be sweet.  I could settle into the waning daylight without having to take anyone else into account.  The air was still warm, although the sun was dropping low over the mountains.  We were heading west, a little over half way between Kelly and the highway, right along in there where the river starts to braid out below a steep bank to the south, and a gravelly hillside rises sharply to the north.  We were moseying along, under the speed limit, with the windows down, letting the breeze wash around us, enjoying the scents.  The trill of meadowlarks had sweetened the drive as we came through the flats, and you could smell the sage even though the weather was dry.  I wasn’t thinking about much; maybe a little about the fishing, about the three trout cleaned for supper, lying in the creel behind my seat, a little about the aches and creaks in my body and how they had become a part of my life now, making climbing over the rocks and through the bushes to get to the stream harder and riskier, and how I had to be more careful, and maybe should even think about letting someone know where I was planning to go and when I intended to be back – things I never used to have to take into consideration.  But right then I was sitting easy behind the wheel, mostly quiet, occasionally commenting on this or that to the dog, alert to the road and the countryside, restful.

I always kept my eye out for bison.  They range around, so you can’t be sure where they are going to turn up, and we hadn’t seen any on the way out.  But this was the time of day for them to be moving, so I kept a close watch on the downhill side of the road, hoping to see some.    It always feels like good luck to come across them.  When the girls were little, we would often drive out to the big fields around Antelope Flats, looking for them.  In the spring, we kept our eyes peeled for new-born calves.  One of us would spot a small patch of tan, low in the grass and sage among the dark brown cows, and we would exclaim to each other.  Deirdre was especially quick to find them; she always had a great eye for the physical world.  Stephanie was no slouch at it, either, but she would occasionally trance out while looking at the scenery and stop paying attention.   

That had always been true of the two of them.  As a baby and little girl, Stephanie would go off into her own world.  Once, in the house in Brockton, I sat her out on the screen porch in her little swing.  I was doing some cleaning up and checking on her from time to time.  It was a lovely summer day, a touch warm but not hot.  The yard was surrounded by hardwood trees, with a view out over swales and small hills.  A gentle wind was moving the leaves, and the long grass beyond the yard tossed in waves.  After a half hour or so, when I had finished my chores, I moved to take her inside.  She was so still I thought she was asleep, but when I came around in front of the swing, her eyes were wide open.  I spoke to her softly.  She did not react.  I spoke more loudly.  Still nothing.  I stood directly in front of her and called her name.  No change.  I waved my hand right in front of her eyes and she did not respond.  Her look was not vacant; if anything it was more focused and attentive than usual.  She was just attending to something that only she was aware of.  I picked her up out of the swing and she continued to look ahead, still apparently oblivious to me.   When I tucked her into the crook of my arm, she gave a startled twitch and stared at me in incomprehension for a second or two.  Then she relaxed and began to look around herself with interest and a little gurgle.

Deirdre never tranced out like that.  As a baby and little girl, she focused intently on the present moment in the physical world.  She was skilled from an early age at engaging her material surroundings, and enjoyed it.  She was the one who wanted to steer the car, rig the fishing rod, build the dog house.  As she got older, she turned out to be easily distractible. She would rush into things without planning and end up not finishing them.  When she did decide to focus, though, she would do it single-mindedly and accurately.  So it was a matter of getting Deirdre to focus on seeing wildlife.  Once she did, she was an ace at it.  And it was a matter of getting Stephanie to focus on the physical environment, period.  When she did, she was great at it, too.  

We used to go out in the fall, as well.  Then it was not a matter of finding bison; they were all over.  We would head out around dusk, to hear them talk.  This would be during the rut, when all the animals had gathered up together.  The bulls would be active and vocal, and the cows would answer back.  More than once we stopped beside the road in the fading light while the herds passed by on both sides of us, grazing a little and moving faster than at other times of year, always rumbling, mumbling, muttering to each other.  For safety, I made the girls stay in the car, which bothered Deirdre more than it did Stephanie.  Deirdre wanted to be out among the bison, an impulse she always had around large, wild animals and one that put her in danger more than once.  As a compromise, I would let her climb out the car window and up onto the roof, where she would sit barefoot and cross-legged in her fluffy pink dress, conversing with the bison as they passed. I missed both girls, the more so as I got older and a little less able to drive safely and look elsewhere at the same time.  Even if I wasn’t driving, but, say, hiking, I didn’t feel as quick as I once did, and I probably wasn’t.  I missed them in lots of ways; that was just one.

