The American Serengeti

While writing my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ] last year, I wrote three chapters which ended up not being used in the book.  This week I’m sharing these three stories here on my blog.  Here is the second story, “The American Serengeti”.

—–

When my daughter Amanda was young, I loved reading to her—especially at night, when she was lying in bed, exhausted after a long day of learning, playing, and exploring. There’s something so special about a small child, minutes away from sleep, listening intently to a fantastic story. I imagine that as the child slowly drifts off and starts to dream, that thin line between reality and imagination blurs, and all of the fantastic things happening in the story they just heard moments before become so real and seem so possible. It’s literally the stuff that dreams are made of.

While I eventually tired of reading many of those children’s stories and watching many of those children’s videos, there are a few good stories that still stand out. “Matilda,” by Roald Dahl, and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, for example, I never tire of. But the best story of them all was Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” a thinly veiled modern fable about the damage that unchecked corporate greed can inflict on the natural environment.

At first, “The Lorax” wasn’t Amanda’s favorite story. It was just one among many wonderful books we read together. But, perhaps because of my deep personal environmental ethos, I liked reading it more frequently than the others. So we read that book countless times. Then I bought her the animated version, and we watched it until we practically wore out the VHS tape. Over time, she came to not just love the story, but to truly understand it. It wasn’t just about a cute, furry, imaginary creature; it was about respecting and protecting the earth, our home.

The unintentional brainwashing was complete. Through the unrelenting repetition of a classic children’s story, I had accidentally transformed Amanda into a passionate, life-long environmentalist.

—–

When Amanda graduated from community college, she transferred to a university in northern California, almost 500 miles away from home, for an Environmental Studies degree with an emphasis in Wildlife Management. She wanted to do something big before moving up there, and for a time was excited about doing some volunteer conservation work down in Costa Rica. Then she changed her mind and wanted to do something else. Then it was back to Costa Rica. Then again, something else.

She was running out of time to commit to a big trip. She often talked about someday wanting to go to Wyoming, and see the animals in Yellowstone National Park. So one day I asked her, “Instead of going to Costa Rica or whatever, do you just want to drive up to Wyoming with me and visit Yellowstone for a couple of weeks?”

Her response was an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Perhaps there was a little bit of selfishness in my proposal. I longed to go back to Africa, to once again track the wild animals there and to just experience the place. But with a child in college, for financial and time management reasons, I could not yet afford a trip back down to Africa. So I would settle for the next best thing: a trip to Yellowstone, the American Serengeti. Together we could share the landscape and wildlife of one of America’s last few truly wild places. It would be a great adventure—for her, and for me.

Of course, as a parent, I didn’t plan for this to be just a simple sightseeing trip. I had other motives.

Amanda lived a very comfortable life. She was surrounded by her beloved family and dogs, in the house where she had lived and the bedroom where she had comfortably slept for the last 19 years. Soon she would be away from her family, her dogs, her house, her room, her bed, and everything else she knew so well, experiencing sadness and loneliness and confusion and all of those other things that a child first experiences when they move away. Our Yellowstone trip would get her away from home for a couple of weeks, and I saw it as a way to sort of ease her in to her new life away from home, in the college dorms.

But there was more to it than that.

I wanted to teach her something about the world; I wanted her to get out and see animals in the wild, to intimately touch nature before she moved away to pursue her degree in Environmental Studies.

But there was even more to it than that.

This trip wouldn’t just be about the environment. It wouldn’t just be about the animals. It would also be about our relationship. My little girl was growing up, and moving away to go to college. She would definitely come back to visit, but she might never come back to live. So this trip would also be about spending good, quality time with my growing daughter.

It might be my last real chance.

—–

Yellowstone was the first National Park in America—and in the world. Sort of.

Yosemite Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains was inhabited by the Paiute, Sierra Miwok, and then the Ahwahneechee peoples before the arrival of the first white settlers in the early 1800s. The last of the Ahwahneechee were removed from Yosemite Valley as part of the Mariposa Wars in 1851.

