I hear it first, it being hidden, and follow my hearing upslope over padded forest debris and into the gentle fold of the drainage. Moss covered stones the size of heads are chaotically affixed in the duff and dark soil, knobbily protruding from the gully’s sides, and from this unflowing portion I follow my hearing farther upslope beneath the templed forest until the creekbed turns to join its greater flowing channel, whose edge I follow into a wider and yet wider flowing, at its widest three or four meters, and then I am within the intimate realm of its crashing noise. I am coming for the water, to fill a bag of it, but I am distracted by a sudden architecture, an enormous fallen Douglas fir bridging the width of the creek, in diameter the fir itself about a meter, where it is anchored at each of the creek’s banks nurseries of fern and fir and red-banded polypores, mist from the minor falls of the creek clinging in jewels to the deep crevices of the tree-bridge’s gnarled bark and the lush moss hanging from it. I ascend the right slope and step highly over the dry-rotted boughs and up onto the bridge, which I straddle, scooting bit by bit until I am centered over the rushing creek, whitewater boiling cleanly downward over smooth stone, and here the width of the tree allows me to pull my legs into a fold beneath my butt, and I sit in repose. I smoke a little bit, and I feel high, the creek pushing a gentle column of cool, wet air across my body, an oblique sunlight striping golden through the high canopy of the old growth forest. Nothing but the full sound of the water. This is the North Cascades, 2017, and I decide it is a place to which I will return.
Then I have been on the road, for a few weeks, mid-January 2020 now―this sabbatical―and I am very far south, having almost palpably felt the transition from the temperate pine forests blanketing Alabama and Georgia into the tropics of Florida, where my wife and I are slowly paddling our canoe along the mangrove edges of Jewel Key, trying to rotate our position around an ibis, perched one-legged amid the city of arching mangrove roots, and, peering into the quick darkness of that forest’s tremendous density I realize I am searching for movement, any movement in there, as an affirmation.
Driving slowly along the edge of Audubon Park in New Orleans, its Oak Allée angles ever so briefly into perfect alignment, and I am astonished that we hadn’t seen it over the previous hours walking the park. The live oaks, each in their century-old twisted reaching expression, stretch near perfect horizontal boughs across the width of the alley, nearly touching as fingertips might, moss curtaining cool dark shade at their bases, and I think mostly of time and its depth and stillness.
Midway up the climb into the Chisos Mountains in the Chihuahuan desert we level out into a hanging valley full of plump sotols, their feathered stems shooting in erratic tipped angles upward from sharp rosette bases, clenching the wet air that is clean with the smell of after-rain creosote.
I wake in the tent and feel the soft sand beneath me and can see the grayish-yellow light filtering through the massive canopy of the cottonwood, flashes of a yellow warbler blotting in this vaguely assembled luminosity that shines through the tent’s fabric. A noise, a farther morning bacchanal, permeates the nearer proximity, and it’s a new sound I have never heard, maybe the amorous cooing of crows, or some other species more foreign to me, their calls bouncing in almost digital distortions from the immense sandstone walls of Coyote Gulch, where we are camped, and I lie there and picture the cottonwood’s deeply cracked, plaster-colored trunk and its hard, slow growth into the massive curved boughs that suspend its canopy like a brush against the hanging gardens that drip with water from hidden springs high in the sandstone walls, where I know the mysterious birds with their alien sound must be in their acute morning social routine.
Every Joshua tree must have a name that precedes “Joshua.”
We cross a threshold of sun, descending some hoodoos, which we’d been clamoring atop all morning, in Grand Staircase-Escalante, and on a pocket of level ground we squat beneath a pinyon pine, surprised, and grateful, that its small but many needles accumulate enough shade beneath the totalizing light of noon.
It rains and rains and rains all morning as I climb the gnarly bed of Moose Creek beneath Mt. Galen in Denali National Park in Alaska, sliding in dark mud and wet clay, eventually ascending a small tributary drainage onto a gentle slope of hip-high brush willow, through which I follow a faint game trail until I crest the low pass. A small break with trailmix and a pause in rain, watching dramatic clouds strafe the slopes of Thoroughfare Ridge, and then I drop onto the other side of the pass and along a drainage that I think must also be called Moose Creek, though I am uncertain and have found no help in maps. Following a bluff along the creek until I see the choking vegetation of the creekbed thin satisfactorily, I drop down and find myself in a hidden dream, golden overhead willows loosened along meandering creek channels that turn through heavy carpets of brilliant, neon-green moss. The luminescence of the yellow and green feels substantial, with a saturated depth whose body is enhanced by the dreary rain-choked air, and I think that this is a place that yet has no belief in an outside world, and I feel careful as a visitor, though I walk its few miles with purpose, flushing willow ptarmigan every few hundred feet, their heavy flapping feathers as they break seeming to leave a hanging dust amid the willows, even as it continues to rain. I call for bears. I walk, the ptarmigan break, and it rains. I never take a photograph.
Our hike is an endless monotony of dark lodgepole forest, in and out of low depressions and clouds of mosquitoes, but I delight in the movement and to be with friends there in Yellowstone, anticipating the reveal of Sportsman Lake and Electric Peak.
Julian Price is a large campground off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Boone, NC, and while we think it will be busy it is still midweek, and we have chosen a loop on the other side of the road from the lake. Where we are camped, at a bend in the campground road, it is nearly empty and extremely spacious, the immense beech trees cradling our camp in a fairytale hardwood clearing. It is autumn and their bright yellow leaves absolutely dazzle in the morning light, falling like confetti as the upper winds rattle the canopies musically. I cannot take a photo wide enough to accommodate the scene or any sense of being within it, which was our immediate joy emerging from our tent, waiting for our coffee to boil, and stretching our limbs in the cool air.
But then there was the whitebark pine . . .
