I’ve never been known as one who expresses emotion. In fact I’d say most squabbles in our house end with “if only you could show emotion!” I don’t know the source of my emotional wall but every once in a rare while I am confronted by a flood of feeling that is foreign to me.  And like any scientist, I set out to understand what gives me that feeling.

paradiseValleyWebThe drive from Bozeman to Yellowstone through Paradise Valley. D.J. Smith photo.I have been a naturalist in Yellowstone National Park for three years now, before which I dabbled in wildlife work around the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA). I live over an hour away from the park in Bozeman, MT. Several days a week I make the dreaded drive to the park. I say dreaded, but I don’t mean it. My most profound ideas and epiphanies usually come to me on that drive (somewhere between Emigrant and Corwin Springs). I once considered buying a voice recorder to document my heightened awareness of life during the daily pilgrimage. Alas, I settled for a pen and paper so I could jot down the more important thoughts before they evaded me.

When I was young I dreamed of the west. My parents first brought me to Montana when I was 14 and I vowed if I were to settle in the states, it would be in Montana. I have only recently begun to interpret my love affair with the Treasure State. I have spent time in other western states, but nothing captivates me like Montana and the GYA does. I never get tired of exploring these mountains or bored of sharing my passion for this area with Yellowstone visitors.

 

It took me 26 years to understand that my travels and adventures are fueled by an insatiable thirst for wildness. Montana is wildness. Yellowstone is Wildness.

 

Recently I saw a documentary called the Gallatin Range by Bozeman’s Maggie Smith. It immediately gave me a funny feeling of restlessness. Goose bumps. Welling eyes. Was this emotion?  I was captivated by the magnificent scenes of the Gallatin Range, the mountains that run the western spine of Yellowstone. The cinematography was incredible; the landscapes dramatic. It captured the essence of Wildness.

Wildness. A guide once told me the only thing worth conserving in Yellowstone is the Wildness. Was that really all we should protect?  And what does Wildness even mean? I dismissed his interpretation of the resources and continued with my own interpretation.

Months later hunting elk in the Gallatin Range I found myself pondering this wildness concept. I’m a glutton for harsh terrain, a wildlife junkie and an avid hunter; all things I can find anywhere else. I struggled to understand the allure of this area for me. Colorado was beautiful and the elk were easy (ier). Utah was spectacular and the climbing and biking were unrivaled.  But the GYA is different; it beckoned for me before I even knew who I was.

It took me 26 years to understand that my travels and adventures are fueled by an insatiable thirst for wildness. Montana is wildness. Yellowstone is Wildness.
Wildness is what gets the hairs standing on the back of your neck when you’re on a hike and you know you’re not alone. It is the network of life that forms the veins of these forests. It is the elk that bugles on a September morning and the wolf that howls back. It is the trembling leaves of the aspen and the thundering stampede of the bison. It is untamed nature itself. Nature unyielding to the hand of human destruction; nature that is alive and dynamic.

 

When you enter that world you realize you are not above it or beside, you are part of it. It is the closest I can get to my primordial roots of hunter, hunted, and explorer. A world as a society we have found ourselves grossly disconnected from.

 

When you enter that world you realize you are not above it or beside, you are part of it. It is the closest I can get to my primordial roots of hunter, hunted, and explorer. A world as a society we have found ourselves grossly disconnected from. We humans have forgotten we are a critical member of the food web connected indefinitely to our natural surroundings.

I’m reminded of the wisdom of Disney’s Pocahontas; “we are all connected to each other, in a circle, in a hoop that never ends.”

The forests in and around Yellowstone are unlike anywhere in North America; they are untrammeled by man and they are intact. They are unforgiving and unbending.  They are precious resources still shrouded in mystery and secrecy. They are home to the survivors and killers of the weak. In this world one is not judged by the value of things or the letters behind his name. Money is valueless and phones don’t have service. You can’t tweet to your friends to save you when you find yourself in wildness. You are in a world where time itself slows to rhythms we have all but forgotten.

The Gallatin Range gave me an emotion because I have tasted the wildness of the Gallatin Range. She has shared with me some of her secrets. I have seen the wildness she possesses.

Wildness solicits an emotion from me that gives me hope for the future and sorrow for the past. I know the value of wildness and it pains me that we squander it.

I’m amazed how many visitors leave Yellowstone without taking a step on a dirt trail. I applaud those audacious enough to hike off trail and explore the wonders of their surroundings. Every rock, every tree, every inch of soil and pool of water has a story tell. I have learned more during my explorations of Yellowstone and the GYA than any textbook could teach me. I have learned lessons here that define my character. When wildness is your company, self discovery is your destination.  

Every visitor comes to Yellowstone with an expectation or a vision. Here I will bestow my advice; prepare for the traffic, don’t feed the animals or swim in the hot springs.

And seek wildness everywhere.

 

Editor's Note: Zach Mills lived for the summers when he was young; not because he disliked studying but he hated the confinements of being inside. A week after completing his studies in wildlife biology he packed his bags and headed into the heart of Africa to study animal behavior. He has been on the perpetual search for wild spaces and species since. This has conveniently landed him in Bozeman, MT. When he’s not looking for the world’s most alluring creatures, Zach's hobbies are ever changing and often involve something active, outside. He enjoys finding "secret spots" that he can pretend to discover and explore as if it were hundreds of years ago.