Just a few moments in Yellowstone

  • Alan Kesselheim


Early this summer, I went into the forest near Slough Creek Campground in Yellowstone National Park. Just out of sight of the last campsite, it felt very secluded. I set my folding chair on some flat ground next to a couple of dried buffalo flops and sat there, alone, for an hour or more.

Nothing happened.

The wind blew the entire time. Tree trunks in the distance rubbed against each other -- a high whine -- intermittent but steady. I imagined wood polishing wood, wearing itself smooth and shiny. Tall evergreens leaned and swayed, drunken, animated by the gusts. The sound of rushing air in the forest was like surf at the beach.

A butterfly flew past, lingering in the lulled air close to the ground, flying in the meandering, unsteady way that butterflies do. Some yellow-rumped warblers chased each other through the underbrush, color flashing. A chickadee called; a second one flew in, and the two black-and-white streaks played follow-the-leader, zooming through the thick grove of trees, chattering at each other.

Bits of airborne fluff, plant seeds, wafted past on the breezes. How far might they travel in a wind like this? And upon landing, perhaps one out of a hundred will take root and grow, initiating a new colony miles from home.

A flicker landed in the top of a broken snag; I caught a glimpse of the black bib on its chest. It worked its way methodically around the exposed, decaying stump, jabbing up insects, using its stiff outer tail feathers as outriggers for balance and support. It took its time but eventually flew off, undulating into the shadows with its white patch exposed.

Wind-driven cumulus clouds charged overhead, sun-struck and benign but building to something. Their shadows undulated like moving carpets on the far, sagebrush-dotted slope. With the wind and the thickening clouds, it felt like change, a hint of tomorrow's storm. And throughout it all, there was the monotonous, whining rub of tree against tree, that patient polishing in the harrying wind.

I went into the lush woods of Yellowstone Park to sit still for an hour or more, and, as I say, nothing happened.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Jo Sanders
Jo Sanders
Sep 06, 2011 02:28 PM
No thing happened and everything happened. Thank you for your 'seeing' and capturing it on 'paper' - so to speak. Your eloquent words brought me right back to Yellowstone. If you know Dick Dorworth, also a gifted writer and friend, please give him my best.
Palms joined,
Jo Sanders
martin weiss
martin weiss
Sep 06, 2011 04:32 PM
The wind was busy strengthening the trees to stand tall. The meandering and unsteady flight of the butterfly was an atomic sampling of nectar essences in the wind. The warblers were conferring on the location of a snake seen earlier, one said to the other: "See, I told you, he went back under that rock." Chickadees always play chicken in the afternoon. And the cumulus were gathering strength to drop thunder and lightning on Washington, DC, as a protest of Fukushima. Unlike their human counterparts, denizens of Yellowstone do not have the leisure to sleep at the wheel of existence, and/or democracy. Wildlife is a full-time occupation.
David M. Delo
David M. Delo
Sep 07, 2011 07:30 AM
Headed back there the last week of September to catch some of the color as well as the sounds and smells. Last time I was there I was using a topo map and a tape recorder to recreate Hayden's 1871 exploration of the soon-to-be-park. Then I wrote The Yellowstone, Forever! daviddelo.com
Fred Bell
Fred Bell Subscriber
Sep 07, 2011 09:26 PM
To paraphrase Wallace Stegner most of us shout into the void instead of listening to the silence. Thanks for sharing your quiet thoughts.
Leon Schwebke
Leon Schwebke
Sep 11, 2011 09:47 AM
This essay captures the essence of Yellowstone for me. I was one of the lucky ones who for a brief time lived in YP. The moments I remember most were those solo hikes that brought a true quiet, an awareness and wonderment. The feel, the sounds, the smell of Yellowstone. The sound of a gentle breeze waving through a mountain meadow of tall grasses and wildflowers backdropped by forested and snow capped peaks, the feel of a cold hard rain/hail storm on an exposed mountain ridge, the smell of a geyser basin that while slightly repulsive to others to me smells like home. Yellowstone is no longer a physical home but for those of us fortunate enough to have lived there, even for a few brief months or years, it will always be...home.
richard stivers
richard stivers Subscriber
Sep 13, 2011 01:36 PM
I too feel the same way about my time in Denali National Park.I had the good fortune to work there in 1987 and each and every memory places a smile on my lips. I still remember the manager telling me to go out into the park and hear the roar of silence. Seeing female bears with cubs eating soap berries totally oblivios to us, Dall sheep laying right beside us with no fear, and my favorite of all, a mother moose adopting a third baby moose to care for with her own twins after the baby's mother had been killed by a grizzly. These are memories that will never go away!