Part 24: Lost in Yellowstone

Published 4:08 pm Tuesday, November 9, 2021

What do you sing to a Grizzly?

Thursday, July 15
Day 5, 6:10 p.m.
0 minutes until the Grizzly

The Grizzly stared at me for a long time and then was satisfied.
The narrow, wooded-trail between my blonde friend and me was now empty. He had gone about his way, and, when enough time passed, I would travel up the same trail and to that exact spot where he stood as if he were facing the world all alone. Maybe that is why I could relate at that moment.
But I would not pass by that spot without caution, and awe. The caution lasted only for a while, the awe will never leave, I am sure.
I do not know if these reflections you’re about to read belong here or as the conclusion of this Yellowstone memoir. Perhaps we will set up the conclusion here, to give you time between now and then to soak in the aura of it all. But as we have traveled along – and especially through this climatic moment – I have tried to consider as much as possible what it was – if we could put it into one thought – that made the experience one for the ages.
The answer I come to is this: The experience provided a close-up and amazing view of the glory of God, more powerful than I had ever gotten before. Without a doubt, it was the most remarkable journey in nature I had ever taken; but, more, it was the most amazing spiritual journey I had experienced, too. You learn in such times to hold to that which is bigger than you.
Day after long day, with tired steps leading so often to near-fainting spirits, you rest in the thought that the Lord holds all in His unchanging hand. So, you hold, firmly, to something deep down in your soul – and you do so even knowing it may be you complete your journey and return on schedule back to the entrance of that Yellowstone Thoroughfare, or and it may be things go a different way and God’s hand leads you all the way across the Jordan.
I remember during those dark, cold mysterious nights finding myself retracing every step: across the rivers, over dusty trails, on the edge of hazardous cliffs, up the steep hills and down the treacherous slopes, through dark, dense forest and into open fields – such as that meadow in which our elegant elk stood gallantly one day – and especially, at this unsurpassed moment, standing face to face with the Grizzly.
I retraced not just that seven-day ordeal but the entire trail that has now continued for sixty-five years and that took us to that very spot, face to face with a Grizzly.
And there’s something else: On that Thursday, when Todd and I stopped to plot our way before parting ways again, Todd gave some brotherly advice about what to do should we come face to face with a bear. It was then we had a heart-to-heart talk. It was something I had been thinking on for a while.
“Todd, I need to tell you something,” I said, and he listened, as always, thoughtfully and respectfully, “If a bear does come out on us, and attacks us, I don’t want you to be a hero.”
I paused before explaining further:
“I’ve lived almost sixty-five years, and I’ve been able to do more than I could ever have imagined – Preaching, writing, coaching, teaching, being married to the amazin’ blonde forty-six years and raising two great kids and seeing two amazing grandkids grow up.”
“But you,” I added, “you have a young family, with two girls you and Staci are still raisin’. I need you to go home to them. So, if things turn bad, don’t jump into a fight with a bear. I mean that.”
I smiled at my own “jump into a fight with a bear” line, but Todd didn’t say anything. I noticed throughout our traveling together that he would think through things a long while, and then would bring a subject back up a good bit later on. As it turned out, Todd did not have to make that kind of a decision when I had the encounter with the Grizzly, because the Lord had placed Todd safely at our campsite. For that I was thankful.
That moment, for the Lord’s own reasons, was something for me to face alone.
There I stood – just me and an eight-hundred-pound blonde Grizzly, and the Lord. I suspect that any number of heavenly angels stood between my powerful friend and me that evening. The Lord had something special in mind. His traveler had spiritual preparations to make in that race He had set before him. Thus He brought him to that august place in the midst of  Yellowstone.
There’s something remarkable to me now, as I think back to the lonely walk that day in this vast wilderness, to think that I was not alone that day at all.

—The song

Finally, walk along with me here to see if you can feel that moment as I crossed paths with my friend. After the Grizzly walked quietly into the woods, I waited for a couple of minutes, no more, before continuing up the path. I soon came to that stream where I think the bear had been drinking. Crossing that river definitely put me fully in his domain. You tiptoe down a trail when you know it belongs to a Grizzly. Of course, I didn’t just tiptoe along, but I sang and hummed a song all along the way. I continued that tune the rest of my hike that evening. As much as I admired my wilderness friend, I did not want to walk up on another one unexpectedly.
Many of my friends have asked what song I sang that evening. I have not, until now, given anyone the answer to that question. I had many choices, but my friends suspected that, whatever it was, it would be a Statler Brothers song, since everybody who knows me well knows that the Statlers have occupied a key place in our family from the beginning. As it turned out, they were right. It was a song that took me back to my early bricklaying days. The Statlers popularized this great song on the radio in 1969, then again in the mid-70s when the amazin’ blonde and I were a young married couple. I would be blessed back in those early years to hear the song on the radio working out on the bricklaying job, or while driving to work. Their rendition of the song was unmatched, especially in the early years when Lew Dewitt sang the powerful crescendo of the chorus in his breathtaking tenor.
On that day out in Yellowstone, some fifty years later, we had come to another breathtaking moment. We crossed the river again and made our way carefully until we stood in the exact spot the eight-hundred-pound bear had stood free in the wild only three minutes before. We paused to soak it all in, just for a moment, realizing that he could emerge back out on that trail as quickly as he had come onto it in the beginning. But for those brief moments, we soaked in the aura of that spot, one of the most dangerous yet awe-inspiring places we had ever stood.
But as we paused, we continued to hum and sing. If something should happen, and things turned the wrong way that Thursday evening, I knew there is no other song that I would rather be singing in those final moments than the one I hummed and sung along the trail that evening.
No song in the entire world compares to ‘How Great Thou Art.’