The writing evades me. I think of it far more than I do it, though I hardly make notes. I think of the way the writing will return to the moment I am thinking, which is sometimes immediately in front of the subject, sometimes recalling the subject later, while driving or lying in bed, still not writing, but simply thinking. I think of my earlier writing, when I discussed time and memory, and memory as time travel, and I think writing in memory, and more and more distant memory, is a time travel that requires greater fitness, attention, technology. When I set out with this travelogue I had a rough goal of a post every two weeks, posts occupying around two thousand words and of a certain clarity of description and analysis. I knew it was wishful, and I have tried not to be disappointed when I have failed at this pace, which was an almost immediate and unfaltering failure. I am now attempting to write about things that have happened more than four months ago, a third of the entirety of the duration of the travelogue, of our trip, our sabbatical. My one excuse is that we have been very busy, but I know it’s also a matter of will and imagination, which maybe are also forgivably suppressed by the constant reckoning with new environments, a categorical period of ingestion rather than output. However I might characterize it, I know that the writing I do must be different now. I worry about what I have forgotten, and yet with time comes perspective―it is as though clarity and meaningfulness have, counter-intuitively, an inverted relationship: the more of one, the less of the other. I am hoping I can exert more fitness, attention, and technology, now that I am here in this home in Albuquerque for a precious few weeks.
And so we left the front range of Colorado, in late June, and proceeded through a series of fluid, greasy days, taking a route that moved us west along northern Colorado until we reached its far northwest corner, where we would turn north into western Wyoming in an approach of the Wind River Range, which begins, from the south, Wyoming’s Rocky Mountain spine, a diverse region of high country that includes the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, and Yellowstone’s Absaroka and Gallatin Ranges, which extend into Montana. Our first day driving we got a timed entry into Rocky Mountain National Park (the first time we had encountered this particular COVID precaution) and, following a delightful patio lunch at our favorite spot in Estes Park, The Wapiti Colorado Pub, drove route 34 to traverse the park east to west on the section known as Trail Ridge Road. It was our last ultra-high-country foray in Colorado, and we tried to savor the otherworldly feel of the extensive 10,000ft terrain, though crowds and traffic gave us a sense of urgency. We descended into Grand Lake and continued west for a few more hours, climbing again until we crested lovely Rabbit Ears pass, from which we dropped, with commanding views, into the valley of Steamboat Springs, which we entered and left on our way in search of a camp that eventually had us driving north on route 129 through a picturesque valley that edges along the western edge of Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, into which we soon turned east to find a camp, all alone, at the fairly worn-out Hinman Park Campground, enjoying whiskies on a splintering picnic table set in a topsy-turvy meadow accented with dwarf conifers.
The next day we continued west toward Dinosaur National Monument, cutting northwest onto the rugged and remote route 318 that would take us up to a camp we hoped to find at Gates of Lodore (we were endlessly tickled by the Lord of the Rings–sounding name, to the point of taking a pic of our Google Maps arrival page). This camp seems mostly to serve as a put-in for float trips down the Green River, and when we arrived we found it pretty open, taking a camp beneath a beautiful cottonwood tree in a mowed clearing of a sage flat at the edge of the opening to the stunning Canyon of Lodore. Within seconds of pulling up to our camp we could see mosquitoes landing on our car windows, and, knowing that car windows don’t really emit carbon dioxide or heat or body orders or other mosquito attractants, I became apprehensive, and indeed, mosquitoes would become one of the central features not only of our two days at Dinosaur but the entire month of July.
So we doused ourselves in picaradin and actively dreaded the high-mosquito-density mornings and dusks and anytime we needed to venture into the sagebrush to pee. Some high winds helped that first day, as did a hike up into the Canyon of Lodore following a pamphlet-led interpretive trail (similar, though not quite as charming, as one we had followed at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (okay it was the Warner Point Nature Trail, and its pamphlet text, halftones, and neat stapled binding (which I admired as a book publisher) are a true labor of love for the remembrance of early conservationist Mark Warner)) through the beautiful dwarf-forest of juniper, pinyon, and gambel that was now so familiar to us. On our second day at Dinosaur we decided to escape the bugs by driving northwest into Utah, along one of the most remote roads we’ve been on, for a daytrip to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, where we enjoyed a blissful and mostly mosquito-free day cruising around the canyon’s rims (where we spotted some bighorn sheep) and eventually setting up on the beach of Sunny Cove, where we found cliff jumps that reached nearly forty-feet in height, making for an exhilarating afternoon with the crystal-clear waters.
The morning we left Dinosaur the mosquitoes were so bad that we had to chaos-pack, chucking our tent and gear loose in the car as quickly as possible and getting out of there. We stopped briefly in some high hills above the river to try and make some coffee, but the mosquitoes were bad there, too, so we just drove on, back toward Flaming Gorge where we took route 191 for another stunning drive, this time along a high, windswept plateau that eventually descended toward I-80 and the town of Rock Springs, where I watched some teenage Starbucks employees gently but firmly rebuke a maskless patron (I have been so impressed with how well very young service and retail workers have enforced COVID measures all across the country).
We were in Pinedale by early afternoon, and, after checking out a few campgrounds in the foothills of the Wind River Range (from here on out “the Winds”), found a nice spot at one of the largest ones, Fremont Lake. The Winds were always one of a half dozen trips we knew we wanted to be part of this sabbatical, but we were always challenged with their timing, knowing their season to be short (something like mid-July to mid-September), especially for our ambitions of doing a high-route or something comparable. We knew, arriving at Fremont Lake on the last week of June, that the trip was improbable, but I was eager, after having only done one relatively easy backpack in Colorado, to do something substantial there. I routed several itineraries, trying to find ones that walked a good middle-ground of doability and challenge, but when I finally talked to a ranger at the Pinedale office of Bridger-Teton National Forest, she about laughed in my face over the phone. It was definitely too early; road access alone might be an issue. We debated what to do. One issue was the approaching Fourth of July weekend―we now had a nice camp that could take us through the holiday, but that would mean being there (with relatively little to do) for quite awhile, shortening our time for other adventures that month. And the weather was unfriendly, with lots of rain and cold. We decided to stay one extra day―in which we would hike from the Elkhart-Pine Creek trailhead down to Long Lake, where we would watch its tremendous early-season outflow into Fremont Creek, the most dramatic transition from stillwater to whitewater I have ever seen―then pack up and head north to the Tetons.
The morning we left was another chaos-pack. Persistent rain the evening before had turned, overnight, into snow, which continued in a rain-snow admixture far enough into the morning that we could no longer wait it out. We packed quickly, shivering as we threw our loose, wet tent into the car, trying to get the dexterity back in our fingers by holding them in front of the dashboard heaters. We treated ourselves to some single-origin coffees from the excellent Pinedale Coffee Supply, then continued on the now very familiar route 191 toward Jackson. It was such a brief and uncomfortable foray, during which the Winds stood tantalizing close, their vertical relief, as I’d follow it upward with my eyes, so quickly obscured by the unbudging blanket of clouds. As we left Pinedale, I immediately started manipulating our schedule in my mind to see if we might return, but this activity was just as quickly pushed aside as we ascended into the mountains and the beauty of the north unfolded.
