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Close Encounters on the High Lonesome - Clawson's story

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Close Encounters on the High Lonesome - Clawson's story

As New York bans the game Red Rover for being too dangerous, two Scotts reminisce about the fun and games of life as a youngster in and around West Yellowstone. Here is Scott Clawson's story

Maybe it was the attitude, maybe the altitude, or maybe both, but near-death experiences were what shaped your character in my little corner of the Rockies. Coming of age on the Yellowstone plateau in the 60s enlisted a heady mix of demands, threats, pleasures, possibilities, choices, influences and, of course, pimples. That last one was the only one that didn’t try to kill me at some point along the way.

As a kid I had so many opportunities to get the grim reaper’s autograph that I was beginning to think he wanted to be friends or something, like a cat in a good mood when it finds a cute little mouse out in the open.

My first introduction came on a firewood run with my ol’ man, older brothers and some old logger with an antique Ford flatbed, a chain saw and a big hangover. Dad was being responsible to the point of having us hang out by the truck in the event of a miscalculation and instructed us to get under it if we heard any sudden foul language. Which we did as this was where the first miscalculation landed, giving my dad a view he wouldn’t soon forget of all three of his kids diving for cover under a ’31 2-ton Ford as an 80’ red fir drew a bead on the engine compartment, driving its tired old flathead squarely into the roadbed along with the front axle. 

All’s I remember is it was dark, then it was light, then dark again as the rear end came back to earth over me and my siblings. I felt something slap me on the butt. It was either a mud flap or that dude in the black cloak. I didn’t even open my eyes until I was pulled out from under and noticed there weren’t any mud flaps. My first contact with the man!

I met him again the very next summer, or rather, I felt his breath. Here again, my dad was involved as he hauled us all out on Targee flats to watch Montana Department of Chuck Holes and Caustic Chemicals use a sizeable pile of dynamite to straighten out ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ at the bottom of the ‘Atlantic’ side of the pass into Idaho. We were parked what everyone determined was a safe distance away (maybe had ‘We’ known just how much TNT was involved…) and were all fairly impressed when we saw that hillside blossom upward. After I blurted out “Gosh,” “Wow,” and “Holy SHMOKES,” I turned to repeat myself to a friend standing next to me when I felt that breath rustle my hair. It was from a rock the size of a softball which would have ‘line bored’ me from head to toe had I been differently positioned. I looked wide-eyed again at my friend whose color resembled fresh linen as he stared open-jawed at the ground and the man-made meteor between us. He felt that breath too. The adrenalin that bubbled up sat there unused like a lit firecracker you don’t know quite what to do with. I was nine and that was strike two. 

Once you have a life, you start to get a ‘time-stands-still’ slide show of it during these little encounters which vastly improves your memory for later on. Also there’s nothing quite like your life passing before your eyes to make you appreciate whatever life you might have left.

Well, as it turns out, I had a long way to go. 

I graduated high school in ’70 with letters (four in basketball, two in football and one in track). That year I accumulated four more close encounters and not even a bruise; fill your shorts scary, but requiring no bandages, splints or tourniquets.

From doin’ 150 mph at 1 am on Henry’s Lake flats with 8-foot snow banks and having a semi packing twins emerge out of your side (making life even more memorable), to coming within inches of doing the rumba with a black bear at night while wearing my Yamaha Enduro.

The third brush that summer happened in broad daylight eight miles or so northwest of Ol’ Faithful in what Ralph Nader referred to as a death trap disguised as a ’69 Corvair Monza. Brent, a long-time friend and cohort, and I were following our noses towards damsels we knew working at the inn. Our minds had made the trip earlier leaving our bodies to fend for themselves. 

Brent was driving as we cruised up the Firehole River, simultaneously smiling and sailing around a bend in one of the prettiest little valleys in the park, both of us gawking at buffler instead of the speedometer when a bull moose caught both our attentions. He was big, black and broadside on the dotted line. 

As Brent broke wind, I got into the glove box to give him some elbow room. 

I crawled out when we quit moving and noticed Brent’s eyebrows had disappeared into his scalp leaving behind two orbs in double exposure. I could also see every one of his teeth! His arms were locked and his pants were loaded. Thick blue smoke slowly drifted around and through the car on its own inertia. I looked through the back window at two perfectly straight black lines with little wisps of rubber ghosts drifting across the pavement. 

As fascinating as this was, my eyes followed the thinning blue haze around front where I noticed his expression hadn’t changed a bit. “You see my eyelids anywhere? I need to blink!”

We both peered forward as the smoke cleared away and living color returned to our little world. There before us, well above eye level, appeared a great moose belly, dark and proud. The rest of him eventually came into view, his ‘highness’ looking down at us like we were a couple of tourists or something. If he’d have been canine, he could have lifted a leg and washed our windshield but instead blew a contemptuous wad of watercress and nasal lubricants across it and moseyed off in a way only moose have a knack for. 

To this day, burning rubber oddly reminds me of reprieve.

My final near miss of that summer found me behind the wheel of someone else’s jet boat and here again under the protective cover of darkness. 

You see, I was given the opportunity to show not only my responsible nature, but also some of my nautical prowess! Somehow I’d left both of these at home that morning and had to make stuff up as I went along. This seemed normal and not all that life threatening.

My cousin Greg, fresh in from “Mi-nee-soda,” just happened to be lucky enough to also be my co-pilot. His lucky stars were shining brightly overhead as we headed for the lights of our home port a couple miles away. At three-quarter throttle we cruised off starboard of the ‘mother ship’ (the boat my mom was in) going in the same general direction. I couldn’t help but notice they were drifting further and further away and blowing their horn in what I took to be a celebratory fashion. Not having a brain to call my own yet, I horned ‘em back exuberantly, happily embracing my nautical manliness. 

I truly wish there was film footage of the next few minutes. 

A gruesome thought finally managed to sneak in with all the good times going on between my ears and explained why the other boat was making so much noise. You can see lights over the land from this arm of Hebgen Lake but you can’t get there from here! An epiphany was slowly burning a hole in my happiness, none too soon either.

“Hey Greg, hand me that lantern a minute.” And as he held my beer, I lowered the light over my side and clicked it on. This revealed two things, that ‘quick-time rerun of my life thus far’ (again), and several large boulders right in front of us. I quickly stole a line from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and went “SSHHHIIIIII…” And as I enjoyed the high points of my life one more time, I beaned Greg with the lantern and spun the wheel all in the same glorious instant! Not having time to throttle down landed us high, dry and sideways between two boulders on the only piece of sand my luck would find available. 

The mother ship came over and realizing we were still alive and the boat thankfully undamaged we coaxed it back into the water where the owner gratefully took over so I could sit back and savor the moment for exactly what it was…humbling.

I got out of there when I was nineteen but not before it required me to use all available digits (short of removing both shoes) just to recall all the near misses I was fortunate to have been a party to. That was 1971 and my draft number was thirteen.

-Scott Clawson

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Author info

Scott Clawson Scott Clawson No, he's not the electrician, he's the OTHER Scott Clawson, who's a quality builder when he's not busy busting a gut while writing his humor column for the first issue of each month, or drawing his Acres n' Pains cartoons.

Tagged as:

moose, boating, driving, firewood, West Yellowstone, childhood, Yellowstone, dynamite

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