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Wanderer at Rest

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By Jamie Balke Columnist

Ah, failure: My old friend

As summer approaches, I’m desperate to start hiking. But recently, my brother reminded me of some of my past misadventures that began with similar frenzied excitement.

The beginning of the end

After middle school, my parents planned a family vacation in Yellowstone Park. One of my most distinct memories involves picking a trail in the Canyon area, grabbing our “bear bells” (of the small, tinkling variety – sort of like a fairy desperately trying to get your attention) and embarking into the unknown. I now know this walk as a short path on the way to more challenging trails, but at the time we felt exposed and on the verge of something wild. My dad assigned us positions in a line based on skill and strength.

Moose Whisperer

I returned to Yellowstone over college summer break to work for the concessionaire. Before I learned my way around the park, my roommate and I decided to go on an adventure. Missing family, and perhaps wanting to relive our vacation, I suggested a stop at Lost Lake trail.

On our return hike , we noticed an ungulate skeleton and witnessed a coyote stalking a pronghorn. I was hopped on up on nature-in-action when we turned a bend and were confronted by a moose at an uncomfortably close distance. There is no mistaking the size and power of a moose. The animal was to our left, a steep hillside to the right, and the trailhead parking lot up a hill in front of us.

Having grown up in the Chicago suburbs, I didn’t know much about moose other than what I learned in Hatchet – that they can stomp you with their gangly legs. Feeling trapped, I began talking to the moose in a soothing voice. Simultaneously, my roommate whispered at me to shut up, lest I anger the wildlife.

People were gathering in the parking lot to watch our plight. When the moose finished terrifying us and we made it to the car, we were greeted with applause. I managed not to cry.

Dancing with widow makers

I returned West several years later, this time to work at Grand Teton National Park wearing a Smokey the Bear hat. Striving once again to recreate a childhood memory, a friend and I met my brother at a trail that had, with my family, felt long and arduous. It’s actually an easy day hike. Taking a detour for a better vantage, we looked up from the steep path and noticed storm clouds rolling in. The temperature dropped, and the sky darkened.

This was when we took stock of the burned hillside surrounding us, covered in tall, dead pine. The trees creaked and moaned in the strong wind while we debated the merits of running down the hill versus finding a safe spot from which to swivel our heads around and monitor the area.

The rain began, and although thunder and lightning was not imminent, it was implied in my mind at the time.

After a few minutes, however, the storm passed, and we picked up the remains of our tattered dignity and we continued on with the hike to Fairy Falls.

I’m sure hiking this summer will provide more humbling fodder for future columns.

Jamie Balke has been dreaming of sunlight filtered through pine trees, wildflowers and the smell of sage. Sage, incidentally, is one of her top three.

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