1. The way you move it’s right in time
I am sitting at the kitchen table next to some tulips we bought yesterday and enjoying the New Mexico autumn sun filtering through the screen door, listening to Bill Monroe sing “Body and Soul.” Earlier this year I wrote about this trip upsetting my sense of rhythm, whether sleep and appetite or just the feel of days or minutes, a Carnival parade passing or the hours-long sunsets of Alaskan late summers or the continuous circling of a Gulf Shore pelican or watching, as I am, these tulips imperceptibly unfold. In 95 degree heat, we lamented that we had arrived too late to the Canyonlands; in six inches of snow, we felt too early for the San Juans. Wait―my god, no lie, just as I was about to write this next sentence, Bill Monroe turned into Lucinda Williams singing the very song that comprises this section title. I almost can’t write I am so overwhelmed from the coincidence (this playlist has about 14,000 tracks in it). A moment please (“I take off my watch and my earrings . . .oooh baby”). Okay, here is that next sentence: So when we slid into the last available campsite at Signal Mountain in Grand Tetons National Park, just in time for the Fourth of July weekend, we felt like we had hit a certain stride. In March COVID knocked us on a back foot, and for the three months that followed we moved with a herky-jerky caution and embraced an even more improvisational road life than we had anticipated needing to do, navigating closures, crowds, and small rural grocery stores with an aching anxiety. By the time we made it to the Tetons we were feeling, not unanxious, but subsumed in the anxiety. We felt in time with it.
2. Loretta’s singing on the radio
Like many, I enjoy music with my movement. I once opened heavy student union doors onto a brilliant snow-covered University of Illinois quad in perfect sync to Miles Davis’s opening solo in “So What,” a modal/snare brush hop down, as though off a retaining wall, into Jimmy Cobb’s single cymbal strike decaying glitterfully as I walked into the ice-bright snow. Ascending from the Blue Line into the Bauhaus canyon of the Chicago Loop with Philip Glass’s “Music in Twelve Parts” hammering my Audiotechnica ATH-M50s was, for many years, a morning work-commute modernist devotional routine (alt: same headphones and commute, transferring at the Washington stop through the retail mall of Block 37 with Bomba Estéreo just ripping “Rocas” (“Bulla, bulla, hagamos una bulla Donde la energía y la música te fluya”) the smell of cinnamon buns and perfume acrid against my still sleepy senses). I’ve flown the red eye from Seattle to New York half a dozen times with a deep immersion into Dark Side of the Moon (strong memory of one arrival, then, over an early-morning Manhattan, to the grindy/rattly/thumpy opening of “Father and Grandpa” on dj Khalab’s Black Noise 2084). Morning bike commutes in the dark luminosity of Seattle winters with the band Television (“It was a tight toy night, streets so bright / The world was so thin between my bones and skin.”). Bluegrass snowboarding A-basin. And this year too, for which Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and The War on Drugs’s “Under Pressure” turned from preliminary pep songs to bonafide anthems (the first memorable in cobalt early winter morning light driving I-90 in the picturesque valley of the Clark Fork, the latter a foggy morning leaving Lafayette, IN). Reese McHenry’s No Dados would carry us through our first tour of the South; Vendredi Sur Mer for Mojave desert quarantine happy hours. And we listened to the entirety of Tom Waits’s Mule Variations once driving out of the Indian Creek unit of Bears Ears National Monument and again along the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and so I was elated to blast “Big in Japan” while facing, dead-on, the moody Tetons, which were gradually undressing from the moisture that had been parked over Wyoming for weeks and making our time in Pinedale so uncomfortable. We drove so much up and down the Tetons and circling Yellowstone’s giant roundabout network of roads, taking numerous pull-offs to tailgate wildlife or explore geothermal features or take in commanding views, but the music on all of those drives was mostly shuffle, enjoyable, but hardly deliberate. So late in our time there we were itching to have a really good jam. We eventually found a moment, our last day in Yellowstone, after a long afternoon with friends perched above the bison of the Lamar Valley. We had no camp booked and were just going to drive south, trying to slide in somewhere. After we made our southward turn in Mammoth, we climbed up onto the plateau of Yellowstone’s caldera, and the air started glowing with a sunset gold. We hit play: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
3. June bug vs hurricane
In my pocket notebook I have a page devoted to this overscratched fine-point scrawl: Human in a Landscape. I loathe the self-presentation of, say, the Instagram culture of hiking, in which landscape serves as an emphasis of personal achievement and narrative. Perhaps it is ironic that such emphasis is so ephemeral, that photos and narratives come and go as swiftly as one’s actual presence in any given place. Regardless better for sure to be audience, and little else, to landscape, and hence my fetish for Leave No Trace and Ultralight, which, as I’ve mentioned earlier, were guiding principles of our trip. When COVID hurricaned turbulence into our motion, our best reliance was being light, little more than a car and ourselves, little more than calorie-dense plant-based foods and a few premium survival tools, high-quality down and wool (woops, no longer vegetarian), technical synthetics, lithium batteries, and a tolerance for dirt and exhaustion. By Wyoming we were really, really trying to flutter. I think we did.
