YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — We’d been lying lazily on a hill overlooking Hayden Valley for at least two hours when the coyote first showed its face.
It was white and gray, and from our vantage point – seated on this grassy hill, with fellow tourists speaking German and Indian and various other languages – he was little more than a white dot bouncing through the grass along the riverfront.
Thankfully, my wife, Caitlin, had purchased a pair of quality binoculars from a outfitting store earlier in the day. So now, when viewed through this nifty contraption, the coyote looked like a significantly bigger patch of white. We could at least make out his face, his body, his actions. He dug, perhaps for worms, then he lifted his leg to pee and flung dirt on the urine with his front paws: not out of shame, but as a matter of instinct.
He peered across the river at a deteriorating corpse on the opposite shore. Word had rippled through the crowd earlier in the evening about a trio of grizzlies who had descended upon the cadaver at dawn and tore at its flesh. Through the binoculars, the corpse now looked like nothing more than a bundle of jagged bones, perhaps some fur, here and there. Not much of a meal left for anyone.
Hayden Valley near sunset is surely one of the most serene areas of Yellowstone. The valley, with its palette of pale browns and greens, pours itself in front of you, as far as the eye can see, in both directions. The Yellowstone River flows unhurriedly around an elbow, and continues northward. In the far distance, maybe half-a-mile away, a dense forest of aspens veils unseen creatures. The valley is an arena, a stage, a stadium; the hill we lounge on is the grandstand, the tourists are the fans. The wildlife, then, are the warriors, the actors, the players. Are they conscious of our gaze? Do they know they’re entertainment? If so, do they care?
High-powered cameras and binoculars, some on tripods, direct their gaze toward the stage. With no tripod to use as a crutch, I raise the high-quality, fairly-priced binoculars to my eyes and reacquaint myself with our friend, the prancing coyote. What has developed in his story?
A pair of whooping cranes have appeared in front of him, near the shoreline. The duo sees him. He’s clearly interested, but he’s been spotted, and is now without clothes, so to speak. Thus begins a slow-but-tense dance between our friend and the two cranes: the coyote creeps back and forth in front of them, perhaps attempting to hypnotize with his sleepy motions. At intervals, he moves closer. He’s about 10-feet away from a potential dinner when they spread wing, drifting to a safer distance, but still close enough to entice the coyote.
This memorizing waltz repeats for 20 minutes, ending when the coyote realizes his efforts are futile. Without the element of surprise, he stands no chance. Thus he goes back to the soggy dirt near the river and digs for (perhaps) more worms. These slippery, flaccid cylinders may not be as tender as sweet crane filet, but I suppose they’re preferable to an empty, rumbling tummy during a long, cold night. Eventually he trots northward down the riverbank and we lose sight of him.
Nature does not move swiftly. It takes patience. People grow anxious: we want things now. Sex and explosions. Touchdowns, text messages, frozen dinners, news, emails, SLAM DUNKS, stock reports; now, now, now, now, NOW! I’m on my back, using my pack as a head rest. I cross my legs. Uncross them. I read a few lines out of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Close the book, close my eyes. Open them. I grow restless. Nature doesn’t give a bison’s ass about my impatience. It has no critics to impress, thus it doesn’t always play to its audience. The show it puts on each night unfolds methodically, as though unwatched, like a baseball game or a piece of great art in the midst of creation.
The three bison grazing through the valley this evening are a prime example of time unfolding at its measured, natural pace. They are impressive beasts, to be sure – especially up close, with their dense fur and thick skulls – but not particularly interesting to watch from a distance. They eat grass, walk forward a few yards, lay down, eat some more grass, then repeat. They’re like your average beef cow, but much more physically foreboding. Also, these gargantuans can be downright dangerous if provoked. Signs throughout the park note their docile nature, but caution that despite a seemingly mellow temperament, these beasts are wild, for Christ’s sake, and can leap fences and run up to 35-miles per hour if hot and bothered.
