What the Badlands know: a reflection on public lands, and how we stand to lose

Update: (Late last night, Rep. Chaffetz withdrew H.R. 621, saying he understood it “sent the wrong message.” Now for H.J. Res. 46, and H.R. 622, which removes federal law enforcement from public lands. Stay vigilant.)

One Wednesday afternoon at the office recently, I was idly checking my Twitter feed. Badlands National Park had a tweet, brisk and matter-of-fact, about five down from the top of my feed: “The pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). As of December 2016, 404.93 ppm.”

On any other day, in any other year, this would have been an ordinary advisory about climate change from a national park. Today, though, it was compelling; the brand new, climate-denying Trump administration had just taken office a few days before, and that very day had instructed NPS employees to cease use of Twitter until further notice. But someone was refusing to shut up.

A second tweet appeared: “Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years.” Then the retweets started. Soon every other tweet in my feed was a retweet from the Badlands National Park account. Then, in true Twitter fashion, the tweets about the tweets began.

A few hours later, the tweets from the Badlands had been deleted; it was a brief but unmistakable civic act, couched in the simple assertion of science. Later, the National Park Service stated that a former employee who was still able to access the account was the culprit. I don’t know if that’s true, but overnight, alternative agency accounts began proliferating like kudzu, some run by current employees, others run by those outside the various agencies but with connections to those inside them. The alternative accounts began tweeting the science relevant to their agency’s particular mission – in short, exactly what you would expect to see from government agencies that weren’t muzzled to ensure that facts don’t conflict with the administration’s politics.

As I watched this unfold, I thought for a long time about all the images I’ve shot in the Badlands, and how good that place has been to me, and to my photography. And although I love it, my affinity for public lands extends far beyond that particular park, because my identity was forged in them. An enormous part of my adult life – and my childhood as well – has been spent in national parks, forests, monuments, and refuges. Exploring open spaces, photographing them, and bringing back the stories they tell me is the most pressing, consistent urge in my life; throughout the nearly half century I’ve been alive, that urge has been on par with the drive I felt to partner and to parent. But the continued existence of those spaces, and our ability to access them, is at risk, both from the climate change the new administration refuses to acknowledge, and from the Republican party, that wants to sell them off.


I sleep harder in a tent than anywhere else, and if the dog isn’t there to whine until I unzip the tent so he can pee, I’ll sleep into the late morning. My husband, Travis, is just the opposite. So one June morning at 5:20 a.m. a few years ago, he poked me and reminded me that the night before, I’d committed to getting some early morning shots.

I tried to deflect. “I’m cold,” I mumbled. He was immovable. “I’ll get you my jacket,” he replied.

As he left the tent, I cracked a single eyelid, and through a millimeter of clearance, saw a stunning, predawn Badlands sky. That was enough. I climbed out of my bag, pulled on my boots, stuck my head into my tie-died floppy hat, and set out. I was awake by the time we made it to the top of Sage Creek Basin and found our way blocked by a herd of jaywalking bison, who apparently also get up early. They parted for us slowly, and with obvious annoyance.

We settled at an overlook a short distance away with lots of vistas for me to shoot and a place for Travis to set up the backpacking stove and make coffee. As the sun crept over the edge of the Badlands, I hopped happily around taking photographs.

I was downhill from the overlook a bit, calf-deep in yellow coreopsis when I heard Travis calling my name and gesturing.

“You need to come back up here,” he advised, pointing at something further down the hill. I followed his finger, and saw a big, brown beast lumbering slowly up a nearby game trail toward me – a stray, perhaps, from the herd we had annoyed half an hour earlier. I shouldered my camera strap and hoofed it back to the overlook.
Surely, I thought, watching his progress, he isn’t coming all the way up here.
A few minutes later his head popped up over the lip of the overlook.

Travis had just finished the coffee when I returned, so we had picked up the steaming cups, stove and associated equipment and moved to a safe distance. We watched as the bull approached the posts near the overlook. He lingered near one for awhile, as if trying to make a weighty decision. Then he stretched his neck carefully over the pointy tip of the post and began scratching vigorously. After attending to his neck, he reversed his enormous body and positioned his hind end at just the right angle, and commenced a slow, luxuriant ass-scratch. He worked on his butt for a long while, and then stepped away and meandered off down the hill again.


