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Walkabout kinda way
Summary: This short story is about a hike on the first day of summer. Perhaps there is a lesson near the end, but it is possible it was just a long walk combined with conversation. Names have been changed for no other reason than it seemed like a good idea at the time. In any sense, Jak Lotus has been in Yellowstone for a few weeks and is on his second summer as a volunteer ranger. Connor Clofton is visiting his friend, Jak, for a week from Ohio. [EXPAND Click to expand and read more!]
The First Day of Summer in 2011, the Summer Solstice, was on Tuesday, June 21. Connor Clofton and Jak Lotus were seven miles from the trailhead in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. They were less than a mile south of the Montana-Wyoming border. The sky was blue and the sun was just beginning to rise above the mountain ranges that ran the length of the horizon. Connor and Jak were in no hurry sitting back in old chairs on the porch of a federal cabin at 6600 feet above sea level. They had built up the bonfire the previous night and were relishing in the morning glow of the light reflecting off the upper banks of Slough Creek. From the porch, Connor and Jak could see north beyond the boundary of the park to the wilderness where Sugarloaf and Cutoff Mountain rose to nearly 10000 feet and still had white snow covered peaks. The sun had struck these peaks first and created a look of torches in the distance but were now fully illuminated while Connor and Jak discussed plans for the future.
“You’re starting law school in the fall,” said Jak. “How’s that sitting with you?”
“Of course I’m a little anxious. I know I have not read enough over the years,” said Connor. “College was a joke, but that’s not the college’s fault.”
“Yea, I feel like everyone could say that though.”
“Right. I’m in the median age group but there’ll be people in the late 20s and older, so it’s not like I’m that far behind.”
“It’s how you feel though?”
“Pretty much. Maybe it is a confidence issue. Maybe I’m just thinking about it too much.”
“Well you have a drive, right? Like you know you have a ways to go sort of like that feeling of needing to catch up?
“Yea, definitely. It’s motivating. I know what I need to do and am ready to do it.”
“What more do you really need, you know? There are people out there who do drop out or give up and I am not so sure it is because it was just too hard, but really because they were not ready, not willing.”
“Really it’s about believing that you’re ready, recognizing your limitations and moving forward.”
As Connor and Jak continued to talk strategy on law school, some figures appeared in the distance. There were definitely bears in the area, grizzly and black. The previous day, when they reached the federal cabin, there were claw marks and splintered wood on the ground indicating that bears had attempted to find a way in. Jak was volunteering for the month as a general ranger with the U.S. Park Service and had some experience with bear management. Connor had come to visit for a few days by way of Helena, Montana where his cousin had just gotten married. Having never been to the Continental Divide, Connor was experiencing the full mindblow one has seeing the enormous landscapes. The out of body sensations occurs for a number of reasons. It is similar to the effect of traveling abroad, seeing a new world. The idea is that compared to the setting of one’s origin, the total change is a moonscape in comparison. Where a creek running through a meadow in Ohio is beautiful and serene, a creek running through a comparable meadow is exponentially greater with mountains rising thousands of feet, moose wandering back and forth through the water, and few if any people within miles of your vantage point.
“People are coming,” said Connor who was spotting the figures through binoculars.
“First of the day,” said Jak. “Good.”
“You think they are heading this way?”
“Sure. I mean to them, we are the rangers.”
Jak was wearing his uniform. Although disheveled and smoking tobacco out of an old pipe, he looked official enough. Connor looked like any other backcountry hiker although in Jak’s company could be mistaken for another ranger. The people were now within talking distance and probably heard the music playing from Jak’s cell phone. Coincidentally, the radio station shuffled to the Yes song, I’ve seen all good people.
“How’s the day treating you,” Jak called out to the two encroaching hikers. They were both older, perhaps in their 60s, had packs on their backs and excitement in their eyes.
“How could anyone complain?” responded the first hiker.
“You guys are doing it right,” said the second hiker, referring to Jak and Connor’s relaxed setup on the porch of the federal cabin.
“Amazing day, we’ll be hiking out later,” said Jak in a jovial tone. He then switched to ranger mode in a no-nonsense voice. “Just to let you know, there’s been some bear trouble in the area. A few weeks ago, one collapsed an unoccupied tent, probably just out of curiosity, but just in case want to remind you to keep in mind the food storage.”
“Don’t think we’ll have to worry about that,” said the first hiker. “We’ll probably stay up through the night talking.”
“Best fishing in the morning,” said the second hiker.
