“Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwrecks.” Robert Louis Stevenson
There was still ice on Yellowstone Lake when me and the boys (I’m still their dad, so I can call them that) rode our motorcycles up there in mid-May, 2001. That’s a little ahead of tourist season, so we had the park pretty much to ourselves. That time of year, it might be warming at lower altitudes, but, at 7,000 ft., Yellowstone is the highest freshwater lake in the United States. If you’re going to ride up there in May, you’d better have some cold weather gear handy. We did.
Now, I’ve explored the park by car, too, and it’s spectacular even if you’re looking at it through a wind shield. But the more intimate you get with the atmosphere, the more awesome the experience. The term “overwhelming” comes to mind, but it isn’t big enough. My powers of expression are too weak to convey the majesty. My imagination is too boxed in to grasp what it must have been like to travel through that country on horseback relying on your wilderness craft to survive. But that’s the way Jim Bridger did it.
You’ve heard of Bridger. He is one of our nation’s greatest western explorers. If you’ve driven on I 80 in Wyoming, you can thank Jim Bridger for helping blaze that trail. One of my favorite Bridger stories goes like this. Somehow, Jim got hold of the notion he ought to have a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare. So he sold a $125 yoke of cattle and bought one. Then he paid a wagon boy $40 a month to read the plays to him. Half way through Richard III he got disgusted and gave it up. He is quoted as saying, “I won’t listen anymore to the talk of a man who was mean enough to kill his own mother.”
Bridger’s skills as an explorer and trail blazer were matched by his ability to spin a good yarn. Trappers and mountain men would sit spell bound for hours listening to Bridger spout tall tales around a camp fire. He was said, on one occasion, to have kept a group of Indians mesmerized for over an hour telling his story using sign language alone. By all accounts, he was just a darn fine all around traveling companion.
As the boys and I made our slow easy ride surrounded by Yellowstone’s wonders--the mountains, the lake, the waterfalls, the geysers, the wildlife--I tried to imagine how Bridger and men like him must have felt; to be among the first, to make your way through there without the aid of roads or man made travel conveniences. Stevenson’s quote came to mind. Yes, some places speak distinctly. Yellowstone sings--songs of sweet rapture and repentance; homesickness and cruel death; sadness and redemption; wander lust and desperate flight. There are trails running through Yellowstone that will bring you out to almost any destination you might imagination. It’s a place where a manly man, if he’ll look and listen, can get in touch with who he is and who he ought to be.
Jim Bridger reached the end of his trail near Kansas City in 1881. There’s a tall plaque marking his grave and many of his accomplishments are carved on that plaque. It’s not a bad place for a modern day rambler to ride if he wants to pay respects to one of America’s most notable manly men.
July 17 is the anniversary of Bridger’s death. His passing, in many ways marked the end of America’s rowdy adolescence. It’s a coincidence of course, but on July 20, 1881--three days after Bridger’s death--Sitting Bull surrendered.
Oh, by the way, this week marks some other milestones by wild west reckoning. July 13 is the anniversary of Johnny Ringo’s death; July 14, Billy the Kid’s; July 16, Ned Buntline’s. July 19 is Sam Colt’s birthday and July 20 is the anniversary of Pancho Villa’s death.
So, keep your ears open. Be alert to the places around you that speak--or sing.
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
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Thu, July 16, 2009
by Michael Hinkle