I looked down at my now cooled coffee, and took a sip. I had been too busy watching a bison scratch his ass to drink it. I respect that the life of a bison is probably an itchy one. This fellow probably needed the scratch more than I needed my coffee to be hot. And anyway, I reasoned, it’s far better to drink warmish coffee somewhere you can be interrupted by an ass-scratching buffalo than hot coffee in a place where no such diversions are available.

The concept of public lands is not a settled one. Most everyone takes the national parks, wildlife refuges, and forests for granted, but not only is their continued public ownership not guaranteed, it is actively being disputed. Outside magazine recalls the following portion of the Republican Party platform adopted at the convention last summer:

Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.

But, as Outside also points out, most states don’t have the budget to care for these lands, and so will likely sell them off to the highest bidder. Which is the point: as the Denver Post editorial board observes, transfers of federal public lands are just a way to sell them off to developers or private corporations.

This is not a hypothetical. In early January, the House of Representatives included in a rules package a measure declaring that land transfers were “cost-free.” In effect, this means that the federal government need not account for the loss of their value in transferring them to the states in which they are located. Then, last week, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R), filed H.R. 621, “a Bill to direct the Secretary of the Interior to Sell certain Federal Lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.”

Why? Well, the stated reason is again found in the Republican platform:

Federal ownership or management of land also places an economic burden on counties and local communities in terms of lost revenue to pay for things such as schools, police, and emergency services. It is absurd to think that all that acreage must remain under the absentee ownership or management of official Washington.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the facts are inconsistent with the notion that federal ownership is an “absurdity.” The same Outside article linked above references a 2014 Department of the Interior report that reached a completely different conclusion on the economics of the matter:

In 2014, the Department of the Interior says over 400 million people visited the lands it managed, supporting 355,000 jobs and creating $25 billion in spending. Energy production on DOI lands created an economy contribution of $220 billion and was responsible for one million jobs. DOI water storage and delivery netted our economy $60 billion and supports 378,000 jobs.

I’m skeptical about the Republican Party’s concern for the communities near the public lands, and suspect that other interests may be at the root of their wishes. I thought about that again this week, when the National Parks Conservation Association reported that Rep. Gosar (R-AZ) had introduced H.J. Res. 46, an attempt to repeal updates to the National Park Service’s rules for oil and gas drilling in the national parks in which parties other than the government own the subsurface mineral rights.

The rules at issue, as updated, require extensive planning for drilling operations and set safety standards. If repealed, the NPCA warns, the national parks would have little input into the drilling that happens within them. Leaks and spills could go unpunished and there would be little incentive to avoid them. Roads could be built within national parks with impunity. Drilling companies would not be required to inform parks or park visitors about their operations. In sum, operations could be easily commenced in our national parks to extract the carbon-intensive resources that are already degrading them through climate change.

The question arises: in whose interest is it that our national parks become drilling sites? In whose interest is it that public lands be sold to developers or extraction industries? It’s not in the interest of the $646 billion dollar outdoor recreation industry that provides the country 6.1 million jobs. It’s certainly not in the interest of hunters or fishermen. And it’s definitely not in the interest of ordinary citizens in the American West, of which group a staggering 95% visited public lands in 2015. That leaves the oil and gas industry, and other business interests that have donated millions to Republicans, who stand to gain the most from the conversion of public lands. It’s definitely in their interest. It is not in ours.

I can’t say I unreservedly loved the landscape of the Boundary Waters at first sight; rather, it was a place that slowly wore a groove into me, through appeal to my other senses. At the end of a five day trip on which we had encountered fewer people than we could count on one hand, we packed up camp and began paddling back to our put-in spot. We had been gifted with a cool, overcast October day laced with a gentle mist. The wind was at rest, and so the water was too.

My partners, my husband and his best friend of thirty-five years, climbed into the canoe. I took the kayak. The three of us had been talking endlessly all week, covering every topic from relationships to personalities to rock music trivia to environmental philosophy. But this morning, our tongues stilled along with the water. We were there to listen. All three of us seemed to sense that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area had chosen that morning to show its character.

_DSC0454Halfway down Loon Lake I understood that I was experiencing the difference between quiet and silence. Quiet is the absence of din; but silence is total, all-encompassing, and, I know now, exceedingly rare. I used to think I had experienced silence in my home, perhaps in my bed at night, but I suspect what I was really experiencing was quiet; there were other, background sounds, but they weren’t obtrusive.

But if you still your paddle on water like this, there will be long moments of genuine and unbroken silence, punctuated briefly and occasionally by the distant chattering of a ground squirrel, the snap of a twig under a paw, or, in the luckiest of circumstances, the call of a loon.

