Well fall came dancing along in all its glory around here and we sure didn’t need the calendar to tell us so. Just like the uncharacteristically warm weather, the leaves on the trees were not about to take the subtle approach to the season change. Overnight the ash leaves turned from greed to gold, the vines bright red, the grass and flowers exploded seeds and even the slow and steady oaks began letting go their acorns and turning one leaf over to gold at a time.
It has been magnificent. But that’s the way it is around these parts, when it comes to the landscape and the great outdoors, you really can’t accuse it of being understated.
So after a challenging week I was ready to celebrate autumn the way it deserved to be celebrated. I was ready to frolic in it, to let go my agenda and my worries, ignore my pain and troubles and just climb a big damn hill and feel the warm breeze in my hair. So on Friday after a trip to the big town for an appointment, I moseyed on down the busy highway filled with lines of trucks and pickups and SUVs. Vehicles that moved busy humans at full speed along that paved ribbon of road that winds through buttes and half cut wheat fields, across the Little Missouri River that sparkles and meanders under the big blue sky and slowly sinking sun. I wanted to meander too, I wanted to meander among the things out here that are allowed a slow change, a subtle move toward hibernation, a good long preparation for a show like no other, a recital of how to slow down gracefully.
And I couldn’t help but wonder while I tried hard to keep my eyes on the road, despite the neon yellow trees waving at me from the ditches, if these people who were sharing my path were seeing this. Did they notice that the tree was waving to them too? Were they commenting on how the crows have gathered? As we came down through the brakes that move us through the badlands of Western North Dakota, our home, did they notice how the layers of the buttes–the line of red scoria, the black coal, the clay–did they notice how in the late afternoon light the landscape looked like a giant canvas and the buttes seemed created with wisps of an artist’s brush?
Did they see that river? I mean really see it when they passed over the bridge? Did they take note of how it has receded a bit? Did they feel like stopping beside it to rest for a while? And as they approached the sign that read “Theodore Roosevelt National Park-North Unit,” a sign that indicated they were indeed on the home stretch to their destination perhaps, only 15 miles to the town to stop for gas, to make it home, to take a rest on a long truck route, were they enticed like I was at all on that Friday afternoon to stop for a bit?
Because what could be better than breathing in fall from inside a place that exists raw and pure? A park. A reserve. A spot saved specifically to ensure that nature is allowed to go on doing what it does best while undisturbed by the agenda of the human race, which at that point on Friday afternoon I was firmly convinced didn’t have a grip or a handle or an inkling about how to live gracefully among a world designed for us…let alone accept and live harmoniously among what we can’t control or may not understand–like the change of weather and the seasons and the sun beating down on the hard earth we wish would soften, or a body we wish would heal and function properly.
And I was guilty as well of taking this for granted. I was guilty of driving by this spot time and time again as it called to me to take a rest, to visit, to have a walk or a seat or a climb.
But not Friday. Friday I needed its therapy. I needed to park my car and stretch my limbs and take a look around from the other side of my camera.
From the top of Battle Ship Butte.
From the trail at the river bottom.
From the flat where the bison graze.
So as I pulled my cap down and took to the familiar trail that wound up that big, daunting and famous butte along the road, I took notice of breeze clattering the drying leaves together, the birds frantically preparing for the chill, the grasshoppers flinging their bodies at the dried grass and rocks…
and then I noticed I was alone.
Alone out here in this wild place I’ve visited before as a tourist, as a resident of the area, on dates and outings, family functions and educational tours surrounded by inquiring minds and cameras.
But I’d never been out here alone.
Alone as I scrambled and pulled my tired body up the steep and rocky and slippery trail toward the top of my world as twobison grazed on the flat below the buttes.
Alone as I reached my destination with no other ears around to hear me catch my breath and then sigh in awe at the colors and solitude.
Alone as I watched those bison move and graze, a spectator in a different world, a spy on a giant rock.
Alone as a ran my hand along the cannonball concretions, scrambled to keep my footing and wipe the sweat from my forehead on the way down.
Alone to take my time as I noticed how the trees sparkled on the river bottom against the sinking sun. No one to tell me that’s enough…enough photos, enough time, enough gazing.
Alone as I walked toward the river, keeping an eye on the time, but wishing there was no such thing. And there was no one there to stop me from following it a little bit further, to see what it looked like on the other side of the bend.
No one there but me and a head full of thoughts and worries that were being pushed out of the way to make room for the scenery, the quiet, the beauty, the wildlife tracks and magnificent colors and trails before me.
And because I was alone, because it was quite, because in here there was no speeding or trucks or access to my phone, because unlike on the ranch, I was unfamiliar with the trails and the directions I was forced to really pay attention, to use my senses, to make new discoveries, I was able to notice that after a few weeks gone missing I was becoming myself again.
The self that understood this was my habitat, my home and surroundings. The self that knows the weather will be predictably unpredictable, but the seasons will always change, the leaves will dry up, the acorns will fall, the birds will fly away from the cold or prepare for it, the grasshoppers will finish their rituals, the snow will come and coat the hard earth, then melt with the warm sun, changing the landscape, if only a little bit, as the water runs through and cuts the cracks in the earth.
And the bison will roam because we let them and the antelope will too knowing or not knowing that their lives are fragile.
Just like ours.
So we must remember to be present, live in it…breathe.
Thank God I remembered to breathe.
Please, remember to breathe.
For more photos of my hike around Theodore Roosevelt National Park, click here to visit my Flickr photo album
Oh, and if you missed it, take a stab at my North Dakota Trivia Game from last week’s post for a chance to win a prize! There haven’t been many brave attempts (I think you’ve all been out enjoying the beautiful weather), so I’m giving you more time! Get your ND history hat on a play!