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.

The Winds, 9/5–9/9

I first saw the Cirque of the Towers as a flash in a photo carousel on an ex-something’s screensaver. It’s been eight years since then—I couldn’t weekend-warrior Wyoming—but the image stayed frozen in my mind. How could I forget, when the place has a name like a paperback fantasy? The spires pose like gods. I like to think it was never a question of if, but when.

This way, that-a-way.

Having said that: I’m not much of a backpacker. It’s awfully literal, this staggering under the weight of my own fear, every anxiety made manifest in actual baggage. Carnivores? Bear spray, one pound. Cold? Fifteen-degree sleeping bag, two pounds. Getting hurt? Getting lost? Garmin, four ounces, plus the first aid kit and a backup map and compass. Add it up, cram it in, pile it on, and feel the pack settle on my crooked hip and metal shoulder like a reprimand for having forgotten how to live off berries and starlight.

I struggle to distinguish preparedness from paranoia, precaution from placebo or superstitious gesture to the mountain gods. In the process of trying I inevitably grow bored, then annoyed, throw up my hands in a final flurry of illogical tradeoffs: the bear spray for binoculars; salami for chocolate. When I was climbing the risks had immediacy enough to check this caprice. Backpacking, once I get impatient, is easily dismissed as just walking around.

My solution is to stick to short trips. I plan two nights and three days from the Big Sandy trailhead, set off—after rattling down 30 miles of dirt and gravel road to get there—under a pack small enough that I still feel light on my feet.

The ripples (look close!) are from jumping fish. I have never seen so many; it sounded like rain.

But as I head toward the cirque on the morning of the second day I begin to encounter friendly ghosts. First there is pair of fishing buddies (dad bods, camo, belly-laughs), then a stunner-shades trail runner—and what trail runner from this world stops to talk? Last and least likely, another solo, brown woman. She’s got longer hair and a decade on me, but we’re the same height, have the same pack, and are near identically sloppily dressed. Our eyes meet and go wide together.

In all three vaguely uncanny encounters I have the same conversation. It begins as trailside SOP—how’s it going, lovely weather, where you coming from, where you headed—and then, when I tell them, swerves off script in the exact same way. The next line in this exchange is supposed to be, nice, have fun, bye now, occasionally adorned with fish tales or tent spot recommendations. But today I get disbelief and protest. That’s all? Just the cirque? When you came all the way from California? You have to see more than that! Who knows when you’ll ever be back? 

This last question is the most insidious, Kryptonite. I point out I’m only carrying food for one more day. “What would you rather do,” asks one of the anglers, jabbing at my map. “Go a little hungry, or regret missing out on this forever?”

To be clear: cairns acceptable only when environmentally beneficial and architecturally interesting.

I’m told in gaming there is the term “non-player character,” for the wizards and soldiers and three-headed beasts whose function is to step across your path, split the screen and deliver information you’ll need to make a choice. You can believe we’re here playing together, or you can believe, as I’m afraid I do, that we’re all just NPCs in each others’ games.

Either way—message received.

Scrambling in four mountain states and still not a single goat.

I blow past what was supposed to be my turnoff without bothering to work through a new plan: past this point, I figure, details are a waste of a time and calories. A long slog up Hailey Pass in driving wind ends at the exact moment the clouds part, spilling light onto little glacial lakes in what I choose to interpret as a blessing on the whole endeavor. It takes me as long to descend as it did to climb, mostly because every other rock is the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen. You want to take a spin through the infinite? Honestly? Geology.

I see no one else for days, marvel at the compulsions of the social, animal brain that so quickly begins to convert downed trees and dappled shadows into human silhouettes and faces that aren’t there. I spend some time crouched between stunted trees in torrential rain, thunder ringing in my ears; I cry at sunrises; I wrestle my bear canister bare-assed in the dirt. By the fourth night some combination of rationing and altitude produce a headache I half believe will kill me. The rain turns to hail, then snow, and there is nothing to do but make camp and hope I can sleep it off.

Here, lest I start thinking I was tough, the Winds sent another ghost: hiker of indeterminate gender, barefoot, in a skirt.

The force of my relief when this actually works carries me merrily through snow flurries across the Lizard’s Head traverse and down, at last, to the cirque. My original destination feels crowded by contrast, but the rock gods themselves don’t disappoint. I can lie on a boulder in the middle of the babbling Popo Agie and watch the shadows of clouds crawl up and down the side of Mitchell Peak. This is the best part: the map rising before your eyes; the act of putting a stone face to a strange name. Watchtower, Shark’s Nose, Overhanging Tower. I announce them to the trees. Wolf’s Head, Bollinger, Pingora.

It’s a blessing, really, that I’m out of food: if I wasn’t it might be impossible to leave. But there will be another time, I hope, and higher. I like to think it’s not if but when.

True at first light.

* * * * *

POSTSCRIPT:

Back in town I’m inhaling a brewery burger when the man next to me at the bar taps my shoulder. “Aren’t you the gal we saw at Valentine Lake? Did you make it?” I am, I did. They say they were surprised to see a woman in the Winds alone, but I am jaw-drop shocked when they tell me how old they are. (I won’t out them or say which of us is more guilty of patronizing the other.) Karl didn’t start backpacking until he retired but has thru-hiked the map since then; Paul is an ultralight evangelist (“To Have Fun! To re-enjoy backpacking which I thought was part of my youth; To embark on small or grand adventures.”) They’re great. If they’re NPCs, I think they’re here to give me hope there will be time to play again.

This is where you make a joke about picking up dudes in bars. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