Sleeping Under the Stars

That was our first day back in Yellowstone National Park—late April—and Nathan and I were already on the first hike of the summer season. He was walking ahead of me on the Beaver Ponds Trail, just starting to turn a corner around a few small trees, when suddenly he stopped. I’d been concentrating on my boots breaking through the thin plates of ice that had filled the trail, and so I nearly crashed into him. 

He was standing there like a statue. By the serious look on his face I could tell he was trying to hear something.

“You don’t think,” I started to say. But Nathan just held up his index finger and kept staring, cutting me off mid-sentence. That’s our Bear is what I wanted to say. After all, the trail we’d been hiking had been closed for a week or so, ever since a mother grizzly bear bluff-charged a park employee there. 

We’d decided to hike it anyway just to see what would happen.

Nathan already knew what I was thinking. We made eye contact and he nodded. He’d read my mind. This was our bear. Then he heard those same low grunts again; I could see the fear in his eyes. But I still hadn’t heard the noise that’d frozen Nathan in place.

But then I heard it too, a low guttural sound emanating from the otherwise quiet forest, a single gruff note repeated three times, so low we almost couldn’t hear it. Whua, Whua, Whua.

Grinning with fright, so that I could see his teeth and the whites of his eyes, Nathan pointed to the left of the trail, at a cluster of trees that seemed to be where our bear was holed up. Twice more we heard the growls, three at a time, with a moment of absolute silence in between.

Then, suddenly, a sapling tree started swaying violently back and forth. Instantly I was backpedaling, watching as Nathan did the same, and I was looking beyond him at the tree until we rounded the corner and it disappeared out of sight.

We watched that bend in the trail just long enough to make sure a bear hadn’t stepped out in our direction, wasn’t about to charge us. When we felt sure it wasn’t, and we felt safe enough to turn our backs, we did, and we went straight back to the trailhead where we’d started.

Back within sight of our village, we let our guards down enough to laugh. Nothing was funny, but our reflexive chuckle released the stress of our first encounter with a grizzly. We were lucky Nathan had been so perceptive, instinctively freezing us in place like prey animals trying to avoid detection. And we were lucky that bear decided to let us off with a warning.

“We probably should have known better,” I said to Nathan, but he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Eh,” as if to say: we survived, though, right? That hike set the tone for the summer—two unprepared, rule-breaking, ignorant East Coast kids, the product of a modern age, sent back through time, into the Yellowstone Backcountry, only to be predictably humbled. Whether grizzly bear, an unforgiving act of Mother Nature, or some misjudgment on our part, something always sent us running away from the primitive world just as fast as we’d been trying to escape into it.

The month before that I’d had my epiphany, as Nathan and I backpacked through Canyonlands National Park and the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness. That brief glimpse into the world of backpacking opened my eyes to a whole new path. At twenty-three years old I was suddenly obsessed with sleeping outdoors. When we moved back to Mammoth Hot Springs to start the summer, I started sleeping outside every night.

Now I couldn’t stand to be inside buildings—the dorm where I lived, the restaurant where I worked, any of them. Of course I’d spent the majority of my life in buildings (most of us do), those artificial ecosystems with their floors covered in carpet and water fountains bubbling with drinking water and artificial lights shining down from above, like imitation grass, waterfalls, sunshine. In our efforts to shut nature out we can’t help but mimic it.

Even most of the people I worked with in Yellowstone lived their days almost completely within a tangled network of buildings—dorms, shops, cafeteria, restaurant—and at night back to the dorms and to the bar. And I’m not against bars. But there in Yellowstone, all I could think about from inside those buildings was how the walls were blocking our view of the national park all around us, and how the ceilings were blocking our view of the sky.

In small doses, breaks from their usual lives, most everyone there went on a least the occasional hike, which sent them walking through the unaltered world as humans had always known it, before we so drastically changed our environment to our liking. But now, unfamiliar, we walk the wild earth tepidly, scared of what might happen. Even of Yellowstone’s millions of yearly visitors, only three percent, on average, leave the pavement and boardwalks, and step onto the dirt trail, which is where you really start to enter the forest. I guess we’ve always been scared to be away from the village. And that’s why we built our buildings in the first place. In the early days, just as today, maybe only the most adventurous fools would’ve left their communities on extended quests into the unknown.

Even though the mountains were just starting to lose their snow, I was desperate to sleep out under the stars. So I climbed a metal ladder to get onto the roof of the Dorm.

