Wind River Mountains 1998

In the Spring of 1998 my 78 year-old father and I went 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 into 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 the previous year.

“Me too.” My mother loved to travel.

We spent a night near Inspiration Point and headed south in the morning.

Snow tipped the jagged Grand Tetons and my father didn’t talk much of the long stretches between towns. His thoughts 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. He sometimes cried during the opera arias. My mother had a great singing voice.

On our journey’s fourth night we stopped in Pinedale. 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 peaks 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.”

“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 to plot out a day’s hike across the range from south to north.

“What are you thinking?”

“That tomorrow I might take a hike.” 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.

“Walking two miles an hour should take no more than ten hours to cover that distance. 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.

“I know.” The Wind River Mountains’ highest peaks towered above 12,000 feet and the trail crested two 9,000-foot passes.

“That 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. “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.

“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.

“It’s your funeral, so please don’t take any shortcuts. That’s how people get lost.”

“Yes, sir.”

The next morning we woke at dawn and ate quick breakfast.

“The weather report predicts clear skies,” I said getting into the car.

“The weather here isn’t the weather in the mountains.” He gazed at the peaks.

“There isn’t a cloud in the sky.”

“Now. Mountains breed weather.”

“I’ll be fine.”

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

I checked my bag for a 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.”

I set out into the wilderness. I fell into a good pace. Bighorn sheep danced on rocky tors and elk herds groomed the alpine meadows. Once the Shonsone Indians gathered piñon nuts here and mountain man had trapped beaver. My footprints were on the only ones on the trail and I felt like it was 1834.

Within an hour I reached 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 studied the map. The trail split in three directions. I opted for the northern fork to the nearest col. The mountains held the silence of the wind with the pines swaying with a symphony of creaks. Atop the low pass I calculated the distance to my destination to be thirteen miles and I anticipated seeing my father in seven hours. I stepped up my pace.

Gathering clouds obscured the steep slopes.

Soon a sharp wind swept a chill 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 I followed the trail up-and-down over several aretes, then switchbacked down to a creek.

The spring melt had inundated the path and I swam from one side of the torrent to the other somehow losing my way, so 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. The map placed me halfway across the Continental Divide. I had covered three miles in the last two hours. The day was getting away from me.

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

I hadn’t seen anyone all day and wondered whether I was on the right trail.

The next sign post confirmed my suspicion.

I had missed my turning.

Correcting my error would consumed at least an hour.

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. At least I wasn’t lost anymore.

At 5 O’Clock I topped the second pass and the five miles to the northern trailhead was all downhill.

Two hours I arrived in the darkening parking lot, where 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 truck.

I must have looked a wreck, but better than a bag of bones wrapped in tattered clothing.

“Twelve hours on the nose.” My father checked his watch.

“A little longer than I thought.” My legs were noddled al dente.

“You hungry?” My father opened the car.

“You bet.” I hobbled over to the passenger side 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 47 years. The pizza had an extra topping of pepperoni. “You don’t know how good this is going to taste.”

“Yes, I do. After the bulldozers extinguished the Great Maine Fire of 1947 my crew and I had celebrated 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.”

“So was it wild as you thought?”

“Wilder, but at least there was a path.”

“And a good thing too.”

We drove away from the trailhead. I looked over my shoulder. If the day proved anything, it was that neither of us were mountain men.

We were simply a father and son on a road trip.

My mother would have liked that.

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