Still and all, to come back to that evening along the Kelly Road, I was keeping a sharp enough lookout for bison as we eased along.  And here they came.  Up out of the river bottom, some thirty yards or so ahead of me, the first cows rose from the steep bank and began to cross the road.  They were in no hurry.  Neither was I.  I slowed, pulled off on the narrow shoulder, turned on the blinkers, stopped, made sure all the windows were down and cut the engine.  The bison moved steadily across in front of me and up the gravelly hillside toward the plateau.  No other cars had arrived yet.  The dog was up and alert in the back seat.  She had never shown any desire to chase large animals – magpies and ground squirrels were more her speed – and she did not bark.  We just watched and listened, calm and intent.  I could hear the wind in the cottonwoods.  It was blowing up from the river, and carried the slightly acrid scent of willows and the dank odor of the riverside mud and water weeds.  The sound of hoof beats punctuated the soughing of the breeze as the bison crossed the pavement.  With time, I began to distinguish other sounds, as well: the clatter of loose gravel as the bison made their way up both rises; the crackle of their hooves crushing the dried remains of last spring’s arrow leaf balsam root; the throaty burble as they talked to one another; their panting as they hauled their bodies up the steep incline.

I began to notice in closer detail the way their black nostrils flared, how their eyes, set far back along their skull, took us in as they crossed in front of us, how their huge heads, thick with dark, clumped hair, swung from side to sideas they pulled themselves up and across, how their small lower legs and hooves, so incongruous under the bulk of their bodies, carried them with such sure balance and agility.  Like ponderous elegant dancers, they stepped their way past, some of them pausing for a moment as they glimpsed us, then pacing steadily on.

More and more of them came, rising from the bottom land, eying us as they continued across the flat of the road before attacking the northern hillside.  Some would take a little run for the last few steps to gather momentum for the climb.  Others kept a steady pace all the way.  Many calves, well grown now, still stuck with their mothers, whose udders had not yet dried.  One or two of the calves tried to nurse quickly as they walked on the level, but the cows did not stop.  Bulls were mixed in with the others; it was getting on toward the rut and the bulls no longer kept off by themselves, nor were the cows shunning them.

The herd was large, and growing numbers of them poured up from the river, passing closer and closer to where I was sitting.  Increasingly, they came up directly opposite the car, hesitated, then swerved around it.  The clop of their hooves and the sound of their breathing, mixed with their mounting calls to each other, overcame the sound of the wind.  The smell of the bison swamped the odors of sage, mud and willow; it was musky, wild, ripe.  A river of bison engulfed me, claiming all my senses as they flowed around me like water around a midstream boulder.

Watching there, I recalled an earlier time, when I took the girls to Yellowstone over Memorial Day weekend.  I did that for several years, when they were young.  We would stay in one of the cabins at Mammoth.  The first afternoon, we would stroll around the geyser basin, enjoy the elk congregated on the grounds and marvel at the multitude of Uinta ground squirrels – chiselers – that swarmed and scampered over the lawns and under the cabins.  The next day, after breakfast, we would set out for the Lamar Valley to look for bears, wolves and any other largeanimals we could find.  That particular day had been rich in wildlife.  We had seen bears – both black and grizzly -, elk, deer, antelope, coyotes (no wolves) and countless smaller animals.  While I may have been more interested in the animals than the girls were, they, too, embraced the enterprise and were developing real skill in spotting and naming what we saw.  Even so, we had all been in the car for a long time and were ready for a break.  

