THE GREAT LONGING
Reported by Rob Sisson
Our hearts shall ever restless be until they find rest in Thee—St. Augustine
Winter didn’t release its grip on Michigan until the first week of May this year. The relative isolation of my home office, where I run ConservAmerica, with my constant worry of how I’m going to find enough funding to keep the lights on as my primary companion, grinded me down over the long winter. ConservAmerica is a national non-profit working on conservation, environmental, and clean energy issues in the massive space vacated by most big green groups: the center and right of center of our political spectrum. After several months of one step forward, two steps backward, the light at the end of the tunnel all but disappeared.
A lifeline appeared in my in-box. It was a note from my friend, Paul Vogelheim, a Teton County, Wyoming commissioner and chair of the county’s Republican party. He invited me to attend an evening of conversation about Republicans and conservation featuring a couple other acquaintances, Ted Roosevelt IV and John Turner, who served as chief of the US Fish and Wildlife Service under George H.W. Bush, and as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs under George W. Bush. The event was scheduled for Monday, May 14 at Jackson’s National Museum of Wildlife Art.
With twin sons at Montana State University in Bozeman who I hadn’t seen since Christmas break as added incentive, I checked my air miles and booked a flight that would permit me to spend the weekend with my boys before heading down to Jackson.
On Saturday, Nathaniel, Ben, Ben’s girlfriend, Kayla, and I decided to take a drive to Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley. The Gardiner entrance to the Park is an hour from the boys’ apartment in Bozeman, but the drive through Paradise Valley begins to separate you from any sense of time. With the Absaroka Mountains to the east and the Gallatin range to the west, the drive can be spectacular. Ben spent the summer of 2017 in a few of the backcountry canyons in the Absarokas, working as a technician on a grad student’s pollinator study. He painted word pictures of golden summer evenings, floating dry flies on small spring creeks, and brisk mornings with steaming cups of coffee and sheets of first sunlight slicing into the canyons.
We turned east at Mammoth Hot Springs toward Lamar Valley, and within a mile, hit our first wildlife jam of the day. Someone shouted, “It’s a wolf!” more in excited hope that it was one. It was a coyote. A dozen people were out of their cars with cell phones and cameras snapping picture after picture of the small creature. Coyotes can be seen from New York City to Los Angeles and everywhere in between. But, seeing this one, in this setting, stirred something in me.
As we drove through valley, we spotted hundreds of elk and bison, six wolves, three grizzlies, and a black bear with a cub of the year. One young male grizzly made his way parallel to the road, close enough that my cell phone captured a few seconds of his ambling.
We stopped just shy of exiting the park’s northeast entrance at Silver Gate, and spent a half hour sitting by a bend of Soda Butte Creek. Winter was still evident in this pocket of the park, with snow blanketing the forest floor. I shared with the kids the news that the creek, once so polluted from mining waste that fish couldn’t survive in it, had been removed from Montana’s impaired stream list late last year after years of hard work to clean and restore it. Too far from the action in Lamar, few cars passed us. We listened to the sounds of the wind in the firs and the cascading stream and dwelled on how something so beautiful could once have been so damaged.
As we retraced our path back to Mammoth, then to Gardiner, and back to Bozeman, I felt renewed. I felt a wholeness in my soul that I hadn’t felt for months. In my line of work, we often refer to our national parks and wilderness areas as cathedrals of Creation. This day was a pilgrimage of renewal for my tired soul.
Ronald Reagan, upon signing four new wilderness bills in June 1984 said, “Each of these areas is intended to be completely natural—no housing developments, no power lines, just forest, rock, wind, and sky. And because of this legislation, these wilderness areas will remain just as they are, places of beauty and serenity for hikers, campers, and fishermen. Generations hence, parents will take their children to these woods to show them how the land must have looked to the first Pilgrims and pioneers. And as Americans wander through these forests, climb these mountains, they will sense the love and majesty of the Creator of all of that.”
Here was I, taking my children into one of the world’s great landscapes, and the sense of the love and majesty of the Creator had filled me. My heart longed for something these last many months, and as St. Augustine knew, it rested when it recognized God in the forests, meadows, mountains, and animals.