Jak could feel they knew what they were doing and would not have any troubles. There was a weird vibe for a moment and few words could be exchanged knowing that they would soon be on their way and would likely never see each other again. Jak and Connor exchanged nods of understanding to the hikers and then watched them walk back to the trail and northward to a farther campground.
“We’ll have to return here forty or so years from now and do what they are doing,” Jak said.
Connor laughed at the idea and then stared silently across the now fully lit northern range as the two figures disappeared into it all.
“Probably time to get moving,” said Jak.
“Right, what should I do,” responded Connor.
Backcountry cabins require a strict disciplined upkeep. Law enforcement rangers use them to patrol the boundaries and prevent poachers from taking advantage of the Yellowstone ecosystem. According to the cabin logbooks, dozens of firefighters stayed during the 1988 wildfires that burned thirty-six percent of the park. Researchers and conservation groups would stay in the cabin to maintain trails, build bridges, and conduct studies. Amenities are basic, but comprehensive. The door is locked with a deadbolt along with the wooden panels that covered the windows. The inside the 16 foot by 16 foot cabin included a steel bunk bed, an iron fire stove, a wooden table and several chairs, a ceramic sink, and a few cabinets full of supplies. Many cans and packets of food expired years ago. It was all decades old. There were enough provisions for a handful of people to last through any sudden snow storm in the winter for a few weeks.
“Let’s first bundle up all of our gear,” Jak said. “And then we’ll bag up any trash.”
Jak had received instructions, more of a request really, to fill out an inventory of the cabin, but he was insistent to make a favorable impression his ranger colleagues. The three page list detailed everything from the number of stick matches and lanterns, the number of spoons, to the bigger items like chairs and one bunk bed. They had worked out an efficient system. Connor rummaged through the cabin, pulling out various items while Jak marked off the checklist.
“Four rolls of wax paper,” Jak said.
“I’ve got seven here,” said Connor with a look of bewilderment holding the long thin boxes. “Why?”
“Thought it was strange too, but I’m pretty sure it is used to get fire started.”
After finishing inside, Jak and Connor moved to the shed on the outside of the cabin. The small enclosure was packed tight with many tools: chainsaw, shovels, broom, axes, picks, boxes of smaller tools, horse feed, handsaws, buckets, rope, gloves, and unknown other trinkets that neither Jak nor Connor could figure out. They began sweeping it out after inventorying all the gear which was scattered on the ground.
“Oh no,” said Jak solemnly stepping back from the shed. “Connor drop the broom and step back.” Both stepped back another ten feet.
“What is it?” asked Connor with a look of confused dread on his face.
“I just remembered that we’re supposed to wear masks and spray down the dust before sweeping.,” said Jak in a low slow tone. “The field mouse shit carries the Hantavirus. Basically, it’s hemorrhagic fever.”
“Is that bad?”
“I’m pretty sure it liquefies your internal organs.”
“That’s not good.”
Both of them realized at once how ridiculous of a situation they had placed themselves in. Walking back into the cabin, Jak found the cleaning hit that had masks, spray, sanitizer, and gloves. After a few minutes of silence and rubbing as much sanitizer as possible into each others hands, Jak motioned for Connor to walk on over to the bank of the wide creek.
“This is one of those situations,” said Jak. “Easy to panic and people do.”
“You really think it’s that big of a deal?” asked Connor.
“Not entirely sure. The government overdoes the precautions from time to time. I think we’ll be fine. I can’t believe I forgot though.”
“Well, what are we going to do?”
“The only thing we can really do is finish up here and get moving.”
Over the next thirty minutes, Jak and Connor quickly returned all the tools to the shed and then closed up the cabin. Connor placed fresh wood into the iron stove and Jak filled the lanterns with kerosene. The general motto is to leave the cabin better than it was found. The final touches were leaving matches in the open, then locking the wooden panels over the windows and sweeping the floor from the inside to the door.
“Okay, we’re good to go,” said Jak.
“Good to go,” said Connor.
They both started south away from the federal cabin and back upon the trail. The seven mile hike is not very difficult but would still take about two hours. They had their filtered water from the creek stored in bottles and a camelbak. The sun was beating down with seven degree temperatures and no breeze on the first day of summer, the longest day of the year.
“Why did you come out here?” asked Connor. He knew Jak had volunteered the previous summer with the park and was now in graduate school in a program that had nothing to do with anything remotely similar to rangering.
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” said Jak. “The people out here, the ever changing landscapes, and the things I get to do are just too interesting, far more so than what is waiting for me in some office building.”