Soon after the ethnic cleansing was completed, the valley was heavily promoted as a tourist destination. Worries over the impacts of tourism and commercialization on such a natural—and national—treasure resulted in the creation of the Yosemite grant, which was signed in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln. Although protected at the national level, the land was immediately ceded to the State of California for administration as a state park.

Five hundred or so miles away from Yosemite, the Yellowstone area of northwest Wyoming is known for its abundance of both geothermal features and wildlife. The precedent set at Yosemite—the first instance of land being set aside to protect and conserve elements of the landscape and wildlife—led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. But it was five years before even minimal resources were committed to the new park, and by 1886 unchecked poaching and other problems led to the stationing of the US Army in Yellowstone in order to defend the natural resources the park was originally established to protect.

Meanwhile, back in Yosemite, things weren’t going so well under state control. Sheep were allowed to graze in the meadows and were causing significant damage. And emblematic Giant Sequoia trees were being unscrupulously logged by commercial interests. Conservation denizen John Muir, who for a time worked in Yosemite Valley as a shepherd and even designed a sawmill there, became an outspoken advocate for conservation. Efforts by him and others resulted in the US Congress retaking federal control of the area and establishing Yosemite National Park in 1890. As had happened in Yellowstone, the US Army was called in to manage and protect the land in Yosemite. It was not until 1916 that the US government created the National Park Service, a new agency specifically mandated to manage Yosemite, Yellowstone, and other such lands that the government set aside for protection and for enjoyment by all.

Despite its wildness, Yellowstone is in fact an ecosystem heavily modified and impacted by human activities. Many buffalo carry the bacterial disease brucellosis, and all but a handful of the buffalo there are actually cross-breeds with domestic cattle—both of these problems introduced by the military which was sent to Yellowstone to protect the buffalo in the late 1800s. And by 1935, wolves had been completely eliminated from Yellowstone.

In 1990, the National Park Service took a bold step towards the re-wilding of Yellowstone with the reintroduction of wolves. The wolves have thrived in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, keeping the population of elk and other large ungulates in check and returning the flora and fauna of the area to a more natural balance.

—–

Not too long ago, the Great Plains of central North America were a vast, wild grassland ecosystem, home to some of the largest populations of megafauna on earth. Of course, all that has changed over the last 200 years. Modern man arrived, dividing and conquering the land, first with the railroad, then with property lines, fences, and roads. The landscape, which was once a single, cohesive, integrated system, became subdivided and compartmentalized. Most of the compartments had no use for wild animals, who were then unnaturally forced to live their lives isolated in small areas—geographic cages; open-air zoos, if you will—as a curiosity and as entertainment for humans, the dominant, overbearing species who had put them in these virtual cages. The imaginary lines man drew across the Great Plains destroyed much of the wildness and naturalness of one of the world’s great ecosystems. But if you can imagine what this area looked like in its glory days, before being dissected and reshaped at the hands of man, there is only one other place that comes close to being similar: the great savannahs of Africa, best exemplified by the Serengeti.

The Serengeti ecosystem in northern Tanzania and southwestern Kenya is home to the largest terrestrial mammal migration on earth. The Serengeti is well known as one of the natural wonders of the world, and more than 80 percent of the land is protected. Using the Serengeti as a model, a dedicated team of researchers, scientists, and conservationists have set out with the goal to recreate the natural ecosystem of the Great Plains on more than 3 million acres in northeast Montana.

The term “American Serengeti” represents hope.

—–

Before Amanda and I left on our adventure through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, I looked back at a small diary I had kept from a family trip to Yellowstone National Park when I was nine or ten years old. I had carefully logged the wildlife I saw in Yellowstone, the American Serengeti:

5 Elk
13 Canadian Geese
3 Deer
2 Buffalo
I Dead Rat
2 Cranes, One Baby
1 Robin, Nest with Two Eggs
2 Chipmunks
Many Rabbits
4 Moose
1 Marmot
1 Dead Porcupine
Many Mallard Ducks
Many Gulls
Two Lizards
Just a few years later, half a world away in Kruger National Park in South Africa, I wrote the same sort of thing in my diary:

7 Giraffes
10 Warthogs
10 Hippopotami
2 Elephants
25 Baboons
5 Kudu
100’s of Impala
3 Cape Hunting Dogs
Clearly this was something in my blood, the tracking of animals in the wild. Then again, maybe it’s just part of the human condition?

