Out in the wild woods, reality and myth come together.
Anyone who spends time hiking, hunting, or camping in Montana has experienced the howl or screech that stops you in your tracks, the animal track that doesn’t make sense, or the snuffling noise right outside of your tent at night. But what about the unexplainable What the hell? stuff that prickles the hair on the back of your neck as you stare at a spot where you thought you saw, or heard…?
Like that night in the Gallatin Range when our friend R.J. trotted over to our tent whispering, "Eyeshine, eyeshine." Normally an iron man, R.J. seemed rattled enough that we walked him back to his tent, headlamp beams searching.
"It just felt weird." He added, sheepishly, "Actually, I swear I heard a creepy giggle." Then he laughed and said, "I think I'll go stand by the fire for a while."
We heard R.J. re-telling his story to our other friends, then the words "Little People" and "UFOs" followed by loud snickering.
A friend from Bozeman survived an abusive childhood by routinely escaping to the safety of the Bridgers. He says he'd fall asleep in the woods, then wake up to a vibration of colors which always solidified into a big, ape-like creature whose presence somehow calmed him. His theory is that these were protective "interdimensional beings" who crossed some time-space continuum as easily as we drive around in our cars.
Far fetched? Maybe. But you can forgive the little kid for conjuring up come comfort. On the other hand, what better explanation for why Bigfoot is so elusive?
Then there was the photo of a gigantic human-like track someone showed me, claiming, "Found it in the Hoodoos. Know where that’s at?" I did, as we'd backpacked into that area several years prior.
The Hoodoo Basin sits near the northeastern boundary of Yellowstone Park. It's a bit of a hard-fought destination, but upon arrival, you’re in one of the most remote spots in the Park. The towering Absarokas were once used by indigenous people for vision quests. The Hoodoos are a bizarre collection of oddly shaped rock spires and columns, giving forth the nickname Goblin Labyrinth. A friend from Gardiner swears he spent a night there chasing weird blue orbs that kept dancing just out of reach.
A wildlife biologist cautiously talked about her full-moon Hoodoos hide-and-seek encounter with a set of bright eyes in a tree playfully dodging her headlamp beam. She said the eyes were too big to be a marten, too small for an owl. She half-jokingly suggested that she’d seen one of the Little People.
According to Cherokee legend, Little People are tricksters, similar to leprechauns. Their singing is heard in lonely places, but don’t try to find them or you’re likely to become cast in a spell, doomed to wander forever.
The Thorofare, on the eastern edge of Yellowstone Lake, is described as everything from "truly lawless" to "full of magic and mischief."
While camping in the Thorofare, again with our friend R.J. and another friend, Ann, I awoke one morning to the sound of something hitting and rolling down the tent. It happened again, on the other side. Realizing everyone else was already up, I crawled outside expecting to see my grinning husband holding a handful of pine cones, but he and everyone else were 30 yards away, hunkered around a morning fire.
Walking over, I said, "Very funny, guys." Everyone stared blankly until I told them what had happened. R.J. said, "Wasn’t us. We've been here drinking coffee. Maybe it was Bigfoot."
Well, everyone knows that Bigfoot likes to throw stuff at people, so I searched around our tent for evidence. Nothing. No small stones, no pine cones. The nearest tree was 15 feet away, and there was no wind, so nothing could have fallen onto the tent.
Little people, Bigfoot, dancing orbs, disembodied eyes and giggles. Backcountry voodoo?
Maybe there’s a touch of sorcery everywhere. At the end of a long, dusty trail, an ice-cold beer might even seem a bit magical, especially if you enjoy it while re-telling your experience of creepy eyeshine and pine cones bouncing onto your tent from out of nowhere.