To be alive…

So here I am in Red Lodge, MT getting ready to climb into husband’s new pickup with him and my built-in-best friend and take the trek with a camper up Beartooth Pass and on into Yellowstone Park for our family reunion last week.

I was excited to set my eyes on the magnificent views of this intensely steep, stunning, rustic and dangerous highway, so although I may come across as graceful while captured in the air, I will tell you I stayed true to form and landed awkwardly on the ground only to limp my way across the parking lot as husband shook his head and told me to get in the pickup already, geesh.

So we got on with it, happy we finally made it this far after spending fourteen hours on what was scheduled to be a six hour route.

But before we go much further I have to say that the open road, big sky, crisp air,  home in my rearview mirror, family next to me and more waiting ahead made me more grateful than ever to be alive.

That and the fact that sometimes in the middle of your grand plans interrupted by flat tires and small deer that fly out of the ditch to dent your new ride, life hands you a deep breath, a close call, a reality check to make you say a silent prayer to whatever you believe in for perfect timing, that damn flat tire and another day to live in this magnificent world.

Because as we climbed up the pass that day, our eyes focused on the snow capped mountains and the cold blue lakes pooled at their feet…

as we stopped to pick up an ambitious young man who was attempting to roller-ski up the pass and talked to him about his life full of adventure and challenge, as we counted yellow wildflowers and inched closer to the peak, our thoughts were with the man we found laying on the interstate the night before.

The man who, just moments before we found him, was celebrating a beautiful summer evening on the back of his motorcycle. A man who appeared before us a pile of broken flesh, bone and steel alongside the road as the sun sunk down over the horizon– a perfectly uneventful, every day drive, stopped short by an unexpected twist of fate and timing.

We could have been miles ahead of him, long gone and safe in our campsite by the time the man’s motorcycle made contact with the deer in his path, violently sending his body hurling toward the cool, rough pavement on the shoulder of the interstate.

We could have missed the entire thing and not thought twice as we made our way through winding highways, forest, flowers and mountain streams calling to us quietly.

Or we could have been a moment too soon, laughing as we told stories of good times spent together. We could have glanced over at one another just long enough to miss the headlight blinking in the middle of the interstate, to miss husband’s chance to slow his pickup down enough to maneuver through the lifeless deer, the dented bike and the broken man.

We could have been telling a different story entirely.

But no. We are telling this one. The one of our pickup parked safely along the road, the 911 call, the run to the nearest mile-marker, a cloth held to the man’s wounded head while he sucked in the Montana air and recounted his birthday. The one where kind-hearted and capable travelers stopping to help work through it, to direct traffic, to talk to him and tell him everything was going to be ok.

The one where the man was broken but alive.

The one where we were shaken but alright.

The one where we moved on to stand at the brink of a waterfall,

to sing around a campfire and climb a mountain,

to feel the steam of a geyser on our hot faces, the cool-down of the star-lit night and a prayer for a stranger on our lips.

We awoke the next morning to a stream bubbling by our campsite, little man laughing next to us and the mountains reaching toward a crisp, clear sky.

I couldn’t help but notice my senses were heightened, my heart more present, my body positioned closer to the family beside me.

And so we went into the mountains this way, all of us feeling more alive and grateful.

We laughed louder.

Embraced longer. 

Climbed higher.

Looked closer.

Saw more clearly

Reached a bit further. 

Took more time

Held our breath and found more patience to exist in an another day…

because we were reminded it is nothing but a gift.

Thank you family for bringing us all together here, for letting me hold your babies, for climbing that mountain with me, for cooking me a s’more and some chicken, for making sure we were all together as Old Faithful was erupting…

and holding on tight as I held on tight too.

Thank you for existing, in this masterpiece with me.

The Yellowstone I remember…

Today I am packing up everything practical I can grab in preparation for a trip to Yellowstone National Park. The plan is to wagon train with the immediate family and meet the rest of the hooligans there for a family reunion.

And although the number one place I like to spend time in the fleeting summer is right here in the cozy little nook of the ranch,  I am so looking forward to gathering with relatives I haven’t seen for years.

I am also excited to go back to a place that holds some of the best memories for me.

See, Yellowstone was the first vacation husband and I took together, before the ring, before the wedding under the big oak tree, before we knew exactly what we were doing and where we were going, knowing somewhere int there that it didn’t matter, we just wanted to go together.

So I am writing this in a hurry as that man I would go anywhere with has just walked in the door from work and is ready to pack up and head out. That same man who, eight years ago, loaded up his dad’s old pickup and pickup camper in 110 degree temperatures and drove his girlfriend across the state of North Dakota and on into Montana with no air conditioning, watching affectionately as grasshoppers from the open window flew into her hair and sweat dripped down her back. He drove the entire way, up mountain passes, stopping in tiny towns for her to pee and cool off to show her a place he loved, and knew she would love too.

This trip will be different, we will be more prepared, we will not have the oldest camper in the tri-state area, we will have air conditioning and we will be surrounded by people who we both call family now.

But, taken from the archives, this is the Yellowstone I remember, and I know it will not disappoint. Because some things have stayed the same since then–and sitting next to him with miles and miles of road and adventure stretched out ahead of us, our favorite song in our ears and an affection and trust that just keeps growing between us are some of them.

That and my fear of grizzly bears.

Don’t worry, I’ve been practicing dropping quickly into a fetal position…

See you back at the ranch!