The past week or so has been an odyssey or, rather, a number of them. So far this summer, I’ve managed to put over 2,000 miles on my rental car (AKA the Aloha mobile–I’m sure I make many kids playing the license plate game very happy with that Hawaii plate). I like to talk to people in person, and many of the individuals I speak with live in various cities and towns around the state. Thus, it’s been typical for me to have to drive upwards of two hours one way to meet with people. I don’t mind really, and it’s hard to complain when my travels have taken me from Helena to Yellowstone to Bozeman and a bunch of towns in between more than twice (each) this past week alone. I spend the drives organizing my thoughts and questions on the way to the interviews, and on the way back I tend to think back on the conversation to process everything. I audiorecord my interviews for later analyses, but I still like to immediately reflect on everything I just heard. Most of the time, it helps orient my field notes and ideas for my own work in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. That being said, I still have plenty of time alone with my thoughts, and I’ve exhausted every podcast episode of Nerdist and This American Life. Hence, I’ve taken it upon myself to get really good at singing along to the local country music stations in my best Tim McGraw voice while I weave and bob through the hills of the southwestern Montana region. Pretty sure I provide the truckers passing me with hours of entertainment when they see me singing my lungs out.
Big Sky Country means big rainbows
As a researcher with a keen appreciation for the idea of place attachment, I myself am increasingly attached to the mountains of Montana, and all of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem really. On my first adventure down to Yellowstone this past week, I spent some time with a wolf researcher from the National Park Service. We trekked out in the morning with his two kids- the best two helpers you’ll ever meet- to see if we could find the two wolves in the unnamed pack near South Butte in Yellowstone. We toted our gear up the hill- spotting scope, radio telemetry equipment, and binoculars, being mindful not to surprise any bears along the way. No bears, but we came across a wolfkill (a cow elk) from the spring. Nothing but bones and the pelt left. We managed to find (hear) the alpha female quickly using the radio telemetry, but we couldn’t spot her in the dense area of trees where her den is. So instead, we admired some elk off in the distance, and we talked at length about the work I’ve been out here doing. Here’s the thing, very few of my interviews end up being one isolated conversation. Many people out here want to know more, or have me join them in their field to see things from their perspective. I take them up on their offer every time I can. What better way to get to know someone than out with them doing what they care about?
Early morning elk in the mist
Getting greeted in Gardiner
After my foray into Yellowstone, I drove back up to Bozeman, and then I was off to Helena the next day to sit in on the monthly Commissioner’s meeting for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. I spent the car ride talking with someone who was also attending the meeting, and he helped me understand a lot of the processes in decision-making and governance that are at play here in the region- state, federal, etc. It was helpful and a nice way to get a better understanding of some of the policy processes that are a tangled web of confusion at times. Plus, it was a break in my usual routine of singing like a lunatic on the highway, and it allowed me some good opportunities to stare out at the mountains becoming all the more amber as August progresses.
Back from Helena, I spent the weekend around Bozeman organizing my…gasp…Table of Contents, which my advisor and committee members have been wanting me to do for some time now as a way to focus myself. To quote my advisor, ‘Are you writing a library or a dissertation, Hannah?’ Another researcher out here, a few actually, really helped push me to do my TofC because in writing down an outline, it also forced me to clarify my own standpoint. As I’ve mentioned, standpoint and understanding the lens by which you look at an issue is a big deal to me. It clarifies things for yourself, and it also gives a more robust argument to your analysis because it indicates a degree of self-reflection. So, I feverishly wrote that up in between visiting a college friend at Music on Main, saying goodbye to my friend who left for grad school, and celebrating with my housemate and his family at a BBQ on Saturday. He’ll want me to add that his soccer team won their league championship too, because they’re awesome. So, there was ample reason to be celebrating.
After that, I left early Monday morning to return to Yellowstone for some more interviews and a visit with the wolf-watching community. I foolishly stayed up until midnight playing pool (like a boss I might add) in Gardiner only to have my alarm go off at 4:30am the next morning. Few things can get me up at that hour, save for the promise of a beautiful sunrise and a chance to see some wildlife. I was lucky enough to get to experience both. I wove my way up into the Park as a proud owner of an Annual Park Pass to Grand Teton and Yellowstone, and I waited patiently for the bison to cross the roads as I made my way over to the Lamar Valley. I arrived right as the sun was rising, and I finally got to see some wolves. First one black pup popped its head out of the hillside, then two, then three, and then a gray pup. Suddenly, I was unconcerned with the early wake up call, and I just enjoyed getting to see these animals that I talk about all the time. I would post pictures, but the ones of the wolves are all fuzzy because I was strung out on coffee and adrenaline. The pictures at the end of this post will all be from my travels, but I’ll hopefully get some better ones of wolves before I leave. The rest of the day continued on as such, and I met with people who wake up this early every morning (earlier, really) to experience this rush. Tired and delirious, I left the group and went on to Silvergate, Northeast of the Park, where I would spend that night. I didn’t anticipate that there would be no wifi (I sound like a New Yorker right now), so I spent the afternoon in the Visitor’s Center of Cooke City-a nearby town-using their wifi to send emails and coordinate the next day’s interviews. I barely made it to nightfall before my eyelids where dragging themselves shut, so I succumbed to my tiredness and fell asleep-only to repeat much of the same the following day. Lucky me, right?
After I got back from Yellowstone, I did another round trip to Helena to carry out a few more interviews. I made it back to Bozeman in time to sit in on the public hearing about the possible Wolf Stamp and its potential to be implemented by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. This explanation is a big oversimplification (apologies), but essentially it’s a way for nonconsumptive users (aka non-hunters) to invest in the state game management department with funds that will go (ideally) to nonlethal control and conservation of wolves. Again, this is a big oversimplification, but as you can guess, this proposal is not without controversy. I sat in on the meeting to listen to the different perspectives, and it gave me an opportunity to see some of the (frustrating) political processes in action. Three hours later and without going into detail, it was an informative opportunity to understand how community members can and do engage with one another over these issues.
The last stop on my adventures this week has been to return to Yellowstone for one more visit before I leave for the summer (though I’ve already planned trips for the fall…thank goodness!). From here, I’ll do some more traveling around to look for wildlife and talk to some folks. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend my time than to come to Yellowstone at the tail end of my travels along Montana’s country roads. Enjoy the photos!