4. Sun came up it was another day
and the sun went down you were blown away
We did four backpacks in Wyoming (well, two had short spells in Montana). The first was in the Tetons, up the tremendous Paintbrush Canyon, with a permit for the wonderfully named Outlier Camp and a further dayhike up to Holly Lake, which was perfectly halfway in its release of deep-set winter ice, the snow there all slushy and gushy and blinging out itty bitty little daisies in great abundance wherever the snow gave way to a patch of soil in the sun. We asked marmots for permission to have a snack on their rocks, and we had one of the most respectfully recognize-each-other-as-humans conversations with the backpackers who preceded us at Outlier, late to vacate the camp because they had done what everyone else we encountered that day had failed at, hiking super sketchy steep snow fields to attain the pass that glimpses the complete other side of the Tetons. But let me show you the side of the Tetons at hand, which incidentally faces due east for perfect next day sunrises:
The second backpack was the aptly named Hellroaring Creek, in the far northern district of Yellowstone National Park. The fucking mosquitoes. But god damn it was true, the river water hard and fast and good and my wife and I with each other in a particularly together kind of way, afraid of bears (how about “Carcass Closure” signs (alongside tons of bear scat) to beware you off of the trail that was your entire plan for that day) but yearning to be in stride with the wilderness and otherwise enjoying each other’s company (especially morning coffee on river boulders swarming with frantic mayflys in their tight nuptial window). But again, the mosquitoes. Quick story: after bailing on our dayhike we hauled out into our double hammock and the prophylactic bug net that gave us some rest for the afternoon, too much so, so when we finally realized we ought to cook dinner it was dusk and, as anyone with mosquito PTSD will tell you, the worst possible time, and so it was a negative dinner literally blowing the mosquitoes away from our faces before every bite stolen by way of brief lifts of our headnets. Hang our food and mess kit from the bear pole, retreat to tent, find the stash of cannabis gummies that are still technically food, and so run out in the dark under very small flashlight light in your longjohns and get bit to shit through your fucking longjohns while you try to retie (them just all over your bare hands) the complicated toggle tie you had done perfectly well earlier that day also in hellacious mosquitoes.
5. And barbed wire
I’ll just say the word “mosquito” again.
6. Did you run about as far as you could go
Right, the other two backpacks! Let’s just talk about the fourth one for now. So we did, in fact, make it back to the Winds. The Winds comprise an enormous granitic spine that runs roughly 100 miles north-southish in western Wyoming and begin, in a manner of speaking, Wyoming’s high-country, as I mentioned earlier. My god these mountains, with the look and feel of the Sierra or the Stuart Range (Enchantments) in the Cascades, or any other similar granite range, and yet wholly their own, a particularly jumbled complexity of soaring towers and peaks whose vertical walls make for world-class climbing and whose interconnected high passes and basins allow for a premiere off-trail high-route, which is how we first heard of the range to begin with.
My backpacking life, in its more serious iteration these recent years, began with a two-week off-trail trip in Alaska in 2016, and in the intervening years exploring the Cascades and Olympic Mountains I’ve been ever more tempted by high-country traverses that leave trails behind, reading about and routing numerous trips that I’ve simply never had the time or courage to do (if anyone wants to string together the East Fork and West Fork of the Foss River over Tank Lakes and Iron Cap Mountain, I have ideas). The Winds quickly became the poster-child for my high-route ambitions, and such a trip allured my wife as well, so the destination was fairly well planted in our hopes for sabbatical.
We made it there, but the high route will have to wait for another day. We sort of knew all along it wasn’t likely to happen, given that August, with my wife’s birthday and our trip to Alaska, was always already pretty full. And what I learned is that the Winds have an extensive network of trails that take you through absolutely spectacular country anyway, so with the final days we had in Wyoming we routed a 35 mile loop in the range’s southern section, going from Big Sandy trailhead north and then east over Washakie Pass, into the Washakie Basin and toward Valentine Lake where we would continue climbing to attain the high-elevation Lizard Head Plateau, which runs south from Cathedral Peak to Lizard Head Peak and the North Popo Agie River, which we would then follow west into the picturesque Lizard Head Meadows and on toward the famous and extraordinary Cirque of the Towers, cutting south then over Jackass Pass toward Big Sandy Lake and eventually back out to the trailhead.
We gave ourselves five days to do it but ended up taking only four. It was some of the most incredible hiking I’ve ever done. The southern portion is characterized by a wide, gentle valley very loosely forested and thus affording mostly uninterrupted views of the mountains (especially the western “backside” of the Cirque). The continuous sense of approach sustains ones enthusiasm through the more “boring” terrain and lends a fuller narrative of topographic change and a more ready meaningfulness to one’s movement through the landscape (Denali National Park is very similar in this respect). I love forests, especially in the Pacific Northwest, but they can definitely make for more monotonous approaches to high country and hikes that are more destination-oriented than about the joy of the trip itself (what my wife and I often describe as “switchback slogs through the woods”). In the Winds you can watch the landscape unfold more completely, turning from valley into granite-lined lakes into gentle meadows scooped with mountain-reflecting tarns into rocky fir forest climbs and eventually, climbing passes and onto plateaus, into boulder-strewn high alpine tundra flickering with wildflowers and cradling you aloft among some of the most dramatic mountains you’ll ever encounter. It immediately became one of my favorite places I’ve ever been, and we barely scratched its surface. We will return; we will do the high route.
7. See I got a candle and it burns so bright
My wife has done something like 80 to 90 percent of the planning of this trip. She should really be the one writing all of this out. She is particularly adept at navigating several websites at once, and watching her run through a dozen-tabbed browser open with National Park websites (none of which are ever organized in exactly the same way), local tourism guides, local newspapers or weeklies, trip reports, photo slideshows, AirBnB, Recreation.gov, Google Maps, park maps, campground maps, USFS and DNR and BLM pages, weather reports, (now) local COVID closures/protocols, and maybe the occasional YouTube page, can sometimes border on a transcendent experience. And one wonderful result of her flurry was the understanding that Yellowstone’s geothermal features not only shouldn’t be missed but can be enjoyed without always necessarily needing to be around a billion people.
She developed a plan for one of our days―parking at Biscuit Basin, where we would tour the boardwalk around minor geysers and steaming springs brilliantly colored from rust to canary to cobalt depending on temperatures (cobalt being the hottest) and the particular thermophiles that thrive within its range. From there we would hike an easy couple of miles south, along more springs and geysers and fumeroles, toward Geyser Basin and the most famous feature perhaps of all the National Parks, Old Faithful. Not without a certain amount of arrogance had I basically written-off Yellowstone’s geysers and hot springs, considering them an easy pic for the parking-lot hoi polloi and little more. I’m so glad that my wife, through the lure of an actual hike, got me to them. Our trip from Biscuit to Geyser basins was remarkably devoid of people, and hiking along the burbling and spurting and steaming and fuming features in quiet, far more natural settings, felt very special (as did the lone bison we encountered, dusting down in a small clearing of the lodgepole pine, quite up close!).
