We had a fun episode on our approach to the house. We had been taking the "scenic route" there: a longer and more roundabout route through stands of woods with views of the Tetons, instead of the more direct route I'd taken there when I'd visited before, during Christmas holidays. But as we turned off the road and headed up the drive to the house, on the steep and winding slope that climbed up the last few hundred yards, we suddenly found a pair of bison resting along the side of the lane. Kevin came to a stop.
Ten minutes earlier, we had run into a herd of bison crossing the road to Kelly and had just managed to get across before the leading edge of the herd crossed the road. We had the two dogs in the back of the Jeep, Kevin's Black Lab, Guinness, and Fran's half-dog/half-grizzly bear, Drew. When those two had noticed the buffalo, they had started barking excitedly, and Kevin had pulled forward quickly, partially just to try to prevent the dogs from leaping out the open back window of the Jeep. Now, faced with two of these horned giants on the side of the drive, just on the last turn on the approach to the house, Kevin didn't want to pull forward to where the dogs would see them, and where he would have to be moving slowly enough that they could leap out. Myself, I was rather enjoying the spectacle of it all, not running into free-ranging, wild buffalo nearly enough for my taste in downtown Milwaukee. So, knowing exactly how fast these things can charge (Frannie had coached me strongly on that when I shot the herd on my visit for Sophia's baptism), and keeping a precise plan for how to duck behind/into the Jeep or behind the sturdiest and most convenient trees, I offered to get out and shoo the buffalo away.
Kevin was worried that if he honked the horn, they'd charge the Jeep, which was known to happen. In this case, though, their behavior was more that of very large, startled woodchucks than anything else. I couldn't help but be amused (and relieved) at the sheer panic I seemed to induce in them....
Once that was settled, we got ourselves settled for a few minutes in the house, just looking at the great view from the place. I had never actually seen the view, before, since I'd visited before on snowy nights and the like, around the New Year.
Regrouped, we shortly headed off, walking around the area, heading down the lane and back toward the road we had followed to the house. We had the dogs with us, the more rambunctious Guinness was on a leash, and Drew, who had the advantages and disadvantages of increasing age, we trusted to stay with us. We could see where the pair of buffalo had crossed the road below us and were now in a field we had passed on the way up, so we turned away from them and headed east, away from the mountains. This just turned into a long ramble for us, with Kevin and I talking through our usual smear of topics that interest us: the overlap of our work in psychology and spirituality, family stuff, the dogs (who occasionally demanded to become our subject), the art of photography (which I was trying to practice as we went along), and the occasional intersection of thoughts and events from the past that intersected with our present. The land and the light was capturing my attention, and the crisp weather – in the mid-30s – made walking feel good. We came out of the trees after a time and headed down the long slope that descended toward the village of Kelly itself. By this time, I could see poor Drew was walking with a bit of a limp on his rear left leg, and Kevin's gloveless hands were getting cold, and so we simply turned around and began to walk back the way we had come, instead of trying to walk the full loop of the path around the area. Once we got back near the house, Kevin was able to get a hold of Frannie when cell service was possible again. She had decided to stay at their friends' Nick and Christie's place, and for us to meet there when we were done. Kev and I split at this point, he heading back up to the house to enjoy a bit of a dip in the open-air hot tub on the deck and I to follow our pair of bison a bit more, to watch and shoot them if I could.
They were resting further along in the field where we had seen them earlier, and I walked down the road toward the west and the mountains, to get closer to them, and just continuing to enjoy the difference with my Midwestern city life. Resting buffalo are really probably not the most interesting thing in the world, unless one has the sheer hick value of novelty, which I possessed in abundance. I had imagined that it was rather rare for the bison to climb up toward the houses in this area, rather than roaming in the flats of the valley below. When I later expressed to Frannie my thought that she would have been startled to find them on the lane to the house had she and the kids come out to join us, she quickly disabused me of this misunderstanding by describing waking up in the morning as a kid to find the beasties standing outside and staring in her windows at her. Yup, I realized: I'm just being a newbie. No matter. Myself, I was enjoying my time as thoroughly as Kev no doubt was, working out a few of the kinks in the hot tub.