Sleeping on the roof gave me an unparalleled view of the sky, but I was still laughably on the line between civilization and the wild country surrounding it. Everything about that environment except for the crisp night air and the stars was something that would have been truly foreign—frightening even—to our long-ago ancestors. I was still resting my head against unnatural things like whatever weird rubber covered the steel and concrete skeleton of that roof. And I could still hear the puffing of the vents, and see the lights from the building. But if I just kept looking up and breathing, I could block all that out.

Lying there on my back, looking up at the stars, I finally felt at home. I took a deep breath, pulling cold air deep into my lungs. In the silence of solitude, I could finally think. Is the oxygen concentration higher out in the open air than in a stuffy dorm room? And is the carbon dioxide concentration higher indoors? Don’t three or four people (or eight) in a closed-up dorm room, watching a movie, eventually use up a significant portion of their oxygen? Don’t they gradually fill the air with carbon dioxide? Is the difference enough for me to notice? There had to be a physical reason it felt so good to be outside.

Nothing obstructed the stars from that rooftop. No trees blocked the view, no clouds, no light or air pollution, no humidity. On cold nights like that one, a small window in the sleeping bag exposed just enough of my face to allow me to breathe and to see the stars, hundreds for every one I’d ever seen from the East Coast. I’d never known how bright the night sky could be.

Thinking about the incomprehensible distances the light from those stars had just traveled, ending, after thousands of light years, on my eyeball, gave me energy. I was excited about the adventures in store for the summer. As I faded out to sleep, compulsively thinking about getting up into the mountains, honing my backpacking skills, seeing first hand what the Yellowstone backcountry had to offer, I watched shooting stars streak across the sky one after another until I could no longer keep my eyelids open.

But that society I was halfway trying to flee had me by a short tether. Working in the restaurant kept me in the civilized world, gave me a place to park my car, a way to make enough money to survive, and a central location to begin my forages into the wild. It gave me a place to come back to, or, more realistically, a place to be pulled away from.

The next night I wandered up a small drainage where the village ended and the forest began, quickly finding an old, gnarled evergreen tree with a flat spot underneath it just big enough to lie down in, a good place to set up a semi-permanent camp. That little hideout gave me a commanding view over the community of Mammoth Hot Springs, with its cluster of civilization—red-roofed colonial buildings, ringed with roads and trails and telephone lines, the night air filled with hazy electric light and reeking subtly of car exhaust. And I could see out across the primitive land east of the village, the foothills and canyons. Nestled into that spot, I was completely out of the way, far from any road or hiking trail, and almost impossible to see from down below.

I propped up a few Y-shaped limbs against the tree’s trunk, creating a skeleton that I could stretch my tarp across if it rained. But that night was clear, so I just slept out with nothing but my sleeping bag and a thin foam pad.

At that critical point in time when the Internet took control of the world, and when rural people around the world were moving to urban areas en masse, I wasn’t moving to the city and diving into technology. That was just about the time that cell phones become completely ubiquitous. 

After I told my mother I’d been sleeping outside, she made me get one—but I could only pick up a signal from a few choice spots in the park, mostly in the villages, rarely out on the trail. I was doing exactly the opposite of what most people were doing. I was learning to survive in the primitive world.

The Gallatin Range, west of Mammoth, accessed only by thin hiking trails, was still the vast expanse of pristine forest and meadow and mountain that it had been since the glaciers last retreated. An impressive list of predators lived back there: black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolverines, wolves.

On that night, as I sat there contemplating the wildlife all around me, I was sure that I was one of the only humans on the wilderness side of the line, even though I could still see the village. And I still felt more comfortable sleeping outside than in the dorm.

But my comfort partly came from ignorance. In that first month of the summer I was still doing most things wrong. Just two months earlier Nathan and I dove headfirst into backpacking. Though we’d known nothing about the high desert, we somehow survived that first five-day trip through Canyonlands, with more help from luck than skill. Now we began to explore Yellowstone with the same audacity. Looking back, we were just as unprepared in Yellowstone as we had been in the desert.

The first morning at my new spot was so silent I could hear an elk grinding its teeth as it nibbled at baby shoots of grass just a few feet away. The air smelled alive with Spring, and the valley was completely melted out, but I could still see feet of snow blanketing the surrounding mountains. What would it have been like to live before the rise of agriculture and industry? Or before cities and highways, before we so thoroughly constructed our own set of indoor environments? Before our population exploded? If I thought about it long enough, I could put myself in the mind frame of our ancient ancestors. I liked being there.

In the spring each day was longer than the last, as the sun grew higher overhead, awakening a cold world from the prolonged, high-altitude winter. In the life of an earth worshiper that increase in sunshine was reason to celebrate.