The paradox of silence is that it promotes the most delicate of sounds, and enables the listener to hear and experience things that would otherwise remain unobserved, like the journey of a single yellow aspen leaf from the canopy to the leaf litter below.
Many people I know visit here for fishing, for solitude, or for scenery. For me, though, the true genius of this place is that these vast stretches of open water serve a nursery for silence, at the same time they nurture wildlife, plants, and the spirit of the adventurer.

The purity of these waters, though, is not assured, and must be continually guarded. Mining interests want to extract sulfide ore just upstream of the wilderness area, a process that produces sulfuric acid runoff. In an op-ed last summer in the New York Times, Theodore Roosevelt IV and Walter Mondale notes that such runoff often ends up in nearby streams. Similar mines, they note, have already poisoned lakes and thousands of miles of streams. Such an outcome could also decimate northern Minnesota’s tourist industry.

Late last year, the outgoing Obama administration declined to renew the mining leases at issue. The Bureau of Land Management blocked mining in the area for two years while studying whether to block it for a longer time. However, Rep. Rick Nolan has sent a letter to the Trump administration asking them to overturn the Obama administration’s decision.  So the question, like so many others, is not settled.

Ultimately, I don’t think economics can dispose of the federal public lands question, even as I believe the numbers weigh in favor of their continued existence. But in any event, among those eager to transfer public lands to state or private interests, I see little real wrestling with the genuine economic impacts of transfer. Rather, as the Wilderness Society put it, there seems to be “an eternal grudge against the very idea of public lands” – an aversion to the very idea that a citizen without the wherewithal to buy them wholesale should be permitted to stake some claim to the vast and open spaces of America.

In many ways, this dispute over collective social goods is representative of much of what is tearing us apart in this country right now. But disagreements over Obamacare or food stamps do not appear to extend to public lands. According to polling conducted after the recent election, seventy-eight percent of voters oppose a plan to privatize or sell public lands. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, however. As we have seen, majority will does not always or even usually translate into corresponding actions of our elected officials. If they think they can get away with handing off our public lands to their donors, they will certainly do it. Our task is to make sure they understand they can’t get away with it.

It’s July of 2007, and I’m at a seminar in Glacier National Park on the subject of glacial recession. The thermometer back at the campground says 95 degrees, but the temperature near the edge of the Grinnell Glacier feels twenty degrees cooler. In front of me is a massive, grinding river of ice streaked with deep crevasses, powerful enough to chew up mountains.

I’m a little apprehensive about stepping onto this beast, but our workshop instructor, Jeff, is exuberant. He’s already testing the strength of the glacier with his ice axe, listening for hollow, weak ice that won’t support our weight. “Stay to the left of that crevasse,” he advises as he builds a cairn, or pile of rocks, to mark our way. “Oh, and avoid that gray ice over there,” he adds as he moves ahead. Uh, okay, I think. I follow his steps exactly. 978895176_5a8c426f31_z

Jeff leads us a short way onto the glacier. It’s not safe to go any farther, he says, as the tips of the crevasses extend only a few feet beyond where we’re standing. I look down. The ice beneath my feet seems almost iridescent. Rocks of varying sizes are liberally strewn on and embedded in the ice, accounting for its slightly dirty appearance from afar.

I stay rooted to my spot. Even with the cairns, I’d have an incredibly difficult time finding my way back across the ice safely. Two or three years before my visit, a day hiker ventured alone onto the glacier while his friends waited, and fell 35 feet into a crevasse. After much grueling work, the Park Service managed to extricate him from the crevasse, but he died shortly afterward.

Jeff talks about glacial formations and characteristics. He points out a moulin, which is a vertical shaft that runs down into the glacier. He reminds us of the discussion in the film An Inconvenient Truth about lakes forming beneath glaciers, and tells us that moulins like this facilitate the flow of water beneath the ice sheet.

Grinnell Glacier is not a quiet place; different noises punctuate Jeff’s speech. You can hear the loud rush of water somewhere below, and once or twice the thunderous sound of cracking ice interrupted our discussion. The place feels somehow alive.

Even though this glacier is a fraction of the size it was 150 years ago, it still seems just massive. I try to imagine this entire cirque covered in glacial ice, but it seems incomprehensible. But later on, when Jeff shows us how much of the glacier has disappeared just since last summer, the ice appears a good deal smaller. Indeed, Upper Grinnell Lake, adjacent to the glacier, did not exist the year before my birth; it was part of the glacier. The span of my lifetime saw the retreat of 40% of the Grinnell Glacier.