I was being careful, keeping enough distance that I could try to get a good look at the pair with my telephoto lens, but not venturing any closer to them in the open and vulnerable field. I stayed at the bottom of the slope, and kept trees within about 20 feet, just in case. (And I kept checking the trees to make sure that nothing else might be wandering down out of the heights behind me. More fearsome than the fear of death for an Irish male is the fear of your Irish Mother's eternal contempt for getting yourself killed by being irredeemably stupid.) The bison in time drifted a bit farther on, pushing their way through a rail fence and over the rise of the hill in front of me, but not before a young deer passed by and added itself to the scenery, keeping an eye both on the buffalo and on me, before warily crossing the road a bit below me. I also found myself really taken with the increasingly clear and sharp vision of the Grand Tetons before me, and the rugged height of the Blacktail Butte that lay before the mountains, and which appealed to my childhood, Middle-Earth-infected love of an adventurous hike and exploration almost as much as the mountains themselves.
In particular, I was drawn to the startling cut of the opening of Death Canyon in the midst of the mountains: a hike Frannie had been describing to me, and which I'm hoping to do in some future summertime visit. I've already been exploring the way with the wondrous invention of GoogleEarth. I began to head back toward the house, still keeping an eye out for any more surprises from the animal kingdom, trying to be as conscious as Kevin of Frannie having had the kids by herself for a few hours now. It was a more low-key day of walking, not nearly as strenuous as my hike to and in Heather Valley back outside of my hometown of Oregon, Illinois, just a few weeks earlier, but the scenery more than made up for it: the herd of bison still distantly visible on the valley floor was hands-down more exciting and engaging than the herd (flock? gaggle? pride? school?) of wild turkeys I'd encountered on that earlier afternoon. I trudged up toward the house, pausing for an occasional shot of the birch trees or the buffalo tracks in the damp earth. I warmed up briefly inside, and it wasn't long before Kevin was collected and I took another panoramic of the view as the light changed toward the later afternoon.
When we got further down to the Hole, in the neighbourhood I think Fran simply called "Golf and Tennis," for its facilities, we joined their friends Nick and Christie, who have children of around the same ages, and spent a funny and pleasant remainder of the afternoon playing a game called Cranium, which was a good mix of trivia, art (in a Pictionary sense) and performance, rather than just being one of those game approaches. It was especially fun to see how wildly enthusiastic and competitive Frannie got: her high-spiritedness, which she shared with Christie, made playing the game all that much more fun, and made for a comfortably casual way to meet and enjoy new people. We grabbed a dinner in town afterwards, passing on the more sit-down Gun Barrel Steak and Game House (here noted for future reference!) just collapsing into a locals' sports bar called the Sidewinder's Tavern where we could order classically American grub like my chicken-fried steak and where the now-exhausted parents could skip cooking and cleaning for the evening. We could keep an enthusiastic eye on this final and critical Red Sox/Indians game to decide the American League Pennant and let Paul and Sophie play in the game room a bit. The night ended casually at home, other than a bit of disbelief in my end of the conversation (or maybe this was the night before?) when in also talking about films, Frannie and Kev confessed their inability to get into or even to finished either of my strongly-recommended Before Sunrise or Before Sunset (although I was baffled as to why they attempted the sequel if they'd not completed the earlier film). Apparently, for two people who themselves thrive on conversation, they found watching a drama composed almost entirely of conversation to be more aggravating than anything else. That these were for me the two most compelling films of my last year, and worth repeated viewing, filled them with disbelief, if not horror. I let them know that they were Philistines, just in case they didn't know.
Kev had to work a few hours later that night, preparing for tomorrow's work, and Fran was off to the new bank construction site in the morning, so we ended the evening early, by our "regular" standards. I did some packing and some schoolwork, and read farther in Solzhenitzyn at Harvard, which after probably a decade of intending to read, I'd finally bought a copy the week before. I woke the next morning to take some time to stroll around the downtown area, with a failed attempt to catch Frannie's sister Christie at work to say Howdy, before Kevin returned to take me out to the airport for my 1pm flight. A bit of friendly chatting with an elegant hotel executive named Kimberley, I think, with whom I was seated, broke up the monotony of the flight to Salt Lake, along with the cheerfully demented instructions of the flight attendants. ("Should the cabin depressurize, oxygen masks will fall from the compartment overhead. First, stop screaming. Then, take the mask and....") Otherwise, the journey was of the dull sort of traveling alone. I've passed through Salt Lake's airport enough to know where to go for good soup, and so I had good soup. A little prep for class the next morning brought me back to the regular rhythm of things all too quickly, and I was back at the Ledge by 10:30pm, with 200 email waiting for me and funny messages on the answering machine. And an incredibly refreshed feeling: I didn't realize how much I needed to be out there, with Kev and Fran, and in the midst of land with such character until I experienced how ... cleansed I felt on my return. I guess that's the right word. I don't know that I've ever really felt vacation so strongly as vacation before.