Bunsen Peak Trail is recommended in a bright yellow Sierra Club trail book borrowed from Montana friends. But can I trust a book from the shelves of a couple who enjoys ice climbing, and take 60 miles of a single track road to get into the Canadian back country for summer vacation?
I’m no wilderness badass. Humbled by the wide open space and, hell’s bells, the absence of a cell signal. Just who am I going to call if I get in some mess in Wyoming, anyway? A friend in the middle of a Pilates class or commuting? When I recognize that the separation from cell phone service scares me more than the grizzlies and wolves, I see my world is contracted to the 7 mile radius of my hometown.
Entering the West gate of Yellowstone I dully wonder why my eyes are making liquid. The skies are dark from the summer fires in Idaho. Must be the smoke. Maybe. Also, there’s this: A provincial gal out on her own for the first time in too many years facing wild open space, especially on the family and love front. Images of my kids paw at my mind, triggering grief. With this trip, I have allowed myself to hope and to trust, two things I run short on. The fires burning call to mind a disastrous burning of bridges. When relationships change, I go to that image.
Still, bigger than the instinct to avoid risk is the instinct to shrug off mental shackles. I like to say I am bigger on the inside, but I have to prove it to myself again and again.
I pull off the road at the trailhead and notice a trio standing at their open car trunk. I approach and we circle up to reconnoitre the trail. “You don’t think we’ll need bear spray, eh?” asks the rail thin, tan Canadian lady with a long braid down her back. A bikini top and running shorts. The four of us determine the relative wildlife risk and length of a hike marked with very little signage, and determine we’ll head up together.
In Yellowstone, the park map points only to the highlights: Mammoth, Old Faithful, Lamar Valley. Perhaps it’s the shifting land, moving over the volcanic flow underneath, but the signs that are staked into the ground seem just a little off pointe. It’s as if they were made a hundred years ago, we joke. Posted during Teddy Roosevelt’s era of foresight, they really are about a hundred years old.
The little yellow book informs us that Bunsen is the German who invented the burner for measuring volcanic geysers. Here is something I would never have learned if I hadn’t left the house. The book also tell us there used to be a forty foot communications tower at the very top of the peak, but it was disabled by high winds a few years ago and then dismantled.
So it is just me and the Canadians. A few yards up the trail, a small group quietly speaking Mandarin asks if they can join us, but they bail after we spot a small black bear about 60 feet away. The bear expertly ignores us, and rubs his snout into a hole at the base of a tree for a few minutes. Like nearly every single Yellowstone visitor, we stop and ogle, take photos, pass the binoculars, casually say “hey, bear,” so as not to incite any nearby mama bears. He wanders off, and we head up the trail.
I am surprised at how I describe myself to my new friends. Rather than skirting the topics or gilding the lily as I do at home, I am forthright about the state of my affairs. As usual with foreigners, though, I play sheepish about the fact that I speak only English.
The two older Canadians are sisters and the 16 year old is Marie’s niece, Cathy’s daughter. Cathy is the mother of five, married (“I won’t say I don’t love him, because I do. Though I wonder,” she says, “At my age. Does it really matter?”). The other sister has led a vagabond life sailing the world with her husband and three kids. She and her husband have recently decided to go their separate ways. Sounds eminently reasonable to me. Anik is a reader and a creative writer. We talk about books until we are too winded. The 16-year-old Mountain Goat scrambles up and down the trail with ridiculous endurance.
Once at the top, we wander around the peak. The wind, pushing us back from the cliff edge vista of Mammoth Valley seems to bring on an adrenalin rush and euphoria. We settle on rocks smoothed by the wind, blackened by either volcanic activity or fire, and eat some lunch. On the tail end of a two week back country trip, the ladies feast on a blend of instant mashed potato and tuna.
The way back down is tougher. When our search for Osprey Falls ends at a sheer drop, and the sisters start debating if the climb down is worth it, I blanch. Red face goes white as vertigo sets in. “The river is flowing west, so the falls has to be that way,” Anik says waving her hand past my face. Why is she not clinging to a branch or a rock, like I am? Surely this is where we’ll have to part ways because it’s improbable that I will climb down that cliff to look for a waterfall, having just seen ten falls on a hike near Hyalite Ridge. When they bag the quest for the Falls, it’s a huge relief. We find the loop that will take us back down to the bottom.
I under-prepared. I have blisters. I am out out of water. Carrying a map insured that I didn’t totally hose myself. My new friends help me out with their extra bottles, joking that they only passed them along to me to lighten their load. We talk about a 6-month wilderness program Anik went on, Marie’s sailing travels, what it’s like to give birth in La Paz Mexico. After a long soak in the Boiling River, it’s nearly dark. Marie gives me some tea in a paper cup, we exchange email addresses, hug goodbye.
I can’t check Google Maps for directions to the place where I’ll be bedding down, and it’s fine. Moving through this part of the world that still feels expansive and feral, I am in it. I belong. On the drive back down through Roosevelt’s gate on the East side, the attenuating light of Emigrant Gap ripples on and on in waves in front of me.
Because I forget times when I best my doubts, this is a note to my future self. A reminder that my body knows how to push on into the twilight alone. My mind will have no choice, but to stop clinging and go along.