To me it was the start of a new year. My resolution was to walk all the trails that snaked through the Yellowstone backcountry. At the time I didn’t feel like socializing with the people from all around the country I worked with down in the village. It’s too bad I didn’t spend more time with them. I could have learned something. But my attraction to life out in the forest overwhelmed any desire I had to get to know people. Plus, in the previous year I’d discovered that seasonal life makes it difficult to form lasting friendships.

I’d spent the previous summer in Oregon, and left behind a set of new friends there, and then a short season in Yellowstone, after which I also parted ways with amazing people, most of whom I haven’t ever seen since. Then, after two months traveling the desert, I started another season in Yellowstone. But I knew I’d only be in Mammoth for a month before I moved again, to Canyon, another small village in the center of the park, for the rest of the summer. And I already knew that summer gig would only last three months. My life was in constant flux. I had no reason to devote energy to setting down roots.

My first shelters came out awful. It all seemed so simple in my head, just tie the string to a few trees, throw the tarp over it, and tie down the ends. But in the beginning it almost never worked like I’d planned it. Those first shelters left me exposed to whatever weather we’d set out into. Which meant snow and more snow on the way to Fawn Pass. On our second attempt, I’d somehow accidentally oriented my tarp’s highest end straight into the prevailing winds. That night gusting winds brought in thick snow squalls, and I woke up covered in snow.

But we weren’t starting with a cleared-out campground, either, which would’ve helped me build a beginner’s structure. Nathan and I were stubborn (maybe arrogant is better) in the way that early-twenties males often are. So we didn’t get backcountry permits for those first trips. Instead, we “coyoted out’’, meaning we camped away from the trail, and used lightweight shelters, instead of merely assembling pre-fabricated tents in developed campgrounds. That strategy, we found out, worked much better on dry ground than on snow and ice.

Our distaste for tents was less about our affinity for ultra-light backpacking (back then I hadn’t even heard of it) than it was a rejection of doing things like everyone else did. Anyway, making shelters with tarp and string seemed more like a genuine adventure than setting up premade tents over flat ground.

And so a pattern began to emerge. Each excursion into the woods ended with us decidedly humbled by wild beast or Mother Nature, as we had been by the grizzly bear on the Beaver Ponds Trail, and as we were weeks later, by the feet of snowpack that still covered the ground, and by the June snow squalls. Our first two attempts at the Gallatins were cut short, but that experience improved our shelter-building skills and cemented our resolve. Waking up wet was inspiration to improve.

By the end of June, when we walked out to Mt. Holmes, we knew our survival skills were improving. We’d traveled seven miles through the backcountry to get there, crossing over the outlet of Grizzly Lake on a sea of floating timber, to a horse camp at the base of the mountain.

The wind and rain battered us for the entire first day of our trip, straight through the night and into the next morning. But between the two of us we had four tarps, which we tied together into a mega structure that afforded us the luxury of lounging about comfortably, drinking whiskey as we dried our wet clothes by the campfire. That daylong rainstorm climaxed with ground-shuddering thunder and gale-force winds, but we stayed dry and happy throughout.

The next day, when the sun finally came out, we left camp to walk to the top of the peak. By the time we arrived at the summit, we’d been hiking uphill for an hour and a half. We’d tromped over snow pack for the final thousand feet, and the slush had thoroughly soaked my cotton shoes, which were never meant to be on top of Mount Holmes. I need to start wearing boots, I was thinking, instead of the Reebok Classics I’d been hiking in up to that point.

Nathan and I sat down on the steps of the old, boarded-up lookout cabin. In that moment a small animal came rushing out of the woodpile, bounded a few paces, turned, stopped, and stared us down. It was so close I could see that it had long claws and a mouth overflowing with teeth.

The image of that strange creature staring at us contemptuously is still engrained in my memory. I can see that predator’s tank-like figure, small but stocky, its unruly skunk-like haircut, those teeth.

I stood up and yelled, “A fisher cat!” I threw my fists into the air. As animals are quick to do in the wild, it disappeared into the stunted mountaintop forest in a few brief athletic moves. Maybe my misidentification had offended it.

We were left to catch our breath. And exchange high fives. Later I learned that what we’d confronted on the summit of Mount Holmes wasn’t a fisher cat. It was one of the most rarely seen animals in the forest: a wolverine. Fierce fighters and extreme recluses, wolverines are known to have territories covering hundreds of square miles. It’s estimated that only something like thirty to fifty wolverines are spread out across all of the Rocky Mountains south of Glacier National Park. They’re the embodiment of freedom, independence, self-reliance, survival, wilderness.

