Yellowstone Yondering

 Chapter One

So Many Rules, So Little Time


          Kayla slowed her motorcycle to a crawl, tapping out an impatient beat on the hand grips. The traffic bunched into four long lines as they approached the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. A mournful whine drifted from the travel carrier strapped behind her. Kayla turned to address her furry passenger. “I know, you want to feel the wind in your ears, boy. At least they don’t make you wear a helmet.” She pulled off the hated head protection and shook out a tumble of long brown hair. The dry August wind made her scalp prickle as the sweat of the ride evaporated.

          The whine turned into a fierce barrage of barking. A Great Dane out for a potty break flinched away from her bike, nearly toppling his master. The massive beast held his ears at a lopsided, concerned-looking angle and peered from behind his owner’s legs.

          “Hush, Ainsley.” Kayla tried to be stern but knew Ainsley could hear the smile in her voice. The little black dog hushed for all of two seconds before he spotted something even more sinister. Now this was too good to pass up. Kayla unzipped Ainsley’s carrier just enough for his head to poke out and then dug in the saddle bags for her camera. Her bike wobbled as she leaned way back to get a shot of Ainsley’s perky ears in the foreground with a large sign in the background.

          “That’s not even a real bison, boy.”

          A squat sign constructed of dark logs read: Yellowstone National Park. Next to this helpful text was the image of a giant arrowhead featuring a mountain scene complete with a single grazing bison.

          The traffic crept toward a check station covered in a long triangle roof that closely resembled a monstrous bar of Swiss chocolate. Was that Park Ranger pointing at her? Surely not. She’d barely crossed the line.

          As her speed slackened, Kayla put out a foot to steady her 1950 Chief. Sunshine yellow, with a fringed leather seat and the beautiful curving lines bestowed upon post WWII motorbikes, her new acquisition was worth every penny she’d paid. Sure, Kayla had emptied her bank account. But she and Ainsley didn’t need much. A pair of leather saddlebags full of travel food, her camera equipment, and the pet carrier. Kayla walked Canary (yes, she’d named her bike) forward a few inches and turned to check on her dog.

          The bold Scottish terrier let out a low snarl. Ah, a bicycle. One of Ainsley’s arch enemies. Oh, my. That Dane thought all the growling was for him. The big dog flinched theatrically. Kayla snapped a few more shots, this time capturing the Great Dane’s fearful profile. Let people have their Bullmastiffs, Anatolian Shepherds, and Russian Bear Dogs any day. Kayla felt safest with a Scottish terrier at her side. Scotties were a compact package of utter fearlessness and grit, something a girl on her own needed. She zoomed in, making the Dane’s snout look huge, perfect for humorous blog posts. The royalty free photo sites she often sold to would love these.

          “There, now let’s let you breathe a little. All right, boy?” Kayla hung her helmet on the handlebars and pulled Ainsley into her lap so he could sniff at the commotion of park visitors that lined up behind the gate. To the right, a park pickup chugged forward, towing a metal bear trap. On their left a dark blue SUV driven by a couple of pretty twenty-somethings wobbled out of their lane as the occupants hastily hid their beers and what appeared to be an entire case of tuna. A tour bus carrying a load of passengers snapping selfies lurched up behind her. She’d counted license plates from seventeen different states in the last ten minutes alone.

          Ainsley gave a sneeze toward the girls with the illegally open beverages and then pointed his snout at the bear trap, sniffing deeply. Kayla laughed. ‚Good choice, boy. The parties get old pretty fast.? Kayla’s laugh morphed into a sigh. The girls even resembled her old college roommates. She was their age, but Kayla felt incredibly old all of a sudden. She tipped her head back, letting the sun warm her closed eyelids.

          It had taken Kayla much too long to figure out something that her dog appeared to know instinctively. Those carefree days added up to a whole lot of hurt. It had required more strength than she’d thought she possessed to walk away and choose something else for herself. Her college mentor had always said ‚God brings His glory out of failed endeavors all the time?; but Kayla felt exhausted, used up. Had she wasted too much time ignoring God? She was only twenty-seven; surely her course could be corrected. Surely her life could still have an eternal impact, regardless of time misspent.  

          Stretching, Kayla rolled forward a few more inches. A handsome ranger with precisely-cut blond hair and a park uniform that remained unfathomably crisp and clean despite the blazing sun, was assisting the family in a beat-up van ahead of her. Wait a minute? He was waving at her … and scowling. What on earth did he want and why couldn’t it wait a few minutes for her turn?