Boardwalked Geyser Basin and the full-on hotel-and-restaurants resort (though hotels were closed for COVID) of Old Faithful were definitely crowded, but we masked up and were able to keep our distance, enjoying three pretty spectacular eruptions (Grand Geyser, Castle Geyser, and indeed, Old Faithful) during a full afternoon “gallery hiking” (I coined the term then and have just seen it this week on an information placard at a petroglyph hike we did here in New Mexico) the unique geothermal features amid the bizarre sinter terrain that helps make Yellowstone such a complex place. We would, on subsequent days, see just about every geyser basin in the park, enjoying further sulphurous hellscapes and mudpots and multicolored springs―of note the Grand Prismatic Spring―any of which would play as perfect backdrops for a 70s prog-rock music video.
Apart from their visual interest, I also began to connect with these features dynamism. Old Faithful is named as such because it is one of the rare geysers with a reliable timetable. Most of the geysers eruptions are anticipated within a possible time range, one or two hours, or more often days, or weeks, or months. And some just go when they go. Hiking around the geothermal areas, one also sees many “dead” geysers, left-behind sinter cones that have an eerie resemblance to bleached coral. One often thinks of nature as a kind of bedrock, an immemorial way of being that defines Earth according to an absolute balance. Being in Yellowstone’s thermal regions and seeing how constantly they change, underground reservoirs and vents shifting this way and that, opening new surface features while closing other ones, reinforces the idea that nature is more of a process, season after season slowly evolving eras and epochs. And so it is not a landscape but a process that our appetitive activities impact so much, and when I think of this, as I did so much in all the forests and meadows and mountains of Wyoming, I feel profound confusion.
8. I think I lost it let me know if you come across it
We had two visits with friends on this leg. Apart from a few brief phone calls (one happenstance when we climbed high into the Tetons and I suddenly had cell phone service), these were the only interactions we had with people whom we knew for all of July. Among the many things COVID has dismantled for everyone, social life is undoubtedly one of the big ones, and for us that truth has had a unique shape fitted to our exceptional experience of traveling during the pandemic. Much of our loneliness can be attributed to our lack of internet and cell phone service (coupled with our distaste for digitally mediated human interaction), but COVID also greatly diminished one of the primary goals of this year altogether, which was to reconnect with our far flung friends and loved ones during what has felt like a crucial middle agedness itself square in the middle of a tumultuous period of American history. We did get to party for Mardi Gras, but we had far more substantial plans to rent cabins, visit new homes, and do a lot of camping with many other folks, much of which didn’t happen.
But some did. My cousin (cousin-in-law) J. had moved to Livingston, MT over the spring, and we were keen to see her and learn how things were going. After our mosquito-laden but otherwise lovely backpack along Hellroaring Creek and a subsequent night of rest at Madison Campground (one of the more popular Yellowstone camps, which I booked the day before going into Hellroaring when we did a first-come/first-served (here on out: FC/FS) check-in at Grant Village Campground, learning that I could daisy-chain FC/FS camps during said check-ins across Yellowstone’s system, which, in response to COVID, actually had no dedicated FC/FS camps (opposite to the Tetons, which was only FC/FS, this difference being one of numerous examples of the chaotic localization of COVID response, even in the case of two federally controlled lands literally six-and-half miles away from each other (across yet a third federally controlled land, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway (in truth, this is also about a more deep-seated systemic localization of National Park management (see again the note about the frustrating variance of their websites’ organization))), but whose group camps and cancellations they were divvying up for FC/FS, so we got scrappy shared but nonetheless doable (i.e. pandemically spacious enough) digs throughout Yellowstone for all but one of our nights (more on that later)) and so, after Madison Campground (where onlookers marveled at our hammock bugnet) we drove north yet again (the “yet again” being one of the few arguments my wife and I had, over huckleberry ice cream in the little town park of Mammoth Hot Springs), this time completely out of the park, having a patio lunch in Gardiner and then (after a brief and unsuccessful search for camps off Bear Creek Road in the windy sage sloped National Forest outside of Jardine) taking J.’s recommendation for the free BLM boating and fishing camp on the banks of the Yellowstone River, Carbella.
J. wasn’t going to stay the night, but we urged beers and our extra camping gear upon her, and it wasn’t a tremendous fight she put up. I’m glad. In J.’s younger years she worked concessions at Yellowstone, and ever since then Wyoming and Montana were secured as a dreamy next-place for her both her and her wife, my cousin K., the two of whose wedding I officiated, in fact, in Montana, on an extraordinary fly-fishing/ranch getaway property (previously owned by Andie McDowell, I believe!) in a sweeping valley of the Beartooth Mountains outside of Missoula. On this occasion, however, J. and K. were taking a break, J. out there alone, testing the waters and assembling a pitch to K. to do the move there together. I love J., not just as family, but for who she is, for the bold clarity of her emotional intelligence. We talked for hours and hours over dinner and drinks in the descending light about the difficult predicament she and K. were in, about intimacy and partnership, getting older and feeling opportunities either slip away or too concretely harden, dreaming multiple dreams, dreams of the future, those of the past, at once. It was her story, but it was a human story, an adult story, what it means to be, as I’ve said before, right in the middle of a life. We got drunk. In my negligence I left our car doors open with the console lights on, and hundreds of moths gathered inside (when I realized what was happening, I tried desperately to lure them out with a flashlight, but in the end it was a messy affair, and the gray and black dust from their wings still stains portions of our cloth interior today). We ate a little bit, I pitched a very wonky tent for her, and eventually we all retired, though the wind picked up enough that it became pretty much impossible to sleep.
J. left early in the morning, and we proceeded with a little northwestern driving loop outside of Yellowstone, spending a few days in Bozeman before driving south toward Big Sky and the Red Cliff Campground, where we would meet our Seattle friends D. and M. for a three-night backpack crossing between Montana and Wyoming in Yellowstone’s northwestern Gallatin Mountains. Many of our friends are, like us, travel junkies, and like many of our friends D. and M. have spent the pandemic year making, shifting, and canceling tentative plans based on COVID cases, closures, and other people’s decisions about health and safety. We had intended to spend time with them in Los Angeles and the Channel Islands in April, but of course we never made it there. For July, D. and M. were supposed to do a family trip, which fell apart complexly, and so they were left with some time off, us still in their minds, and a doable drive from Seattle to Yellowstone. Only a few days before they were to leave, M. was notified of a COVID exposure from a dentist appointment, and they had to scramble to get tested―those tests were negative, so they were good to go. I admire not only their tenacity but their calm. They pulled up to Red Cliff in the early afternoon with energy and enthusiasm―and while they warned us of the exposure, it was only later that they described the fuller picture of the complications, both COVID and the negotiation of the other trip, they had gone through to be with us.
