In thirty-three years, I’ve never had an epiphany or a vision of God. Tongues of flame have yet to lick my scalp.

Instead I am frequently haunted by anti-epiphanies. Memories of when I thought I realized something – the right turn in a story, the best ending – but was wrong. These are my moments of rapture, re-living the conviction. I knew that was the right move; only it wasn’t. During these moments I feel I’ve got my finger on the weak link, my brain against the ropes, only to realize that I’m just touching the tail of something, the beginning of a reckoning. I’m aware that my brain is both failing and achieving, that it is wrong and right at the same time. There’s euphoria in that shifting compass. The infinite ripple of yes and no.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I almost got trampled – or gored, had it been in a goring sort of mood – by a bison. We had gone for a hike with our dog in the Absaroka mountains of Montana, just on the Northern border of Yellowstone National Park. Not more than ten minutes into our journey, we came upon the bison in the middle of the trail, grand as a monument.

Bison, you likely know, weigh about a ton. They’re generally pretty placid, though they can become agitated, which they demonstrate by raising their tails, along with various other signals. Sometimes they’re ornery because they have to fight a rival, or because it’s winter and they’re being stalked by half-starved wolves, or because biting flies and mosquitoes are sucking them dry, any number of possibilities. Life is hard in the Yellowstone.

Tourists who lack respect for the bison’s personal space add to its burdens. Yellowstone literature will tell you that many more people are injured or killed by bison in YNP than by bears or mountain lions.

When my husband and I saw the bison, we had no intention of getting on his nerves. There was space to get past him, but because of the dense forest, felled logs stacked waist high in some places, we would’ve had to get closer than was reasonable, so we turned around and went back to the cabin. We figured if we got out of his way for a while, he’d have plenty of time to finish his business and move on to less crowded trails.

A few hours later, we returned. We were right. There was no sign of the bison except for his heart shaped prints in the mud, and we completed our hike down to Soda Butte creek.

It was September, and it began to snow off and on. We crouched on the banks of the creek until we grew cold.

The hike back was quiet, only the jingle of the dog’s tags and our canteens against our legs. We’d stop now and then to clap our hands, a makeshift human-bear GPS system, even though we’d been hiking these woods for years and had never encountered a bear. It grew warm again and the sun burned our necks. Fifteen minutes or so from the trailhead, we came through a thick cluster of ponderosas, all tight in a bend. The dog’s ears went up.

It would be wrong to say we were surprised. How can one be surprised by something that weighs two thousand pounds and stands six feet tall? It was more of a certainty that settled into us. That by coming back we had screwed up. Screwed up big time.

We tried to get out of the way, but the animal bore down, coming up over a hill, the incline making it seem even larger than it was. I thought then how silly scary movies are, the way they try to jolt you with loud music and a monster jumping out from the shadows. True terror is something walking towards you calmly, without hesitation.

There was plenty of room for the bison to move around us, to avoid getting close, yet it continued lurching forward as if we were just a couple of spindly willows in the way. Trying to move as far off the trail as possible, we ended up straddling huge, crisscrossed logs like human kabobs.

YNP literature states that all visitors should maintain a safe distance of at least 25 yards from a bison. We were six feet away.

The story condenses in my mind from this point, shrinking into a sharp piece of gravel that bounces around my nightmares. The realization that there was nowhere for us to go. That despite seeming calm, despite his relaxed tail, the bison wasn’t stopping. That despite knowing a decent amount of information about bison behavior, my brain had failed me. The bison, you understand, was not stopping.

The great head darkened over us.

Our dog, who for years had made a practice of barking at bison through car windows when we drove through the park, kept miraculously still and silent, her tail stiff. Shh, I whispered to a dog who had never listened to us in the best of circumstances. Stay.

The bison regarded us, the tip of its black tongue rounding the lip and twitching up into wet, empty nostrils.

I didn’t pray. If I believed in anything, I believed in the bison. His choice. I felt something drain out of me, my blood congealing into a heavy clot in my stomach. The certainty of this. Now.

I had been convinced we were doing the right thing, leaving the bison alone the first time. That even now, as long as we got off the trail and gave him room, he would walk by us, unconcerned. Each step closer, he proved me wrong.

