Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wind River Mountains 1998


In the Spring of 1998 my 78 year-old father and I were traveling on a father and son road trip through Wyoming and Montana. We drove in our rented car from Bozeman down to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Buffalos filled the low valleys of Yellowstone Park. He marveled at Old Faithful's punctuality. Snow tipped the high peaks of the Grand Tetons. My father didn't talk much of the long stretches between towns. He was mourning my mother, who had passed in the winter. When I was behind the wheel, we listened to the country-western stations and my father switched to his classical CDs on his driving shift as driver. Sometimes my old man cried during the opera arias. My mother had a great singing voice.

On our journey's fourth night we stopped Pinedale. The mountains to the south were painted pink by the setting sun. The clear evening sky shone with the cosmos. My father marveled at the remote beauty and I told him, "Back in the 1830s mountain men hunted beaver in that wilderness."

"Doesn't look like it's changed much since then." My father was from Maine. He had fought the Great Fire in 1949. He knew his woods.

"Probably not." There was only one way to find out and during our steak dinner at the hotel restaurant I pored over a map of the Wind River Mountains and plotted out a day's hike across the range from south to north.

"You drop me at the south trailhead and pick me up at the northern end. I figure it will take 10 hours." I was in good shape for a man my age.

"These aren't the White Mountains." Back in the early 60s we had climbed Mount Monadnock with my older brother. Its summit was a little over 3000 feet.

"I know." The Wind River Mountains' highest peaks were above 12,000 feet.

"16 miles looks a short walk on paper." Now my father didn't walk anywhere. At Yellowstone I had to drag him to view Old Faithful's eruption of steam. "You're not as young as you think you are."

"None of us are." I finished my wine and refilled the glass with water. I didn't need to start tomorrow's trek with a hangover. The trail crested two 9,000-foot passes.

"I don't like you doing it on your own," My father liked playing it safe, but he was only in condition to talk me out of attempting this hike and not accompanying me.

"I'll be careful." Only two years earlier I had hiked in the Himalayas. While I was a young 46, I knew my limitations.

"It's your funeral, so please don't take any shortcuts. That's how people get lost."

"Yes." I loved the high country and was in good shape.

"Okay."

The next morning we woke at dawn and ate quick breakfast. The weather report predicted clear skies.

"The weather here isn't the weather in the mountains." He gazed at the peaks.

"There isn't a cloud in the sky."

"Now."

"I'll be fine."

My father dropped me at the southern trailhead north of Pinedale.

I checked my bag for my map, compass, knife, water, food, whistle, matches, flashlight, an all-weather jacket, fleece, and camera. It was 7:34 am.

"Good day for it." Sunset was ten hours away.

"I'll be waiting on the other side." My father was from Maine. There were two seasons there. Winter and preparing for winter. "Be careful."

I set out on the trail and soon was surrounded by wilderness. Bighorn sheep danced on rocky tors and elk herds groomed the alpine meadows. Indians had hunted them from time immemorial. Trappers had caught beaver in the glacier-fed streams back in the early 19th Century. I fell into a good pace. No other bootprints marked the trail.

Within an hour I reached a bald promontory two miles from the trailhead. Mountain peaks barricaded the western horizon. The path divided into three directions. I took the northern fork. The distance to my destination was fourteen miles and I anticipated seeing my father in seven hours.

An hour later light clouds obscured a steep pass. The wind swept a chilled air through the pine forest and a strengthening flurry obscured the peaks. I put on a cap, a fleece and jacket. Several minutes later the sun broke through the overcast and I took off my jacket. The trail up-and-downed over several aretes. Spring melt had flooded the path and I swam from one side of the creek to the other. Somehow losing my way, so I had to backtrack a mile.

Cold and exhausted I sat on a flat rock and dried my boots in the sun.

Thirty minutes later they were merely damp. The map had me barely halfway across the continental divide. I had only covered 3 miles in the last two hours.

A family of moose wandered across a boggy swamp. They were thin from a long winter. The wind carried my scent to them and they trotted into the forest. I pulled on my boots and tramped to the first 9000 foot high pass. The air was thin and my heart was thumping a rapid beat.

I hadn't seen anyone all day and wondered whether I was on the right path.

A sign post confirmed my suspicion.

I had missed my turning.

Reconnecting with my trail would take another hour at least.

I gazed at the wet ground. Bear tracks marked the path. The paw prints were three the size of my hand. People died in these mountains and died easy from cold, starvation, and animal attacks. At least I wasn't lost anymore.

At 5 O'Clock I was five miles from the northern trailhead. All of it was downhill.

I made good time and arrived in the parking lot near sunset. My father was waiting with two rangers. They shook their heads, thankful that they didn't have to find my body, and returned to their pick-up. I must have looked a wreck, but better than a bag of bones wrapped in tattered clothing.

"12 hours on the nose." My father looked at his watch.

"Better than thirteen." And certainly better than 20.

"You hungry?" My father unlocked the car.

"You bet." I hobbled over to the passenger side and threw my bag on the floor. I wasn't planning on walking anywhere in the next month. My legs were noddled al dente.

"Thirsty?" My father started the engine.

"And then some." I unlaced my boots. The smell was wretched.

"I got a six-pack of beer and a half of a cold pizza." My father cracked the window. "I thought you might need some nourishment."

"You know me all too well." I popped open the Coors and drained the can in one go. I felt every seconds of my 47 years. The pizza had an extra topping of pepperoni. "You don't know how good this is going to taste."

"Back in the Great Maine Fire of 1947. After the bulldozers stilled the last flames my crew and I had celebrated putting out the blaze with a pizza in Portland. It was the best thing that I ever tasted outside your mother's cooking."

"Same as this pizza." Neither of us were mountain men. We were merely father and son.

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