          Paint peeled in faded curls off the van’s sliding door and one of the windows seemed to be stuck halfway down, but the vehicle literally bounced with excitement. A smattering of bumper stickers across the back made her smile. “God loves you like a chicken— Luke 23:37” was right next to a Sci-Fi spaceship winging across the galaxy and a puke green sticker that said “Sneeze on God, He won’t mind—Luke 5:3132.” Several children pressed their faces against the windows and a catchy tune blared from a scratchy sound system.

          The ranger motioned the van forward, and the music faded. The dad nodded at the tidy ranger, then paused to listen as the man spoke for an incredible length of time. What on earth was taking so long? The dad got out and put a dime in the tread of one tire and demonstrated that both tail lights and headlights worked despite the shiny gleam of bailing wire that seemed to be holding one of the headlights on. Park rangers weren’t supposed to check that each vehicle in line had functioning blinkers, were they? This could take forever.

          Finally, the family was ushered forward. Kayla caught a glimpse of a grandma, snuggling a sleepy child against her shoulder and the mom playfully bonking the dad over the head with a rolled map before he pulled her close for a kiss.

          Kayla sighed. Yeah, this was exactly the kind of thing she might have forfeited during her ill-considered college experience. The Christian dating site she’d joined last month put a lot of emphasis on past choices, especially for girls. Although most of a lifetime stretched out before her, the possibility of finding love seemed increasingly dim as the questionnaire stretched on and on. Every time she started to post her profile, she lost her nerve.

          Kayla ran her fingers lightly over Canary’s sunshine yellow paint job. She doubted the young family could have afforded the antique bike, and they certainly would require more space than she and Ainsley. The beautiful machine only seated one, two in a pinch. She laughed, realizing that she had been gazing with envy at the ratty van and its cargo of chaos. How long since those drooping parents had slept? Their boys were dancing in the backseat. Were their seat belts on? Yep, the oldest one appeared to be using his shoulder strap as an unlikely weapon. She smiled as Grandma intervened, rescuing the younger brother and passing out more snacks.

          A tightening sensation squeezed her chest, but Kayla pushed it away. There were perks to being single. She had the time and freedom to cross the country taking photographs, for goodness sake. This had been her childhood dream job and she was actually making a living at it. God would find ways to use her skills. Not every calling required sleepless nights and the ability to make all the different voices while reading picture books. There were many jobs a single follower could complete for Him. She’d simply had this image in her head of what a life of service looked like. That was all. She’d never imagined herself, a camera, and her little dog, serving alone.

          Kayla grabbed her camera and leaned sideways to get a nice obtuse angle with the ranger scowling in the background and snapped a picture of the beat up van and its plethora of bumper stickers. She took one of Ainsley enjoying the warm August breeze and then snapped a few photos of her green cloth tennis shoes propped up against the shiny chrome of her bike.

          This was important work. In her “Trashy Tuesday” photo series showing high resolution images of litter in beautiful locales, she pointed people to all the glorious beauty God had made and gave them a gentle reminder to get off their rears and take good care of it. Both her photo of a kindergartner’s tears on the playground, and a puppy watching the window for her owner’s return had gone viral. Zooming in and capturing emotion was a significant contribution. Several inspiring speakers had even started using her pictures in their blog posts. Kayla sighed and took a close-up of a dandelion that dared to bloom mere inches from the asphalt.

          The handsome ranger scowled again and beckoned to her. Oh, had she missed his wave the first time? Kayla let the camera dangle from her neck and zipped her bike forward, perhaps revving the engine just a bit in her haste. The ranger’s mouth flattened into a hard line. What? He’d waved her onward. What did the man expect? Bikes made noise. That was part of the fun. His stern gaze seemed to take in every microscopic bit of dirt and pollen that had attached itself to her cutoff jeans and breezy silk tank. She found herself unconsciously searching for the hair band she kept snapped around one of the handlebars. No, her hair was fine. There was no reason she should feel compelled to tidy up for a man she would know all of thirty seconds.

          “Do you know the regulations for pets within the park, Ma’am?” His voice was a beautiful baritone that in no way matched the sour-lemon expression on his mouth or the critical glint in his eyes.