After a minute, the bison turned away, squeezed by us and headed down the trail, stopping occasionally to eat. His tail was down, swishing.

Perhaps it was a good day for him.

I trembled the entire way back to the car. My husband was as pale as I’ve ever seen him. Just at the trailhead, we ran into an elderly couple beginning their hike. They smiled at us.

“Be careful,” we told them. “There’s a very big bison blocking the trail up ahead.”

“Oh yeah, we see them all the time,” the old man said. “Just don’t get in their way, is all.” He chuckled and they disappeared into the woods.

When I tell the story, I always say how wrong I was, how foolish I was to assume an animal would behave a certain way, according to some television show I’d watched. How everything I thought I knew was wrong. My husband insists the opposite. “We’re alive,” he says, “because we must have done the right things.” I tell him we’re alive because the bison was having a good day.

One year later in the same spot, two people were attacked – and one killed – by a grizzly.

Maybe we were lucky. Maybe we were wrong and right.

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Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus). Her work has appeared in over a dozen journals, including G.W. Review, Minnesota Review, Crab Orchard Review, Matador Travel, and The Millions. She’s currently at work on a collection of short stories and a second novel. You can visit her website at www.elizabetheslami.com

23 responses to “Brief Encounters with Illuminating Ungulates”

  1. “True terror is something walking towards you calmly, without hesitation.” Descriptions like that make this whole encounter come to very real life. Glad you made it out in one piece.

    The last time I was in Yellowstone, bison sightings along the main roads came easy thanks to the tourists lining the shoulder when one was spotted. It was an amusing/absurd juxtaposition, dozens of people with digital cameras thirty feet from a gently grazing animal, accompanied by the threat that the thing could charge at any moment.

    Thanks for the fun read that brought me right there.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I think they even have a name for the cars and people clustered together like that — a “bear jam.”

  2. Oh, I’m so glad you didn’t turn into human kabobs at a bison buffet!

    “The infinite ripple of yes and no” — exactly. I’m so often paralyzed by the idea of where even the smallest decision, in writing or in life, will take me vs. another, if one is right and the other disastrous. I really like your angle of watching what you thought was a great epiphany unraveling as something else entirely because of course that’s the experience that leads us to be paralyzed in the face of decisions in the first place. I have come to the conclusion that only the Magic Eight Ball knows for sure.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Cynthia! There’s a Lewis Carroll quote, something like “When you don’t know where you’re going, every road will lead you there.” I’m not sure it works that way when there’s a bison in the road, though.

  3. Brad Listi says:

    I feel compelled to try to make some kind of Dances with Wolves joke here. But nothing materializes.

    (Tatonka?)

    I’ve had a few bear experiences in my day. Nothing dramatic. I remember walking on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia and hearing a twig snap and looking up and to my left through the trees and seeing a black bear, about 20 yards up, walking parallel to me. I felt no fear. My dog didn’t go after it. (I had feared that he would chase a bear when I was hiking out there, but the two times we saw ’em, he wanted nothing to do with ’em.) The second time (also in Virginia), there were two cubs about 30 yards up the way, and a mama bear (a much more dangerous situation). But again, I felt no fear. The bears went on their way.

    I like that line of yours, how you believed in the bison.

    That’s sorta how I felt. I believed in the bear.

    If it decided to come at me, what was I gonna do? Run?

    Later, when I was up in Maine, I was camping in the 100-mile wilderness and was almost off to sleep when I heard footsteps and a knocking sound — wood on wood — and I put my headlamp on and unzipped my tent and looked out into the night — and a giant bull moose was standing five feet away, breathing steam out of its nostrils. (Again, my dog did nothing. Smarter creature than I gave him credit for — and I gave him a lotta credit.) This moose was gigantic and had huge antlers that were knocking against tree trunks as he moved through the forest. Gentle fella. Glad he didn’t step on me.

    Anyway. Loved this.

    It brought to mind this Moth podcast that I listened to just yesterday. If you have 12 minutes, tune in.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I’m crazy jealous that you’ve had bear encounters, though I’m also relieved that things didn’t take a turn for the dangerous with the sow and cubs. On the same trip in the Absarokas, we came upon a moose and her calf on foot, though we had enough distance to keep all parties calm.

