It is mid-May in northern Michigan, the aspen leaves unfurling, the trillium splashed across the forest floor with snowy blossoms. We are traveling west along US 2, through this impossibly green world of trees bursting into leaf, of forests waking up, of dandelions and trout lilies and marsh marigolds. We are waking up too, on Day One of this adventure to visit our kids and grandkids in Idaho. Cam has just retired from forty years of dentistry and we are on the open road surrounded by all this springtime. In the evening, we set our tent at a site on the Minnesota/North Dakota border. We eat fiddleheads Cam has picked the day before, slightly blanched, sprinkled with salt, dressed in olive oil. We take in their wild, tender taste, allow something new to unfurl inside of us.
Buffalo roam wild in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. About a dozen of them have made the campground and surrounding area in the park’s north unit their home. They graze and stand and tromp wherever they wish to be. They don’t budge for cars, or for us, the campers who are temporarily moving into their space in this Badlands’ world of rock and sage brush and cottonwood trees. I have never been this close to buffalo before, don’t know how to connect with them, think of my friend Marty and his Big Foot poems. Buffalo, like Big Foot, feel ancient to me, heavily grounded on this earthen plain, of the earth in a way that I, who flit among fiddleheads and trillium and marsh marigolds, don’t understand. We watch them graze on grass, among the cottonwoods, lit up by the rose-colored dusk, and, in the morning, stand still in awe as the clan trot by our campsite so close on the other side of the two-track road, busting brush. breaking sticks, grunting in guttural tones, in a language foreign to me. One male leaves the group, crosses the road, finds his way to the grasses that line our site, leans his humungous head down, begins to eat. And twenty-five feet away, I sit down quietly, begin to eat too.
South of Bozeman, we drive up a canyon, camp in a grassy patch beside a rushing stream. Clumps of snow still sit along its banks, while the woods, carpeted with yellow mountain lilies, sing of springtime. Before we settle in for supper and sleep, I follow a narrow path along the stream, up and down hills, pine-needle carpeted, rocky, mossy, messy. The air smells of fir, and, oddly, this trail in the mountains of Montana reminds me of Maine, the path to the point by my childhood cottage, the path I have walked what seems like a million times. I am comfortable scampering through these woods, back on familiar ground, with the wild flowers and unfurling ferns and fairy moss again.
We visit Aunt Anne and her daughter, my cousin Carla, in Bozeman. Like the path I followed by the stream, she reminds me of Maine, this New England aunt who uprooted herself nearly two years ago at eighty-eight, sold her home in Cundy’s Harbor, moved to this assisted living facility to be near her daughter. We peruse a binder of recent writings, poems and essays she has published in a local journal. My aunt is bringing her heritage and the flora and fauna of New England to this mountain town through her creative efforts and I’m inspired. Mary Oliver’s book of selected poems lies on the table before us. “Each time I read one of her poems,” my aunt tells me, “I well up. They are so beautiful.” I reply to my naturalist, animal- loving, environmentalist, poet aunt that she reminds me of Mary Oliver. I share fiddleheads with her.
We are in Moscow, Idaho with our kids and grandkids and I am stunned by the lushness of this small college city in late May. It flourishes this time of the year. The Palouse hills surrounding it are bright green with fresh crops of lentils, wheat, prairie grasses, and the lilacs in town, so many of them, are impossibly laden with blooms and heady scent. And the poppies! The poppies are bursting out of their furry pods. We live in a VRBO in the heart of it all and the grandkids ask how long we will stay. Twelve days, we reply. Twelve days! We all sigh. Twelve days seems a very long time, time enough to soak in all this unfolding.
Grandpa Cam and I are walking from our sweet VRBO home to East City Park four blocks away with the girl cousins, our two granddaughters, just turning four and nearly six. These girls have known each other forever. They climb up and scoot along the stone wall, the six year old leading, the almost four year old mimicking her older cousin. They are up on the wall, they are down on the sidewalk, they are up on the wall, they are down on the sidewalk, they are skipping and bounding, the younger making fart noises with her mouth, waving her hands madly, both of them bursting into laughter, both of them bursting like the poppies.
I open a small beaded bag I keep in my suitcase. It is my traveling altar. I reach in, take out the prayer beads, the affirmation cards, and something else. I am stunned, had forgotten about it, don’t remember where it came from. Perhaps I have had it forever, this silver coin-like talisman with a buffalo etched into its surface.
We are not a quiet family. I light the candle that sits in the middle of our VRBO’s kitchen table, set out the art supplies, prepare the salad, and then they descend, the four grandkids, their parents, a herd of buffalo, not quite a stampede but definitely a tromp through the sage brush bushes of this home that is a quiet haven when Grandpa Cam and I are alone. It isn’t the badlands. It is the good lands, but we are loud and we are messy and there is no way to tame the tromp. I suspect the answer is to surrender, to embody buffalo, to let it be.
