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night in yellowstone
From the unpublished book, Travel Shorts Stories.
…Crisp cold darkness fell upon Yellowstone. Drowsiness began to seep in and driving through the park to Jackson in search of a motel was not such a good idea. I cruised steadily, headlights revealed clear stretches and bending road. The light’s reach hinted at a feature rich wilderness spreading beyond sight of approaching and surrounding night. There was nothing in my life that had prepared me for what awaited a short distance away. My mind had drifted to that memory that was still surprisingly present. Every time thereafter it sprung to mind; those moments were clear and detail rich.
‘You’re not from around these parts?’ The barkeep eyed me as he poured a drink. My accent had obviously given me away, perhaps also the cut of my jib in western clothes was not convincingly authentic. The life weathered barkeep had seen and heard plenty from his side of the bar. He had with little doubt pretty much sized me up. He took a step back and grinned. I offered a partial nod, smile and greeting.
‘You almost had me with the whole dusty hat and clothes, but that is no accent from these parts.’
I expect he was making polite conversation. We both knew the unsaid, I was a holiday cowboy. There wasn’t one authentic thing about me, aside from my Wranglers, hat and boots. I reached forward and took a sip.
‘So what brings you out west?’ He spoke as he smiled easily.
‘An authentic ranch holiday experience, if you can believe that.’
‘You’re in the right place for that.’
‘I got a heck of a lot more than I bargained for. Yes the whole authentic experience and then some.’
‘Well, colour me curious, how’s that?’
I went on to relate the story. ‘Relief is up there with a near pants crapping experience. We grow up on doses of western movies. Some with the classic scene of a cow poke or child stuck slap bang in the middle of a stampede. There in the midst of the charging horned cattle, little Billy Bob or Mary Jane, cling for dear life on a solitary precarious looking tree, hinting at the fact it might just keel over at any moment causing the children to be trampled under hoof into an unrecognisable bloody mess.
We could be forgiven for thinking the scene was near comical on the big screen with old special effects. If you haven’t been caught in one, I guarantee you it’s no joking matter. If I was a tribal person I might have thought the whole experience spiritual. Maybe it was, and if so, I would have probably received the spiritual name, Stands Among Running Bison.’ I chuckled and took another sip of whiskey.
The late afternoon traffic along the highway slowed to a stop shy of the park entrance. Some folks wondered from their vehicles for a better look, but the stream of cars continued down and out of sight. Some stretched their legs; others looked as if in search of a reason for the hold up. There were two large RVs with retired couples in front and a group of young guys in a pickup behind.
Wondering as to the hold up was short lived. News drifted back that the road would be closed several hours for urgent repairs. The folks thereabout seemed to take the delay with amiable calm. It served as an opportunity to get acquainted with others on their journey down the freeway. The friendly and curious group of young guys from the pickup explained that they were on their way back to agricultural college after working on ranches during the summer break. The two retired couples in their RVs were in the midst of a shared adventure travelling around the entire country. They were cheerful folk who offered me, the young guys, and some others there close by fresh coffee and home made donuts.
After the road had opened; night approached upon entering the park. It was a relief to catch a souvenir and supply store still open. I took the opportunity to buy a patterned blanket which I use today as my bureau table cover, a pair of warm socks I was sure to need, water, some snacks, not forgetting jerky, which I had become to like very much. The days were warm enough, at times even hot for the time of year, but with sunset a cold dry curtain dropped right down over everything that October.
Curled up in the blanket on the reclined passenger seat; I needed to get some sleep before continuing. It was difficult to know how long I had been out when there was a sharp knock against the glass. Harsh torchlight beamed in and made my bleary eyes squint. After cracking the window I called out.
‘Hey man, please take the light out of my eyes.’
He angled the light away against my body. Thereafter I surmised it was to assure himself I was unarmed and of no danger. In the low light I got a partial view of a uniform and hat. It turned out to be a park ranger.
‘Sir, you can’t park here overnight.’
I was unaware of the prohibition or its reason, and although the message was to the point, I didn’t get the impression of displeasure or annoyance, but an informative tone. I wound down the window further and rubbed my face of sleep to the cold air before easing the door open to sit up. After I explained the reason for parking; he offered easy to follow directions to to an RV parking area a short drive away where I could rest for the night.
Parked up in close range of various recreational vehicles; I left the engine running a while to warm the interior before settling down. I hadn’t been asleep long when my rest was interrupted by discomfort, and with the sudden sensation of cold; I didn’t want to wait out the rest of the night. With a few hours left before dawn; I drove off, roughly calculating to reach Jackson for an early full American breakfast.
It was pitch black save the reach of the headlights. There wasn’t a soul on the road. The rubber against the road, and muffled engine sounded under the low hum of the heater. The curves in the road straightened out for a spell and my speed was well within the limit. There was a slight inexplicable sensation almost imperceptible at first. A gentle tremble worked its way up through and into the car, and I eased off the gas as the tremble increased. The rumble was now audible outside the car. By then I’d slowed to a crawl as the ground shook harder and windows vibrated with the noise. It sounded like distant thunder, and as the car came to a complete stop, the shaking became more violent, and the rumble intensified as if drawing closer. It couldn’t have been a storm, and geyser seemed unlikely. Earthquake appeared the most likely explanation, never having been in one until later in life; I had no experience to compare.
Dry dusty earth began to rise from the ground and drifted about the car in view of the headlights. Concern was surpassed by curiosity and excitement. An elk suddenly dashed across my path some distance ahead, then another. A smaller bison, then larger sprinted across even closer. The tremors increased and the several stragglers in moments became a herd. I sat transfixed by the sight. My eye caught red light from the brakes in the rear view mirror. To my surprise, bison were running in front and behind the car. It dawned on me they were coming sideways on from the passenger side and veering off around.
I was caught in the middle of a stampede. I was in awe as I slowly turned my head to the front passenger side window. It was dark save dashboard light reflections. My imagination swam at the idea of those great beasts running right at me. It was clear that if one of those massive creatures hit me side on; there wouldn’t be much left to recognise from the mangled bloody body mixed in with smashed car and bison parts. My brain would unlikely have time to register pain. Perhaps I’d get a momentary glimpse of a giant fury head framed by flying glass and twisted metal, then lights out for good.
In the certainty of that knowledge, and the fact that I was helpless to affect any change to the possible outcome; I naturally expected to be afraid, even paralysed with terror as I observed unfolding events. To my utter surprise, a calm washed over me. I was resigned and accepting of the possible fait. I returned my gaze to the front, released my grasp from the steering wheel and let my hands fall slowly to my lap. I was in awe, engrossed within the sights and sensations that surrounded. They seemed to continue endlessly.
I can’t say whether it was luck, the instinctive behaviour of animals to circle a stationary object or some other influence; the herd began to thin out and the noise subsided. Shortly thereafter it ended as it had started. I remained stationary in silence as I absorbed the extent of the experience. My camera had been at hand, and yet it had not occurred to me to lift it. Though, upon reflection, they were the days of film camera, my iso wouldn’t have allowed me more than a blur or heavily darkened images.
Sometime after, my dark sense of humour imagined a different outcome. Like some terrible B movie gore scene. The Park Ranger who had previously woken me arrives at the scene with a rookie. Shaking his head sadly, and whilst taking in the bloody scene; his colleague would be close to vomiting.
‘Yup, I recognise the vehicle. A young foreign guy was sleeping in the parking lot by the souvenir store. God damned shame Billy. I told the guy to rest up for the night at the RV park.’