My wife and I have struggled to find backpacking partners. When we lived in Seattle, D. and M. were just beginning to go on trips with us (only one, really, a rainy but fun September weekend hiking into the Esmeralda Basin in the Teanaway Community Forest just east of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington). The lack of wilderness friends has undoubtedly been another factor of our loneliness both pre- and post- sabbatical/pandemic (it feels sad to use that slashed combination), so we were extremely eager to do this trip with them both because of isolation that year and as a more longstanding achievement of something we’d been seeking for years. I had gotten permits (another parenthetical here: I was able to reserve permits online, no problem, but actually having the permit issued involved―opposite again to the Tetons and their walk-up, plexiglassed backcountry window―dialing and redialing (with faint cell service near the also closed-for-COVID Lake Village Lodge) the telephone number of the backcountry office until I got a ranger, since their “leave a message and we’ll call you back” voicemail never resulted in an actual callback, but I complainingly digress) for a nice little loop following Specimen Creek to Sportsman Lake then back out via Fan Creek (our two cars parked at either trailhead), an itinerary taking us a satisfying depth into the heart of the Gallatin area of Yellowstone.
It was a remote but gentle trip, dense with lodgepole pine forest that one had to commit oneself to in order to discover the numerous hidden meadows―gaspingly picturesque―and romantic riparian valleys in which meandering creeks, in their lazy summer courses, seem to physically slow the sunlight into the long good days that we think of, for all creatures, as abundant with bliss. The sunsets were spectacular (as were, at times, the mosquitoes, and the grass pollen (I was in an antihistamine daze for most of the trip, which perhaps enhanced this slow sense of long light). We only saw a few other parties close to the trailheads (mostly lone fly fishers wading the twisting creeks in a perfect advertisement for Montana’s tourism board), having the immense meadow of Sportsman Lake and its wind-patterned grasses all to ourselves. But what I mostly remember was just being together, talking, a lot, about the uncertainties of COVID and the looming election, but also our own places in life, trying to stay active and healthy, cook good food, and live that unavoidable dynamic of middle life that is the play of nostalgia and hope. D. and M. had, in the past two years, gotten married and bought a house in Seattle (no easy thing to do), and in the course of their commitments had also been navigating new and sometimes challenging professional mazes in modest attempts for happier work cultures and better work-commute-life balance. Both have also nurtured a kind of homesickness (for California and Chicago), and many of their travels, when we’ve known them, have been organized family meetups sustaining their rich sibling and parental relationships. COVID was a tricky player for them, and by July they had that twinned sense of anxiety and fatigue that I’ve now seen among many of my friends and family members who all year have tried to make plans and maintain relationships during this period of surprise separation. It feels good to think that we were there for each other over those few days, and I think that had some cause on our lingering, after the backpack, above a massive bison herd in the Lamar Valley, unwilling to say goodbye until the light got to that certain urgent, late-afternoon color, and we both had to face the fact that neither of us knew where we were sleeping that night as we went our separate directions.
9. Don’t tell anybody the secrets
There is a striking difference between the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, and that difference is mountains. Sure, Yellowstone has them, but they pale in comparison to the sheer vertical titans of the Teton Range that alone argue for the area’s protection and celebration. Which is a shame, in a way, for the Tetons, because it makes them something of a pass-through park, good for some pictures on the way to Yellowstone or as a day-trip from Jackson, but not a place in which the majority will linger. But the Tetons have hidden, or hidden-in-plain-sight, places. The alpine meadow at the base of Middle Teton, half-thawed Holly Lake, and even the eastern sagebrush flats (full of mosquitoes) all seemed to whisper wild secrets to me, a kind of language that is unintelligible but full of meaning, something about an area’s completeness, and yet, too, its ephemerality, haunted by generations of consciousnesses and the narratives that attend them (those of sage plants, pine trees, pika, bears, trout, jays, crows, dragonflies, sticky geranium, and even mosquitoes), countless stories of strife and perseverance―a cumulative message of being haunted by life itself. I’d heard and felt this in the hills tucked at the southern feet of the Chisos Mountains, on a rainy afternoon in Dark Canyon in southeastern Utah, paddling a winding feeder stream into Crater Lake at Maroon Bells in Colorado, and on the banks of Washakie Creek in the Winds. In Yellowstone, I heard it in every square foot I stepped in.
This is perhaps what makes Yellowstone so special. Unless the subject is geysers or wildlife, it’s difficult to take a good picture in Yellowstone. There aren’t the same kind of dramatic, photogenic mountains as the Tetons, and so landscape photos seem boring. They don’t capture the feel of the place. But that is exactly what Yellowstone is full of: feel. The whole massive park, even where it is chock-full of tourists and cars, speaks wilderness. After years of seeking summits and vistas and perfect sunrise light on the sculptural majesty of mountains, I’ve come to learn that what I’ve sought most isn’t necessarily visual. It’s a feel. It’s a sense of being allowed to inhabit a place. Of being allowed to haunt it.
10. You drink hard liquor you come on strong
In Colorado I was prone to spells of drunken anger. Not, as I have written, anything too destructive, but pensive incoherent silences punctuated by peptic bitter commentaries that have ruined several afternoons. I had one last (hopefully) bout of this in Wyoming, on the Fourth of July. I could feel the crowds of the weekend all around in the Tetons, there were strong mosquitoes, our plans (and possibilities) were striking me as particularly uncertain, and it rained. I had been drinking beer, and at dinner I was banging around our picnic table with a palpable ill-will toward the disorganization of our stuff and our lives.