“What’s wrong with an office building?” asked Connor. “That’s probably where I’ll end up. I think it would be pretty nice to have my own space.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but I just envision doing something beyond cubical employment. Why should I compromise for a high wage?”
“Money is necessary Jak. And I know that it will take time, but with higher positions come better placement for affecting the change we’ve always spoke of in the past.”
Jak and Connor had had these conversations many times before. There was a semblance of hostility though in that they were not aligned in terms of strategy. Connor had decided upon a path that Jak was speaking against. The fact that they were having this conversation while hiking along one of the most beautiful trails they had ever seen played into the ability to have a friendly argument. The creek stretched out and flooded into the plain which was about a hundred yards away from the trail. It was mostly open with occasional treelines separating the open plains. Jak was not entirely sure where the conversation was going, nor was Connor.
“You ever hear of systems thinking?” asked Jak.
“The idea is that there is much more to any given plan or problem than any one person can know at first sight or thought.”
“For example, take one of those trees. At a quick glance what do you see?”
“Branches, a trunk, and I imagine many roots.”
“That’s what I see too, but systems thinking goes further. Think of the tree as the starting point and from there consider all the other plants and animals that depend upon that tree for shelter or subsistence. And then consider the implications that has had on this whole area over the years.”
“Right and it looks like it survived the fire we were reading about in the cabin logs.”
“Yes, that’s a whole other ball park of ideas, but that’s the point. It is difficult for one person to figure all that out by themselves.”
“It’s not impossible though.”
“No, and I think we can both figure our own future plans out, but it’s good to challenge the basis for doing whatever it is we are doing and then see where we are at.”
“Agreed, but at some point we need to make up our minds and move forward.”
Jak and Connor continued going back and forth trying to understand where they were going and where they were coming from. Jak was only going to be in Yellowstone for few more weeks. Connor would be leaving in a few days. They were both having trouble figuring out whether they were counterpointing each other in some devil’s advocate type of way or if they sincerely had disagreements.
“No need to get overly serious,” Jak said. “More ideas with come with time. My plan is to just stay open.”
“Well where do you see yourself when you’re fifty?” Asked Connor. “I mean, wh…
“Bear!,” said Jak who held out his arm across Connor and began to step back.
In the midst of conversation Jak and Connor stumbled dangerously close to a large bear.
“Back up, slowly, but quick, start talking to me now,” Jak said louder.
“You ever think that the Beatles will be thought of as, you know they have been talked about for the longest time.” Connor continued to talk nonsensically about the Beatles as both he and Jak moved back, keeping an their eyes on the bear, until they were a good hundred yards away.
“Okay, good,” said Jak.
“That was intense,” said Connor. “What kind of bear was that? Grizzly?”
“Not likely, probably cinnamon black bear. A big one. The sun was right on it though, hard to tell.”
Jak and Connor waited a couple minutes before moving on. The bear had walked up the hill away from the trail and appeared to be heading away.
“It’s all about letting them sense our humanity,” Jak shouted while walking past the spot where the bear was. “Most of the time, people get in trouble when the bear is surprised or confuses them as animal prey. Let ‘em know you are alive and kicking and stand your ground if the bear decides to charge. Yes!”
“That sounds insane,” said Connor. “But I like it.”
The excitement continued until Jak realized he had dropped a water bottle back where they waited for the bear to go away. Backtracking, they found it, only losing fifteen minutes of time. Leaving it was not an option. The conversation did not return to where it left off prior to running into the bear. Jak was not sure whether Connor simply forgot or had had a change in mentality after the bear encounter.
Nearing the mile marker, Jak radioed in for a pickup at the trailhead.
“We’ll need to keep our pace up,” said Jak. “How’re your feet?”
“Doing okay,” said Connor.
“Yea, the feet thing is a big deal. Anyone can push themselves and overcome exhaustion, thirst, or hunger, but factor in useless feet and you’re screwed.”
Jak and Connor continued down the trail to be met by a law enforcement ranger in his sports utility vehicle who escorted them back to the ranger station another fifteen miles away. They were told that if they didn’t experience any symptoms within the first twenty-four hours that they likely had not contracted Hanta. The ride lasted no more than twenty minutes but it was bliss to sit after a long hike. Back at the station, a few people had set up a grill and were cooking burgers.
“What perfect timing,” said Jak.
An hour into the cookout three black bears ran through chasing each other.
“Looks like the two males are fighting over the female,” said one of the off-duty rangers.
“Maybe it’s two females fighting over the male,” said Connor.
“Anything’s possible,” said Jak. [/EXPAND]