Primal in the Grass

By John O’Connell, Montana Historian Magazine

O’Connell photo

We at Montana Historian recently returned from an overnight trip to Yellowstone Park and Island Park, Idaho. I had an idea about an article. Yellowstone tourists and railroads. We discovered it’s a large topic and we needed to break it down into smaller bites for our readers. To that end we focused on the Union Pacific Railroad line from Saint Anthony, Idaho to West Yellowstone, Montana and how their transportation of tourists helped change this part of Montana forever.

We also needed to breathe some mountain air and maybe listen to a bull elk bugle a time or two. Driving along we talked about how one good thing that came from the past couple years of life’s pressures, angst, and now COVID isolation, is that we both gained a new appreciation for the natural beauty that is Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

Montana’s beauty on a Fall day. (Montana Historian photo)

But for us it was more than looking at the scenery. It was a feeling. A yearning for something old. Ancient. Instinctual. But what to call it?

“Maybe adventure?” I said.

“Primal need?” Kerry suggested.

That’s more like it, I thought and nodded while passing a cattle truck.

“Awfully deep thoughts for such a pretty day.” She said peering up at the blue sky through our perpetually rock cracked windshield.

“I should write this down.” Which she did.

We had dinner that night on the deck of Lakeside Lodge. Its right on Island Park Reservoir with comfortable rooms, good food and expansive views of the reservoir, at least during the day.

View from Lakeside Lodge, Island Park, Idaho. (Montana Historian photo)

When we arrived, the sun was beginning to set, and the air was getting chilly. We didn’t care. Given the choice we will always eat outdoors. We put on a layer of fleece and walked out on the deck to find we had it all to ourselves. The view was quickly being obscured by the shadow of the tree lined shore as the sun dove for the horizon. Suddenly it was dark.

It had a romantic quality to it with an Idaho twist. Tiny Christmas lights twinkled around the deck, the railings and the roofline.  We had a tiny votive candle to eat by and the glow of the busy bar made up for what light our candle lacked. With the door closed, the normal hubbub of the bar was surprisingly muted. We could see the Presidential Debate was on the TV and the bar patrons payed close attention at first. Then with bursts of derisive laughing, most of them noticeably lost interest and started talking amongst themselves.

Docks lie dormant near Lakeside Lodge, Island Park, Idaho. (Montana Historian photo)

Then I heard it. A Loon called in the night somewhere out on the water. Again it called. A second one answered. We had never heard a Loon out here before. We both looked at the bar through its Christmas light edged window. Then at each other. We turned our chair backs to the bar and ate our perfectly cooked burgers and fries looking out into the blackness where the Loons kept talking about whatever Loons like to talk about—fish I suppose, or maybe laughing at us humans. We certainly are laughable creatures.

Sleep came easy for us that night.

Before we left Island Park destined for the Park entrance, we had breakfast at TroutHunter, a local motel, restaurant, bar, and tackle store. We lucked out and got window seats in the restaurant where we could watch the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River flow past. As much as we love Montana, this river in Idaho is special to us. We always feel at home at the Henry’s Fork and even though we weren’t fishing that day, just existing here for a while makes us happy.

Breakfast done, Kerry wanted to go upstream and get a few photos. I told her I would be by the river or parking lot when she came back. Once upon a time I would have gone with her but wrecked knees, an old back injury, and too much eating and drinking had turned me into a tottering companion. She headed off and I walked to the river on a path by the lodge and discovered a treasure for a crippled guy like me. A nice log bench someone built right on the river. Sitting on that bench gave me the ability to simultaneously ignore the roar of the traffic on Route 20 just a couple hundred yards behind me, rest my aching knees, and write some observations in the small notebook I’ve started carrying. All around me was amber colored grass, the gliding river, and a clear blue sky so perfect that the silhouette of a bird flying overhead startled me.

Photo by Melani Sosa on Unsplash

Studying the waist high grass on the far bank I was reminded of a movie I had seen called “The Ghost and the Darkness.” A true story about building a railroad in Africa where man-killer lions spread terror amongst the workers. There is a heart-stopping nightmare sequence where the head engineer is dreaming of his wife and child coming to visit. He is thrilled, she is smiling, waving and holding a baby born while he has been away. In the tall, waving, yellow grass he sees lions creeping towards his family camouflaged from everyone but him and he can’t stop the attack. I’ve had nightmares like that. Without lions, but still terrifying.

That memory and the light breeze on this day gave the grass enough movement to trigger an ancient instinct. Where is game? Where is danger? Because I’m such a physical mess I haven’t big game hunted in a lot of years, but I remember how to do it. I scanned for the horizontal lines of an animal’s back, the blink of an eye or the twitch of an ear.

Small finches flitting between the grass seed heads were distracting at first, but I adapted to seeing past them by widening my field of vision. No time for tunnel vision. Pay attention to it all and take your time. In my mind I drifted back to when my Dad taught me to hunt. Then, further back to when the most important thing in life was what you were going to eat without being eaten.

It was then I felt it. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Something or someone was watching me.

Where are you? I stood up on the bench for a better vantage point. Maybe the tree line at the base of the little hill over to the left? I squinted wishing I had brought my binoculars. Nothing. Where could you be…. then I knew. With a flash of anxiety, I stepped down off the bench and froze like a rabbit does as the eagle cruises overhead.

It’s not coming from across the river.

It’s on my side.

My modern-man brain checked in and told me I was being paranoid because of a movie and an overactive imagination.

No, said Instinct. It’s behind you to your left.

Scanning stiffly to the left I saw nothing but the grass and an older couple way off in the distance walking the river trail along the bank.

Then movement. What was it?

Brown eyes blinked between the stalks of grass. A thick yellow tail twitched just twenty feet in front of me. A Yellow Lab, invited by our locking eyes, bounded towards me with that perpetual grin that is so characteristic of Labradors. He wiggled at my feet demanding to be petted.

“If you were a lion you would have had me!” I said with no little embarrassment. I scratched his proffered belly. “How long were you laying there watching me? Are you a fisherman’s dog and know not to get too close to people on the river?”

The stalking predator, now my best friend, gave no answers but snapped to his feet and stared down river towards the walking couple, ears up, tail still, listening intently. A human voice came on the breeze, but I couldn’t make out what was being said. My new friend could however, and he took off towards his owners at a gallop stopping just once to turn back and look at me as if to say,

“Aren’t you coming?”

“Not today buddy. Go on!” I waved him away and off he went at top speed.

The couple waved at me as the Lab bounced around them in circles no doubt telling them about his new friend. I waved back and watched them until they disappeared.

It was time for me to go too. Kerry would be back soon.

Limping back along the narrow trail to the parking lot I glanced back at the grass across the river. No danger from Lions or Labradors in that direction. What a shame.

 I turned back with a sigh and continued my short trek toward civilization. The dangers there are just as menacing yet just as camouflaged to us as lions on the stalk.

I would rather face the lions.

I stopped walking because a notion struck me. Maybe we will see a Grizzly in The Park. That made me smile.

Primal indeed.

No Grizzlies that day, but did accomplish our goal of seeing elk and hearing their bugle that so well represents the wildness that is Yellowstone National Park. (Montana Historian photo)

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