But then that was it. My anger cleared alongside the last of the wet spring weather, and I settled into a more accepting presence. I noticed at this time, as well, that I had really been connecting with ramblin’ songs, songs of travel and movement, of the monotony of constant change, of being both free and alone. Songs like the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” or (humorously perhaps) Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” are fairly digestible versions I can recall enjoying, but I realized that I was connecting with a darker subgenre, and I was trying to understand what it was. I felt newly arrested by Del McCoury Band’s “On the Lonesome Wind,” could hardly bear Frightened Rabbit’s “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” and, most of all, found myself, upon every play, in full-throated concert with The Old 97s’s “Won’t Be Home” (“I was born in the backseat of a mustang / On a cold night in the pouring rain / And the very first song that the radio sang / Was “I won’t be home no more”). Part of me, I know, was indulging a certain dark romance to rambling homelessness, but I knew it went even further than that. It’s taken me up until this writing to understand what it was, that these weren’t simply songs about constant movement and homelessness, but more, about oblivion.
11. I go downtown I see your face
Walking around Bozeman and Jackson, enjoying the respites of patio restaurant meals (all two that we had) and window shopping, were brief forays into a normalcy we hadn’t felt in a long time. Bozeman struck us as a place we could easily live in. Its youthful culinary culture and obvious proximity to extraordinary wilderness easily makes up for the cowboy chic affluence that has been transforming Montana over the past few decades. Jackson, while more of that affluent ilk, still felt unique and even possibly livable with, likewise, an energetic food scene that bespeaks a doable day-to-day life. Yet walking around both we noticed, bit by bit, that places were closed, not because of city ordinances or financial prudence, but directly because of COVID, staff coming down with it and operations abruptly stopping. After a certain threshold of frequency, we felt scared, the laser-printed closure signs hanging in darkened windows evoking a version of people being stolen away under the dark of an invisible force.
12. I’m gonna go to Slidell and look for my joy
The sun is starting to set and we press play. We’ve driven these roads for weeks, winding through forests and along creeks and meadows and canyons, and we are going to do nearly all of it again, in one good go, though we don’t know that yet. We plan to try for a spot at each camp we pass on our way back south. We’ll change the words a little bit, belting along with the radio “Gonna go to Pinedale and look for my joy,” bobbing our heads in the grit of the road and the grass and the sun. But we want one last night up north. We get to Bridge Bay and it’s a no-go. We get to Grant Village and it’s a no-go (mosquitoes biting my legs as I stand at the check-in window). We are stopped by an elk herd crossing the road, the sunlight pink now, wet feeling. We sing an almost perfect accompaniment to “Still I Long for Your Kiss.” We exit Yellowstone and do a quick check on Flagg Ranch on the parkway, which is, of course, full. We enter the Tetons, at this point simply a jagged outline against the darkest possible blue, everywhere else around us already gone indistinguishably to night. Colter Bay, completely full, Signal Mountain, absolutely full―we cut east and do the long drive to Gros Ventre, our surest bet, but not sure enough―completely full. We debate stealth camping off the side of the road (as a few camper vans are doing), but it doesn’t feel right. It’s almost midnight and we can still catch Dominoes in Jackson (we haven’t eaten since a breakfast burrito that morning in West Yellowstone). Fuck it, we do it. We sit in our car and devour spongy dough and gooey cheese with relish, watching the teenage employees in their tentative freedom and awkward romantic gestures beneath the sodium parking lot lights. My wife books a hotel in Pinedale. I take a caffeine pill, and we continue on, careening down out of the mountains (with the nearest miss of a deer I’ve ever had), through construction zones, hard banking turns, and thick darkness. We don’t see but rather feel the mountains come to an end, and we know then that we are a small thing in the middle of the night traveling a plain that, even on the brightest of days, extends beyond vision. We are exhausted, but not tired, or the other way around. The album is now long over and we are talking, about everything. About our friendships and the trajectory of the lives of those whom we care about. We talk about wilderness. We talk about disease. We talk about politics and how people behave. We talk about places, where we could live, how we could live. We are figuring it all out. And finally, we arrive. And there in front of our hotel door, munching on the landscaping, is an enormous bull moose.
13. All the way to Jackson I don’t think I’ll miss you much
Here is a list, in homage/contradistinction to the game ledgers of Theodore Roosevelt, of all the animals we saw in July: 2 marmots, 1 pika, 4 mule deer, 57 elk, 3 white pelicans, 5 sandhill cranes, 3 woodpeckers, 25 gray jays, 31 ravens, at least 2 Clark’s nutcrackers, 232 assorted waterfowl (ducks, grebes, coots, and others), 1 (very stressed out) grouse, 1 (particularly sun-blotting) osprey, 35 other birds of prey, 3 moose, 1 marten (OMG), 6 black bears, something like 3,145 bison, probably some rabbits and mice and chipmunks and squirrels, exactly 1 million mosquitoes. Apart from some of the mosquitoes and birds and the 1 marten (OMG), none of these animals did we see in the Winds. The Winds were, in fact, surprisingly devoid of wildlife, at least as far as we could see directly (otherwise plenty of, for instance, deer and elk scat). What they did have, in totally self-amusing contradiction to what I wrote earlier, was one tremendous forest.
I was not thinking too terribly much about Washakie Lake. The timing of our itinerary had us camping beyond it, and judging from the topo map the lake appeared to me like it would mostly serve as a cruisey stroll through a relatively flat basin and on toward more mind-occupying places, like the Lizard Head Plateau and the Cirque of the Towers. The morning of our second day we made fairly quick work of the climb from our camp at Washakie Creek to the beautiful and extremely windy Washakie Pass, passing through a fir forest that opened up into a lovely alpine meadow dotted with huge glacier-deposited boulders. Peering down from the pass into Washakie Basin for the first time, it was indeed picturesque, a squirreled away slice of mountain paradise stretching into subsidiary cirques between Washakie, Blair, and Poyson Peaks. We descended the northish aspect through a snowfield giving way to a talus field, and after that work had a late-morning snack tucked against some boulders on the shore of Macon Lake. It was leaving here, hopping low boulders across a labyrinth of streams, that I could start to see the trees on the shore of Washakie Lake. We descended further, and they began to surround us.
