In the dark blue of early morning, Brother Patrick pressed the last sleeping bag into our overflowing trunk. We piled into the car, eager for an hour of sleep before Morning Prayer. He made a last scouring of the campground and then let out a groan. Our back tire was completely flat. Not only did we feel helpless, buried in a remote corner of majestic Yellowstone National Park – we were also in a rush. We had risen at five in the morning in order to get a first-come, first-serve campsite at the Grand Teton Range, many miles away.
Thankfully, one of our Brotherhood associates back home loaned us a small air compressor. Defying every campground regulation (forgive us fellow campers!), we managed to refill the tire and hobble our way south to the next phase of our trip. Many unexpected turns marked our two weeks. In fact, an hour later we hit a traffic jam of the worst kind, American bison. For around forty minutes they allowed us an honorary place as members of the tribe. We galloped with them, sometimes trotted, and often stopped to frisk a fellow traveler. To our surprise we arrived in Jenny Lake Campground thirty seconds before the last spot was taken.
Why would Religious Brothers spend their time off on a road trip out West? In a word, adventure. Though we were packed, sometimes smashed into a blue Subaru, we shared a thrilling experience together. Our exodus took us up through Canada (with a stop at Niagara Falls), down into rough areas of Detroit, and finally out to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. In the fading light, after our first attempt setting up camp (we would become tent-raising machines by the end), Brother Clinton and I raced up a nearby mountain. We saw the sun set over desert canyons and rolling blackened hills. I then knew why the trip would be worthwhile: the terrible and awesome beauty of an America I might have left unexplored.
The highlights of the trip were too many to list. For some it was visiting a cousin order in Detroit (Servants of the Word), praying beside the grave of Fr. Solanus Cassey, or perhaps having quiet time at what seemed the roof of the world – Bear tooth pass. These stark rolling plateaus, ten thousand feet above sea level, remind one of Scotland, with hidden lakes and fields of mountain flowers. Yellowstone itself proved beyond our imagining. One of the Brothers remarked that we had entered the Rohan of J.R.R. Tolkein. The immensity of the park defies explanation: there are sun filled valleys and hidden creeks, wildlife of every kind, geysers with deep blue sulfur-lakes, and a waterfall that thunders into Yellowstone Canyon.
The trip also offered us variety. We spelunked in frigid caves, took car-rides into wastelands, and swam in the coldest water I have experienced. Of course the adventure of choice was hiking, immersing ourselves in the great Outdoors. The Teton Range is everything that mountains should be, silent, snow capped, with cruel staring heights. They invite men to transcend themselves: in short, to experience God. We thought of Blessed Pier Giorgio (our patron) as we embarked on the crowning hike of the trip.
Brothers Clinton and Patrick took the long meandering path through Cascade Canyon and struck deep into the range, entered a haven of wildlife. Brother Adam and I charged up the face towards Grand Teton, reaching Amphitheater Lake. This grueling ascent brought us within a yard of a hungry black bear, and also into the most spectacular view I have seen. For hours we scaled the lower cliffs and stared longingly at passes which lead to Teton’s summit.
Perhaps it was fitting that we ended the trip on a somewhat somber note, traveling a dusty road through the Lakota Indian Reservation. Here, in the starkest and worst terrain of our nation, we meditated on the sins of our Fathers: on the goods, evils, and unanswerable questions of our history. The Lakota themselves, so attached to the land they have lost, bear the weight of the past. Officer “Sitting Bear” Marcel chatted with us about the sorrows and joys of their present community. We received an education that seemed to stretch out and connect with the other moments of our trip.
Thomas Merton once said, “Oh America, how I began to love your country! What miles of silences God has made in you for contemplation! If only people realized what all your mountains and forests are really for!” In what we saw and experienced, the words prayer and contemplation often arose. This led to spontaneous quiet times, affections of the heart towards God that flowed out of the land. We should be so grateful that our nation has set aside these grounds for refreshment, for leisure in the best sense. The land leads us to praise the One who created it. On a mountain top in the Bear Tooth Pass, Brother Adam sang “How Great Thou Art.” Below I sat and listened: while my heart soared at the song, my lips drank in fresh morning air. This was reverence for what God has made.