—–

Amanda and I left southern California early one July morning, loaded down with kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, and other gear, and made it to Las Vegas in time for breakfast. A few hours later, we were at our first stop: Zion National Park in Utah.

Zion was hot. Really hot. The brilliant red sandstone cliffs seemed to be bleached pinkish from the blazing sun. So it was a cool respite to walk under the mist of nature’s swamp cooler, Weeping Rock. We lingered for a while at the small creek below, Amanda cooling her feet in the pool below a small waterfall while we spotted small fish swimming by. Later we walked down to the Virgin River, which flowed lazily through the canyon, its mightiness tempered by the midsummer heat. Of course Amanda had to wade out into it, which was to become a tradition on our trip almost every time we reached an appropriate body of water. We then drove through much of the rest of the park, visiting most of the common tourist sites, before settling in to our hotel in the town of Springdale, just outside the park gates. Between the drive, the scenery, and the heat, it had been a long, exhausting day. After dinner, Amanda quickly nodded off to sleep, while I sat on the balcony, reading a book, watching the sunset cast brilliant colors across the red sandstone cliffs, and drinking a little bit more than one glass of red wine.

The next day consisted of a lot of driving, through Utah and up in to Idaho where we would spend the night and be ready for our big adventure in Yellowstone to begin the next day. On the drive up, in those long, talkless spaces where the only sound you hear is the interplay between the car and the road, I thought a lot about the trip and how memorable I hoped it would be for Amanda. At one point, I started to think about “The Lorax.” It was probably the first time I fully realized the critically important role that little story had played on the development of this fantastic young woman sitting in the passenger seat next to me.

“Amanda,” I asked, “do you remember how you used to love to read and watch ‘The Lorax’?”

“No…oh wait…maybe…yes,” she said, the memories of something she had not thought about for a long time slowly coming back.

“Do you think that maybe you became interested in Environmental Studies because of that story?”

“Oh wow,” she said. “Maybe…”

—–

The morning of the third day, we drove for a couple hours up through Idaho and then into Montana before we entered the gates of Yellowstone National Park.

Our first stop was along the beautiful Madison River. We had just stopped to admire the magnificent landscape and take our fist photographs inside the park, when we noticed a small herd of elk feeding in the grass on the other side of the river. We were surprised to see wildlife so quickly, but it was to be the norm on this trip.

As we drove through vast landscapes charred by fire, we saw people stopped on the side of the road and stopped ourselves, just in time to see two frightened little bear cubs clamber up a tree, the mother quickly running across the road to protect them. These were the first of many bears we saw on the trip.

And then the buffalo started to appear: a lone buffalo here, two buffalo there; and then large herds of dozens and hundreds appearing on the wide open Wyoming plains. I’ll never forget the sight of a bison early in the morning, standing in a field, a heavy cloud of steam rising from its body. Or bison taking turns rolling in dusty patches of earth, taking “dirt baths”. Or a baby bison near Nez Perce Creek suckling from its mother. Or bison crossing the Lamar River.

One morning next to the Yellowstone River, the surface of the river covered in a low fog, my memory flashed back to fishing with my dad when we had visited Yellowstone so many years earlier. It was also a day where the Yellowstone River was shrouded in fog, and as my dad waded out into the river with his waders on, several elk crossed the river in front of him. I could almost see my dad out there, up to his waist in the cold water, casting his line out through the fog, waiting patiently for a hit as the elk splashed by.

Amanda and I saw countless wild animals on our trip. We were even lucky enough to see a wolf.

