In the Spring of 1998 my 78 year-old father and I embarked on a road trip through Wyoming and Montana. We picked up a rented car in Bozeman, Montana and stopped the first night in Chico Hot Springs. The next morning the two of us continued down Paradise Valley to Yellowstone Park.
Buffalos grazed the new grasses in the low valleys and my old man marveled at Old Faithful’s punctuality. He had never been to this part of the West.
“I wish your mother was with us.” She had passed away in Boston from previous year.
“Me too.” My mother loved to travel and before her death she had asked me to be her eyes.
We spent the night near Inspiration Point and headed south in the morning.
Snow tipped the jagged high peaks of the Grand Tetons, but my father didn’t talk much of the long stretches between towns. His thought rested on his dear Angie.
When I was behind the wheel, we listened to the country-western stations. My father switched to his classical CDs during his driving shift. Sometimes he cried during the opera arias. My mother had a great singing voice.
On the fourth night we stopped Pinedale in Wyoming. The mountains to the south were painted pink by the setting sun and 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 had fought Maine’s Great Fire in 1947.
He knew his woods.
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.
“What are you thinking?”
“That tomorrow I might take a walk.” I pointed to a trail crossing the mountains. “I calculate the distance to be about fifteen miles.”
“Distances in the mountains are different from distance on the road,” my father cautioned with the wisdom of a Boy Scout leader.
“I should be able to cover that distance in ten hours walking two miles an hour. You drop me at the southern trailhead and pick me up at the northern end.” I was in good shape for a man my age.
“These aren’t the White Mountains.”
Back in the early 60s our family had climbed Mount Monadnock, whose summit was a little over 3000 feet.
The Wind River Mountains’ highest peaks towered above 12,000 feet.
“That hike could end up being a long fifteen miles.” My father didn’t walk anywhere. At Yellowstone
I had to drag him to view Old Faithful’s eruption of steam. “And you’re not as young as you think you are.”
“None of us are, but Mom asked me to be her eyes on the world and I know she would like to see those mountains.”
“She would be just as happy with a postcard.” My father liked playing it safe, but he was only in condition to talk me out of attempting this hike and not accompanying me.
”My eyes are to see for her.”
“If you say so.” My father regarded my life a reckless journey. He wasn’t too wrong, but I finished my wine and refilled the glass with water. I didn’t need a hangover for tomorrow’s trek with the trail cresting two 9,000-foot passes. “I don’t like you doing this on your own,”
“I’ll be careful.” Only two years earlier I had hiked in the Himalayas.
“It’s your funeral, so please don’t take any shortcuts. That’s how people get lost.”
The next morning we woke at dawn and ate quick breakfast.
“Looks like clear skies,” I said getting into the car.
“The weather down here isn’t the weather in the mountains.” He gazed at the peaks.
“There isn’t a cloud in the sky.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Forty minutes later my father dropped me at the southern trailhead.
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.
I looked at my watch.
“Sunset’s in twelve hours. I should get to the northern trailhead before then.”
“I’ll be waiting on the other side.”
My father hugged me and I set out on the trail to soon be surrounded by wilderness. Bighorn sheep danced on rocky tors and elk herds groomed the alpine meadows.
Back in the early 19th Century Indians had hunted these animals and trappers had caught beaver in the glacier-fed streams. I fell into a good pace. No other bootprints marked the trail.
Within an hour I topped a bald promontory two miles from the trailhead. Mountain peaks barricaded the western horizon. My mother would have loved the view and I toasted her in heaven with a sip of water.
I surveyed the trail map. The path divided into three directions. The northern fork led to a nearest col. The distance to my destination was thirteen miles. I was making good time and I anticipated seeing my father in seven hours.
The weather changed at this height and light clouds obscured the steep pass. A sharp wind swept chilled air across the bare rocks and a strengthening flurry obscured the peaks. I pulled on my cap, fleece and jacket, then trudged down into the aspen forests, where the sun broke through the overcast and I took off my jacket to eat an early lunch of salami and cheese. Reinforced by the meal I followed the trail up-and-down over several aretes, then switchbacked down to a creek.
The spring melt flooded the path. I swam from one side of the torrent to the other somehow losing my way and I backtracked a mile in soaking clothes.
Cold and exhausted I sat on a flat rock and dried my boots in the sun.
Thirty minutes later they were merely damp. I took out the map and realized that I had only covered three 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 over a 9000-foot high pass. The air was thin and my heart thumped out a rapid beat. Not having seen anyone all day I wondered whether I was on the right trail.
A sign post confirmed my suspicion.
I had missed my turning.
I gazed at the wet ground. Bear tracks marked the path. The paw prints were three times the size of my feet. People died in these mountains and died easy from cold, starvation, and animal attacks. I ate my last chocolate bar and counted my blessing. At least I wasn’t lost anymore and I spoke to my mother every step of the way downhill.
At 7 O’Clock I arrived at the parking lot. My father stood with two rangers. I must have looked a wreck and the rangers shook their heads, thankful that they didn’t have to traipse into the forest at night to find my body and returned to their pick-up truck.
“Twelve hours on the nose.” My father tapped his watch.
“Better than thirteen.”
“And certainly better than twenty.”
“How was it?”
“Beautiful. Mom would be happy.
“She’s happier you’re in one piece. You hungry?” My father opened the car.
“You bet.” I hobbled over to the passenger side on noodled legs and threw my bag on the floor.
“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, feeling every seconds of my forty-seven years. The pizza had an extra topping of pepperoni.
“You don’t know how good this is going to taste.”
“Oh, yes I do. After the bulldozers stilled the last flames of the Great Maine Fire of 1947, my crew and I had celebrated our victory with a pizza in Portland. It was the best thing that I ever tasted outside your mother’s cooking.”
“Same as this pizza.”
“You know it.”
We toasted that thought with beer
Neither of us were mountain men.
We were simply a father and son on a road trip.
And my father had a bottle of white wine in the cooler.
My mother would have liked that.
And so would we later.