I had read a little bit about whitebark pine on some placards in Yellowstone; I knew they were struggling to survive and that they provided an important source of fat and protein for Clark’s nutcrackers and, of special interest, grizzly bears. I had looked for them a little bit in Yellowstone, but didn’t really know what I was looking for (I do think we camped beneath one at Fan Creek). I am ashamed that I didn’t know for sure, walking the incredible stands that line Washakie Lake, that they were in fact whitebark pine. I confirmed it later, but at the time all I knew was that the forest was magical. Most conifers grow in a familiar conical shape, but these trees branched like hardwoods in individually distinctive patterns, developing a far more shading canopy that also kept the forest relatively loose and open. We could stand under these pine trees in a way you can’t with other pines. And they were very old looking (the oldest documented whitebark is 1,270 years old). I love, love, love old trees. Hiking from the crappy, overgrown, dense alder stands and into the egregiously small protected parcel of old growth that surrounds, for instance, Goat Lake off the Mountain Loop Highway in the Cascades, is an exercise in extreme transition, moving from “weeds” to “immemorial sentinels of nature’s wisdom.” Gnarled bristelcone pine, gnarled pinyon pine, the great Douglas firs and western red cedars, Sitka spruce―such trees are the immediate presence of longtime itself, centuries reified. These trees along Washakie Lake were this exactly, individual expressions of an extremely slow process of maturation. Each one was a work of sculptural art, and together they comprised a forest of unimaginably deep haunting, the reassurance that my presence there, this project of this year, the entire scope of my life, was but a single heartbeat in the scope of theirs.
Which is not to say that they will be here forever―in fact, they are dying. I have purposely refrained from hyperlinks in these writings, but here is an extremely informative article in High Country News that describes their plight (and here you will see a photo of a dead stand in the very Esmeralda Basin I mentioned earlier). The whitebark pine’s challenges unfortunately encapsulate the nexus of some of our most pressing ecological issues. They are blighted by an invasive species, blister rust (a fungus), which was accidentally introduced in 1910. Our misguided fire protection regimes of the past century have allowed competing species (like subalpine firs), which would otherwise be routinely cleared out by non-catastrophic fires, to crowd- and shade-out the whitebark. And climate change has expanded the range of the parasitic mountain pine beetle into the higher elevations where whitebark have historically been protected (and thus never required to develop resistance)―recent outbreaks have decimated many populations.
Whitebarks are important. They are a rare species that thrives at timberline, and as such they help stabilize soils and watersheds, providing crucial resources and conditions for numerous other subalpine species. Below the trees we encountered in the Winds we would see heaps of discarded cone debris, no doubt the sign of the industrious Clark’s nuthatch and an inspiring image of nature’s bounty. And aside from their important actual role in these ecosystems, the whitebark embodied, for me, the mystical, age-old spirit of alpine America, what has become one of the most nourishing and important environments for my own living. In recent years several groups have petitioned and sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the whitebark pine added to the Endangered Species List. The outcome of those efforts is, to me, one of the most insightful lessons about environmental protection and the health of this planet one could learn: scientifically, the USFWS agrees that they deserve such protection, but there simply isn’t enough money to include them at this time.
In my former life as a publisher, I worked on an edited collection of environmental writings called After Preservation, from which I had a primary takeaway: wilderness is a human construct. A wilderness does not know that it is a wilderness. One might an encounter an animal in a wild setting and feel that animal’s understanding of otherness, and maybe even humanness, but does it know that it is in a protected place, one with boundaries? Trying to watch an enormous black bear cross a busy road in Alaska’s Chugach mountains, in what is roughly a suburb of Anchorage, my conclusion was a definite “no.” We have invented the concept of wilderness for our own utility. One thinks being in a National Park might afford a pristine experience, but that isn’t entirely true: take, for instance, the “bear jams” in Yellowstone, traffic jams centered around bear sightings (and other wildlife)―that experience is possible because the bears have become habituated to the presence of cars. They are, in one way or another, actually on show. A similar slipperiness affects many of our conservationist practices as well. Throw your yogurt container in the recycling and feel good, then go Google “China scrap import ban” or “secondary materials markets” and try to follow where that container will, or will not, go. We live on a planet characterized by a balanced ecosystem, an astonishing diversity of life, and natural processes of biological and geological evolution that have taken millennia to articulate what we see before us today. But, in practicality, from our perspective and agency, these aspects (and the science that describes them) are not the primary ground of our relationship with our planet, though with our conservationist values we’d like to believe that they are. What is primary is economics.
Which means what is primary is indeterminate, in constant flux. I was bewildered talking with a volunteer at the visitor center in Blanding, UT by the complexity of issues and stakeholders at the heart of the fight for Bears Ears National Monument, which the Trump Administration reduced by 85% a few years ago. Nearly every Alaskan I met was or had for many years been in someway supported by the oil industry that has turned the North Slope into an industrial wasteland (Alaskan voters, in this recent election, just turned down a proposition to tax the oil industry more, no doubt a result of an extreme imbalance in campaign financing). Trails need to be cut, roads built, to give access to wilderness. Zoos imprison at the same time they educate. No doubt you’ll enjoy the irony that these very wilderness writings are predicated on a gas-guzzling roadtrip. These are just a few examples of how starkly human needs and human activity dictate not only our relationship to but the very status of wild places and, beyond that, environmental health.
This is a lesson that has, for all of my life, been very difficult to absorb, and the only answer I can offer ends up being an economic one, stolen from David Attenborough. Drilling for oil that will eventually go dry, logging old growth that will take centuries to recover, slashing and burning rainforests for what will be only marginally nutrient soils―these are the very definition of unsustainable practices, and not just environmentally unsustainable, economically unsustainable. When the Trump Administration greatly weakened the Endangered Species Act, when they opened up Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bears Ears, the Tongass National Forest, and, accelerated just this week, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they didn’t do it to build wind farms or plant lentils (or build a First Nations language school or even a playground). They did it for drilling, mining, and logging, the old-school, devastating, and incredibly unsustainable practices that we continue to support at our peril.
You know all of this. I do. Now I have some hope―we’ve just elected a new president, and many of his first-day plans are environmental in purpose, reversing Trump’s rollbacks. Listening to David Attenborough talk about the rewilding of Chernobyl fills my heart. And reading that High Country News piece on the whitebark, you’ll see that scientists have started to develop rust-resistant seedlings. Yet when I think back on walking through that incredible forest on the shores of Washakie lake, I’m forced into a feeling I had then that I couldn’t quite articulate at the time, a barely intelligible whisper that I spoke, in return, to that wild place: goodbye.
View a full set of photos from this leg here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/Bw8Eap5lQHeeKCzt3bG-Pg.J082RxDTbjZ2rkLFKWBMBC