Nearly Murdered by a Bison — How To Deal With Feeling Washed


My friend Jeff Peisner was having himself a lovely afternoon in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Summer sun shining on the sage flats, antelope browsing in the middle distance, and the Tetons a majestic curtain of rock and snow on the west edge of the valley, Peis (pronounced “pies”) was out for a pedal. He was staying at the climber’s ranch near Moose at the entrance to Grand Teton National Park after helping to lead an adventure trip for a group of boys from North and South Carolina. Life was good. How could a summer day among those mountains not be good?

On the trip Peis had worked for a mutual friend of ours, a real Pied Piper of a fellow, if the Pied Piper had been super creative, quick with a dirty joke, and of the spirit to take a mess of boys adventuring every summer (rather than leading Hamlin’s rat mob to its watery death and, perhaps, making off with 130 of its children on the day of St. John and St. Paul.) Boys signed up in droves a year in advance for these trips and our friend always brought them home clamoring for more as well as thoroughly undrowned and un-disappeared.

I’ve also worked as a leader on those trips and they were a blast. Hotel beds not sleeping bags, roadside stops for snapshots at iconic vistas and chintzy attractions, fast food to the nines, poop jokes for days, zipline adrenaline thrills, and even a few hikes in the woods where the animals stayed well-hidden, frightened by our din. But when I got home I needed time to recover. Herding a mess of boys is as energy intensive and draining as it is riotously hilarious and satisfying.

Side note, like an “unkindness of ravens” or a “bale of turtles,” I think a “mess of boys” should be a legit moniker. 5th through 8th graders who identify as male — kids whose school binders are more like claymores than clay tablets, whose brain switches are stuck on “RIGHT NOW” and have zero ability to predict the happy or dreadful consequences of their actions and words, whose hygiene regimens are frowned upon by bison (whose idea of clean is a wallow in a urine-soaked dust patch), kids whose parents love them desperately AND desperately want them them out of the house so the miasma of frustration and feet might lift for a moment — they are a mess and should be referred to as such…with as much love and patience as can be mustered.

Peis needed some fresh air after the mess of boys flew home which is how he came to be on the bike ride when he was almost murdered by a bison. Blithely pedaling down the pavement with the summer breeze at his back, he hadn’t noticed the solo bull thirty yards from the road until it lifted its head, snorted, and charged.

Photo by Tim Wilson on Unsplash

Wicked smart, Peis can do the product of five digit numbers in his head and retired in his fifties. Athletically, he’s a scrapper. Guarding him in pickup games back in the day was a chore. In constant motion, he’d sprint into open space to get off his awkward but deadly shot. And when he guarded you it was dreadful as he took your buckets personally.

Peis saw the charging bison and he did the math. The answer was that, even with his head start, it was going to be close. He hammered the pedals with all of his wiry power as sweat ran down his round forehead under his bike helmet and bubbled up on his palms under his gloves.

Usually, bison are pretty chill and mind their own business unless you ignore the warnings that implore you not to approach the wildlife or there are wolves around. Mature bulls spend most of the year rolling solo, grazing and enjoying the peace and quiet until late summer when they saunter back into the herd to bellow, butt heads, and strut off their stuff. The cows choose the baddest bison and offer them the opportunity to pass on their genetics, as it were. The rut is show time and bulls get prickly before their big moment which is, unfortunately, when Peis happened past. Being amped up, the charging bison may have mistaken my friend on his bike for a rival bull. Or maybe he just didn’t like the look or smell of him? Whatever the reason, it was on.

Talking on the phone last night to another old friend, I lamented that the paint is peeling off my house, the bathroom sink is clogged, the clothes dryer isn’t working, and the heat on the first floor is out. He said, “Well, if you need the strength of half a man, I’d be happy to come over and help.” This from a guy who once bragged he had the strength of ten men (in truth, it was only about seven.) We laughed at this, at being half-men; we laughed hard and long. We laughed at the inevitability of our physical demise and its absurdity. We laughed at the irony of being both half and being more than we’ve ever been. It was good to laugh. Laughter, better than almost anything, even the opportunity to pass along one’s genetics, kicks the loneliness square in the ass.

I’ve been thinking about bison lately, especially the washed ones. The rut is a tough time of year for the old guys. Past their prime, they stay out of the action, knowing a tangle with a bull in its prime might be their last tangle, the one that ends with a fractured skull or a busted foreleg and a quick demise into vulture chow. So they watch from the edge of the herd and age out of potency.

At fifty, I feel like I’m flirting with the outer edge of the herd, especially when my internal monologue ramps up and I treat myself to questions like: “What have you accomplished?” and offer myself nuggets like, “You suck as a teacher, a father, and a husband.” When that crap that plays in my head on a loop it gets ugly in here. The wolves are out, the metaphorical snow is deep, and good grass is hard to find.

So I sweep my head side-to-side and plow through. I breathe and try to get through the noise. I breathe and try to hear the voice in my head for what it is, self-destructive and fearful. I might be feeling worn down these days, but I’m still here. The truth is that my old-ass future self, the one I am daily becoming, the one who is at the edge of the herd looking back on his life, makes the me who is here now, living his life, all the more vibrant. I can’t be one without the other. Just like when I was a mess and emerged somehow from the nonsense into adulthood, the latter was not possible without the former. I couldn’t have been young, strong me without the mess. I can’t make the most of this moment without the prospect of a diminished me around the corner.

Yet, I understand the animal urge to charge at a fit dude on a bike, wanting to knock his ass in the dirt, wanting to feel strong again, to feel wanted. But pining for dominance is foolish; never once did dominance make me a better human. Wishing the worst of myself back only leads to a lonely end. Instead, I tip my cap to the young guys and their vitality. Live your moment, gents, live it well. Me, I’m living mine. My moment, this mid-life moment — with wisdom earned from lessons learned and a heart that (finally) opens more toward compassion than competition — is a good one.

The way Peis tells it, it was pretty damned close. Hot breath on his back, clattering hooves, and adrenaline in the veins like nitrous close. But he also says that he was putting distance between himself and the beast. And he would have you know that the driver of a passing car honking at the bison, causing it to pull up short is actually of little consequence.

My friend lived to tell his story and to ride again. And that bison, I hope he felt a little better about himself. I hope he got some of that rutting nonsense out of his system then looked around and realized that he’s still got it, has always had it, and will still have it, gods be willing, to the end of his days.

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