Please do not pet the wildlife.
The sun continues its nightly arch toward the horizon. There is an entire valley behind us,, too, beautiful and flowing in its own right, though hardly the main attraction; it is but a minor stage. No one wants to battle a setting sun, eye-to-eye, to search for a grizzly or a coyote when there is ample action going on right across the way, on the sun-and-shadow drenched Hayden Valley.
And here, indeed, comes the action: about an hour before dusk, someone spots a brown dot in the distant wood line. Bear or bison? A question asked perhaps millions of times throughout Yellowstone’s history.
Bear, as it turns out. Big predator, an A-list celebrity; now it’s game on. Would this woolly ball of dynamite mosey down to that bony unidentified corpse soaking in the water along the river’s lip? Would he rip the rest of it to shreds, a majestic act of brutal beauty before our dumb, lusting eyes? Would our friend the coyote, who was heading toward the bear’s jurisdiction, amble onto this hairy long-toothed ogre and inadvertently start some sort of…ruckus?
None of that would happen. Again, nature is indifferent. It is not here for your enjoyment, thank you very much. It will do as it does and that’s that. No frills. The grizzly climbed down a small hill, rolled around in the grass for a bit, then continued his journey westward, out of sight behind a patch of trees. Caitlin and I scooped up our belongings, bungled down the hill and hopped into the obligatory Prius. We had come all the way here, to the beautiful Hayden Valley in gorgeous Yellowstone, so we weren’t going to miss a chance to see the whites of a grizzly’s eyes, despite my realization a day earlier that I had no desire to mosey too close to a bear.
The closest pullover we could find was at least half-a-mile from where a group of gazing human pupils had gathered to catch sight of the grizzly. The sun had already laid itself to rest behind the western mountains, thus scant light remained. We were at too great a distance to rediscover the bumbling grizzly. Was anything else out there? With nothing to lose, we pulled over, hoping to catch sight of something – anything – before we started the dark, hour-long journey back to our campsite near Lewis Lake.
We saw them right away: a herd of six elk, shrouded in patchy dusk, picking around at a plot of grass near a creek over 100 yards away. We parked the obligatory Prius, and ran about 50 yards out onto a skinny trail on a hill. Within 10 minutes the hill was painted thick with 30-some tourists, speaking in diverse tongues, pointing and watching. The elk. Yes, not A-list celebrities, but perhaps B-list, behind grizzlies and moose and other beasts rarely seen. Would they come closer, so us lonesome humans could make some sort of primal connection with them, animal-to-animal?
It was me who spotted it first, unless someone else had seen it and simply kept it to themselves. A bear, another grizzly, across a pond, walking north, toward the innocent herd of mulling elk. The bear was a light brown haze at this point, the light all but gone, yet I saw him amble along the waterfront and behind a patch of tall trees, just around the corner from those delicious elk. I lost sight of him and never saw him again. Maybe he found a cozy spot of dirt and settled down for a quick late-late-afternoon nap.
Maybe he needed a cigarette. Who knows?
Nothing in the group of passive elks’ collective mannerisms showed they detected a predator in the area. They continued chewing cud, calm as ever. Yet before long they slipped into the water, swam across the river, walked up the adjacent stony embankment and continued out onto a thin grassy peninsula. There were at least two baby elk in the bunch. It was mostly dark by now, and the temperature was quickly dropping into the 40’s, so we retraced our steps up the beaten trail and climbed into the warmth of the car.
We drove past those friendly elk on the road home. You could hardly see them through the semi-darkness, but they were there nonetheless, eating grass, snorting, and silently gauging threats around them. They didn’t seem to realize large groups of idiotic humans had been staring at them through complicated devices that enlarged and clarified their furry features. I doubt the damn elk would have done anything differently if they would have known. These are wild beasts, after all, not actors. Sometimes they deliver the drama, other times not, but in the end you’re glad you had a rare chance to see them do anything at all, untamed brothers and sisters that they are.