978895032_8e22b88407_zIt’s been ten years since I stood on the edge the glacier and watched as Jeff soberly marked off the amount of recession that had occurred since he had stood there the previous year. I look at images of the glacier, now, and am startled to see how much it has dwindled since then.
My son may be lucky enough to see the park’s glaciers before they disappear entirely, but it’s unlikely his children will. If carbon dioxide levels reach worst-case scenario levels, the drop dead date for the glaciers here is 2030. After that, like the snows of Kilimanjaro, they would be gone.

Every day, our park rangers see the life-changing impacts of our public lands on those who visit them. They also see the reverse – the impact of humanity on our national lands, in the melted glaciers, the diminishing and pressured wildlife, and the altered ecosystems. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when the Badlands went rogue; these people are in a position to understand the reality of climate change and environmental depredation in a way the rest of us aren’t, because they see it firsthand, every day, in their work. And because these are some of our nation’s most pristine areas, they know intimately what we stand to lose when we smooth the way for drilling within them, or tempt ourselves to sell them off. When the Trump administration attempted to muzzle park staff on matters of environmentalism and science, it must have felt, for some of them, like a negation of their life’s work.

Glaciers, itchy bison and public lands cannot speak for themselves in a world in which their existence is increasingly called into question. They need human spokespeople, and as one alt-agency account after another popped up last week, I felt a thrill in my heart for the people who refused to abandon this responsibility. I couldn’t help but feel that the parks themselves were speaking, and for a moment, I couldn’t separate my love of the Badlands from my admiration for the small but radical act of speaking a simple truth to enormous power. That afternoon, they showed us what we all have to do, if we value what is ours. We must all become the voice of the Badlands, and of every single acre of public land.

Because they are ours. And we are theirs.


(Follow the alt-NPS account here for information on how to help, or follow the National Parks Conservation Association on Facebook here. The cleverly named BadHombreLands National Park can be found here. Follow me here, because I retweet everyone!)

Brief diversion

I did a guest post over at my father’s (very left-wing) political blog. You can find it here if you’re so inclined. It’s about the uses and abuses of political mockery and satire. Spoiler alert: I’m for it. If it’s good enough for Ben Franklin, it’s good enough for us.

Other than that, we’ll keep the focus on “nature and shit” here. Thanks, friends.


Amtrak and the national grief counselor

My son was six years old in 2008, when Barack Obama selected Joe Biden to be his vice presidential running mate. My son is a true obsessive; he develops interests and feeds on them like a vulture until he strips the carcass clean and moves on. During the 2008 presidential race, he was obsessed with trains. When he found out Joe Biden took Amtrak every day between Washington, D.C., and his home in Delaware, he concluded the ticket was worth his support, based solely on that piece of information. He was, henceforth, an unabashed supporter of the Obama/Biden administration.  As the years passed, he found more substantive reasons for his support. Political beliefs are said to be informed first by worldview, and his worldview is thoroughly liberal.

As it happens, Joe and Jill Biden will be taking Amtrak home to Delaware after the inauguration. My son is now fourteen, and will be sad to see them go.

But tonight I was thinking about why Joe Biden took Amtrak every day for so many years, and how that is connected to what I value most about him as a public official. As most people know, Joe Biden was elected to the Senate when he was 29 years old. The month after his election, he got a phone call when he was in Washington hiring his staff, a call he would later recall he just “knew” contained bad news; his wife and toddler daughter had been killed in a car accident and his two sons were hurt.

There are events in our lives that are so seismic that the remainder of our life’s time – what we do with it, how we feel about it, how we approach it – becomes, in some way, organized around them.  It’s up to us, of course, what that means – whether it embitters us or opens us up; whether it turns us hard or whether we become soft to the experiences and pains of others. It’s clear to me that Joe Biden has chosen the latter path. In a speech he gave to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a group that provides support and care for the families of those killed while in the Armed Forces, Biden recounted his experience with the death of his wife and child. I have watched that speech many times, because of the facility with which he speaks of pain, grief, and recovery. The last time I watched it, I couldn’t help but notice that almost exactly three years after giving that speech, he lost his son, Beau Biden, to cancer.


