One man’s dance with solitude in Yellowstone’s backcountry.
BY TOBY THOMPSON
Elk lay herded across the Mammoth Hot Springs parade grounds, their antlers flecked with snow but their muzzles steaming, dark as hot chocolate. The stone bears flanking the post office steps wore their pink and orange scarves jauntily. It was after New Year’s and Davis thought, ‘The snow’s not important, it’s a shower.’ The ochre terraces of the upper hot springs were visible from his truck, parked on Officers Row. The compound’s Victorian cottages—quarters from the army’s presence during the 1890s—still held Christmas decorations. Davis would ski into the backcountry. His mind was set.
The pistol he carried was regulation (firearms were permitted in Yellowstone National Park), though he doubted he’d use it. Grizzlies were hibernating and cougars moved too quickly. He would not shoot a wolf, would not need to.
He liked to say that the last human a wolf threatened was Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. His pistol was a 1908-model Luger, a weapon his father had liberated from Frankfurt in 1945.
Davis had driven to Mammoth up the old stagecoach trail, paved and widened since June’s flooding, but forbiddingly steep. He’d misgauged a turn and had slid into a guard rail. His left fenders were compressed but his tires were intact. That was what he cared about.
He’d spent New Year’s morning at an I-90 truck stop—its café the only restaurant available. He’d expected hungover cooks and tired long haulers, but the room proved cheerful, with sun spotlighting the snow-raked Absarokas, mule deer in the fields, and couples gorging on waffles or pancakes.
A waitress in a red skirt said, “What you want, darlin’? Coffee? Alka-Seltzer?”
“Coffee,” Davis said, and smiled. Despite his age, his teeth were startlingly white.
“Whoa,” the waitress said, “don’t blind me.”
A trucker jostled her and said, “You been kissed yet this year, Edie?’ She laughed. “No, but it’s on my list.”
The road between Undine Falls and Tower was icy and he negotiated its hills with caution. They flattened for a stretch past Blacktail Creek and he hit the gas. Snow was thickening. He had limited visibility, but skiing would be possible. He crossed the Yellowstone River, passed by Specimen Ridge, and slid into the parking nook at Slough Creek. The pavement held eight inches of powder, its top layer newly fallen. He shut off his truck, inspected the damage, and urinated in the snow. Light shimmered through flurries from the south. No one was about.
He broke trail past the lot’s gate and kick-glided through sagebrush a hundred yards to the road’s first hill. It was precipitous and he paused at its crest. He was not a good skier, but the snow was sufficiently deep to slow his descent. He slipped down competently, then stood at the hill’s base before striding toward Slough Creek’s campground.
Besides the Luger, he carried a British Commando knife his father had given him as a boy. It was a black dagger with its blade sharpened on both sides below a corrugated steel handle. The Brit who’d presented it to his father said he’d dispatched seven Germans with it. Why his father passed it to Davis, augmented with its bloody pedigree, he could not fathom. When he was twelve he’d thrown it at a stump and broken the tip off its blade. It was one of several bequeathments from his father about which he felt guilt.
Dr. Edwards had died twenty-seven years ago. It had been an excruciating illness—cancer of the spine—but in the weeks before the worst of it, Davis had spoken with him at length. Their talks were mostly about family. The Edwards were Washingtonians, in the city since 1856, the men—except Davis—physicians. They discussed this legacy, but Davis, a journalist/historian, was most interested in what it had been like to practice medicine during the postwar years.
“Patients were the same,” Dr. Edwards had said. “But everything else shifted: antibiotics, technological advancements, the infrequency of house calls, the rise of political correctness.” He’d bent the rules, had been censured, but remained a hard charger. He’d euthanized patients, long before that practice’s acceptability. Suicide was a reliable topic of conversation. He’d said, “If you are old Washington and want to kill yourself, you jump off the Calvert Street Bridge, not the Connecticut Avenue. The Connecticut is for parvenus.” Davis had taken this remark in good humor, as he’d heard it since he was a boy. It had come with additional advice: “If you shoot yourself, place the barrel in your mouth, not at your temple. Otherwise, you’ll walk around forever with your penis in your hand.” Dr. Edwards had arranged for a nurse he trusted to euthanize him when his pain became unbearable. She did that, with fifty milligrams of morphine. But not before he begged Davis for a shotgun to kill himself, screaming, “Shoot me, if I can’t. For God’s sake, shoot me.”
