DAY 1 – Saturday, May 27

APPROACHING PARADISE

Dawn finally arrives on the day I have been anticipating since sometime last century when the Loonion idea was born. All is ready. I kiss the cat, hoist my pack and step outside. Hours later I am airborne, enroute to Salt Lake. I look out my window and see a flat brown land wrinkled with rivers. I make a guess as to where I am and sure enough, the aptly named Black Hills appear, dark and mysterious. To the Lakota they are Paha Sapa, their sacred eastern boundary, thickly forested and cut with rushing streams. To me they are the true beginning of the West. Once they appear you are never out of sight of mountains all the way to California. Already I can see glints of white peaks on the horizon.

We land late in Salt Lake. To my horror a 25 minute connection has shrunk to 5 minutes. I gallop all the way to the NEXT terminal and the VERY LAST GATE in my heavy hiking boots and my way-too-heavy shoulder bag. Huffing and puffing and red in the face I make it, thankful that I am leaving behind this world of tight schedules for two weeks of freedom in the wilderness.

The clouds return for my flight to Bozeman so I do not get to see the beautiful Tetons as I'd hoped. But very soon we begin our descent and I catch my breath as an emerald jewel of a valley appears beneath me that I now know is Bozeman in Spring. High, blue mountains topped in bright snow encircle the green; two horses far below spook and race off together, graceful as a dream. Oh gorgeous! Gorgeous! This is why I'm here! Into my head pops a line from Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins and I say it out loud. "I want to see mountains again, Gandalf. Mountains!"

Now I'm on the ground and at the Avis counter. To my delight, instead of the sub-compact I ordered I am given the keys to a Chevy Blazer. Sleeping in the car just got more comfy. I pop open the hatchback and slide my heavy pack inside. There is room for every little thing and all sorts of handy compartments for storing my daily grabbits. Nice way to start my drive to the Park.

Off I go towards Livingston, marvelling at the richness of the green all around. Last time I was near here was September and the colors were brown and gold. This time I have yellow-green and blue-green and everything-in-between-green. But constantly dominating this part of the drive are the high mountains crowned in white. They give the Tetons a run for their money, I tell ya. I think of Sacagawea and Capt. William Clark having once walked here and wonder if this is where I might move. I see three distinct peaks up ahead. Rather than stopping to check the map I name them Pointy Head, Jaggedy Head and The Pyramid.

The drive through Paradise Valley along the exquisite Yellowstone River is a true delight. Raptors in the skies, mares with foals, sentinel mountains on both sides. I stop a few times for photos; watch as some horses lead themselves to water – down a steep path to the Yellowstone – and drink. I wonder what it tastes like; high and murky with silt and snow- melt. I think the sky was cloudy but it all seems bright to me.

My excitement keeps growing as I get nearer and nearer. Gardiner at last. Then round the bend and through the Arch. I burst into tears. Yes Allison, and they are tears of joy. I feel the most overwhelming sense of returning home I have EVER felt. The next thing I know I've pulled over and I'm out the door. I walk three steps into the sage, get on my knees and kiss the ground. Really I did this. I couldn't stop myself. I stand looking at my beautiful, beautiful Park as the wind whips ferociously. Then an Elk tops the ridge above, looks down at me, then walks serenely along the edge. A good omen, I believe.

I fix my yellow Loon flag (thanks again Geri & Bruce!) onto my antenna - no easy task in the bracing wind. My two-safety-pin solution works. I drive to the Gate, show my pass and go off happily, entering Gardner Canyon. As the road begins to snake its way through, I see a solitary antelope above every other turn. It was uncanny, and I can't imagine how I'll ever keep a tally. I have the road to myself. At one point I notice debris from a landslide. It seems awfully recent and I am glad when I get above it. I see a small herd of raggedy-looking Elk. I realized later that they were shedding their winter coats. In my first-day excitement I don't think to check for calves.

I stop at the Albright Center to see if I can find Ballpark. The Rangers are busy so I ask the lady at the postcard counter. She goes towards a back room and asks if anyone knows Frank Smith, nickname Ballpark. A young Ranger comes out and says Frank's off today but will be in tomorrow. I say "I'm one of the Loons, from the Internet". The Ranger smiles in recognition. He starts telling the lady and I about The Little Red Car controversy. He thinks it's really funny. I am too excited to have a proper conversation and I never even ask his or the nice lady's name. It is slowly sinking in that the Loonion is really going to happen, just as I had hoped, just as I had told so many friends it would. Ballpark Frank was real and he really works at the Albright Center and I am not the only person with a Little Yellow Flag!

I need to calm down. I need to see Lamar. So I thank the nice Ranger and leave. Going out the door I see before me the "parade grounds" the very spot I'd been seeing for months on the Web Cam. The wood fence around the sinkhole! The road! The rocks beside the road! Ha! Luckily I get distracted by the resident wildlife, cute little ground squirrels, one on its hind legs above its burrow. I can't resist a photo. I notice thickening clouds; it's looking decidedly rainy, so…

I'm on the road again. Feeling great. Observing and absorbing the spring colors of the landscape. Much of it reminds me of my discovery trip in July 1998. I remember more wildflowers from that time - I guess it's just a bit too early yet this year. But I do see yellow flowers amid the several shades of green. Mostly dandelions I will later learn, but I like the contrast they provide. I enjoy recognizing parts of this stretch of road that I remember and parts that I've forgotten only to discover all over again. That's where I saw the fireweed in September, that's where I saw my first antelope, that's where I stopped to gather firewood. I notice the Blacktail Plateau Road is closed. I hope to myself that it'll open before my two weeks are up. I recognize a stand of aspen, which I had found particularly photogenic in September, bright gold against the autumn-colored hillside. Today those same aspen quiver a brilliant green and are just as beautiful.