When we returned to Bozeman and wifi, I posted the video of the grizzly on ConservAmerica’s social media platform. By the time I left for Jackson on Monday, it had more views and shares than any other non-sponsored post in our history. People from across the country, from all walks of life, from all political points of view had connected to it. The sense of a great longing among our citizens to connect to our Creator, in and through Creation, settled on my mind.
My first visit to Jackson Hole was in 1991, the first year of my marriage. My wife and I flew into Jackson Hole Airport on Saturday, September 14th. I remember it distinctly because my wife was so excited for me to see the Tetons from the great glass window in the lobby of the airport. She had vacationed here on several occasions with her family, and wanted to share those experiences with me. As we rushed through the terminal though, I caught sight of a television in a bar with the Notre Dame vs. Michigan football game on, and froze in my tracks. By the time my wife discovered she’d lost me and returned to find me, her enthusiasm had been replaced with a modicum of scorn.
Since then, though, we’ve been back almost every year. Our sons think of Jackson as their second home, and we think of Hal and Iola Blake, proprietors of Moulton Ranch Cabins on Mormon Row as family. It was at one of the Thursday night lectures at AMK Ranch—on ungulate migrations—that my son Ben decided wildlife biology was going to be his college major.
On this trip, my other son, Nathaniel, accompanied me. Nathaniel spent his freshman year at the University of Michigan, but after a year of observing his brother enjoying the great outdoors in Bozeman, he transferred to MSU. Now a rising senior, he’s studying pre-med and thinking about a gap year of service somewhere in the world.
We joined the growing crowd in the lobby of the National Museum of Wildlife Art for the six o’clock reception. It was an honor to introduce Nathaniel to Ted Roosevelt. I’ve known Ted for fifteen years. He’s one of the most recognized conservationists in America, if not the entire world. He travels the globe as a respected investment banker and serves on the boards of some of the most prominent organizations in the country, including environmental NGO’s. But what impresses me the most about Ted, what inspires awe, is the fact he served our nation as a member of the Navy SEALS in Vietnam.
With nearly a hundred people in attendance, I had wondered how many were there out of duty to the county party or community, and how many were interested in the topic and speakers. After an hour of mingling and meeting people—local politicians, oil and gas attorneys, venture capitalists, and ranchers—it was clear that most, if not all, also harbored a great longing for something more. They were there, in Jackson, by choice, because of the mountains, canyons, rivers, lakes, and sage prairie.
The evening’s conversation was kicked off by Paul Vogelheim, a past winner of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association’s Commissioner of the Year Award. The Teton County GOP, under Paul’s leadership adopted three core values last year, including “Conservation and Public Access”, which sent minor shock waves across Wyoming, the West, and the rest of America. Paul is a kindred spirit. He’s served on ConservAmerica’s board for many years and genuinely gets our motto “Conservation is Conservative.” I last traveled to Jackson in 2016 to film a short video about our public lands, Common Ground, featuring Paul, John Turner, and another local with strong credentials on conservation, Bob Grady.
Turner and Roosevelt spoke in turn, with a heavy emphasis on finding that common ground, an almost mythical place in today’s hyper-partisan public arena. The pair was so engaging that a short Q&A period stretched until 9PM, when the organizers had to cut off the queue of hands in the air so the Museum could button up for the night.
Earlier in the day, Paul arranged for Ted and John to fly fish on a couple spring creeks in the valley. Paul described both landing nice cutthroats, and beaming like wide-eyed eight year old boys out fishing for the first time. The transformative power of nature to change our existence, even if momentarily, reinforces the notion the Creator’s hand at work.
At the beginning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this simple phrase is written: The desire for God is written on the human heart. Theologians and philosophers often suggest that humans only find real happiness and joy when we connect to God.
Imagining an angler, rod tip up and line taught and extended downstream to a trout, symbolizes the connection to Creation for which we long. I think about the giddiness and sparkle in the eyes of Ted and John when the trout rose to their flies, and how these important players on the national and global stage, for a few moments, project pure joy.
Our public lands and waters serve many purposes, but paramount is to be a place where those harboring a great longing can more easily hear the voice of the Creator and experience, if only fleeting, that singular joy.