Bison stood in pods beside the road, their great heads covered in snow, their figures unmoving in the cold, their demeanor stoic and resolute. To pass this close in October would have been dangerous, but the cold had inured them to any threat but that of wolves. At the Slough Creek trailhead Davis thought he saw bear tracks, but they were half- filled with powder and he couldn’t be sure. It was possible for a grizzly to have left its den in January, a certainty if it smelled a carcass. Davis skied on.
At the large shed that served park rangers as a stable, Davis unfastened his skis and rested out of the wind. He looked over the creek and its valley to the nearest mountains. The snow had lessened for a moment, and he could see beyond Specimen Ridge to Mirror Plateau. As a youngster, he’d backpacked through that country and into Yellowstone Canyon. But no more. At his age, the preference was for day hikes and car camping. Wilderness beckoned, but he took it only by skis.
He unzipped his pack, dug for a peanut bar, and felt the pistol’s grip. He raised the gun, released its safety, and pointed it at a distant crow. The weapon fired, its report in the silence astounding. Had he pressed its trigger? The crow flew at the sound, unwounded. Davis’s hand shook. He placed the weapon in his bag.
Moving north a quarter mile, he reached the campground at Slough Creek. It met another stream there, and Davis moved toward the confluence. Campsites with their fire pits and bear canisters looked archaic in the snow, prehistoric. The deserted campground reminded Davis of Coney Island in winter, its rides barren, its sand patched with white.
His father had taken him there one fall. It was after the 1960 World Series, which they’d attended at Yankee Stadium. They’d slept at the Harvard Club, at a patient’s invitation. Next morning, Dr. Edwards suggested Coney Island and they’d ridden the subway out.
“I brought your mother here,” he’d said. “Just after the war.”
Davis had loved the boardwalk’s raffishness, its sideshows and hot dog stands, the beach’s width and its whiteness. They’d ridden the Cyclone, and at its height, his father’s arm gripping his shoulders, he’d looked across the white expanse of sand and imagined himself on a vast and peopleless sea.
Snowfall was heavier at the campground, and he retreated purposefully toward his truck. It was a two-mile ski and he’d dallied. He passed the Slough Creek trailhead and rode the path’s dips and slight ascents through scattered bison when the wind picked up. Snow blew thickly and it was in his face. He glanced at a bison thirty feet to his right and it disappeared. He looked to his left and there were no hills or mountains. His skis disappeared. The snow swirling at his feet met that of the air and he saw nothing but white. He felt vertiginous, then adrift, losing his balance. He hit the compressed snow with a thud.
He lay there, shuddering. I’m dying, he thought. This is what it is: nausea, disorientation, and a smothering whiteness. He released his poles and hugged his pack to his stomach. He felt the steel of the Luger.
His mother had died two weeks after his father, so Dr. Edwards hadn’t managed to kill her. He’d tried throughout Davis’s youth. In rages, he’d slammed her against walls, into doorjambs, and once, when Davis was eleven, swayed before her in urine-soaked pajamas and flicked snot onto her face. One February afternoon, she’d interrupted Davis’s studies and said, “He tried to strangle me.” Davis had said nothing, just looked out to his father’s Jeep spinning tires in the driveway’s snow. Dr. Edwards quit alcohol after that, but as Y2K approached, he’d said, “If I live to New Year’s, 2000, I might just take a drink.” His mother had said coldly, “I hope you don’t.”