In those days, a small picnic area lay off the Lamar Valley Road, a ways east of the Yellowstone Institute, on the opposite side of the road.  They have closed off that picnic area now, and with good reason.  It was getting abused, filled with garbage and destructively trampled.  It was still open then, however, and was not yet badly damaged.  We had the grounds to ourselves that day, and set out a little picnic on one of the tables.  The girls played in a shallow backwater.  I kept a vigilant eye on them, to make sure they stayed close by and did not fall into the main river, which was running high and muddy, with lots of snags, eddies and cut banks.  They just seemed glad to be out in the sweetness of the day, as was I.

The weather that day held fair, windless and warm, a rare blessing for the season.  So I was surprised when I heard the beginning rumblings of thunder.  The sound was low at first, and intermittent, as thunder is.  It seemed to be coming from the western end of the valley, upwind, away from us.  I checked the sky.  Not a cloud to be seen, even along the southern and western ridge lines.  The rumblings dropped.   I went back to watching the girls and reveling in the midday quiet.  Then the sound came again, this time louder, closer, more continuous.  I scanned the sky again; still no clouds at all, let alone thunderheads.  And yet the sound came on, pounding, growing steadily almost to a roar.  I lowered my gaze to the far bank of the river, and saw nothing at first.  Trees on the shore obscured any clear view of the plain beyond.  But above the trees a tan cloud was rising.  And then they came into sight, the bison, scores of them, running eastward on the far side of the river.  The stampeding herd gathered up the animals that had been grazing quietly and pulled them into the moving mass.  

I called to the girls.  At first, they did not hear me, mesmerized as they were by their play.  Then they did, at my louder call, and stared, first astonished and then frightened.  I waded into the backwater beside them and stood, my hands on their shoulders and each of them holding onto one of my thighs, reassuring them that the bison would not cross the river.  And they did not.  They just ran, faster and faster, gathering up all the separate bunches into one great herd.  They passed and passed and passed, kicking up earth, raising dust, streaming east forever, it seemed, hundreds and hundreds of them streaming toward the end of the valley.  Something may have spooked them, or they may have been running for the joy of it on that fine spring day.  Whatever the reason, run they did, and gave us the gift of watching them race and hearing them thunder by, on and on and on.  We stayed and gazed and listened, even after the herd had finally passed and the sound had died away.

We stood in awe.  For the girls, there was no other reference point; just the experience.  For me, immersed as I was in the present, I also recalled accounts of the million-strong herds on the central plains, seas of bison that took all day to pass in their great stampedes, and sensed myself drawn into a great arc extending ages untold into the past.  We stood some more.  We started to talk about it a little, but our voices were quiet, unsure, beautifully stricken and hard to make out above the sound of the river.  Mostly it was exclamation, anyway.  “Whoa!  Oh, wow!”  Amazed, stunned, the girls abandoned their play.  We headed back to the picnic table and the car, sticking close together and only slowly coming back to our usual selves and our plans for the rest of the day.  And still, for hours after, one or another of us would exclaim and the other two of us would know exactly why.

I was not consciously remembering that day in Yellowstone as I sat there on the Kelly Road, butit hung in the background, providing a larger context even as I sat, rapt, in the moment.  There is something about bison that suggests ancientness, endurance, continuity.  And in that unspoken history, I experience some identification, as if I were part of it, too, brother, father, son to the bison, kin to them all.  And so it was that when the old, weary, giant bull came rising from the willows and, looming, heaved himself to the edge of the road, I saw myself.  He was massive and worn.   One horn was splintered, the other stubbed and chipped.  His eyes were bloodshot.  His hooves were cracked and broken.  His coat was ragged, bunched and torn.  His stertorous breath seemed to cost him more energy than it gave.  His mouth hung open and drool strung from his lips.  Blocked, he stared at me for a long moment.  In his eyes, I read pain, exhaustion, a kind of tired irritation.  I imagined fleetingly that he might simply walk through and over my car and me, rather than trying to summon up from his dwindling store the extra bit of energy it would take to walk around.  I have heard of bison bulls goring cars.  But this one did not.  He simply stood, heavy, swaying.  Then, gathering himself, he turned just enough, keeping his eye fixed on me, brushed along the front bumper, and passed.

