Flaming gorges, 9/14–9/17

Everywhere and beautiful and makes me sick

At its north end the highway above the gorge runs a straight shot through a level plain. From here there’s nothing to indicate you’re on an escarpment: away from the edge you can’t perceive your own elevation, how you would tower dizzy heights above the river were it in sight. True of life, I think, as the sagebrush blurs, or money, or luck, or something.

But it is (and I was) there

On the Utah side the Flaming Gorge Dam has a visitor center with views of stately pylons and almost Caribbean water. The desk is staffed by gum-chewing kids in cavernous polo shirts; a security guard with a well-worn set of jokes collects watches and lighters in a dish and waves us through a metal detector. I follow the guide and a big, bored family, taking notes surreptitiously in the back. The dam was dedicated by Lady Bird Johnson and the reservoir took 12 years to fill. Imagine!

Follow you down but not that far

Now 191 crests waves of breathing, turning aspens. The trees yield to rock and dust, then an emerald quilt of irrigated alfalfa with the pale spine of Dinosaur National Monument hunched incongruously beyond. I go there and touch what bones you can, shuffling through an over-air-conditioned hall with a queue of retirees, then find I can’t decide what to do next. I drive in and out of the campground three times before I concede, signing in after a white-haired lady in a beat-up Ford. Her entry in the logbook reads, “Vehicle: truck. Number in party: 1.”

She would have made the perfect neighbor but I end up next to two twenty-somethings, a new couple. I know this because every item extracted from the trunk of the Prius as they set up camp must be asked about or remarked upon, complimented and giggled over conspiratorially. The man in the site on my other side is alone when I arrive but soon joined by a toddler, mother, and grandparent. The adults coo over a portable pink toilet they’ve brought along for the child. The sun’s down by now but I start walking.

In the moonlight the dry river washes look like spilled milk, the ridge of uplifted, sedimentary rock like a row of hooded monks. They seem to watch me wind my way up the ridge—them and the spiders, green eyes glittering in the sand.

Even in daylight the interpretive signage here is … more interpretative than usual.

The next day I turn at last for home. I stop in Roosevelt City, of course, where alas the only sign of Him is on the wall of the aquatic center where I go to to find a shower. The facility is shiny and new, but Main Street is a march of shuttered storefronts. I pull over to ask the Internet for food, opening my door against the heat. The woman parked next to me has done the same while she applies mascara.

Across the road, a man obscured by the open hood of his car hurls something heavy and metal onto the sidewalk, screaming. “Fucking BITCH! Fuck, fuck, FUCK!” The other driver and I close and lock our doors in perfect unison. I suppose these are steps in a dance we all know.

“There is no surer sign of advancing civilization than the advanced respect paid to a woman, who is neither a doll nor a drudge.”

The diner is stacked floor to ceiling with a merry jumble of candles and chapstick and snarky signage, figurines and pocketknives and Pendleton blankets. It’s a place of refuge, I suspect—there is a pierced and pink-haired waitress and a silent cashier with a lazy eye—and I’m a stranger, served briskly and left alone to make time for the regulars. “How’s your brother?” the waitress asks. “He’s a junkie,” the man next to me says flatly, steadying the base of a milkshake as his little boy swipes at the straw. “It’d be pretty alright if he died.”

“He can ruin his own damn life if he wants,” the man continues, eventually. “But you bring those kids into it and now you’ve got a problem with me.”

Always

I head out of town, past ranch houses and boats at rest behind chain-link, through farmland, and up again into the Ashley National Forest. There is an obvious and ominous plume of smoke on the horizon, but as the road twists through the wooded canyons it’s impossible to tell if I’m headed toward it, if this is a problem, until I too clearly am and it too clearly is.

California of course burns everywhere and all the time, but this is the closest I’ve been to a fire this size. As I unfold a map on the hood of the car to reroute—no signal—a hot wind snatches angrily at the corners and my hair. I look up in time to see the roiling, steely cloud seem to fold in on itself, flaring orange in tears and creases. I have never seen anything so animal.