The thread that runs through most of the public discussions of his own grief is an ever-present acknowledgement that grief is universal, that other people made it through similar losses with much less support than he had, and that the true marvel of human existence is that we get up in the face of grief at all. In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, he said:

As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, many are strong in the broken places.” I’ve been made strong at the broken places by my love with Jill, by my heart and son Hunter and the love of my life, my Ashley. By all of you, and I mean this sincerely, those who have been through this, you know I mean what I say — by all of you, your love and prayers and support. But you know what, we talk about, we think about the countless thousands of other people who suffered so much more than we have, with so much less support. So much less reason to go on. But they get up every morning, every day. They put one foot in front of the other, they keep going.

In an interview with Stephen Colbert in 2015:

There are so many people….who have had losses as severe or worse than mine, and didn’t have the incredible support I have. … “Think of all the people you know who are going through horrible things and they get up every morning and they put one foot in front of the other….I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up.  And most of them do it with an incredible sense of empathy to other people.

This is how to talk about grief – and maybe how to deal with it, too. There’s a balance here that accounts for both the gravity of one’s personal pain and the universality of human anguish. Grief is a part of the human condition, but it’s also deeply personal, and we each experience it uniquely.  If we err too far on either side, we miss the whole of it. We either minimize our human vulnerabilities, or we miss what connects us to others. Either way, we’re missing our whole humanity.

To me, it’s deeply valuable for high level public officials to have both the experience of deep grief and the ability to speak about that experience, while extending empathy and recognition to the grief of others.

I’ll miss it.

(This is only about politics in the most limited sense. I intend to avoid many of the problems found in many comments sections discussing the incoming or outgoing administrations. Keep it positive, please. or silent. I know my regular readers are good at that!)

Toddlers of the forest

I spent some time watching an orangutan toddler last week. As I observed her, I was freshly impressed by how similar her behavior was to a human of the same developmental phase, and how readily her movements called to mind the bygone years when I was parenting a toddler.

They grow up fast. Before you know it, she’ll be attending high school and driving.

Scenic resilience

Getting away from my usual nature/wildlife thing, an image from Scenic, South Dakota. Those do appear to be longhorn skulls on the top — I guess that doesn’t really count as wildlife photography, though.

Lots of Scenic looks like this, sort of baked and frozen in the Dakota extremes for more than a century. Scenic is a far more interesting place than Wall, which is also outside Badlands National Park in another direction. Wall, however, has the notorious Wall Drug, with its wifi, throngs of tourists and fountains that are synchronized to “Dueling Banjos.”

Apparently, given the Budweiser sign, someone tried to make a go of this within recent memory. It’s empty and deserted now though. Resilient.


I’ll call 2016 what I want, thank you

I saw this article on Facebook this morning, and I thought there were some good points in it, particularly about the people who died being the ones who reflect the breaking of barriers in the era in which they lived, the ones who redefined in some way what it meant to be human. But there is one piece in it that made me roll my eyes, that I’m seeing more and more in discussions about the events of the year, especially on Twitter:
First and perhaps foremost, this wasn’t “2016’s fault.” Years are not human beings. Stop anthropomorphizing them! Bears don’t roam around Jellystone Park stealing pic-a-nic baskets, nor do sponges cook crabby patties and live in a pineapple under the sea. Simply put, calendar years don’t murder people.

You don’t say.

I’m really mystified by how annoyed it makes some people to see others “blame” the year 2016, who think the people doing it are convinced that everything bad that’s happening is literally bounded by the date range of the year. Come on. I would venture to say there is absolutely no one (of sound mind or maturity, at least) who actually thinks everything will be just dandy fine on January 1.

Human beings organize their time in semi-arbitrary chunks for good reason. And having done so, people are going to take note of things that happen in those arbitrary chunks, and they will characterize those arbitrary chunks. If you have ever said “This was a terrible day,” then maybe back off anyone who is “blaming” 2016. Have you ever made New Year’s resolutions, or set New Year’s goals? People get to characterize their own lives, and an enormous number of people were upset by the things that happened between 1/1/16 and 12/31/16. If you weren’t troubled by 2016, good for you! That’s awesome. There is no social mandate to be upset by it. But tons of people were, and for non-crazy reasons. That’s okay.