Our youngest grandson who is three-and-a -half spends a whole day with Grandpa Cam and me, alone, just the three of us. This is special, the first time for him, without older sister or cousins. We drive east twenty-five miles, eat breakfast at an Amish Cafe and Creamery. Our grandson and Grandpa Cam drink huckleberry milkshakes with ice cream made right on the premises. We then visit three different play areas. He learns to operate the toy excavator. We say hello to Buddy the rattlesnake who lives in a terrarium at the crystal shop, buy stickers at the art gallery. Our grandson wears a bug sticker on his nose. It is a good day.
Our oldest grandson will be nine in July, wears glasses, loves words. We write them down, so many words on pieces of paper, act them out in family games of charade. He brings a magnifying glass with him when he spends the night with us. It is a prop, he says, for one of the words. “Detective” is his word. We guess it easily, but we know there is something bigger than this game of charades, know this grandson of ours, so sincere and sweet-natured, is seeing the world through big eyes, magnifying its magnificence.
We hike the trails on Moscow Mountain up and over ridges that edge the town, just the two of us, Grandpa Cam and I. The days are getting warmer and the clear western air smells of fir and pine and the dampness of stream. Wildflowers dot the woods — white lady slippers, a yellow sunflower-looking plant, tiny purple lupine, columbine — flowers familiar but in slightly different form than their eastern cousins I know from northern Michigan and Maine. I want to sing to these trees we walk among, these huge glorious ponderosa pines and cedar, to the clear air, to this time hiking on the trails. It grounds me to be here on this holy ground and I remember buffalo. Buffalo stands strong, rooted, yet a part of a tribe too. I need this time to ground myself in my own being. And I return from these hikes refreshed, ready to join the clan again.
Twelve days flies by, isn’t such a long time after all. And good-byes are not easy, that’s for sure. It is etched in our minds, a pang in our hearts, the image of the two of them, our son and almost six year old granddaughter sitting on the tailgate of their truck watching us back out of their driveway. She is sobbing, holding back nothing, and I am trying to be strong, waving, blowing kisses, wiping away tears. This is all still fresh for us as we walk beside a tributary of the Kootenai River on a trail in a wildlife refuge shaded by cottonwoods in ninety degree heat two hours north of Moscow on the Montana border. We need this hike, need to talk, need to process this time with the kids. Can we do it? Do we want to do it? Do they want us to? When Cam’s office building sells, we will have the money to buy a second home, a small place of our own in Moscow, where visits can be longer than twelve days. Under the cottonwoods with a blessed breeze off the Kootenai, our talk is bare and honest and, like our almost six year old granddaughter, we hold back nothing. Our kids are amazing parents. I wish I had told them that more often during this visit. And the love between us all is palpable despite the fact that sometimes it is messy, a buffalo tromp through the brush of interpersonal communication. A great blue heron lifts up from the grassy marsh and we lift up too, decide the answer is yes, of course we want to take this leap, that the answer was always yes.
This is new for us, this route south through Montana. We have said good-bye to our campsite on a mountain lake, have bought a huckleberry pie at a tourist stop just west of Glacier National Park, have hiked up a trail through a forest of yellow lilies, have gasped and sighed and whooped out loud at the magesty of mountains, still snow-capped, and the brilliant aquamarine rivers beneath them alive with early-June run-off. We’ve done this before, following US2 east after visiting kids and grandkids. But now, instead of watching all this Rocky Mountain splendor disappear through the rear view mirror, we have made a turn, are traveling along the front range, the snow-capped mountains still present for hours on our left. At rest stops, we walk down gravel roads toward these mountains, read placards that tell us that the grizzlies, pushed off these prairie lands into high ground, are slowly returning, that buffalo once roamed here, that billions of years before them, there were the dinosaurs. We stop at a dinosaur museum and Cam takes a photo of me with my arms wrapped around a statue of a brontosaurus. I text the photo to the grandkids.
Time is so strange. We leave the dinosaurs and enter the land of family once again, in the middle of Montana, in the rolling foothills outside of Lewistown. We haven’t visited Cam’s sister and her husband in years, in more than a decade. Cam has never been to their log home, this homestead with fields, two horses, chicken coop, the stream running below it. Lilacs are still in bloom outside the great-room window and this part of Montana is lush and green in early June. We are in the present, sitting around the table eating the huckleberry pie, the six of us— our niece and her husband have driven three hours north from Columbus to join the reunion. We share updates, and time folds in on itself and no time has slipped by at all and we are the ages we are now and we are the ages we were when we last saw them and we are the immature teens we were when I first entered the scene and this is the table Cam sat at each morning when he was a little boy.