The blizzard at Slough Creek persisted. But Davis had remembered his compass. This can’t last, he thought. I have a way out. He dug into his pack for the instrument. He knew he must ski south. Perhaps southwest. The creek was to his right, a mountain to his left. He’d find his balance and ski out.
The wind lessened and presently he could see. Nearby stood a bison. Davis looked left and there stood another. He watched the pair, impassive, motionless, their horns to the wind. He saw the snow part like a curtain. There were his tracks. Barely visible, but certainly there. Minutes passed before he found the resolve to rise. But he did, lifting his skis, tucking his knees to his chest, rolling, and then standing.
The truck’s thermometer read fifteen degrees. He drove into the Lamar Valley as sun caromed off the river’s surface and painted the rangers’ Buffalo Ranch in shades of delicious tan. Everything was luscious—no, luminous. He passed a coyote jogging atop the pavement, and before Pebble Creek stopped to let a pair of bighorn sheep pass. Coursing by Barronette Peak, he descended into Icebox Canyon, then was free of the park at Silver Gate, its Range Riders Inn and log tourist cabins like props in a Christmas play. At Cooke City, he parked before Clarks Fork Tavern, the whine of snowmobiles on the wind.
At its bar—in a windowed space facing Mount Republic—he sat with his pack before the wooden counter. A Native fellow wearing a striped eye patch took his order. The room was empty but for five snowmobilers drinking at a window table. They were heavyset, unshaven, and wore black-bibbed coveralls. A television flickered overhead, and the group studied it. Intently, Davis thought. He swiveled toward the screen and saw that a conflagration was afoot. Before what looked like the Justice Department in Washington, a correspondent stood among demonstrators who rocked a steel riot fence, as if to topple it. Police in visored helmets stood between it and the building.
“Could you turn that up?” Davis asked. The barkeep obliged. A roar from the set filled the space.
“That city,” a snowmobiler said. “They ought to burn it.”
Davis did not respond.
“Look,” another said. “They’re around that barricade.”
They were, and Davis watched with dread as rioters fought police across Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a quarter he knew well. He’d watched parades there as a boy and had covered its dignitaries as a journalist. But what he recalled vividly at this moment was an expanse of grass, five blocks distant, on the south lawn of the White House. His father had caretaken it during medical school. “We’d start mowing at the far side of the president’s yard, and by the time we finished, it was time to cut the near. We did it by hand.”
The snowmobilers were shouting now. “Moving closer,” a bearded one said. “They’re going inside.”
It seemed as if they might. Davis watched as the rioters—in camouflage hoodies and full-face respirators—moved toward Justice’s twenty-foot- high doors. CS gas enveloped them. A helicopter thudded above. They fought, undeterred, near the front portico.
“Get that attorney bastard,” the bearded man said. “Hang him, like they didn’t old Mike.”
Davis turned. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“What?” said the bearded man. Another spat, “The hell you say?”
Davis was livid. “You know nothing. You’re ignorant, beer-drunk peckerwoods. You don’t know what honest dissent is about. Especially in the city of Washington.”
“D.C.’s a pussy pantry,” the bearded man said. “That’s one thing.”
“You,” said another, “look pussified yourself.” Davis reached for the pack at his feet and withdrew the Luger. He slammed it onto the countertop.
The snowmobilers slid back in their chairs.
“Idiots,” Davis said. He placed a ten on the bar, anchoring it with the pistol. “Lock it and load it,” he said. “And keep the change.” He walked to his vehicle.
Driving west through the park, he felt elevated, weightless. The knife’s scabbard was at his hip, but that was all. A red-raw sunset painted Mount Hornaday and near the Buffalo Ranch, before a half dozen tourists, a snowclad pack of wolves was frisking.
Toby Thompson is the author of six books of nonfiction, including Positively Main Street, his biography of Bob Dylan, and Riding the Rough String: Reflections on the American West. He has written for publications as varied as Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Outside, and Men’s Journal. He is a part-time resident of Livingston, Montana, and teaches nonfiction writing at Penn State.