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.