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Writing Challenge: A Little Boy Meets A Bison in Yellowstone National Park
“Hey, buddy, what do you think of your writing so far? Are you satisfied with it? I mean, you are a pretty good writer; not great, but you have some game. How about pushing yourself to be better? How about leaving your comfort zone and seeing if you can’t improve your craft?”
That was the conversation I recently had with myself. The fact is that I am getting stagnant. Without a challenge there is the same old regurgitated crud being spewed forth and that’s not why I became a writer. So I talked to Bev about it because, well, she is my sounding board, the person I trust completely, and because she will be honest with me.
I was telling her about “The Grapes of Wrath” and how I could pick any paragraph in that book and it would be better than anything I have ever written. Now that’s a humbling thought, isn’t it? I write between 3,000-4,000 words per day and nothing I have written so far matches one paragraph by Steinbeck! How’s that for sobering? How’s that for putting things in perspective?
So Bev sweetly challenged me to get better. She has this way about her where she sounds like Mother Teresa but inspires like a Marine drill sergeant! She knows I gobble up challenges like a man gulps water in a desert. She knows you can dangle the carrot of competition in front of me and I’ll chase that carrot until I can’t walk any longer….and then I’ll crawl after it. She knows…..me!
So here is her challenge! She wants me to write about a five year old boy who sees a bison at Yellowstone National Park for the first time. She also wants me to concentrate more on developing a scene. What follows is my response to her challenge.
ICE AGE MEETS THE ME GENERATION
A gentle breeze flows down from Montana, gently caressing the west flanks of the Absaroka Range, following the path of the Yellowstone River into the park known as Yellowstone. The tall grasses of the Hayden Valley gently sway to an ancient rhythm that has played the same melody for tens of thousands of years. Ponderosa Pines stretch to the heavens, towering guardians of this lush valley, and the wildflowers, fireweed, verbena, yarrow, et al, bend toward the sunshine that bathes this valley in golden hues of warmth.
Tourists are seemingly everywhere, rushing from vehicles to capture the perfect photo, posing for posterity with nature’s beauty as a backdrop. A picture, however, fails to capture the subtleties that are everywhere, the vast array of pink, golds, yellows and reds. How can a picture do justice to the bald eagle as it soars hundreds of feet above the river, searching for a meal in much the same way as his ancestors have done for centuries? Where are the thermals in that picture? How can a Nikon capture the glint in the eye as predator receives signal from brain to dive?
How can a picture give witness to the history that surrounds those tourists? This hallowed ground was walked upon by giants of the fur generation, the John Coulters and the Jim Bridgers, men who understood the intricate balance between man and nature. This hallowed ground was home to the Piegans, the Crows and the Shoshones, proud races who revered Mother Earth and considered this area sacred. These were the men, women and children who could read the tracks of a black tail, intuit weather by a shift in the wind, and protect themselves from brutal weather conditions using only that which Akbatekdia, their supreme god, had given them.
Long before any of these two-legged travelers, however, there roamed a four-legged furry beast, docile in appearance but prone to behavior bordering on psychotic. Following the ice bridge from Siberia to North America during the last great Ice Age, the bison searched for food, eventually inhabiting the lush Hayden Valley in what is now Yellowstone National Park. There they have remained for tens-of-thousands of years, a private sanctuary, their own Shangrila.
In days gone by they were almost exterminated by man. Today they are still hunted by man except that today the weapon of choice is a digital camera mounted on a tripod. They graze on the lush grasses of the Hayden, seemingly unaffected by the crowds, following instincts passed down from generation to generation. What do they see when approached by a tourist in checkered shorts and sun hat? What impulses reach their brains when a child of five cautiously steps out of his parents’ car and waves at these behemoths?
The American bison weighs, on average, 1,800 pounds as an adult. They are capable of running 30 miles per hour and have horns that can easily penetrate a car door with the flick of the head. The American child, one Bobby from Topeka, weighs thirty-five pounds and can run, on a good day, four miles per hour. He has two green eyes, two dimples and a smile that can easily penetrate the heart of most adults.
Bobby stares in silent awe, clutching his mother’s hand as fear gnaws and excitement rushes through his system. Bison chews on some grass; it is not readily apparent that he even notices Bobby, but upon closer inspection that dead, prehistoric eye is constantly aware. The tail switches, the mouth chews, but that eye….that eye is registering every detail of this all-too familiar interloper with the iPod and baseball cap.
Bobby has heard the warnings by the Park Rangers, stories of bison outrunning a car, battering the side panels in a rage fueled by a shift in the wind, the drop of barometric pressure, or perhaps some primitive signal we will never understand. What would it be like to pet such an animal? Would his hair be rough? Would he snort? Would he just walk away or would he turn in anger, lashing out that powerful head? Even at such a young age, Bobby is fully aware of the danger, and yet, like most of us, there is an almost magnetic quality to danger, drawing us toward it despite repeated warnings.
The bison, on the other hand, has no thoughts, only impulses, and a reputation for being, at best, unpredictable. On any given day he is capable of ignoring the approach of a human or wreaking havoc at a moment’s notice. His are actions predicated upon loose wiring, comparable to a ’55 Chevy with spark plugs well past their warranty. The child he sees before him may be a piece of sagebrush or a sign of danger that requires quick and devastating action.
NEAR AND YET SO FAR APART
And so it goes! Similar encounters are played out daily, just as they have been for hundreds of years. The delicate truce between man and beast continues as the child climbs back into the car and the vacation safely continues. Bison chews for awhile longer and then wallows in another ancient ritual, dust rising in the clear mountain air. More photos are taken, more memories are partially captured and time marches on.
Bobby will return to his home in Des Moines, Topeka or San Diego, and tell his friends of the day he almost harnessed his fear. Bison will travel with the seasons until the day comes when old age or predators signal his last trip through the Hayden.
The wind will continue to kiss the Absoraka Range and the tall grasses will continue to dance to the silent song of life.
P.S. Bev had me read this to her; when the reading was done she said, “well, that’s nice; not quite what I was looking for, but nice.”
See what I have to put up with around here! On to the next challenge!
2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
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