After that trip I had the satisfaction of knowing I’d been somewhere. Traversing great swaths of untamed land on foot made me feel alive like nothing else ever had. This was the environment in which humans had evolved. It all felt familiar to my instincts. It was where I was supposed to be. My awakening to the psychedelic feeling of living outside in our National Parks was like suddenly gaining a new tactile sense. The weather, the animals, the sun were the factors that directly affected my days. I’d become a worshiper of the literal sun, a born again caveman. 

One thing is for sure: I’d fully started to move in the opposite direction of everybody else around me.

And I’d been set free. I guess by exploring a place until my feet and back were contentedly tired was just my way of getting over the nervous energy of my youth, or my reaction to the pent-up feeling of growing up on the East Coast. In Yellowstone I’d found the opposite of the East Coast.

With each passing weekend Nathan and I were gaining more confidence. We’d learned to abandon our cotton clothes, which can stay cold for a long time if they get wet, and pull away most of a person’s hard-earned heat. And water was all around us in Yellowstone; it came from the sky as rain, snow, mist and fog; from the ground as dew and frost; collected here and there as lakes, rivers, streams and waterfalls; it came from us, as sweat that soaked through our shirts and socks.

By July we’d learned to bring enough food. We’d also learned how to make more efficient meals (no more ramen noodles or white bread sandwiches). We rediscovered butter. And started making greasy pancakes for breakfast instead of instant oatmeal. More efficient foods meant we could stay out longer, and the longer we stayed out the more alive we felt.

Nathan was almost as crazy about getting outside as I was. That’s part of the reason we got along so well. Sleeping in the dorm room didn’t bother him, like it bothered me, though, mostly because I was his roommate. Since I preferred to sleep outdoors, that left him with a private room, a commodity in the dorms. We were both happy with the arrangement.

My childhood obsession with a book called My Side of the Mountain could be one reason I found myself revolting against the modern world in my twenties. But who’s to say? Did my repeated reading of that book plant a seed in my subconscious, which would cause me to run away to the woods years later? Or did I only love that book exactly because I was wired to be attracted to the wilderness from the beginning? Or maybe I’d just watched too many nature documentaries over the years.

It was early August before we finally made it to Fawn Pass, high up in the Gallatins, the place we’d been on our way to in June, when we’d built those faulty shelters and suffered through snowy nights. The errors of those harsh trips helped us learn what we needed to do better to survive. Now summer was finally breaking through. Wildflowers grew through thick grass. Ironically, now that we knew how to build shelters, we no longer needed them.

What we found far away on Fawn Pass, at the headwaters of the Gardiner River, after such a long wait was Grizzly Bear Heaven. No official park service signs warned us about grizzly bears, like they had on the Beaver Ponds Trail back in April. The signs of grizzly bears, however, were everywhere: huge piles of bear shit and giant tracks in the mud, with far-reaching claw marks. The only defense we had was telepathic communication. We mean no harm. And we don’t taste good, either.

That next morning I was struggling to start the campfire when I looked up just in time to see a young grizzly bear slowly lumbering into our backcountry camp; it stopped in a shaft of sunlight and extended its face upward, sniffing the air.

Across from that bear, not far away at all, I watched Nathan stand up out of his tent, shirtless and squinting into the sun, stretching his arms to the sky.

Nathan and the young grizzly bear, equally groggy and potentially thinking about breakfast, started wandering toward each other, both unaware of the other’s presence.

When I yelled “HEY!” both Nathan and the bear looked up into each other’s eyes. They watched each other, both of them deeply startled, for what felt like a really long second. Finally, the bear made its decision. In a moment it turned and darted away.

Nathan exhaled, shook his head a few times. What else can a guy do? That same day, as we hiked, we startled two more bears, coming face to face with each one for a terrified second or so. Each encounter nearly stopped my heart. But without fail, the bear chose flight over fight. I don’t know why. Maybe telepathy really works on bears.

With our heavy backpacks straining against our shoulders we covered hundreds of miles of trail that summer, walking anywhere between thirty and fifty miles each weekend. Every trip revealed at least a small spark of Yellowstone’s magic. But toward the end of the summer came a dramatic change—Nathan and I started to travel separately. Our work schedules didn’t match up perfectly anymore, and so we started venturing out on those same wide-ranging trips, but now each of us walked solo journeys.

In those long afternoons (especially if the sky happened to be overcast) I couldn’t help but to give in to my internal monologue. That was the first time I’d been completely immersed in solitude. Emotionally, living alone has a palpable affect on the soul. I started overthinking every last detail of my life. It only took a few hours before I took on a distant stare. But now I felt even more like Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain, making a life for myself in the woods.

