Jackson Hole is burning up. Gerry Spence had to evacuate his ranch ahead of the wildfires, and Dick Cheney could be next. Here above timberline in the Snowy Range of the Medicine Bow Mountains, 400 miles to the southeast, the breeze is cool, the grass is fresh and green, and the ponds of standing water are connected by torrenting rivulets of snow melt. There are also no tourists, and you don’t have to be a millionaire to live here—as I’d be doing tonight, if only we’d brought the camp gear along with us.

Everyone who loves the outdoors is in love with a special place in the outdoors, as truly as if it were a woman, that no other place can ever quite compete with. Mine is the Wyoming Range north of Kemmerer, Wyoming, which I explored and hunted—by four-wheel-drive, on foot, and on horseback—for 18 years before I left in the summer of 1997 for southern New Mexico, where I suffered the heat and the Mex-Mex culture for nearly two years before coming home to Wyoming. For the next year and a half, I sulked in Laramie, pining for the western end of the state, before I came to my senses. There’s no point being miserable, Jim Tate likes to say. And Tom Sheeley calls having fun the best revenge. So this summer, I’ve been in the Snowies with the horses as often as possible, seeing new things and learning new country. In fact, the Wyoming Range has nothing more beautiful to offer than this. (I tell myself that, the way you tell yourself the girl you loved for half a lifetime is really no more lovely than the one you met last night.)

My reluctance to embrace the new country seems evident from my uncharacteristic failure to carry along a map (I love maps) of it. The Snowies are a geographically restricted and topologically uncomplicated formation compared to what I’m used to traveling through. Subconsciously, I must be defying the mountains to disorient and lose me in their dark green and slatey granite folds.

Seen from Laramie, the Snowy Mountains make a single, undivided, granitic barrier running north to south. Viewed from exactly the right angle northwest across the range from a southeastern standpoint near Jelm Mountain, or southeast from a northwestern vantage in the vicinity of Arlington on Interstate 80, their bifurcated structure is apparent: two roughly parallel fins, dislocated from each other on an east-west as well as a north-south axis to create a gap, or pass, between the non-contiguous ends. It took me several months to observe the discontinuity and only a few seconds to decide I had to go there, cross country between the two structures for a look over into western Wyoming and what had to be a spectacular backside view of Elk Mountain to the northwest. It looked like a simple enough passage to negotiate—especially once you got above timberline and into the alpine country, where a trail, though convenient, is generally an unnecessary alternative to bushwhacking among the lakes and torrs—so I chose to forego a visit to the bureaucratic guardians of the National Forest Service for a map of the area and navigate by sightlines instead of the charts.

Backpackers think—or pretend to think—that taking a horse into wilderness gives you an air-cooled, air-suspended, V-8, turbo-assisted, super-deluxe ride, equivalent to what you get from a Cadillac SUV with independent four-track articulated suspension. Having ridden many hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of miles horseback in mountainous terrain, I know better: You don’t invite just anyone along to share the adventure. For this one, I recruited a fellow lapswimmer from UW’s Halfacre Pool: a young lady who tunes pianos for a living while she completes her theatrical studies at the university, guaranteed fit for any backcountry ordeal and, as it happens, exceedingly pretty into the bargain.

We made a later than planned departure from town, delayed first by Ann’s needing to finish up a résumé and next by my gelding, who horsed us like a tarpon on a line for three quarters of an hour before allowing himself to be caught and haltered. Two weeks before, while I had my right arm around his neck and was attempting to squeeze a couple of grams of Bute onto the back of his tongue with my other hand, he’d reared suddenly, catching me in the chest with his knees and throwing me sideways with enough force to break my watchband, separate a couple of ribs, and tear the muscle at the base of my right shoulder blade. Twenty-one-year-old horses that act like unbroke yearlings have a better chance of being sold to the glue factory than enjoying an honorable retirement at pasture. Ann and I finally got everyone loaded, and we started for the mountains, stretching blue along the western horizon beneath the early afternoon cloud buildup, at last.

“I hope you brought rain gear with you,” I said to Ann.

She fished in her daypack and pulled out something semi-transparent and very brief that crackled and had a smiley face printed on it in yellow. A Wal-Mart bag, actually, with armholes cut in it to fit over her bathing-suit top.

“I think I have an extra poncho with me in the saddlebags,” I told her.

“Oh, this is all I need! I use them for biking and running, and everything.”

The cloudburst commenced as we arrived at the trailhead below Brooklyn Lake (elevation approximately 10,000 feet). I made Ann sit in the cab while I saddled the horses in the downpour. Just when we were ready to ride, the thunder went booming away to the northeast, and the sky cleared.