          “Of course I do. Don’t walk your dog near bears or wolves and always provide fresh water.” Kayla gave him her most winning smile and prepared to speed onward.

          The well-pressed ranger sighed and pointed to her dog carrier. While Kayla stuffed Ainsley back inside, He pulled out several pamphlets. “Pets are not allowed on trails, boardwalks, or in the backcountry. They must stay in your vehicle.” He scowled down at Canary with something less than adoration. Then he leaned over and zipped up Ainsley’s carrier with a firm, precise motion. “Your dog’s travel outside your vehicle is limited to front country campgrounds and within 100 feet of roads and parking lots. Please present your leash for measurement.” He waited, with one hand held out, the toe of his shiny shoe tapping the warm pavement.

          “My leash? Are you serious?” Apparently he was, for the hand did not waver, although the toe tapping did increase in tempo. Kayla sighed and dug through one of the saddle bags. She yanked out a faded blue leash and thrust it at the impertinent man.

          The ranger pulled a small measuring tape from his shirt pocket and slid it along Ainsley’s leash with incredible precision and care. “This is an eight foot leash, Ma’am.”

          “Yep. That it is. Can I have it back now?” 

          “Park regulations demand a six foot leash or shorter. Do you have a second leash?”

          Kayla shook her head and the ranger retrieved his pocket knife and sawed a good foot of length off of her leash before carefully tying a new loop in the end. Kayla’s mouth hung open. The car behind her honked. The ranger ignored the drivers in line, even though one had thrown his hands up in the air and another was slowly banging his forehead against his steering wheel in frustration.

          He handed her a stack of pamphlets, not only on pet regulations within the park, but also papers that listed safe camping techniques, wild animal safety, and motorcycle repair for beginners. Where did he get all of this material? Surely the park did not concern itself with what kind of leather polish she used on the seat of her vehicle.

          “I noticed that you are not wearing biking leathers.”

          “Of course not. I look terrible in black.”

          If possible, his scowl increased in intensity.

          “Also, it is incredibly hot. If I don’t crash, I’ll be fine.”

          The ranger handed her a pamphlet showing a number of grievous injuries and mangled motorbikes, some of them still in flames. “I’ve compiled a list of motorcycle accidents in the park from the last decade. Please consider the purchase of protective garments appropriate to your mode of transportation.”

          Kayla snatched the paper out of his hand and squinted at his name tag which read ALEXANDER BRANDT in precise block lettering. “I’ll take it into consideration, Ranger Brandt. Can I go?”

          Mr. Brandt shook his head and indicated her camera and the equipment tucked inside the open saddle bag. “All park animals are wild. Stay one-hundred yards from bears and wolves and at least twenty-five yards from bison, moose, elk, big horn sheep, deer, and coyotes.”

          “Of course they’re wild. Surely, everyone in this line knows that?”

          “Yes, you would think so. Yet somehow I’ve spent the entire summer discouraging park goers from sneaking up to place their children, children mind you, on the backs of rambling bison and grazing moose for photos. Yesterday, a group of twelve tourists were snapping selfies not five feet away from a Grizzly with cubs and so I say again, the animals are wild!” The ranger paused a moment to collect himself.

          “OK, then, let me assure you of my sanity. I am fully aware that these are bear-infested wilderness areas. I swear never to perch my dog upon wildlife of any kind and will personally tackle any parent who attempts to do so. Safety first … you can let me through anytime now.”

          The ranger raised one brow and lowered his sunglasses. “You might want to skip the tackling part. They would most likely sue.” Man, his eyes were blue … and intense, apparently he had no intention of shortening the lecture. “Now, do not feed any of the animals. Even a marmot can give you Bubonic Plague.”

          Bubonic Plague, really? Kayla snatched her park pass from his hand and was about to pull forward when he gave her just the hint of a smile. It transformed his stern expression, pulling her gaze to those blue eyes and bringing out a single dimple in his cheek. Annoying and cute. How charming. As Ranger Brandt stepped back and waved her forward, he managed to smash her glimpse of Mr. Dashing with some unsolicited wisdom.

          “Remember, no one will enjoy your beautiful photos if you get an antler gouged through your eye.”

          Kayla glanced back and smiled. “Actually, nothing increases sales like the tragic death of the artist.” As Ranger Brandt’s eyes hardened and he opened his mouth to reply, Kayla revved the engine and kicked Canary into gear.