A few years ago, I decided that I needed a break. I felt anxious and at odds with myself, and couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was the uncertainty of local and national politics. Maybe I hadn’t accomplished all that I had hoped that year. I decided not to question my mood too much, but to accept it and figure out what to do.
One morning I was doing the Boston Globe cross-word puzzle. One of the clues was “park.” I gradually filled in the blanks and the word “Yellowstone” emerged. The word didn’t benignly appear on the newsprint. It screamed at me. “YELLOWSTONE!” That’s it! I went to my computer, typed in “Yellowstone,” found a Road Scholar tour, and signed up. It felt good to be in action mode. With that done, I relaxed a bit knowing that I had something different to look forward to.
This decision wasn’t anxiety free. I worried neurotically that I would have trouble with the altitude in the Rockies and that my nasty sciatic nerve problem would crop up and prevent me from walking to all of the important sites. I ignored the potential problems and headed to Bozeman dragging my apprehensions along with my roller carry-on.
I had never been to Montana or Wyoming, and was immediately astounded by the immensity and glory of the landscape. The description of “big sky country” is right on. Mostly, my time was spent being part of our group and hearing from our instructors about the human history, geology, ecology, eco-systems, and what it was like to live as ranchers and farmers in this environment. It was all wonderful to learn, but I was a bit uneasy with not enough time to reflect in solitude. Then two opportunities presented themselves.
The first was when I walked on a raised pathway around an area of mud pots. Mud pots are pools of boiling muck which look like the final cooking stage of chocolate pudding when thick bubbles burst and make burp-like noises. Yellowstone mud can be pale grey color and not deep, luscious pudding-brown. It also stinks. Our guide told us that eons ago, the only sound here was that of belching mud. There was no life and no noise other than the incessant sloppy burp. I stayed behind as the rest of the group moved on. I tried to imagine what it would have been like in this place when there were no bears, elk, bison, and people – including tourists like me, and when there was nothing living to hear the sound. I envisioned this primordial era and placed myself within it. Certainly, it would have been lonely being in the world by myself, but the upside would have been not having to deal with the worrying political noise around me.
The second moment of reflection came at Old Faithful. With others, I watched the geyser spew its vapors on its regular schedule. But the special time for me was not during the water spout, but while sitting in front of Old Faithful in-between eruptions. People gathered in large numbers before the geyser was due to blow, but drifted away once the display was over. In that quiet interval I was able to ponder what I had learned about the astonishing geologic phenomena that cause geysers and visualize what was happening under the ground beneath my feet. I was sitting on top of a time bomb, but, unlike the political scene, the schedule and phenomenon were predictable.
Now that I am back to my normal routines, I realize two things. One is how important small spells of quietude are for me and how they give me the mental space to reflect on both simple or grand notions. The other is not to be afraid. I did everything the trip offered. I managed in the thin Rocky Mountain air and had almost no problems with my sciatic nerve. Most significantly, I gained these two concepts – the importance of nature as a teacher and how letting go of fear can help me move into the future.