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NOTIONS: Contemplating the origin of our competitive species

September 22, 2008

West Yellowstone, Montana-Outside the cabin window, the cool light of dawn is slowly illuminating the world around us.

From where I sit, I can see the white trunks of two Aspens, their leaves a mix of green and gold.

A few miles down Highway 20, the cook at the Bar N Ranch is serving up hash browns, sausage and huckleberry pancakes.

And beyond that, over at Yellowstone National Park, the die-hard wildlife watchers are shivering in the cold, hoping to catch a glimpse of a bear or wolf before the elusive creatures retreat for the day into the forest.

My wife Cheri and I flew here on Saturday afternoon, escaping the perfect storm of hurricanes from Texas, Wall Street and presidential politics.

We flew into Jackson Hole, spent the night there, and then drove up on Sunday morning through Grand Teton and Yellowstone.

The rhythm of life is slower and more sensuous here. Inside the park, our cell phones don't work. There are no traffic signals. And aside from a lone teenager wearing a campaign T-shirt, I've not seen or heard the words "Barack Obama" or "John McCain" since we arrived.

On Monday, instead of racing to work in Indianapolis, we hiked high above Mammoth Hot Springs, walking through golden meadows and wooded paths toward some old mountain ponds. Instead of watching our neighbors walk their dogs along the concrete Central Canal sidewalks, we spied elk and mule deer. Instead of the din of city life, only the grasshoppers accompanied us, their click-click-click playing percussion on the warm breeze.

Tuesday, instead of cavorting with coworkers over this problem and that, we hiked 10 miles through the Hayden Valley. We jumped across muddy bogs and babbling streams, watched warily for bears in this "grizzly habitat," and passed within a dozen yards of three bison bulls, each protecting his circle of dust.

Today, instead of rushing off to a business breakfast, a lunch meeting or an afterwork reception, we'll mosey in the morning, take an afternoon hike, then head south to the Tetons.

Because I had to write this column, I logged onto the Internet this morning. I read about the flooding and power outages in Indiana, saw the pictures of devastation in Galveston, learned of the AIG bailout, the sale of Merrill Lynch and the turmoil in the markets.

I read about the embassy bombing in Yemen, the political punches in the Indiana gubernatorial debate and the latest horserace polls in the presidential contest.

And standing in the midst of the unmoving mountains, it all seemed fleeting and flailing and far away.

Every time I take one of these get-awayfrom-it-all vacations, I wonder why we choose the rat race over a calmer pace.

Yes, I know the realities: Of course, we have to do something to pay for these vacations. Sure, the places we visit tend to offer beautiful but unproductive landscapes. Naturally, some value legacies and giving back to the greater good.

But like most things, the answer seems to lie in nature.

Last night, Cheri and I decided to try our hand at the wildlife-spotting game. We'd read in a guidebook that the creatures tend to congregate in a particular valley at dawn and dusk each day. So as sunset neared, we headed through the Lamar Valley toward the northeast entrance of Yellowstone.

Along the way, we saw bison in herds and alone. We saw prong-forked antelope grazing peacefully. We saw fishermen and fisherwomen casting their flies in the Lamar River.

But the most unusual sites were the gatherings of humans. At several points along the way, they'd pulled their cars, pickups and SUVs off the side of the road, and climbed high atop little hillsides. There they stood, in groups of 50 and 60, with telescopes, binoculars and zoom lenses aimed toward the valley below.

After seeing this sight repeated several times, we stopped and joined a small group huddled around a park ranger. We listened in.

The ranger said the people with the scopes were all looking for wolves. He said the wolves emerge from the forest at dusk to prey on the docile bison. He said bison are herd animals, but the old fellows tend to go their own way and become vulnerable to attack by young wolves looking for a quick, easy meal. He said that, even with all the lenses trained on the valley, the humans had spotted only one wolf the night before.

Then he drove off down the road with his scope to join another group of hungry wolfwatchers.

It all sounded a little gruesome to us. But it also sounded familiar. It sounded like Wall Street. It sounded like politics. It sounded like the dog-eat-dog, wolf-eatbison, bear-eat-bull business world. Stand still, stand alone, and you're fair game.

I'm going back to my vacation now.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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