He paused a pace or two from the start of the next climb, glanced up, then down again, inhaled deeply and started anew, pulling, pushing, floundering, his breath louder, increasingly labored, the muscles in his hind legs straining visibly where the hair was thin, angling a little from side to side to lessen the grade, his bulk making his hooves sink into the loose, slipping gravel and dirt.  Others overtook him, but steered clear as he struggled.  And struggle he did, more and more slowly, using some stored reserve of determination and will, almost tapped out but not quite, until, with a final slow lunge, he crested the rise.  For a time he stood, sides heaving, head hanging, drool swinging in the wind.  Sagging, he stood.  Gradually, his breathing eased and steadied, slowly his head rose, his tongue flicked the drool away and he began to mutter as he moved off onto the plateau and out of sight.

The bison kept coming, though fewer now and more spaced out.  Other cars had gathered.  Mostly, the people in them were watching, too, content to be delayed, entranced as I was.  A few were impatient, however, and began to weave their cars through, scattering the bison and forcing some back down toward the river.  

We stayed, the dog and I, waiting for the last bison to pass and the cars to clear out.  I was thinking about the old bull and about my own life, with its limitations and approaching end.  I don’t think I am dying, except in the sense that we are all moving toward death.  My ills are mostly the kind that bring discomfort and pain, and limit physical capacity.  With little effort, I can inflate distress or malfunction into an imagined life-threatening illness.  In fact, though, none of the ills I have are, as far as I know, life-threatening; just life-compromising.  But death is on my mind.  I am older now than my father was when he died.  I experience apprehension.  I wonder, metaphorically, but sometimes literally, if I will make it through the next winter, just as I wondered that about the old bull.  

As I waited, my mind wandered.  I recalled my sister’s final visit with me here in Wyoming, back when I was still living in Rock Springs.  It was one of those cold, windy winters in the high desert.  What little snow had fallen blew around and turned brown, not melting but gradually evaporating in the dry air.  My sister was a fine outdoorswoman, energetic and strong.  We had waited a couple of days, so that she could get used to the altitude, before we headed off on what was only a two or three hour outing, anyway.  We planned to start from the house, make our way across the sagebrush flats, climb directly up the face of White Mountain and wander around the plateau on top for a while to see if we could find any of the wild horses that live up there.  

Despite its name, White Mountain is not really a mountain at all, but more like the side of a wide canyon worn down from a high mesa.  The climb is steep but not technical, just a scramble up through the loose gravel and scree, past the occasional juniper and sage.  It is the kind of challenge my sister would normally have relished and met with confidence and pleasure.  This time, though, I could see that even the gentle walk down from the house and across the desert floor was taxing her.  By the time we reached the base of the first pitch, she had obviously tired, although she was always game and did not want to admit what she would have seen as her weakness.  Besides, she knew I was looking forward to showing her this part of the landscape and she did not want to disappoint me.  We stopped for her to catch her breath.  She bent down with her hands on her knees, and leaned there for a good minute.  When she straightened up, strain and worry still marked her face, even though her breathing was easier.  We started up.  She agreed to set the pace, but by the time we had climbed only some twenty yards, she asked to stop again.  Her skin had paled, despite the freshening wind, and she reeled slightly on the scree.  She glanced at me in apprehension, measured the slope with a long gaze, turned her searching eyes directly to me and said, “I can’t make it.  I am too tired.  I need to go back.”  

That was the first time, in all our years of hiking together, that she had needed to turn back, or had shown discouragement or concern.  I hugged her briefly and said “Fine, let’s go home.  Maybe you’re not used to the altitude yet after all”.  She asked if I was disappointed and, of course, I said no.  I was.  I had looked forward to showing her some of the country on foot.  But far more than disappointed, I was worried.  I had never known life without my sister strong and close by, in my heart if not in geography, and she seemed a different person now.  So we turned back, she apologizing but less than she normally would have.  She seemed baffled, angry and afraid.  It was later that year that she finally got tested, and just a short time after that she was diagnosed with metastatic ovarian cancer.  That is a story for another time, but as I sat there on the Kelly Road, the image of the old bison and that of my young sister, both struggling against infirmity and impending death, uphill through loose and unsupportive earth, merged in my heart.