As I start to descend after the Hellroaring overlook (I finally know where that is now!) my excitement builds again. I pass the Petrified Tree turnoff and I can hardly stand it. I know what comes next. Finally the forest of burned trunks on my left gives way to the soft sage hills of Roosevelt. There is the crossroads. There is the corral, empty, waiting. All this time I've had the road to myself. But I am not lonely. I turn left onto the Northeast Entrance Road. BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY OPEN it says.

It's as if a John Williams score is playing in my head. The hills part just so, revealing a tantalizing glimpse of the wildness beyond. A little stream on the right rushes and gurgles through thick rich grass, glittering deep blue in the late afternoon sun. This is the entrance to my heart's home - The Lamar. It's been waiting for me under snow and rain all these months. The Yellowstone Bridge beckons, stretching out and up. Suddenly I see cars. On both sides of the bridge; 10,15, 20. In my first-day confusion I think people are stopped to take pictures of the river gorge. Silly Wendy. It's a bear jam.

And it's a nice, easy sighting as the bear is good size and dark black and it sticks out plainer than plain right there on a steep green hill, slowly grazing its way up toward the picnic area. People are all over but they are behaving themselves, chattering softly, cameras clicking and videocams whirring. I find room to pull over on the far side of the bridge and walk back a bit. We get to watch for a good 10 minutes, maybe more. He (she) digs a little every now and then but seems mostly to be grazing. The bear's head lifts up from time to time, as if to sniff the breeze, then goes back to munching. In my whole two weeks last September I saw only ONE black bear, on my very last day, very far away; my first Spring bear arrives within the first hour. The bear tugs a few more mouthfuls, crests the hill and disappears.

I drive through Little America and now I'm singing to myself. Here are the great, grey boulders I love so much; the Stonehenge-like formations and the little lakes dotted with ducks. There are Buffalo here! I never saw buffalo here before. But one look at the thick profusion of grass all around and you know why. I start stopping for pictures - elk on the high slopes, brown ducks, black-and white ducks, greyish ducks on the ponds, Buffalo in the open meadows. On past the Slough Creek turnoff and up through Lamar Canyon. The river is milky coffee, frothing to white as it rages through. It is frighteningly loud. I pause above it at one of the turnouts but I am almost too afraid to look over the edge. Again, I mark what a change is here from the fall, when huge boulders in this same riverbed lay dry, exposed in the sun.

And finally I round the bend and come into the valley that so fills my dreams. Wide Lamar, rugged and wild Lamar, its soft rounded hills backed by rockier peaks, the braided river below, flowing deeply and swiftly through the green flats, a cut bank here, a logjam there, a narrow island of pebbles. The colors seem stronger here - or perhaps the light has lengthened but the effect is richness, bounty, plenty. Why wouldn't animals come here to graze the day away? I see a large bison herd with maybe a dozen orange calves. Many small groups of Elk but I don't make out any babies. A hawk (I think) cruises overhead. Everything left of the City in me departs. My breathing, my heart beat, my senses, all relax to the pace they were meant to be.

I make my way past the series of turnouts which will become so prominent in my life for the next two weeks. I now know the names of most of them. I stop at the Footbridge (aka Wolf City, Wolf Central, The Norris Turnout, the Big Turnout, The Parking Lot). I greet Mt. Norris. The light falls on it beautifully, turning the cliffs a rich, red-brown. I watch Soda Butte Creek, looking exactly like it does in my most favorite photo, the one on my desk at work that I've been pointing to for the last several weeks when people have asked me "where are you going on your vacation?" Right there, I'd say. The river from my picture is in front of me. It has a current and a voice. It has ducks swimming on it, and they quack. I'm really here!

It's now nearly 6 and I head on up to Silver Gate to check in. The sky has become very overcast. I see quite a few elk and mule deer on this part of the drive. I find this section of the road very spooky. The forest gets thick and dark and the mountains loom higher and higher like huge gothic cathedrals and they begin to crowd in. There are a few sudden breaks into meadows but this only confirms how dark the sky has become and that the mountains are rising even higher and drawing even closer. Then all at once I'm in Montana then through the Ranger Station and into Silver Gate.

I meet Carol and her husband who run the place; my cabin is not quite ready - but no matter. I have lots of sorting and choosing to do before I haul anything inside. As I am carrying in my first load a van pulls up to the cabin next to mine. A man gets out. He has thick white hair and a richly tanned, roundish face. I know who he is in an instant. "Are you John?" He turns, a bit wary or maybe bemused. Yes he says. "I'm Wendy!"

I rush over and shake his hand. I look at that face. Mi takuye oyasin. This is the man who got me here. Impulsively I hug him. He wasn't expecting that. I made him a little uncomfortable. I try to explain "I just feel like I know you, like you're my best friend!" His family gets out of the car and he introduces me. I meet John's wife Carlene, son Joseph and daughter Rachel. Rachel remarks that our glasses are very similar. I tell them all how happy I am to be here and thank John over and over for creating the Page. He tells me that Lew & Deb are in the next cabin, that they've seen Geri & Oldtymr too. I say what about Sandi & Rick? John doesn't know. It begins to rain softly.

Between being suddenly very tired and being so overjoyed that everything is turning out just as I'd hoped I don't remember a whole lot else about this night. I think John said they were going to have dinner and then go back to watch for wolves. I knew I was about to crash. I begged off for the evening and went back to my load-in. My journal says I cooked and ate. I don't remember it. I know I wrote a little because it says this: "I'm back home where I belong. Writing by the kitchen light in my snug little cabin in Silver Gate. I am very tired and want nothing so much as sleep. The day is good. I've seen buffalo, elk, antelope, a hawk, ducks, geese, and a black bear."


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