While driving through Yellowstone National Park, a couple find themselves in uncertain territory.
There were signs all over Yellowstone showing little stick-figure men being gored and thrown bodily through the air by bison. The animals’ tracks left deep gauges in the mud of the campsite, wending neatly, almost daintily, through the hundreds of pitched tents. We saw one in the gloaming on our last night, a monolith blocking out the moonlight in the middle distance. I froze with fear. My girlfriend carried on ahead of me, heedless, and after waiting for a backwards glance, I followed her boxy hips.
Cece used to be a model, but now she made paintings about drowned witches. I was twenty-three, my father dead for a little over a year now. The week after his death, a low cunning drew me to the woods. I’d wanted to go camping on my own then, but somehow I ended up here with her. She stuck out sorely like alabaster in the darkness as she walked ahead.
We left Yellowstone the next day. We’d seen things. The Grand Tetons rising mauve and austere, 10 million years of vertical clawing, a nascent mass of sheer drops and razor spires scraping against the clouds. Old growth forests that rippled and swayed in the ocher, pitching and rolling across the hills in ceaseless waves. Technicolor thermal pools in parched, cracked earth that spat and hissed in some dim, prehistoric tongue. I was glutted. I wanted more, always more.
But we were leaving, heading south towards Colorado. We had everything we owned in the back of my car: the tent we’d been living out of for almost a month, leather jackets, art supplies, and a stash of weed big enough to get us all the way from Seattle to New York. Somewhere better, somewhere else. My car usually had engine trouble, but so far it had been fine.
Cece sat in the passenger seat while I drove.
“Which way?” I asked her.
“My phone isn’t working,” she said.
We were at a T-junction at the south end of the park, eight hours away from our next destination and just enough light to get there. Cece pulled out the road atlas.
“I think we need to go right. Work around the edge of the park to catch 191.”
“Can I see?”
She slid the atlas onto the center console and looked out the window.
“It might be quicker through here,” I said.
I traced a line to the left, along a skinny mountain pass barely visible in the thicket of veins and arteries criss-crossing the page.
“That looks pretty sketchy,” she said.
“Could save us a couple hours, though.”
“Maybe.” The word came from her chest, a challenge attached to it. I recognized the rumble, felt it rolling through the silence she left hanging.
“What do you think we should do?” I asked, proffering tentatively.
“Whatever you want,” she said.
It was then that I knew. I knew with a reasonless certainty normally only found in dreams what to do. I turned left.
We weren’t speaking as we turned onto the mountain road. We’d almost missed it, kept rolling straight into the pastureland that abutted the forest. As we crawled up the asphalt, gaining grade with each passing tick of the odometer, I felt the apprehension mounting.
I kept looking forward, straining to see far enough out to anticipate our route. But the dense crowd of trees, hunched and whispering beside the pass, revealed only the next bend and kink of the road ahead.
After twenty minutes, the asphalt gave way grudgingly to gravel, and the forest cut the guardrails off abruptly. It was twelve noon, but the thick canopy turned the world to charcoal, an ashen sketch of grays smudged into Vantablack the deeper we went. My grip on the steering wheel tightened, and the muscles in my neck bunched from wariness.
“I think we should turn back,” Cece said.
“It can’t be that much farther.” I looked in the rearview, but the forest had razed all of our progress. “And I don’t know if I’d have room to turn around.”
Which was true – the road had narrowed considerably, and the drops to either side were harrowing.
“I can try,” she said.
“It’s not that far,” she pointed out.
“Let’s just see.”
We pressed on. Further up and further in, the clock on the dashboard ticking off minutes like petals being pulled from a flower. An hour and a half in, the first raindrops began clattering against the windshield.
They were a trickle at first, a light tapping. Soon, though, they became more insistent — unseen clouds, ovate and expectant, were unleashing heavy drops that landed with a splash and a clatter on the metal roof. As the unexpected storm intensified, I struggled to see the next five feet of road through the snap and rattle of my wipers.
Cece was quiet. Her eyes were no wider than normal but watching intently ahead, too. I considered stopping, but who knew what could come bounding around the bend, sending us careening straight off the mountain? There was no choice. I slowly lead us further on.
Time felt frozen, bonded. I could feel Cece next to me, both of us peering into the gloom.
We came to the clearing twenty minutes later. The squall had passed on somewhere to the east, and weak tendrils of sunlight were penetrating the cloud cover. There was open ground to either side of the road now. I pulled over.
“This doesn’t feel like a shortcut,” Cece said.
“No, it doesn’t,” I admitted.
“You always do this.”
But she’d gone mute again. She got out to use the restroom, and I thought wildly of leaving her there.
“Are you ready?” I asked when she got back in.
We’d only been driving another ten minutes, not yet out of the clearing, when a herd of cows blocked our path.
Free-range mountain cows — something I didn’t even know existed — streamed from the left and clambered down the slope in search of pasture. We stopped in the middle of the road and watched them. Some of them were frightened, though most didn’t seem to know we existed, with all but one keeping their distance.
A calf had squared up to the car, ready to charge. I revved the engine, but he made no movement. I let the car lurch forward slightly, and still he held his ground. Finally, as we got within a couple of feet, he snorted and turned, sauntering off slowly after the rest of the herd.
“You didn’t win that, you know,” Cece said.
“Alright,” I said.
We continued on and gradually transitioned to a downslope. It was getting later, and the light was weaker. But the rain had stopped, and there was nothing in the forest besides Cece and me. The going was easier, the weight of our things in the back of the car pressing us on. Finally, after four hours, we came out of the forest.
As we approached another T-junction, I could see the sign welcoming people to Yellowstone a few hundred yards to our right.
We had gone in a massive circle.
I turned left onto the main road around the park, hoping to catch 191. We were only a couple miles further on when we came upon a string of cars parked on the side of the road. I thought there’d been an accident, but when we got closer, we could see people standing about with cameras. To the left, in a field on the other side of the road, was a herd of buffalo.
We pulled to a stop. They were grazing on the lee side of the mountain, the setting sun casting it all as a bronzed relief. It was hard to make out their horns from this distance, even in the light. I leaned back in the seat so Cece could take a picture.
“They’re really beautiful,” I said.
Her Polaroid clicked.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
I pulled back onto 191, and we drove on.