But lecturing people about hating on 2016 seems a little high-handed to me. If it’s an arbitrary, non-human concept, then it seems like a harmless outlet, and even a healthy bonding mechanism, for grieving or frustration. There is no harm in it. Indeed, the opposite is true: it’s a narrative and rhetorical device that gives common voice to the fear and the grief that comes from what many saw as terribly painful events in 2016. Again, you don’t have to do it yourself. But hectoring other people for it, and going so far as to tell them to “stop anthropomorphizing” the year 2016, as did the author of the otherwise interesting article linked above, is pointless, possibly hypocritical, and even a little obnoxious. I have a suggestion: try a little empathy instead.

Like this elephant, I will be giving the finger — or the trunk, as it were — to the back end of 2016. 2017 may be just as bad, or worse. Or it may be deeply worthwhile. That’s the joy of life: we get to see, until we don’t anymore. Happy New Year.


Edited to add: (As often happens, a lot of the discussion happens on Facebook, and you should see the Trailhead’s Facebook page for a well-stated counterpoint to this post. It’s worth reading.)


Butterfly creek: the best of it all

This is the in-between week, the time when we’re supposed to get reflective about the last year before welcoming the new, which this time will consist mostly just of opening the door to usher this crappy year out. Both personally and from a celebrity perspective, 2016 seemed slavishly devoted to draining the world of its best people.  So on principle, I’ve been at odds with this year since it took my grandmother when it was less than two weeks old.

Still, I’m a natural contrarian, and I like to look at an issue from all angles. This year was strangely and quietly productive for me on a number of fronts, so it wasn’t all bad from a personal perspective. So what, then, was the best moment for me in this year of endless hits? For such a rough year, the answer was surprisingly easy. As soon as I asked myself, the answer bubbled up like a fart in a bathtub. The funny thing is that I haven’t even written about this moment; it was so personal and so internal that there was never really a point.

In June I went back to Montana after an eight-year absence with my husband Travis and our dear friend Fred, traveling by way of the Badlands and Yellowstone. We devoted most of our time to Glacier National Park, where we spent several days backpacking in the remote North Fork region. On the second day, between Lower Kintla and Upper Kintla Lakes, the trail pushed through a wide burn, a remnant, I think, from fires in the year 2000. Hiking through burns in summer is always a hot business; you never realize how much sun protection is offered by the forest until you emerge into a stand of bare, charred tree snags. It was a hot day anyway, and the weird otherworldliness of these areas only increases the sense of discomfort.  We were singing 80’s metal hair band songs to ward off the bears we’d been warned were lurking. The path in this section also went up and down and up and down, so we were all sweating and huffing by the time we were halfway through it.

We’d started gulping down our lukewarm water at a rapid clip; I can always tell I’m dehydrated because I’m so eager to drink that some of it splashes out the sides of my bottle and down my chin a little. We stopped for a few seconds to drink, examine a toad standing in the middle of the trail, and see what looked like a checkerspot butterfly chowing on some orange hawkweed. (Butterflies don’t care whether a plant is considered invasive by humans.) We pushed on, singing Poison songs in such ear-splitting, out-of-tune voices we were certain any interested bears would be dissuaded. (“Christ, Bob, more middle-aged hikers butchering Unskinny Bop. Let’s go up the mountain for lunch.”)

Our remaining water was as warm as fresh spit, and barely enough to skim the first mark on the bottle. We considered a side-trip to the lake to replenish our supply. We weren’t in trouble; we knew there was water access twenty or so minutes down the trail at the falls where the lakes met. But we were uncomfortable. A drop of sweat launched itself down the sunscreen field of my forehead, lingering at my temple to tickle just enough to make me raise my hand and smear it across my eyelids. As it always does, the sunscreen burned my eyes. I was wobbling at the edge of “fuck this” territory.

And then, as all good moments do, it broke. The charred snags gave way and the trail spilled us out onto a broad, open slope, down which was flowing a wide, rushing fall of meltwater – nature’s own refrigerated beverage. If you wanted to record a symphony of human gratitude, you could just sit for six or so weeks at the intersection of the trail and this seasonal creek, before the heat of summer dries it up, and listen to the whoops and joy-calls of the overheated hikers who encounter it.

Socks and boots and shirts flew all about as we stripped off.  The chorus changed from anticipated yelps to hollers of thrilled shock as reddened feet and hands were plunged into the icy water. I stuck my wrists and ankles in first, then bathed my cooling band in the water and wrapped it gently around my neck. My blood temperature dropped to a mild simmer. Then our heads went in.