      Have you seen that video floating around of the guy who was stalked by a black bear? Obviously very out of character for a bear, but I think it was either rabid or injured. Anyway, it followed the guy for over an hour, and the man eventually swam out in a lake to escape. The bear even swam after him for a time before finally going on his way. Crazy stuff.

  4. Art Edwards says:

    Oh, this is lovely.

    “True terror is something walking towards you calmly, without hesitation.”

    and

    “I didn’t pray. If I believed in anything, I believed in the bison.”

    You dial up the tension very nicely, and I relate very much to the this-ness of the experience.

    Everything they tell you about dealing with dangerous wildlife strikes me as futile. If the bear wants me, the bear gets me. Still, I clap my hands and ring my bells.

    Art

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Art! Here’s to clapping and bell ringing. I always think the worst thing wouldn’t be to be eaten by a bear; it would be that someone would come along after I’m eaten and kill the bear for being a bear.

    • Mary Richert says:

      I was going to point out those same two lines. Both are just right.

      Nothing beats a nice close brush with nature. I loved that bison, too. It’s easy to see how people who don’t understand them could mistake them for big, hairy cows and want to hug them or something. I’d be in that camp, and I would get gored.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Thanks, Mary. I always have to resist the urge to hug the baby bison. There’s just something about a creature with a giant head and wobbly legs that you have to love. Preferably from afar, and not while straddling logs.

  5. Elizabeth, I simply love this passage:

    “These are my moments of rapture, re-living the conviction. I knew that was the right move; only it wasn’t. During these moments I feel I’ve got my finger on the weak link, my brain against the ropes, only to realize that I’m just touching the tail of something, the beginning of a reckoning.”

    I can’t imagine what was going through your mind waiting for the Bison to make his next move…. that something this eloquent came from that encounter is stunning. I’m pretty certain my brain would have been mush.

    • Elizabeth says:

      So glad you liked that part, Robin. I wish I could say I was thinking something profound, something of the life flashing before your eyes variety, but I was really just thinking how stupid I was for getting us into that situation. Kind of an endless “Nooooo…” that you don’t so much think as feel.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I love the whole story, but I especially love how you open with anti-epiphanies — “During these moments I feel I’ve got my finger on the weak link, my brain against the ropes, only to realize that I’m just touching the tail of something….”

    That sure sounds familiar. Glad you survived the large ungulate encounter. Over the last four months, I’ve been learning how to work with large domestic animals. Some close calls there are making me think I should stick to rabbits and chickens. But then again, near death makes for good stories.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi Liz! Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m in awe of your fearlessness around horses, especially after you were thrown. They’ve always terrified me, though I hope to overcome that. As for good stories, I guess I never know ’em til I bump into ’em.

      By the way, I love that picture of you.

  7. Seth Pollins says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    It’s so nice to see a fellow Wally on the TNB! I’d been meaning to check your stuff out.

    I’m generally against hikes and specifically against snakes. I’ve never even considered, in my nightmares or otherwise, a bison. The animal itself seems mythological to me, all swarthy, a descendant of Pan or Dionysus. I’m glad you survived your encounter.

    I like how, at the high-moment of bison anxiety, you believed only in the bison. Nice. Wonderful writing.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Great to meet you, Seth! And thanks for the kind words. I think you’re right about bison seeming mythological. Maybe that’s why the whole experience was so startling, being confronted by your complete meaninglessness in the face of something so grand. Who knows that it’s not a good thing for us all, once in a while. It’s hard to act like you’re the center of the universe around something that could easily step on you without a moment’s thought.

      Thanks again. Looking forward to reading your work here and at The New Savagery.

  8. Matt says:

    What a finely-wrought narrative of your encounter, Elizabeth. Remarkable grasp of the tension here; I’m almost tempted to suggest your follow-up to Bone Worship should be a thriller.

    I can’t help but wonder how many of those fatal encounters are due to human curiousity/stupidy, either approaching the animal with an undeserved level of familiarity or panicing at the mere sight of it. As an avid animal lover, I understand the first impulse completely, put it needs to be tempered with the understanding that these aren’t zoo animals, and even though they might be acclimated to the presence of human beings, that doesn’t mean they tolerate them.