Unconsciously I’d stopped talking out loud; there was no reason to. In that state I could go days without speaking. I wonder how many people have gone their entire lives without spending a single day in silence. In that silence I contemplated my life. At the peak of the season, I could see the end just a few months away, and I had no idea what I was going to do, or where I was going to go.

In August, as I climbed west along the spine of the Sky Rim toward Bighorn Peak, I was in a trance-like state. The sun was already high up in the sapphire sky. Walking on that ridge I could see forever, north through Paradise Valley and south all the way across Yellowstone, to the Grand Tetons beyond that.

On that trip, Nathan and I had set out from opposite sides of a forty-mile trail, me from just south of Mammoth, and Nathan from twenty miles north of the town of West Yellowstone. So we were on the same path, walking mirror-image trips, opposite but the same. I passed the first two days, walking west, up and over two mountain passes, Electric and Sportsman, silently. At that point, Nathan and I camped together for a night, though Nathan didn’t show up until after sunset. And we really only spoke a few words to each other that night. It wasn’t that there was any animosity between us; we’d just adapted to living quietly, both absorbed into our journeys.

The next morning when we parted ways, headed in opposite directions, Nathan was excited for me to walk the section of trail he’d just walked, which climbs to the Sky Rim and the high lakes of the Gallatin Range. “Really cool up there,” he said before he left. “Seems like great mountain lion country.”

A full day later, I was once again completely entranced with the sight of my boot tops pounding away the miles underneath me, feeling as if somehow under their own power. I’d gotten out of camp early that day, easy to do on a solo trip. If there’s no one to talk to, there’s really no reason to sit by a fire. Hardly a need for coffee, or even breakfast.

Unconsciously meditating then, under the spell of a forty-mile solo journey through the mountains, I turned the corner of the trail and stopped short. A full-grown mountain lion was standing there in the trail, facing me, just a few lunges away. That great carnivore hunched its back in surprise, like a one hundred and fifty pound housecat. It was spring-loaded, deciding between fight and flight. It stared at me with big blue eyes that roughly matched the color of the sky.

In that moment I wasn’t afraid. Cougar attacks on people are rare, but they have happened. But I was hypnotized, excited to encounter one of the most difficult animals to find, and to have enough time to enjoy it. This was no brief meeting. The cat was still looking me in the eyes. It wasn’t until the third, or maybe even fourth second, before a instinctual fear started to stir my gut. After about five seconds of stalemate, I reluctantly raised my trekking poles into the air, which made me look like some strange, imposing creature, and I shouted, “YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL!

After so many silent hours, the sound of my voice echoing back from the hillside startled me almost as much as it startled the mountain lion. The cat, god-like, disappeared out of sight, as if wafting away into the air. I’d broken the spell of the wilderness.

After a moment I walked over to where the cat had been. (I had to go that way, anyway.) All I could see was a series of uneven cliff edges and the steep, rolling hillsides below them, covered in short, dead grasses. The land seemed completely exposed, but the mountain lion, like the wolverine on Mount Holmes, and the grizzly bears on Fawn Pass, had disappeared.

Then I was alone again, thirty miles down a forty-mile trail, standing on the remains of a fifty million year old petrified redwood forest, looking for the ghost of a lion on the Sky Rim. I’d looked yet another of the continent’s top-tier predators in the eyes, and yet again I’d been left to live another day. And I was living a life wholly unlike the one I’d always known.

It was September before I first saw the people that maintained the trails I’d been hiking all summer. Before that it hadn’t even occurred to me that people were paid to work on trails. I’d walked across untold numbers of foot logs and bridges, and along trails held up with walls, but I hadn’t thought about who’d built those structures.

Nathan and I were two-thirds through another thirty-mile loop, from Canyon Village to Lake Village and back through Pelican Valley. We were hiking together again. Our weekends still didn’t perfectly match up, so we’d had to compress our trip into two nights instead of three. We were tired. But we only had two hours to walk the final ten miles to the trailhead if we were going to get to work on time.

That’s when we stepped off the trail to let a group of four hikers pass us. They were marching fast on each other’s heals, and they were all wearing orange helmets with the National Park Service arrowhead on the front. Two of them were carrying bright orange chainsaws on their shoulders.

We set out immediately in their footsteps. They were headed in the same direction as us, only they were making much better progress. “That’s what I need to do,” I said, gesturing toward the trail crew and breaking our silence. Nathan looked toward the top of the hill just as they were fading into the forest. He didn’t say anything, but I knew he was thinking the same thing.