An Unexpected Exploration of Home

One of my best friends turned 50 this year. I’m a little less than a year behind him. In celebration of this milestone, we planned a trip to one of each of our favorite places-the Yellowstone region of Montana and Wyoming, to include a few days of fly-fishing the Yellowstone river and its tributary streams, as well as some hiking and sightseeing around the nation’s first National Park.

               My family and I spent a week at Yellowstone in the summer of 2016. We stayed in a little cabin I rented along the Yellowstone river, just outside the Roosevelt arch near Gardiner, Montana. We had to drive past the school and football field of the Gardiner High Bruins to get to the cabin. More often than not, elk would be lounging on the field, resting on the cool, green grass. They say the elk have to be chased off the field prior to games.

               Our family rode horseback through the mountains, rafted down the river, right past our cabin, and explored the wonders of Yellowstone National Park—Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, the magnificent Hayden and Lamar Valleys with their wall to wall wildlife—bison, elk, bears, wolves, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, etc. It was the best vacation I’ve ever had. A year after our family’s trip, my friend Matthew took his wife and daughters to stay in the same set of cabins and visit the park.

               Our mutual experiences there with our families and the desire to return, led us to plan this trip for the summer of 2020. Just he and I. We would experience that rugged country as men, as a couple of guys alive in the world. Unencumbered by the estrogen by which we are both bound in our own homes and daily lives. You see, we are in the minority among beautiful daughters and wives. This trip would be the stuff of dreams borne in old Western movies and the worn pages of the countless Field & Stream magazines of our youth.

               We booked airline flights from Atlanta to Bozeman, Montana, booked one of the same cabins we each had stayed in during our previous respective visits, lined up a few days of fishing with a guide, and reserved a rental car. We had it all planned out more than 6 months in advance. Then COVID19 hit the U.S. in March.

               At first we had the naïve hope that things would be better by July. Spring bled into summer. Our departure date drew closer. We set conditions—1) The National Park must remain open; 2) The guide service must not cancel their bookings; 3) We must have no further outbreaks. If any of these criteria were not met, we would call the trip off.

               I live in South Georgia and work, to a large extent, outdoors, where I and many others endure daily plagues. The swelter of sun in swampy, steam-laden air, which is difficult enough to breathe without the constant cloud of gnats we have to keep clear of our airways. The thought of leaving behind the stagnation of summer in south Georgia for the 15% humidity and 80 degree temperatures of the high Yellowstone country was a balm to my spirits. I was looking forward to kicking back each afternoon, looking at the mountains, and saying sarcastically, “I wonder how hot it is at home?” It was something I thought about as I greased up a Bush Hog mower or stood in the blinding sun, swatting gnats, as I tried to explain for the 300th time why the leaves of someone’s 2nd year pecan trees were scorching up.

               Then, as July began we saw COVID cases across the U.S. continue to climb past the peak levels of April. Way past. People we knew contracted the virus. We heard the tales of their experiences. Some not so bad. Some horrifying.

I’ve been very cautious with my family during this time. We wear masks in public, latex gloves at the gas pump. We haven’t been out to eat since February. For a long time we even quarantined our groceries in the garage for a few days and thoroughly wiped down any persihables that had to be brought in to the refrigerator or freezer. Most days I went from the house to the farm and back again with little or no personal contact with others.

               We eventually found ourselves a week away from our trip. The risks occupied my thoughts constantly. I went to bed and woke up thinking about it. Finally, I just thought to myself, I can’t do this. I can’t put my family’s health at risk for an unnecessary middle-aged escape to the mountain country of the West. I wasn’t so much worried about myself being in Montana/Wyoming. I’d be safer there than here. But, I had to go through the busiest airport in the world and would have layovers in major airports going and coming. I just couldn’t do it. What if I was asymptomatic right now and became responsible for taking the virus to someone out West? Or, what if I contracted the virus on the trip, got quarantined out there? Worst of all, what if I brought it home to my family?

