Today, driving up to the ranch, I happened onto a herd of elk. I had turned off the highway onto the gravel road. This road is the long way around, but the direct route is buried in a snowdrift so deep it may still be there in June -a serious drift.
As I turned onto the gravel, I shifted into four-wheel drive. Ridges of snow lay across the road. The first few didn't look treacherous, but it is so easy for me to be distracted by clouds that lie cupped in a hollow of the mountain or float across its face just above the trees. I look at the way the early- morning sun catches the dry grass poking up through the snow and turns it gold, gilding it on the blue-white field. And the next thing I know, I am axle-deep, it is too late to engage the four-wheel drive, and I'm digging out for the rest of the morning.
"Four-wheel drive first" is something I learned the hard way.
But before this, as I drove today, the clouds came down, covering the mountains ahead, cutting me off from the highway behind. I was moving through a narrowed world of mist and light snow when I saw the line of elk moving purposefully toward the road.
The animals stretched almost out of sight, and I realized I was not seeing a herd of 20 or 50, but hundreds and hundreds. So many elk, it felt as though I were falling backward in time, back to when humans were only one of the animals of the earth and not the most powerful. A time when winter meant hunger and animals were both food and danger.
I stopped the truck until the leaders, a group of cows, decided that I was not enough of a threat to deflect them. They moved with great purpose, leading the line across the road, speeding up, starting to run. A river of elk followed, flowing across the snowy ground, the antlers of the bulls sticking up like branches caught in flood. How fluidly the elk herd moved, not scattering the way startled deer and antelope do, but running gracefully together, the way a flock of birds wheels and turns as one.
I idled forward, closing the half- mile gap. About 100 feet from their crossing, I stopped and sat to watch them run across the road, now bunched close together, now strung out, the sound of their hooves steady as rain. At first I looked to see what had spooked the herd, but there was no sign of anything frightening. The rest of the elk stood to the north, unconcerned, waiting their turn.
They were going somewhere definite, the way the herd of cows in the field outside my kitchen window moves from one corner of the field to another at a particular time every day. They don't meander and graze their way in that direction; they follow the boss cow and walk directly there.
Sometimes a cow elk would pause and look at my truck uncertainly, then turn to join the line of elk crossing the road. At last, with three-quarters of the herd past me, one elk decided to cross behind my truck instead. She veered and took the rest of the herd with her, leading the way behind me, joining the group on the south side of the road.
I would have liked to stand in the road with the running, jostling elk all around me, to feel the power of the moving herd, see their bright eyes and damp noses, feel their smoky breath and the shaking of the ground under their feet. This kind of exhilaration is what I feel when it storms and I stand, my back against the wall under the eaves, watching the streaming rain, the quick jagged fire of the lightning. I flinch at the thunder, immersed in the wonder and power of this most beautiful, most mysterious world.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society