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Announcing our 2020 Photography calendars, with stunning photos telling of these incredible precious and fragile places we call the wilderness of the West.
Sometimes, random encounters with a stranger on a Public Land can become incredible memorable, inspiring a story that gets retold more than you mean to. For this week’s #NatureWritingChallenge, I decided to share one of my frequently told stories about a stranger I encountered in a National Park. Unlike many stories I tell a lot, this has never been put down on paper. Until now. Enjoy.
It was late summer in Yellowstone and I was sitting on the hood of my car at a pull off, waiting for something awesome to happen, enjoying the crisp mountain air. We had heard news of a wolf kill across the way, prompting a slew of wildlife enthusiasts to set up their spotting scopes on the bison carcass laying motionless 3/4 of a mile away in Lamar Valley. Parking spots in the pull off were at a premium, quickly filling up by the minute as curious carloads of visitors stopped to see what was going on. We all sat in anticipation, waiting for the pack of wolves resting in the hills above the kill to return and feast on the massive remains of the iconic ungulate. Like most who were parked, I was willing to wait until sunset to see this wolf pack, as experiences like these are incredibly rare.
As we all got situated, hoping for a wonderful wolf watching afternoon, the last parking spot, directly next to me, was filled by a car with Pennsylvania plates. As the car shut off, a man in his mid 40s emerged, pulling out a giant spotting scope and camera with him. He quickly set up, looked around and made a beeline to me.
For the next few minutes, we gabbed about the park, talking about the weather, the animals and how much the park has changed over the past 20 years. It was a common conversation I have had hundreds of times, the standard bullshitting done at pull offs in the park while waiting for wildlife to reappear. I chatted for a few and followed up the routine chat with my usual question that fills a few more minutes.
“So what has the highlight of your trip been so far,” I asked him, making conversation as best I could with a man that had been in the park for the past five days.
His answer started out pretty normal, as far as highlights in the park go, saying that he had really enjoyed seeing a grizzly and two cubs forage in wildflowers. He also told me about how cool it had been that he had watched the wolf pack take down the bison we were all watching. He showed me pictures of it on his camera and I was impressed.
“Wow! That is amazing luck!” I exclaimed, more than just a little envious at his wildlife watching success. I had been in the park for a week and my bear sightings were minimal, and had only seen a glimpse of a few wolves cresting a hillside the previous evening.
“That isn’t even the best part, though!” He replied, stoking my curiosity and prompting me to ask what could possible beat those two experiences. I have been to the park a ton, and honestly, those two things would make my day, week, month and year.
I was sure that the man from Pennsylvania, who obviously had seen a ton of incredible wildlife during his visit to Yellowstone so far, was about to blow me away with some fantastic tale about rare and wild animals. Instead, his response has stuck with me today, prompting inside jokes and endless enjoyment for me over half a decade later.
“You won’t believe it,” started the man, nearly overcome with excitement. His eyes lit up. His hands gesticulated wildly and he continued by saying the following. “I saw, at the top of a tree above the Yellowstone River…”
He paused dramatically, then continued.
“A bald eagle!!!”
I heard the words, but they didn’t register correctly. He was excited. Stoked. Overjoyed. Nearly orgasmic. But I heard nothing exciting. I must have looked perplexed, but he misunderstood my lack of enthusiasm as amazement.
He proceeded to tell me how great it was to see the eagle sitting all stoic at the top of a dead snag, but my ears tuned him out in confusion. I couldn’t wrap my mind around how seeing an eagle, sitting on a tree, was better than the other experiences. After a few seconds, my mind stopped screaming and I was able to get back to the conversation. When asked, the man told me he had seen hundreds of eagles before and even lived by a place that had dozens of eagles every summer fishing in the river. For some reason though, this eagle in Yellowstone was greater than anything else he had seen, I couldn’t and still can’t understand why.
We sat at the pull off until the last glimmer of sunlight vanished, replaced with darkness. No wolves were seen, but my day had been made, thanks to the most confusing animal excitement I had ever heard. I know I should never judge someone else’s experience in a park and should rejoice that the guy was so happy, but to this day, I still don’t get it.
I have probably told that story a hundred times, each time trying to give the stranger the benefit of the doubt, but each time I fail. Now, whenever I see something amazing in Yellowstone, I end the story with “But the highlight was seeing a bald eagle,” hoping that if I repeat the story enough, I might finally be able to comprehend how seeing a single bald eagle is better than seeing bears or wolves take down a bison.
*This post was written in one hour for #NatureWritingChallenge. Follow the Hashtag on Twitter to be a part of next week’s writing adventure.