               There is such a wide range of symptomatic response in people. What if I gave it to my wife or kids as a result of the trip and they had a severe reaction? I wouldn’t be able to live with that. There are those who will say the chances are slim that would happen. Maybe so. But it’s a possibility. One I’m not willing to gamble on with the most precious things in my life.

               So, at a week out we called it off. Matthew and I briefly entertained the thought of just driving out. I’d always wanted to drive across the country. Across the Mississippi river, across the Great Plains, to the Rockies. The great American road trip. There weren’t many people I would consider doing this with but Matthew is one of those. Except for the fact that I couldn’t do it without music and Matthew isn’t much for music except old time Bluegrass, which I like, but my taste is a bit more diverse. I may want to drive across the plains with Tom Petty blaring from the speakers. I may need a little Pearl Jam or Fugazi to keep me awake. A little Sam Cooke or Ian Noe sprinkled in. Still, it just didn’t feel right to leave.

               The hardest thing about it is that aside from the news and daily numbers, life in the countryside I inhabit on a daily basis, seems unchanged from my perspective. I see no direct evidence with my own eyes that anything is happening. The crops still grow. The birds still sing. The green leaves of the trees still rustle in the wind. But, I know that is only because I have been fortunate so far.

               I can do my job from anywhere. At home, in the office, in my truck, or on the tractor. I haven’t had to look into the eyes of a sick wife or child and wonder if their fever is getting too high. I haven’t had to drop them off at the hospital and not know if I would ever see them again. I haven’t been let go from my job or had to struggle with the decision of putting myself in danger as I go out the door to work at a cash register or in a hospital every day. My problem is what some would call a first world problem. Which is to say that it really is not a problem at all.

               I can’t complain. So, we postpone our trip to a better time. Am I disappointed? Sure. But, its given me an opportunity to think about my responsibility to others instead of just doing what I want ot do. I am reminded of the wisdom Ferris Bueller so wisely intoned to my generation, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while. You might miss it.” I take all the comfort I need in the fact that my family is as safe as they can be. I can slow down to consider whether or not the pecans are developing faster on the trees this year than last. I can take great pleasure in watching the black-bellied whistling ducks that have shown up to the water hole near the orchard. I have more time to spend on my Cherokee Purple tomatoes. Where before there was rush, hurriedness, a sort of violence to living, to the entrapments of achieving, I have more time to spend just being a part of the life around me. Gifts one and all, by which I am left humbled and grateful.

               There is no guarantee any of us will get through this thing unscathed. It seems to me that COVID has exposed the bubble in which so many of us live in America. There is tragedy in the world. Sickness, death, loss of jobs, loss of homes, hunger. We are not immune. I am not immune.               

I am reminded by the words of Harlan Hubbard that the land, and to that I would add time, give up their meanings slowly. Amid all the chaos and mourning of this time, I am reminded that I don’t have to search too far for the beauty the world has to offer. Instead of Gardiner, Montana and Yellowstone National Park, I’ll be here in south Georgia. Instead of mountainsides covered in aspen and fir, I’ll continue to spend time beneath the arms of pecan orchards, stands of longleaf pine, bulging Southern red oaks, and the perfume of magnolia blooms. Instead of trout on the end of a fly rod in the Yellowstone river, I’ll tempt more white perch (crappie) with minnows on the end of my hook in Limestone Creek. Instead of buffalo, antelope, and elk in the valley, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the whitetail fawn that lies motionless, concealing its sun-dappled spots among the dying weeds of the pecan rows. Instead of wolves on the ridge above the valley, I’ll watch for the red fox and her kits that hunker down under my barn. Instead of an exploration of the wilds of the Yellowstone, I will have a thoughtful, unexpected exploration of home.

One thought on “An Unexpected Exploration of Home

  1. Another well written piece! I do hope you and Matthew make that trip eventually. I meet with my girlfriends twice a year to craft in a cottage in Pine Mountain. I’m hoping our August trip will be possible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s