The sky brightened more every minute. I walked the last stretch home high on sunshine. The day spread itself before me with the endless possibility that only comes from keeping your word to yourself to get an early start.
Stepping faster, bouncing with the kind of energy gathered on a good walk, I began to plan how to most effectively spend each hour of my day: who to call back first, which emails could not go another day unanswered, the stories needing editing and those I hadn’t even started writing yet, what to wear into town, how to cook my eggs for breakfast… when a spine-tinglingly familiar outline caught the corner of my right eye, yanked me back down to my present step, and stopped me hard, dead in my tracks. Those sure look a lot like …
Back paw prints as big as my size 10 feet, with five distinct, giant toes, spookily humanlike except for the long slash marks protruding another inch or so out from those toe tips. Claws. My eyes forced my feet to walk with the tracks so my mind could believe.
What the hell was a full-grown grizzly doing on a heavily trafficked dirt road just seven or so miles east of town? (That would be Cody, Wyoming.) More importantly, what was it doing just shy of 200 yards behind my house, out on the wide-open prairie directly bordering a thick smattering of houses, barns and fenced-in yards? No, I wasn’t scared, just shocked. I fumbled for my phone to capture proof of this momentous discovery, following the tracks to where they turned off the road and east onto the plains, traveling parallel past my backyard.
But this story isn’t about how the grizzly bear population in the greater Yellowstone area has grown significantly from its extremely endangered status during the past forty years, and how that means their rangeland (and proximity to humans) must increase. No, this story is about how we can only find treasure when we are paying attention to all the signs. How the magical, the unlikely, the impossible and the glorious are all around us waiting to be noticed, if only we would just be where we are so we can realize all the moment has to offer.
That morning, I was lucky. I might have completely missed an exhilarating discovery, walking along with glazed-over eyes and an incessantly spinning mind, covering the exceptional footprints of a full-grown griz with my own, completely oblivious to this never-before-seen-here sensation Nature had led me straight to. When I saw the tracks, my eyes cleared and widened as big as they could go, and my busy mind screeched to an abrupt halt. Suddenly, I looked around me as if seeing this road and prairie—which I’ve walked hundreds of times—for the first time.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about what went on across the sage and sand of the public prairie land behind the house I grew up in. After all, I’d explored all there was to explore, hadn’t I? I could just go about my morning walks and afternoon trail rides on autopilot, stopping here and there to take in the familiar, jagged mountain vistas and sigh in appreciation of just another glorious sunrise. For the most part, I utilized my time spent moving in nature to “clear my mind” through ceaseless consideration of people, places, and happenings that were far, far away from the prairie that offered itself for my expeditions.
That morning, the griz tracks stomped any false sense that I had seen it all, and therefore didn’t need to be looking. The tracks trampled any false security that I could leave my awareness behind. They stamped out any tragic certainty that someone else had already uncovered all there was to uncover, the assumption that I wasn’t going to find anything new worth finding in an old place where everything had long since been found.
Honestly, besides immense excitement about the anomaly of a grizzly track so far east of Yellowstone (about sixty miles), a deep fear also filled me the minute I spotted the first track. It was not fear a griz might actually be near—and indeed, Game & Fish later confirmed the bear had likely left the tracks the night before, and that that big boy was long gone by that morning —it was a heart-stabbing fear of missing what’s right in front of me because I am not here, because internally I am off somewhere else entirely.
I know I noticed those tracks, subconsciously, because that grizzly imprint recently had become so familiar to me. I saw and stepped upon hundreds of them this August when my best friend Jonelle, my dog Peter, and I hiked 200 miles across the Wyoming wilderness. During our 70-mile stretch from Cody to Jackson Hole over what is called the Thorofare (dubbed the wildest place in the lower 48), we walked in more grizzly tracks than human footprints. If I hadn’t become so lately accustomed to recognizing grizzly signs, I’m sure the light that went off in my brain and stopped my feet that morning would not have gone off at all.
Since returning from that walk across Wyoming, I have made walking my daily practice. I aim to walk five miles a day, and do, most days, mostly up and down the rolling hills of the prairielands behind my house. Walking has become the practice that links the lessons learned in the wilderness to the responsibilities of civilized life. Practice is beautiful, lifesaving, essential, but in the cure of its constancy can also hide the trap of mindless repetition.
It took a line of grizzly bear tracks walking a road they, really, by all recent historic accounts, shouldn’t have been walking, to bring me back to presence in my own practice of walking. The wilderness clearly grew frustrated with me for forgetting all the acute, animally alert awareness it had taught me, and brought one of its biggest players right here, smack into the heart of rural civilization, to remind me: BE HERE, NOW.
Grizzly bears are no joke. Luckily, Game & Fish figured this guy was just passing through. He didn’t do any harm to any chickens, cows, horses, dogs, humans or trashcans in our neighborhood. For the sake of our far-from-bear-proof dwellings and dumpsters around here, I hope I don’t see any more grizzly tracks on my backyard morning walks anytime soon. But the tracks I saw that morning, the ones that swiped me out of endless future projections and past reflections, those I will forever remain grateful to for jilting me back to the life of the present moment—to the possibility that, in that moment, anything might happen …and I don’t want to miss it.
Thanks to some wildly unexpected and out-of-place grizzly bear tracks, I’ve reactivated my moment-by-moment practice of presence in my daily practice of walking. Whatever it takes for you to rediscover that presence in your seasoned practice (be it walking, yoga, biking, eating…), I promise it’s worth finding. I just hope it doesn’t have to be something quite as potentially life-threatening as grizzly tracks to bring you back to LIFE here and now.
But then again, grizzly tracks are pretty epic, and when you’re paying attention to the present, you just never know what remarkable gift it will give you to find. The question, of course, is: Are you ready to receive?
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