Highway Patrol comes screaming up the road in the opposite direction. The cop slams to a stop and rolls down a window. “Road’s closed,” he says. “Wind’s changing. It’s jumped the canyon. Time to go.”

“Yes, sir,” I say. The words are strange in my mouth, but for once I have no impulse to argue.

FYI: Wildland Firefighter Foundation

Wyoming elsewhere, 9/11–9/13

Everybody warned me about Jackson Hole, resort town of resort towns. Even so I’m not prepared for the amusement-park foot traffic, or the fraught campsite hunt. I spend an anxious hour coaxing my 2WD (ok, myself) up rutted-out Shadow Mountain—only to find all the ridge spots occupied by cool kids staging photos of their Sprinters against the sky. I retreat, watch the Tetons grow gauzy behind a curtain of wildfire smoke.

The next morning I pull into a valley visitor center for reception. A few hundred people with their phones out are massed across the road, trying to catch a glimpse of a black bear on the sidewalk. A pair of besieged rangers stand between the animal and the advancing horde; tourists with SLRs are standing on car roofs and climbing up signage. One ranger speaks urgently into the radio on his shirt pocket. It’s clear violence is more likely from the photographers than the bear. I put the car in reverse.

So, yeah—still never been to Yellowstone.

The shop guys tell me to ride Phillips Ridge via hitchhike shuttle. “I guarantee you will not wait more than ten minutes,” insists the mechanic. “You can just leave your bike at the bottom, outside the bar.” If you’ve lived in the Bay Area you understand that everything about this suggestion beggars belief—but my thumb’s out four minutes, if that, and the hulking man in the F150 who takes me up the hill is a kindergarten teacher who “prefers the challenge” of teaching special ed. “You’re doing the Lord’s work,” I say, since I know no secular expression for this. He drops me by my car and I drive back down to retrieve my bike, which is—would you believe— just where I left it.

In the rearview leaving the Hoback Valley I can see the leaves have turned in just the few days I’ve been here, blazing orange swells rising to meet the bare peaks as they shrink behind me. From the Pinedale library—boom-funded, beams, beautiful as a church—I plot a reluctant course south. This is always how it goes, I realize: tortured oscillations between deciding to get warm and deciding to get high. It’s unclear to me how much of this dilemma is, you know, the fundamental human condition, and how much might be solved with of those damn Sprinters.

On the Green River it’s another season altogether. A long descent from the canyon rim ends in a near-deserted campground dotted with dusty acacias. The sky is sickly yellow, the air heavy with smoke, and the cicadas are screaming in the heat: deja-vu, Zimbabwe, 2004. Disoriented, I sit at the water’s edge and watch through unsteady binoculars the birds winging low down the gorge. The million little stones making up the sliver of shore below the stair-step shale—bits and pieces in brown, red, yellow, white, green-flecked black—feel like running my hands through time.

There are two retired couples in small RVs on opposite ends of the campground, one pair listening to the radio from folding chairs and the other walking slow laps with a wire-haired terrier. In the evening a man arrives alone on a loaded KTM, ATGATT. There are so few of us, the surrounding silence so thick and the sunset so blood-red apocalyptic, his moon-booted arrival feels like a dispatch from another world.

I ogle the bike; we get to talking. He lives in Jackson, solves the problem of winter by spending it Palm Springs. Farm boy, hucked bales; worked, bought, and sold a welding company. Made bank, retired early, does whatever he likes: motorcycles and mountains, mostly. “Could have gone anywhere,” he says, “thought about the Dolomites,” tried it all and decided there’s no place like the American West. I’m trying and failing to place his accent, realize eventually that it isn’t one: just a perfect frankness—no humility, no apology, no attachment, not the merest suggestion his own success is replicable or that it makes him any better or worse than anyone else. He answers all my questions and gives no advice.