I wake up to a Chesapeake Retriever’s nose poking against me, to his strange teeth-showing snarl-grin, to his vigorous tail -wagging. I’ve tucked the kids and grandkids and our twelve days together into my heart where our stories are safe and sacred, and have plunged into a day with dogs, Cam’s sister’s two and our niece’s three. Five big dogs share walks along the stream, sprawl out with us on floors in the house, follow us as we collect chicken eggs with Cam’s sister. Four of these dogs nuzzle us as if they know we are family and have been part of their pack forever. It is the fifth dog, Taz, the one who remains wary, who tugs at my heart. She started her life as a stray on a reservation north of here, has some wild coyote genes mixed into her family pool, loves her dog brother and these cousin dogs who visit often, and the people she knows, but we’re the strangers and she barks at us when we near her house and stares from the corner of the living room, making sure we don’t get too close. I can sense her good nature, understand her caution. Don’t we all have a part of us that is wild, a part ready to defend against danger, a part that has trouble relaxing into the goodness that is all around us? Blessedly, on this day, I am a puddle of relaxation. Every once in a while, I glance over, try to look as casual as possible, smile at Taz. I want her to know that Cam and I are family too.
There is no shade on this twenty-five mile gravel road that winds its way up and down steep hills through a part of Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and the temperature on this morning in early June is rising rapidly into the high 90’s. But here we are stopping at every interpretative sign along the way. I promised our brother-in-law we would do so and I’m keeping my promise. Before bed last night, he shared with me how he was a teenager when he first kayaked down the Missouri through this refuge with his grandparents on a visit from Kansas, how he had no idea then that he’d be spending his entire career devoted to this place as a biologist with a focus on saving the black-footed ferrets from extinction. In the sweltering heat, we read our way through time, from dinosaur, to buffalo and the native people, to Lewis and Clark, to ranchers and hunters, to the ferrets and our brother-in-law’s quest to help them thrive again in a world where they once prevailed. We are a blip on this timeline, a blip in this land’s rich history, and yet our lives in the present moment blaze in living color. Each life a compelling movie — not just our brother-in-law who is saving the ferrets with unrelenting passion, but all of us, the bright stars in the movies of our lives. This whole trip spills over with people’s stories and this present blip on the timeline takes center stage in my mind
Did I mention we have been driving a rental Tahoe for this out west adventure? Well, we are, and it has served us well with its sturdiness on open prairie roads in high winds, with its spacious interior for all our gear, with its good gas mileage and easy driving. Except now, we’re at a loss, aren’t sure how to get the spare tire out from under it. I think it happened a few days ago when I ran over something metal on the road near Cam’s sister’s place, this slow leak that became a fast leak as we crept along the last few miles of gravel in the wildlife refuge. Thankfully, we made it — barely — to the intersection of the road that will take us north to Malta and US2. So here we are, in one hundred degree heat trying to seem competent. I find the section of the
owner’s manual that instructs us on tire changing, Cam gets out the tools for releasing our impressively flat tire. I try to flag down the few passing cars, Cam starts taking things out of the back of the Tahoe. We’re hot and we’re inept and we have no cell phone coverage. And then it happens. It always does. Things work out. In this case, our savior is a guy from Louisiana driving a surveying truck. What would have taken us forever, takes him twenty minutes. He knows just what to do, and he does it with grace and a friendly face full of sweat because it is so hot, and then he follows us on the hour drive all the way to Malta and finds us the tire store that will mend our flat. And while our leak is being mended, we walk three blocks to the dinosaur museum, buy a Tyrannosaurus Rex puzzle and a furry stuffed animal kitty for our granddaughter’s birthday. It is worth repeating to myself, “Things are always working out!”
It is too hot for the rain cover, so we lie here on our mats on top of our sleeping bags under the stars. A breeze blows in off the wide Missouri River, through the cottonwoods in our campsite in Eastern Montana. It is us and the stars and it is music, the music of the wind, and the last calls of the birds mingling with something else, something wonderful. A friend from home has texted a video. Her daughter, in her early teens, has kept it up throughout the long pandemic, her love for music, her passion for piano, has honed her incredible talent. And this night that finds us by a river refuge, finds her, this teen daughter, at the piano. Her teacher, her parents, her relatives have created a safe inside gathering for this celebration, and, now, almost in live time, we are savoring it too. It is incredible. I don’t know the names of all the composers, don’t read music or have a musician’s ear, but I know I am listening to something heavenly. For precious moments, I become part of it, the stars, the wind, the music. It happens sometimes that life sweeps us up in its arms and brings us perfection.
It is easy to fly along at eighty miles per hour as we head for the North Dakota border, to fly along the plains as if we are riding horseback with the buffalo, as if we are racing the dinosaur, as if our feet are not even touching the ground. That is how we feel this morning, as we travel eastward, toward our home in Upper Michigan, toward the ferns that I’m sure have now unfurled into forest fans, toward a second course of lilacs and poppies and peonies. We are traveling home filled with the west, carrying it with us. As we fly along at eighty miles per hour, my hand at the wheel, Cam reads me the news. His dental office has appraised at the asking price and the sale is a go. We will soon have the money to buy a small place of our own in the town we have grown to love, in the town our kids call home. It will be our home now too for longer visits with family. I think it is possible to be this happy, to stretch our arms wide, to haul it all in, the Maine coast that Aunt Anne and I love with heart and soul, the impossibly magnificent Rockies, the western pines and cedars, the Great Lake at our upper Midwestern doorstep, the people we love, the dinosaurs and buffalo, to live it all, one glorious breath, one glorious footstep, one glorious mile at a time.