136There is something strange about viewing a mountain world from the bottom up. I knelt on the rocks, immersing almost my whole parched head into the stream, noticing for a moment what it felt like to have my long hair trying to go downhill and join the falls, pulling gently on my scalp, all while the mountains had been turned upside down.  It was such a weird and drastic alteration of perspective that it was impossible not to smile. That’s what I love about trips like these: things can go from “Fuck this” to glorious with a single step.

I pulled my head out of the water and righted myself again, and through the streams of water running down my face, I noticed that we had company: butterflies, I saw, were on everything. Fritillaries and checkerspots, all perched on our boots, socks, feet, hands, and heads. Fred had one on his hat.  Travis had one on his toe. Two had landed on his sunglass strap. When he reached for the Steri-Pen to treat the water in the bottles, one had landed on that too. Four of them were congregated on Fred’s shoe. One was on my camera pack, just at the spot where it had bumped along my sweaty back.


Butterflies don’t care where they get their salt and minerals, and they were clearly as happy with our sweat as we were with the cold rush of snowmelt. While we were soaking our heads, they had somehow smelled us and descended on the buffet. Knowing this sort of thing has never diminished the wonder of it for me; instead, it made that seasonal creek, rushing down a broad, open, hot slope, feel like a magical place of abundance for everyone. Water is life. So, apparently, are sweaty hikers.

We stayed for about forty-five minutes before continuing on to a cool patch of forest across the creek and a few more steps down the trail. Fred made lunch, and we moved on to Upper Kintla Lake with new energy, happy and satisfied. Upper Kintla is itself a breathtaking and magical place, and we lay on its banks for a long time, soaking it in.

Even at my desk at the end of December, I can still feel the chill of the water seeping through my hair and into every follicle, and feel the tickle of butterfly feet on my skin.  It’s not the only moment of joy or wonder I experienced this year – far from it. But for whatever reason, it’s the one I remember over and over again, the one that burned itself into my brain.  Author Viktor Frankl talks about the “granaries of memory” that continue to fill as we age. This one is the plumpest, fullest kernel from a year that often seemed merciless.

(More photographic proof of the Butterfly Creek phenomenon on The Trailhead’s Facebook page here.)

The path ahead

Here is the photo. If you’re a regular reader, the words are below.

An alarmingly hot day in the Badlands, and one of the best days of the year.

This has been a difficult year. Death and illness and change has hit hard, and too many people close to me are in active, crushing states of grief. They are always on my mind, as is the reality that I can do very little except lurk in the background, waiting to be there if needed.

We lost a huge number of artists this year, and they took a massive amount of undone art with them to the grave. One of them, Carrie Fisher, holds onto life as I type. I check the news every half hour for an update; she’s the embodiment of how to accept one’s humanity and come to smile at it a little, and squeeze what laughter can be had from it — which, if you’ve read her writing, turns out to be a lot. The world needs more of her, not less.

There is instability looming in the country and the world. Some deny it. Some are eager for it. Others of us see something much darker in it.

I said recently that I don’t quite know how to do life anymore; this has been one of those years where the table has been flipped in so many planes. I’ve also heard it said that in order to be useful in this new age, to have the maximum helpful impact, one must pick something to work on, that focus is key. This is a problem for my split personality: I’m half logical lawyer, lover of analysis and order, and half creative, spinner of tales and imagery. I’ve asked myself which half of my self I should inhabit in the coming days.

Fortunately, the answer is what it’s always been, of course: all of it. It’s tempting to believe that logic and analysis has little place in a world where truth is based on whatever animosities are simmering at the time, where teenagers are getting rich pumping made-up stories into the pipeline, fantasies that are wholly without reality but oh-so-alluring to our resentments.

Or, maybe the world needs more of the logical and analytical, not less — as long as we recognize the limits of it.

The other half of me seems equally useless in this age. Wildlife, a source of wonder and the basis of so much of my creativity, is going extinct at a rapid clip. A huge chunk of the country has decided that it knows more than the scientists who would drag them screaming into modernity, and have concluded that climate change doesn’t really exist. So of what use are my stories and photographs about wild animals and nature?

That, also, is an open question. Maybe the world needs more of that, not less, too, but I don’t know. And I’m not sure it matters, because it’s what I can do and it’s what I have. So that’s what I’ll put into the world. Children’s writer Joan Walsh Anglund, in a quote widely misattributed to Maya Angelou, said that “the bird sings not because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”

So that’s the path for me, until I have no more feet or the world has no more trails. One of those things is certain to happen, and the only question is — always — when.