Driving along the main road, we noticed a large group of people parked at a pullout, all looking through spotting scopes in the same direction. We turned around and joined them, looking in the same direction, but we couldn’t see anything with the naked eye. A nice woman approached us and asked, “Would you like to look?”   We took turns looking through her spotting scope, and were delighted to see a grayish wolf, probably a mile or two away, trotting across the plain. We considered ourselves incredibly lucky to see a wolf in the wild, less than 20 years after their reintroduction in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

After only a couple of days in Yellowstone, I found myself driving with one eye on the road and the other eye constantly scanning the landscape for animals. Amanda was amazed at how easily I could spot wildlife. It all just came back to me. It was almost like being back in Africa.

American Serengeti, indeed.

—–

As much as our trip to Yellowstone was about animals, it was also about water. After all, I didn’t drive more than 1,000 miles with two bulky kayaks strapped to the roof of my car just to make an eco-hippy fashion statement.

Our first paddle was at Yellowstone Lake—a massive body of water. We unloaded the kayaks and walked down to the shoreline, and Amanda immediately noticed grizzly bear tracks on the beach right where we dropped the kayaks. She grabbed her bear spray from the car, and when I landed on a secluded beach a mile or two away she insisted on staying in the kayak on the water, fearful of being attacked and eaten by a grizzly. She eventually landed on the beach beside me, but still refused to leave the kayak.

We visited some of the volcanic and geothermal features, but Amanda didn’t seem too impressed. I got to once again see the Old Faithful Geyser erupt after a gap of 35 to 40 years. I was excited to share it with Amanda, but after we had waited for 45 minutes and we finally saw the geyser erupt, she exclaimed “That was IT?” She wasn’t going to be a geologist, obviously; animals were her thing. And in a way, I had to agree with her. There were much more spectacular things to see in Yellowstone than hot water shooting up out of a hole in the ground.

As we left Yellowstone, we made one last stop: to kayak on Lewis Lake. We paddled to the other side, landing right at the outlet of the lake, and found ourselves right in the middle of a geothermal feature. While not quite as spectacular as some of the larger geothermal areas that were well-developed tourist traps, this one was special because we had it all to ourselves.

—–

I remember visiting Yellowstone as a child and loving it. But I also remember that on the way out, we passed through Grand Teton National Park, almost as an afterthought, and I thought it was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen. What makes Grand Teton so stunning is the orientation of the mountains. Unlike typical mountains, the Tetons basically have no foothills—they just suddenly and dramatically jut straight up from the wide open plain. How grand.

As we drove in to the park, out in the distance we saw our first pronghorn antelope on the plains. Near the visitor center, we saw a single car pulled over to the side of the road, with a woman and her daughter standing next to it, peering off into the woods. We stopped to look ourselves and in the brush under a tree saw two moose—a mother and a baby.

On the long drive up the small road to go kayaking at Two Ocean Lake, expecting to see a lot of wildlife, we only saw a few deer. But once we put our kayaks in the water, we saw a man staring through his binoculars into the sky along the shore. We followed his gaze, and were rewarded with the sight of a majestic bald eagle.

We kayaked at Oxbow Bend on the Snake River, a sublimely beautiful scene, and easily one of the most recognizable spots in America. There we saw more bald eagles, several ospreys, and a family of river otters playing along the river bank. We also kayaked just a foot or two over the tops of the largest cutthroat trout I had ever seen. We moved in and out of many marshy twists and turns in the backwaters of the Snake River, looking for the moose that were supposed to live there. We watched a mother duck and her seven little chicks for quite some time, and were ready to give up on our quest for moose. Just then, we saw a flash of brown moving off behind a bush. “Bear!” one of us said, and we quickly kayaked closer to get a better look. As we approached, we realized it wasn’t a bear at all, but it was the moose we had come looking for.   Moments later, we realized it wasn’t just one moose, but two of them—a mother and baby, behind the bushes, eating leaves. We watched them from the safety of our floating platforms for more than half an hour before they moved on to greener pastures.

Another morning, as we walked around near the visitor’s center looking for a hidden clump of rocks hidden in the trees where we could climb, it started to rain. Just then we saw a helicopter fly overhead, evacuating an injured climber from a technical route high in the Tetons. We decided to skip the climbing that day and do some more kayaking instead. We kayaked at Jenny Lake, Jackson Lake, String Lake, and every place we could in the park, thus experiencing many beautiful places that people chained to their cars could never see.

