WRT III, Part 3: The Threshold of Freedom

5 Aug

My Yellowstone adventure concludes with a long goodbye. Amy and Bob bolt the next morning to catch their flights from Bozeman, while Rob, Alex, and I set out to deepen our explorations of the park’s highlights. We take more trails along the Grand Canyon, one down to a rainbow-enhanced view of the Lower Falls, one out to Point Sublime along its southern rim, and explore another set of thermal features at the putrid Sulphur Caldron and the explosive Mud Volcano and the travertine fountains at Mammoth Hot Springs. An attempt to plunge deeper into the Hayden Valley along the Mary Mountain Trail is foiled after two miles of hiking. We see a bison on the trail ahead of us, and while we try to wait it out, it prefers instead to plop down in place and wallow about in the dirt, seemingly taunting us. We’re forced to turn around.

Turning around was never an option for another group that made its way up this valley in the early years of Yellowstone National Park. The Mary Mountain Trail doubles as a portion of the Nez Perce Trail, the approximate route that Native American tribe followed on its five-month flight across the West now known as the Nez Perce War of 1877. Displaced from their native Oegon valleys after the U.S. government broke a treaty, the Nez Perce repeatedly outfoxed the army over the course of a 1,000-mile trek across the West. They first sought to join up with their old allies the Crows in eastern Montana, and the party of men, women, and children trekked across the young national park and disrupted a few pleasure-seekers. Later, rebuffed, they turned north to seek out Sitting Bull and his Lakota in Canada, and very nearly pulled off a great escape. Instead, they were surrounded and surrendered 40 miles short of the border, leading Chief Joseph to declare he would “fight no more forever.” The U.S. government promptly broke the terms of the surrender and sent the Nez Perce not to a reservation in Idaho, but to Oklahoma.

Today’s West bears little resemblance to the one that was a wilderness refuge for the Nez Perce. The road out of Yellowstone offers one of the park’s famed traffic jams in Mammoth Hot Springs. We revel anew at Bozeman’s development rush, enjoy a few final beers; Alex heads out on an early morning flight, and Rob and I have a more leisurely morning at a café before I start my way back east. Along the way, I take a short detour south off my route on I-94 to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southeast Montana. On these lonely hills overlooking the meanders and cottonwoods of the Little Bighorn River, a combined Lakota and Cheyenne force annihilated George Custer and gave the Native Americans their greatest victory of the Plains Wars. Like the Nez Perce flight across the Northwest, though, it only delayed the inevitable for the Lakota and Cheyenne.

Today, the Little Bighorn site sits on a reservation for the Crow tribe. (In a reminder of how complicated tribal alliances could be, Crows served as scouts for Custer and denied aid to Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce.) My stomach churns as I gaze upon the abject depression of Crow Agency, the town two miles from Little Bighorn: crumbling trailers, a few burned-out relics, desperately patched roofs. It is the most downtrodden place I have ever seen in America; Detroit’s destitution may be on a greater scale, but at least there one can see a difficult but plausible path forward. Here, it’s hard to find that hope, and a glance at the data later shows me that the Crow Reservation’s poverty rate is only a fraction of several other tribal nations in the West. Native Americans have kept the harsh land around Little Bighorn, but won no freedom to prosper here, and the rest of America shoots through it at eighty miles per hour, stopping only for gas or a visit to this reminder of the past. Little Bighorn now remembers the dead from both sides and offers up a few wishes for peace. Peace to what end, I wonder as I meander along the Greasy Grass Ridge and ponder the scattered gravestones. I can aspire to understanding and struggle for empathy, but the reality of Native American consciousness will always be beyond my reach.

The second audiobook I consume on this road trip is The Last Campaign, which follows Robert F. Kennedy’s doomed 82-day campaign for the presidency in 1968. Kennedy, amid the primary campaign rush, took far more time than his aides wanted to visit the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, often cited as the most poverty-stricken in the nation. Thurston Clarke, the author of this 2008 book, notes that Pine Ridge’s poverty and suicide rates had not changed since 1968; it is one of dozens of moments when RFK’s campaign themes, just like Joan Didion’s road trip, feel like they could have taken place yesterday instead of two generations in the past. Between the tale of the slaughter of the American politician I may admire above all others, ruminations on the plight of Native Americans, and a short, gut-punching novel on abusive family dynamics named One of the Boys with which I follow The Last Campaign, I am in a thoroughly morose mood by the time I pull into the Painted Canyon Overlook off I-94 in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic and the American racial reckoning that began with George Floyd’s murder, I’ve been struck at times by the jarring juxtaposition of the natural beauty of my northern Minnesota haunts with the fraying world around me. I’ve been busy enough to forget those plaintive thoughts on this trip, but they return here as I gaze out on my escape in the Little Missouri badlands once again. How can a world capable of such sublime majesty be so depraved? How can we preserve such beauty so diligently, share it with our families and cultivate an appreciation for it in our children, even as we neglect so many other lessons of our history? Is my flight into the wilderness in times of trouble a meek retreat, a dereliction of duty to meet the call that inspired Roosevelts and Kennedys? In my writing, I revisit an old fictional friend who shares these neuroses and have him wrestle with them all on his own trip west.

Through him, I revisit one of my favorite columns of all time, Roger Cohen’s Ways to Be Free. A phrase he draws from William Finnegan on surfing gnaws at me throughout this trip, a description of a cathartic encounter with the natural world: “ferocious ambivalence, the threshold of freedom.” For adventure-seekers out in the wilderness, ferocious ambivalence describes the power of the elements that can overwhelm them, the way those elements can come to life and take on personality traits, at times loving, at times vengeful, indifferent to human comfort and even life, always imposing their presence. To feel that power of nature is to be liberated, if only for a moment. But that phrase can describe a very human way of moving through the world, too: the raw power that courses through the surfer taming the wave, the hiker powering to the summit, the writer hitting upon the perfect phrase. It captures both the intensity of the feat in the moment and the coolness one attains by making such conquests routine. This, too, is a form of freedom, a culmination of pursuit as fulfillment.

My earliest experiments in writing were obsessed with idea of freedom. What did it mean to be free, to live in a free society, to have political freedom? Freedom became a philosophical term, a question of will or escape from coercion or realization of potential. Lost was that raw feeling, the knowledge of the power its pursuit can bring. I realize that, in recent years, I’ve felt precious little freedom. Freedom, in its commonly understood sense, is not the end goal: lives need guard rails and direction, and while there are occasional twinges at loss, many decisions that close off options are mature moves toward a life of purpose. But freedom remains a delectable treat, and humans need to feel it; not in some Western myth of a clean slate free from the past, but through a push that knows we can learn from it and transcend it.

I spend the last night of my trip in Jamestown, North Dakota (home to the world’s largest buffalo!), in a hotel room that overlooks that agent of empire known as the interstate highway. I collect my notes and gaze out at my fellow travelers shooting across the country in the night. I head home from there, exhausted, box up my apartment and plow through work emails, lapse into the usual routines, any immediate lessons forgotten in an everyday slog. How quickly the freedom fades; how quickly the usual annoyances return.

Freedom is never a permanent state. It comes in quick jolts here and there: a first night in a new bed in the house where I’ll write the next chapter of my life, the freedom of a back road after a wrong turn through a construction detour, a jaunt to the Twin Cities that gives me a moment on a bench beside Lake Harriet and a wistful gaze out of an apartment window at a lit-up Minneapolis with raw, fresh scars on its skin. I set out on this road trip to find something, but that ferocious ambivalence never needed finding on some distant plain. It’s been here all along. I just need to live it, to cross that threshold with the imperative that such ferocity demands.

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