Back in July, while in Montana I trekked up from the campground where I was staying in Missoula to the National Bison Range, in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation in a setting so beautiful I had to stop a couple times along the way to breathe and take it all in, mountains and rivers and grasslands, all beneath the trademark cloud-dappled Big Sky.
The bison preserve, established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, encompasses nearly 19,000 acres. Visitors are offered two driving tour options. You can take the Prairie Drive gravel road that winds alongside the Jocko River or you can opt for the Red Sleep Mountain Drive, offering stunning views of the Mission Mountains and Mission Valley.
It was a hot day, with that white-kind-of-light bright so that everything – dust, grass, sky – seemed washed through with sunlight, clean and crisp and translucent. Descriptions of the mountain drive warn of steep grades and sharp curves, prohibiting vehicles with trailers. Those of you who remember my encounter with steep grades and sharp curves back in northern California will understand why I chose the Prairie Drive.
The wide easy road snaked along the river. I had the place to myself, allowing me to take my time and rubberneck plenty, looking for some of the more than 400 bison that live here.
Wallows dotted the small rises, signs of where bison had rolled in the white dust, something they do to discourage pestering insects and parasites. They looked like giant nests to me.
At one point I pulled Roadcinante off to the side and used my binoculars to peer at a bison about 100 yards away, resting in its wallow, its tail switching occasionally but otherwise the picture of happy repose.
I would see dozens of wallows but only one other bison along the way, grazing down next to the river, maybe 100 feet off. When I’d reached the end of the road, I turned around to come back and discovered the bison had wandered up next to the road. It stood and ate placidly while I took lots of pictures. The dogs were on high alert, sniffing the air and looking at each other in mild alarm as if asking each other, “What the what is that?!”
I had come to see bison, but most of what I saw in that hour-plus sojourn was grass-covered hills and the meandering Jocko and troops of busy water birds and willow trees. Still, it was hard to be disappointed, as I crept along the dusty road with my windows wide open, the dry heat coming in on a pleasing breeze. The landscape seemed other-worldly, lit from within.
Then an odd occurrence. I had this nagging sense of not being able to see well, this feeling that I was looking through oil-smeared lenses. I took off my prescription glasses, the ones I’ve worn all my adult life to correct for nearsightedness and a touch of astigmatism, and wiped them, put them on again, but could see no better. I took them off again and just happened to look up while I furiously rubbed the lenses on my cotton t-shirt, and discovered to my surprise that everything appeared clearer.
Stunned, I put the glasses on again. Cloudy. Smeary. I took them off. Sharp. Clear. Beautiful. I was now seeing better without my glasses than with them.
It felt truly mystical, and with my glasses off there came also the sensation of sitting higher, an immediate elevation that involved the feeling of floating over the road. I drove the rest of the way and then all the way back to Missoula without my glasses (which, by the way, according to my driver’s license was highly illegal).
For a while I thought maybe it was bison magic that had healed me, an animal spirit miracle. I was – I am – ever open to that possibility. But I’ve discovered, because I’ve experimented now in various places, including right here in Sugar Grove, that it’s related to how much sunlight there is, and when there is a lot of natural light, I see better without my glasses than with them. (At night, for example, without my glasses I’m still driving in a darkened blurry tunnel – yeah, I did test it out, but only for a moment and on a straight road with no other drivers around…)
I guess the point, if there is one, is something I’ve been pondering ever since I returned home, something I’ve been thinking about as I deal with a little low-level depression and even a tad of resentment, missing my travels and all the wonders seen and experienced, with a sort of familiar ennui descending, and that is this: the failure to perceive wonder is not location-specific.
I’ll say it again.
The failure to perceive wonder is not location-specific. It’s vision-specific.
The Dutch Catholic priest and contemplative, Henri Nouwen, drawing on ideas from Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton, spoke of our work as human beings as moving from opaqueness to transparency, which does not seem so far from French anthropologist and Jesuit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary belief that, “In a concrete sense there is not matter and spirit. All that exists is matter becoming spirit.”
(Those of you familiar with Fr. Nouwen, by the way, know he was no stranger to darkness, battling depression all his life as he struggled with his feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and shame.)
Transparency contains the idea of seeing all the way through. There is openness. There is revelation. There is a thin kind of clear and beautifully uncluttered awareness. A way of seeing the world and each other without barriers, without self-imposed vision problems. What is thick and opaque is to become magically shimmering in its translucence.
I share all this because maybe, like me, you have gotten so used to your surroundings that you don’t see them anymore, not really, not with eyes of wonder and astonishment. The familiar ceases to amaze; we avert our gaze to a far horizon where some imagined other more interesting world is happening.
My work while here is clear – even as I wiggle and squirm and chafe at the bit, wishing for another new road to race toward, I am to learn to be still and see where I am, be where I am, and to re-visit and re-envision the simple miracles that are always right at my fingertips. To be still long enough to allow the veil to melt, if only for that fraction of a second, moving me farther along the road toward transparency. For, if I move in that direction vis a vis the world and people around me, most surely I will be transformed, too, becoming less opaque and more transparent in my evolution as part of the human family on beautiful Planet Earth.
Later, I will drive along the dusty gravel Watauga River Road that tracks the lazy winding waterway, I will take off my glasses and study the sharp dance of light points on the water’s rippling surface. I will see the edges of grassy blades and the small busy insects that land there. I will see grains of dust swirl, then settle on the claret-colored hood of my Honda Element.
I will stop and look down at my own hands. In the bright sunlight I will see fine lines and a constellations of freckles and the outline of fine bones beneath the pliable flesh. I will see the several joints swollen with arthritis. I will see the nails gleaming pink. If I am still long enough, I will see how sunlight penetrates the skin on my hands, how my skin will absorb and hold and then return the light in a swirl of photons.
If I am patient, holding my hand up to the sky, I will see that the wonder I continually seek will always be right here at my fingertips.