North out of Yellowstone, a two-lane road snaked along the hillside and next to a dark blue-green river, white ripples cascading from rocks. Around a bend, traffic slowed to a stop and go. I pressed and released the break with patience born from heart full of bison, caribou, and mineral pools.
Onto a straightaway, we saw a bull elk down river, and knew the traffic jam was for him.
As we neared, we found a crowd of people only tamed by the limited parking area. We got lucky. A car put on its reverse lights as we approached. And just like the others, we left our car with camera in hand to admire and immortalize the stag in our memory.
As we focused on the bull, a man excitedly approached us to point and say, “this is the most incredible thing. There’s a mom over there and baby in the grass!”
The mother relaxed close to the river, her golden back to the crowd, wanting to enjoy the view, but her ears turned back, knowing humans could not be trusted. We walked a few steps further to find the baby behind tall grass. It stood facing us, its innocent eyes on us. Nervous, yet unafraid, knowing its father stood behind in the river, his robust, spearlike antlers facing the crowd. Ready if necessary, keeping an eye toward us as he lowered his mouth to drink.
Listening to the river and tuning out the crowd’s chatter, I remembered the last time — the first time — I found myself in the presence of elk. At an empty campsite on a rocky creek in Oregon, in the cool morning just after dawn, I walked through the mist. Moisture hung low to the earth to make the lush ferns mysterious and magical. I had left my camera in the tent, having taken many pictures the day before. I wanted to lose myself on the winding trail that followed along the creek, beneath trees adorned with moss. As I bathed in the forest, I saw a family of elk drinking. Two cows, a bull, and a few calfs. I stopped, obscuring myself behind a tree, in awe of their elusive nobility. After a few breaths, I stepped around the tree and towards the creek to get closer. They each stopped drinking to watch me. Having their peace disturbed, they backed away into the forest and mist.
We returned to the road leaving Yellowstone after taking our pictures and enjoying the elk. We drove to a campsite nestled between hills. We walked beside a meadow while the sky turned pink and purple, passing deer who leaped as we neared.
The next morning, we woke early, broke camp and continued north to Glacier. A haze had settled in over night. North of Bozeman, forcing us to abandon our plans, the air grew thick and brown.
Smoke from Oregon. Forests burning. Flames intensified by human-created climate change, taking the moss, ferns, trees, insects, and wildlife — the elk.
Under the smoke, my heart burned along with my relations, children of the earth and sky.