Sunday, December 08, 2002

Custer's Surprise

Though we had seen truly beautiful sights as we drove through Custer, our foremost thoughts were not of Fall color in snow filled ravines, nor of grazing buffalo. The herd we saw was not encumbered by the frost that clung to their heavy coats. Each brown and white mass, with a cloud of hot breath at its face, had the assurance and relaxed poise of one confident in his home. Most of the trees were gnarled pines, dark and resolute. As the day's light faded, the luminous yellow groves of deciduous trees stood together like cheerful lanterns on tall white bark poles. They appeared unexpectedly at the turn in the road, or at the far end of a meadow. We saw it all. We acknowledge the sights in single, clipped and breathless words. Our thoughts were on the children being safe, the hazards of the drive, the uncertainty of this path.

After turning back from the ascent to Coolidge Ridge, we parked and spoke with Ed, the winter caretaker at The Blue Bird Lodge. He wore a ear flapped cap, a red and black flannel shirt and suspenders. His handshake was gloveless, but warm and sincere. It was cold, dark and snowing, but it wasn't the temperature that made my fingers flutter, my hands restless. My body, full of the anxiety and adrenalin from our icy and perilous journey, needed to release the energy it had instinctively accumulated. Now my hands were like a drain releasing worries, fears, anticipation of flight and they moved with enough energy to have carried me on a five mile run. In the RV Geoff had already poured himself a drink, and his hands were mine. His glass shook in his hands. We smiled at each other.

"It's really beautiful here," I said and laughed. I laughed because we had finally stopped slipping on frozen asphalt, because the boys were hungry and curious. I laughed because we were snowed in, and finally we would have quality time together!

Water was in short supply, but we had sufficient propane to cook and heat our little home. We really could not say how long we might be here. I tried to think "efficiency" as I prepared dinner, and so our meal was made only of leftovers. With noodles, soup, and a piece of roasted chicken we had a sort of casserole. It was not a familiar dish. Alex eyed it suspiciously, and chose hunger. Max ate the noodles and tossed the meat to a delighted Diego. William declared it a complete success, "This is really good. What's this stuff called anyway?" "It's Snowed In Casserole, " I mused, "or, no, it's Custer's Surprise!" With salad and wine, Custer's Surprise was not too bad and I wondered if I would ever serve it again.

In an unfamiliar situation, as children of a modern and well stocked society, it can be difficult to assess what is a truly dangerous or threatening situation. Were we overreacting to the conditions of the road, to our remote and isolated location? How long would our fuel last? How long would the storm last? Was this an early winter, or would the snow plows and sun clear all the hazards by morning? We could not be sure of anything and so we passed the time by considering our options and analyzing our choices. We are not often afforded the opportunity to test our resolve and ingenuity. Our circumstances were unsettling, but we mostly felt grateful.

At this moment we were not enjoying a relaxed sightseeing vacation. We didn't have four wheel drive, hotel reservations or airline tickets home. The night temperature dropped to 17 degrees and the forecast was for more snow. Driving the rest of the highway was not possible, and returning the way we came would be at least as bad, if not worse, than it had been before. But we were unharmed, and resourceful. We had good ideas about conserving propane, and even leaving the RV behind and returning in Spring. Our situation was not ideal, but in the face of bad circumstances it is very satisfying to realize that as long as we can think and work together and laugh and keep faith, life is good.

If we had driven through Custer State Park on clean, dry roads, with the sun shining over our heads and light traffic for company, and if we were certain of the route, what lay ahead and where we would stop, then we might have taken more pictures of the scenery, or stopped to hike along a snowy path and bird watch. Perhaps our fearful, uncertain trip gave us a deeper and awe filled perspective of nature and the beauty of the scenery, the marvel of animals in their habitat. Of habit we regretted that we did not see the gift shops or nature centers, or dine at the Lodge, and take a family picture, posed happily in the woods. But regret was short lived as we came to realize the gift of having an adventure, of seeing the strength and undiscriminating forces of nature, and realizing our ability to take stock of our resources, appreciate our blessings and enjoy the love and confidence we share as a family.

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