    I think you & your husband did the right thing: you gave the bison as wide a bearth as possible, remained calm, and allowed it to get a good look at you & determine you weren’t a threat. Best way to handle wildlife encounters, especially when it’s an animal you can neither outfight or outrun.

    If you’re interested in a bear story (and not to flagrantly self-promote here), check my archive for my “Bear Country” essay. I think it was posted *just* before you joined us here.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Just read it, Matt, and loved it. You do such a masterful job of building and maintaining dread (the pictures are great too, by the way) but my favorite part was the way you punched us at the end with the presence of the claw marks. The certainty of what was there, and our minds filling in the details of what could have been. Like you commented, there’s something about being in the dark, disoriented, unable to see, and hearing those sounds. Also terrifying for the reader who knows what’s happening outside while you guys are in the tent, helpless and half-asleep. Wow.

      I can only hope you’ll follow this with an encore. So, about that Louisiana bear encounter…

  9. angela says:

    elizabeth, this is great. short but thoroughly terrifying and thought-provoking. i echo other commenters who loved:

    I thought then how silly scary movies are, the way they try to jolt you with loud music and a monster jumping out from the shadows. True terror is something walking towards you calmly, without hesitation.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting! Still debating which is more terrifying, though: close call with a bison or subway rat on the face. It’s a toss-up.

      • dwoz says:

        I’ve had a couple near-death-experiences with wild animals.

        Probably the most terrifying was the early spring night I awoke to the sound of the raccoon that had been raiding my garbage cans doing his nightly rounds. I swear that if I had put a combination lock on the cans, the raccoon would only have been slowed down by 5 minutes in getting the tops off and strewing the contents all over my raised deck. I jumped out of bed, naked, ran downstairs and leaped through the sliding glass door with a broom in my hand, chasing the old bastard like it was a puck and I was Guy Lafleur. Unfortunately, I was not as good on my skates as Lafleur, and as I reached the steps in hot pursuit, my legs flew out from under me on the ice and I flew out over the steps, landing solidly on the frozen ground, with the big old coon between my naked legs. We looked at each other, and shared a mutual “holy fucking shit!” moment, before he wriggled out from under me and took off across the yard.

        • Elizabeth says:

          Terrifying indeed! And disturbing. No doubt having a raccoon between one’s naked legs will result in years of therapy. And probably a moratorium on sleeping sans pants.

          It’s only a matter of time before LL Bean comes up with some new flannel, raccoon-resistant pjs for those intimate, late night animal encounters.

  10. william sack says:

    i enjoyed your bison exp. it must have been quite exilerating to say the least……i have also exp, some very cool encounters with wild animals……bears….timber wolves near Kirkland lake Ontario Canada……the bears a mother with two cubs at a distance of about 30 ft i was on a dirt mound above them when they emerged from the tree line…..her hair went up and she stood on her hind legs smelling my sent, the cubs climbed a tree right behind her looking over her shoulder……i stood very still with my video camera rolling,she woofed and the cubs came down and they moved away and into the bush …….The Timber wolves were also very close and magnifisant ,circled my truck at night while i cooked on my tailgate heard them coming before we seen the huge male to our right jill moved inside the truck and i continued to cook and could hear a couple others running back and forth behind me twigs snapping ….i then climbed into the truck ,the huge male was gone into the bush he was white with black guard hairs through his coat tail high in the air….we waited and less than 10 min later he reappeared in the same area he was seen last, their was a full moon shineing and he stood out like a ghost in the night….i had my million candle power spot light he walked straight in front of the truck tail in the air when he was about centred i lit him up like a christmas tree he never looked or faltured in his step i could not beleive my eyes he then turned away from us and started to walk away not even looking our way i put my head out the window and made a mouse squeek he never aknoledged and walked another five to ten steps stopped then turned his huge head or his right schoulder and looked our way his big buitiful eyes shineing like two gold nuggets in the light night then he was gone……very fortunate wild exp. for sure i love timber wolves even more now………..i have been very fortunate to have many many wild encounters Rockwell Sack Kitchener Ontario Canada

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