—–

We saw many unexpected things on our adventure. But the biggest surprise of the trip didn’t happen in Zion, Yellowstone, or Grand Teton National Parks. It happened in town.

Amanda had to register for university classes while we were away, and our accommodations had no internet connection. So we spent half a day exploring the town of Jackson Hole and looking for a restaurant that had wifi, so that we could return the next morning and she could register for classes while we ate breakfast.

While driving in to Jackson Hole that morning, we had noticed an amazing stone building built into the side of the mountain. It was the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

We had no intention of stopping there. We had come to Wyoming to see real animals, not paintings of animals on the wall of a museum. But while wandering around town, we saw a number of signs advertising a special exhibit at the museum.

“Look!” Amanda said, pointing excitedly at one of the signs. “It’s the Lorax!”

The National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, had a special exhibit of Dr. Seuss’s original artwork for “The Lorax.”

What an incredible coincidence. Maybe we would have to drop by this museum after all…

—–

I had brought some wine with me on the trip, but also wanted to get a taste of what the local community had to offer. Wyoming not being known as a big viticulture area, I put away the wine for a few days and opted instead for beer. At a grocery store in Yellowstone, I purchased some fine microbrewed beers from Wyoming and Montana.

We all know what happens when kids move away to college. They explore their newfound freedoms. And for many college students, freedom and alcohol are synonymous.   A few days later, in our cabin in Grand Teton National Park, I decided it was time.

Amanda was lying on her bed in the cabin, reading. I opened a beer and without saying a word I handed it to her.

“What’s this????”

“It’s for you,” I said. “Drink it.”

“WHAT?!?!?!” she exclaimed, trying to hide her excitement.

“Listen,” I said, “you’re going off to college in a couple weeks. And I know what’s going to happen there…”

In my mind, I’d preferred that she had her first beer under my supervision.

She took a sip and made a face, nearly gagging.

“Does all beer taste like this?” she asked in disbelief.

“Well, this is a real nice beer, it’s very hoppy,” I explained. “You can get beer that’s not as hoppy, but it’s not very good.”

She continued to take small sips, and make faces. I read my book, pretending not to pay too much attention. Then I heard big gulping sounds as she quickly downed the entire beer.

“Did you just chug that whole thing?” I asked.

“Yeah. It tasted gross.”

About five minutes later, she stood up and tried to walk to the bathroom nonchalantly. She didn’t look drunk, but she looked…awkward. There was something very forced about her body language.

A few seconds later, I heard the sounds of her vomiting in the bathroom.

She stayed in there long enough that she never saw the huge grin on my face.

—–

On this trip with my teenage daughter through the America Serengeti, I was overcome by a flood of emotions and memories. Driving through one of the world’s last wild places and keeping a vigilant eye out for animals reminded me of my own teenage years, some thirty years prior, down in Africa, watching for animals while on safari in Kruger National Park.

As a teenager in Africa, I had the experience of a lifetime, but I always couldn’t wait to get back “home” to the United States. And although Amanda had had the experience of a lifetime on our trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, she also couldn’t wait to get back home. She had had an amazing two weeks, but it was time to see to rest of the family, including our two dogs. And it was time to get prepared for her big move up north. In a matter of days, she would be leaving us to start the next chapter of her life.

For me, I had hoped to instill in her a better appreciation for nature, and prepare her for her exciting new journey in life, away from the comforts of home, of mom and dad. The trip also rekindled my thirst for being out in the wild, tracking animals, breathing in the fresh air, touching the dirt, and bonding with nature. It wasn’t Africa, but it was the closest thing to it that I was going to find in the coterminous United States.

As we were about to turn onto our street, a few hundred feet from home after a journey of more than 3,000 miles over a period of two weeks, she said “I can’t wait to see the dogs!”

And then, “I just realized something…this is the longest I’ve ever been away from home!”

I tried not to smile.

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