As the final stragglers trotted across the pavement, hustling to catch up with the herd, the memory of a different spring day in Yellowstone drifted into my mind.  My daughters and I were driving through the Hayden Valley, on our way home.  We were hoping to see bison, as we often did there, and were especially eager to spot calves.  The day was cold, overcast and dark, and we had seen none; just a few ravens and magpies.  The spitting drizzle, the lack of wildlife in sight and the fact that I did not want to be going home all disheartened me.  The girls did not seem discouraged though, so we decided to pull off at the top of a little bluff, which presented a panorama of the river and the whole valley, for one more look with the glasses.  We stepped out into the raw chill, ever hopeful, and scanned the land and water in all directions.  Still no bison, but directly in front of us, in the middle of the river, a large, bald eagle was perched on a mass lying dark and mostly submerged in the river.  We could not tell what the bird was standing on; some kind of debris, it looked like.  We scanned again for bison, but, seeing none, came back to the eagle.  As we watched, it bent down and pecked at something in front of it, ripped a piece out, popped its head back and swallowed.  And again.  Several times.  And suddenly, with a simultaneous “Aha!” all three of us realized that the eagle was perched on a bison carcass, feeding on the remaining flesh of its head.  We began to identify parts.  I could see one great horn sticking out of the water, and an eye socket.  The girls reacted with characteristic fervor, Stephanie’s of fascinated aversion, Deirdre’s of impulsive investigative compassion.  I responded contemplatively, soberly.  I wondered how the bison had died.  Had it collapsed from age or injury and fallen while fording the river?  Had it simply been too weak to complete the crossing, lain down and let the water take it?  Or had it gotten stuck, been unable to free itself and drowned?  I wondered what it would feel like to experience my life ending in any of those ways.  

After some time, we climbed, shivering, back into the car.  I turned on the heater.  We talked about what we had seen for a while as we drove on south toward home, much as we had talked about the bison stampede a couple of years earlier, although in a different tenor, less of awe than of somber speculation laced with partially submerged unease.  Gradually our conversation turned to other things, the weather began to lighten and our mood followed suit, although the memory of that moment has clearly stuck with me to this day, and was certainly with me on the Kelly Road years later.

 Sitting there that late summer day, I admired the old bull, even envied him a bit.  Compromised he may have been, living an ebbing life, but he lived it.  Our human forebrain is our blessing and our curse.  The capacity to generalize, to think abstractly, to create the concept of time, of past and future, while it allows us to plan and to remember, pulls us again and again out of the present.  That bull lived entirely in the present, or so it seemed to me.  He did not lack intelligence, surely.  I just imagine that his intelligence was of a radically different kind.  He did not, I believe, concern himself with what might be.  He met each moment as it came, creative in his solution of the challenges he encountered on his path.  For all his physical decrepitude, he showed nobility and grace in the way he walked that path.  

I realize this is speculation.  What is not speculation is the fact that I identified with the old bull as I imagined him.  I wished for myself the ability to lead a life of determination, nobility and grace, whatever my physical state and circumstances, and however close to the end of that life I may be.  The great human traditions of wisdom guide us toward such a path; the old bison exemplified it for me.  I thanked him, as you would an ancestor; I thank him.

We were finally alone there, the dog and I.  I reached back and stroked her shoulder.  My hand lingered on her soft, smooth fur, her warm body.  She turned three times, lay down, smacked her lips and breathed out a huge gust of air.  I switched off the blinkers, cinched my seat belt, started the car, took a final look up the rise, glanced downhill for any last stragglers, breathed in the dry, pungent air, checked the road and pulled slowly out, heading toward home, supper and quiet, with the dog and my loneliness companions enough.