By Charles Wolf Drimal, ExploreBigSky.com Opinion Writer
Through a soft-gray early morning light, my old four-cylinder Toyota truck putted along the Yellowstone northeast entrance road heading west from Cooke City. Stratus clouds loomed low, swallowing any indication of a towering high country crag existence overhead. Without Abiather Peak or The Thunderer to gape at—two stalwart massifs of the park’s Absaroka Range—my attention was drawn to the nuances of the lowlands.
With my driver’s side window rolled down, a mid May chill felt just right. The cold, damp air awakened my senses. Patches of snow and a receding stretch of crystalline ice glittering across the banks of Soda Butte Creek caught my attention. The vitality of a Yellowstone summer was slowly reemerging.
Despite my modest speed, third gear seemed too fast for the rhythm of the scenery. Sure, I had an itinerary. Eventually I wanted to be in Livingston. But I wanted to take it all in, every turn in the road, every shift of light, every movement across the landscape.
A few miles into the heart of the Lamar Valley, two silhouettes crested a bluff on the north side of the road. Separated by a half dozen clusters of sagebrush, the wolves were moving at a swift canter. With bodies flowing in synchrony, their gazes were locked to the north, their concentration resolute.
In this age of technological bounty, characterized by news, education and entertainment available by the touch of a finger on any size screen we choose, I’m grateful for the natural abundance we’ve so controversially managed to conserve: the bounty beyond the screen. This includes wild spaces such as deep backcountry expanses as well as roadside front-country national park haunts. In Yellowstone, we’re all fortunate to witness the profusion of wildlife—bison, wolves, grizzly bears, elk, bighorn sheep and other four-leggeds once pushed toward regional extermination.
But equally important to the presence of wildlife and wild lands is the spontaneous and uncalculated contact with these faces and spaces that excites the blood and brings purpose to our senses. In a chance meeting with a cloudburst of early summer snow, a coyote’s howl across a valley, or a wolf crossing our path, we’re instinctively brought into the present, timeless moment. Whether on foot or in a vehicle, it makes no difference. Spontaneous contact with the natural world around us makes us most alive, most whole and most human.
Henry David Thoreau’s exclamation of “contact!” upon summiting Maine’s Mount Katahdin speaks to the integration of a level of awareness that covers a horizon, was hard-earned, and revealed a sensual connection to landscape that took time and attention to cultivate.
For more than 100 years, our time in national parks has largely been devoid of screen distractions—at least the kinds that separate the virtual representation of reality from the on-the-ground dynamic, organic and unpredictable wild form. But a new gadget has entered the market that could change this and influence the national park experience.
Recently, a couple of companies have created apps that enable tourists to pinpoint where they’ve spotted wildlife and then share this information with others in the park. They include Where’s A Bear and YNP Wildlife App. Now, instead of scanning the horizon for a sauntering sow or wolf pack on the hunt, one need not look any further than a digital screen to locate a recent wildlife sighting.
In theory, this tool might enhance a visitor’s experience. Out-of-towners and locals alike may increase their odds of observing animals for a nominal $0.99 investment and a willingness to adhere to the ever-changing information on a phone screen. One might argue that the benefits to this technology extend further, if exposure to wildlife leads to an increased support for wildlife conservation.
But in Yellowstone—the world’s first national park and the genesis of our country’s early efforts to conserve something big and wild—we must consider what the use of these applications might sacrifice.
Opponents caution against the inevitable car crowding for grizzly sightings or traffic control needs for those piled up to witness wolf packs in the great North American Serengeti. Could road rage be the next expectation of your summer Yellowstone auto-traverse? Others argue the application updates might lead to increased speeding, in turn putting wildlife and human safety at further risk along roadways. But truthfully, something deeper is at risk.
The objectification of both wildlife and wild lands through technological gadgets removes us from witnessing a reality that unfolds before our eyes. In our distraction, we miss the significance and opportunity to connect with the bounty available to each of us in the present moment. Tied to a world of instant gratification, we forsake patience. Without patience, we disregard that which lies before us.
One of my heroes, a wandering Japanese mountain-man-poet named Matsuo Basho, wrote on a pilgrimage to a far province, “the journey is home.” Sound familiar? Our own Western iteration to this axiom is “the journey is the destination.”
Abiding by this principle, we can connect with the natural world that presents itself in this moment, with full awareness and fulfillment. By slowing down and welcoming smell, sound and touch into our awareness, we reaffirm our intuitive sense of being alive and graciously connected to the rich, dynamic tapestry of our Earth. This is an ancient birthright that no smartphone application can substitute.
I slowed my truck further when I saw the two wolves on the rise in the Lamar. A silver tipped male sat on his rear haunches like a domestic canine at rest. His darker charcoal-colored partner remained on all fours, her nose slightly lifted, subtly searching for a scent. Moments later, without a glance in each other’s direction, by an unknown cue, both darted down the backside of a knoll. As two wolves vanished, their story escaped into a world unknown to any screen.
Charles Wolf Drimal is an ecopsychologist, wilderness guide, conservationist, Zen Buddhist practitioner and a poet. He leads wilderness meditation expeditions for the Absaroka Institute and advocates for public lands conservation with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.