BOWEN COLUMN: Part 30: Lost in Yellowstone

Published 3:53 pm Wednesday, December 15, 2021

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I noticed something about Ethan as the three of us made our way up the mountain. While Todd went on ahead at times, Ethan never got more than twenty or thirty feet ahead of me. Often I noted that he would stop and wait for me to catch up, and he never showed any sign, at all, of being impatient. The grueling trip up the mountain was tiring, but I do not remember being unduly fatigued. I always hiked a piece, stopped to take two good breaths, then continued on. At one point, we stopped in a wooded area of the mountain and rested. I leaned against a tree and closed my eyes, listening to Todd and Ethan talk. Ethan was telling a story of how a few years ago he was almost killed in the Ivory Coast when he was in the peace corp. That incident changed Ethan, I could tell, just as this one was changing me, step by step.

While he talked, Ethan reached into his bag and brought out two cans of soup. He gave one to Todd, who really enjoyed it because he, too, had not had much real food for a week. I had opened my eyes by that time, and Ethan offered me a can of tomato soup, cold from the can. It may have been the best can of soup I’ve ever had. I’m sure my body appreciated the sodium in it, too; and I’m also fairly sure that nutrition partially made that long trip up the mountain possible.

Near the middle of the climb, we started to get into the geyser section of the hike. The geysers are truly iconic, a wonder of nature. Often, they would be about the size of a large swimming pool, sometimes smaller; and in the middle of the screeching-hot spring it would be a dark blue, a blue as clear as the ocean, and around the edges the water foamed up into an orange color. Fallen trees would lay in them, and you could see that they were slowly eroding due to the immense heat of the pools. Of course, if you should fall into one, you would not swim out. There are many such stories of that. The steam temperature of a geyser goes up to 350 degrees, and I don’t know how hot the springs would be when they are erupting and spewing hot water. They are some of the marvels that you observe from a safe distance.

The geysers popped up on both the left and the right sides of the trail. Since this part of the hike was more commonly traveled, including all hikers who were doing the climb up to the top of Mount Sheridan, we passed a few hikers on the way up. We would greet them all and maybe even stop for a moment. But it was different with two special friends we met about half way up the mountain. We passed a man and woman coming down that later I would learn are Jason and Autumn Kamm. Ethan and I stopped and talked to them as we stood right beside a geyser to my right. Todd had gone on ahead a piece. They had met him and spoken a moment with him before coming to us.

As we talked, I leaned against a rock at a place looking down on one of the geysers. Later Jason and Autumn playfully argued over where the spot was where we talked. They sent me a picture Autumn thought was the spot, and I agreed it looked very much like it. I didn’t know at the time that Jason didn’t think it was; so, without meaning to take sides, Autumn and I won out two-to-one.

When they came to us, they appeared to be in their forties and did not appear to be what I call professional hikers. By that I mean that they did not appear to be like Mr. Moffit or Jake Griffin who would take off for a month or two at a time. But the two still are far more experienced than one person I happen to know well.

They were on their way on a two-day hike up to the top of Mount Sheridan. As we visited, I mentioned to them that I was going to get home and write a book about our adventure. I don’t know when I first decided that I, definitely, had a book and maybe two or three in me based on the past week. I had been taking notes, so I was preparing for that possibility, even from the beginning. But somewhere between the four hikers’ leaving the Thoroughfare on Sunday July 11 and heading into Yellowstone and the time we met the Kamms, the idea of a book had become far more than an idea. So, between the rough notes we jotted down along the way and — more importantly — events transpiring that are too amazing to forget, most of the details we’ve shared together came to my memory readily. This section of the story has the added benefit of special detail from my later communication with Jason and Autumn, many of the details things I would have had no way of knowing.

It is funny, too, how my new hiking friends and I met for the second time, several weeks after we had gotten home. I noticed one day after I had written perhaps ten or fifteen chapters that I had a comment at the end of one of the chapters. Most people respond to my story on Facebook, not on the actual page. In this case, I happened to notice this one comment on the website, and it was from Autumn. She asked me for more detail about my trip, and she told me – and this was to my delight – that she and Jason had been following along on my web site where I had been posting these chapters. I responded back with her, and, a few days later, we enjoyed a great interview on Facetime, as they came to me from their home near Denver.

Early on, I had one big question for Autumn, in particular, when we talked.

“Do you remember our talking about that song ‘Eight more miles to Louisville’?”

“Yes, I do, now that you brought it up,” she said after a moment, “but I had really forgotten about it.”

When we first came up on the Kamms, Autumn asked me how far we were hiking that day.

“Ten and a half miles total, but eight hard miles from the Ranger’s station, I said, then paused before asking, “You know eight more miles to Louisville?”

She laughed, and she nodded her head as if she had at least heard of it, although she later told me that she had not. As we continued talking, I, naturally, gave her a nutshell account of how Todd and I got lost deep down by the Snake River and that we, miraculously, found our way out by seeing a ‘phantom hiker’ on the western side of the river. Of course, I didn’t leave out the details about the Grizzly coming out on me.

Later Autumn recounted I had told about the four of us who had started out, two turning back and Todd and I going ahead, and, “of course,” she said with a smile, “about how you sweet-talked the bear.”

“The whole time,” she went on, “Ethan was standing there listening and holding a Walmart bag,” a detail I didn’t remember.

“After a minute,” Autumn said, “you turned toward Ethan and said, ‘Oh, this is Ranger Ethan,’ and you told how this was his day off and he was carrying your bags to help you get out.” I expect I told her he was an angel in disguise, because I tell everybody that.

After a minute, Jason and Autumn got to telling how they had seen bear tracks themselves that morning and had followed them for a long while.

“But I have some little songs I sing, too,” she laughed, “to make sure the bears know I’m there.”

“’What do you sing?’ I had asked, ‘Eight more miles to Louisville?’”

“That’s funny,” she said, with a chuckle.

I would learn later in our interview that what she sang was some Harry Bellefonte, Beetlejuice, and maybe even a little of “Take me out to the Ballgame.” At least I knew a little bit about that last one .

As I look back at that special visit on the side of the mountain, something that I didn’t realize then that occurs to me now is that physically I had rebounded significantly, and it showed to others, too. When we Facetimed later, Autumn said,

“One thing that really impressed Jason and me was how calm you were after all that you had described. You did most of the talking, then made sure you turned to Ethan and introduced him to us kind of nonchalantly, and we talked to him a bit, too. But when Jason and I headed on down the mountain, we even wondered for a minute if you had gotten lost as badly as it sounded. We didn’t wonder long, because when we got to our campsite later that evening – the same campsite, I would learn, the four of us hikers stayed that first night – we encountered the man who had found your backpack with the note for help. He said he actually thought you were dead somewhere in the wilderness, that he was just hoping you all got out. He was pleased when we told him that we had seen you, and that you were all doing well.

I am a little pleased with it, too.