“Better bring your Wally-Dior thing just in ease,” I suggested. “That way we’ll be half prepared at least, since I don’t have a map. Who up here were you planning to impress, anyway?”

Having identified four designated routes leading in the general direction of the ridge, I chose the second as being the most likely to skirt the rocky shoulder of mountain below timberline, before ascending to the alpine meadow above. The dirt trail, passing among widespaced trees over mainly level ground, made for easy travel and echoed the horses’ footfalls like a drum. We rode on through the woods a mile or so before daylight broke through the treeline ahead and we came to an open park bordering the willowy bed of a creek and rising toward granite cliffs across the stream.

“This is what I like best,” Ann said happily. “But I enjoy riding in the woods, too.”

We crossed the creek at the ford below the swamp and continued across a grassy slope covered with wildflowers under a bench grown up with widespaced gnarled pine trees, an excellent place to put a camp. But, rather than climbing up by the bench to the granite fields some hundreds of feet above, the trail turned with the creek and followed it downhill into the timber.

“I’m glad you like riding in the woods,” I told Ann, “since it looks like we’ll be doing plenty of it, the rest of the afternoon.” You don’t have to know where you’re going to get somewhere.

The groundcover showed vivid green between the straight tall trees as if picked out by the sun, occluded once more by a small roiling storm coming off the peaks. The creek ran full beside the trail, but now the sound of it was covered by wind and the rolling thunder. Rain fell from dark clouds, the smiley-face came out again like a small defiant sun bobbing downhill above the mare’s gray rump, and I reached the poncho from the saddle bags and put my head through the center hole. We rode for ten miles this way before I let the gelding overtake the mare and Ann and drew rein beside them at a wide place in the trail beside a slough.

“We must be almost down to Centennial by now,” I said, turning the horse. “Bet I make it to the barn before you do.”

In the freight-train rush to the top of the mountain, granite ledges and carpets of wildflowers rolled beneath the thundering hooves, and startled elk grazing in sunset parks and lengthening forest shadows flashed past beneath an arcing double rainbow. The horses were winded at the willow swamp, and we rode the last mile to the trailer at a plodding walk, in an aura of horse sweat and body heat.

“That didn’t work out exactly as planned,” I told Ann as we pulled the saddle pads from the lathered horses, “but we had a good ride today, anyway.”

“It was lovely,” she agreed. “My rain gear worked better than your map, by the way.

I was too busy again that week to stop by the Forest Service for a map and arrived at Brooklyn Lake prepared to tackle the trail around behind Lake Marie and from there over the mountain to Medicine Bow Peak. But Ann proposed the intermediate trail, between the higher and lower routes. She seemed politely decided about it, and so I let her have her way. (A man has a duty to oblige a lady, especially when she could be right.) We set out on a broad earthen track—like part of the U.S. Interstate Trail System—that skirted a wide meadow before turning abruptly and plunging into the forest. Half a mile farther on, a shining snowdrift the size of a small glacier appeared through the trees, and we broke onto the alpine landscape, all bare rock and water, grass and wildflowers and krummholz pine, and along the trail a carved wooden sign pointing the direction to the Gap Lakes and the pass over to the west slope of the Snow)’ Range.

“After this, I wear the rain gear, and we use your map,” I suggested. “Damn, I wish I’d brought the camp gear with us.”

The trail climbed by easy switchbacks to the pass, cutting wide as a valley from west to east across the summit of the mountains. Water ran everywhere, the higher ponds and small lakes spilling over and running downhill by rocky sluices to those below, and the wind pouring through from the western deserts scraped roughened cobalt patches on the shining turquoise skins of the standing waters around. The wind felt chilly when the sun ducked behind an easy white cloud, but we rode straight into it where we could to hold off the raging horseflies that goaded the horses almost to bucking fits. Looking back, I saw the yellow plain stretching away toward town and, beyond it, the dark ripple of the Laramie Mountains; while ahead, a black triangle eased itself by millimeters above the stratospheric horizon—Elk Mountain, still 40 miles away by line of sight but distinctive through the sagebrush haze, a dark sentinel posted at the gate to the western desert.

I was following Ann’s bouncing yellow ponytail as we crossed over behind the granite ridge onto the west slope of the mountain, opening away to a towering wilderness of rock and ice on which the sky seemed to balance. I called her off the trail, and we rode on slowly together across the rolling green highland, south by southwest toward Medicine Bow Peak into a hard wind chilled by the glaciers ahead, sheerly hanging from a frozen gray sky. Ann reached behind herself to untie her windbreaker from the saddle strings and pulled it on over the bathing suit top.

“It’s another world back here,” she said.

“Another world was what we’re looking for.”

“And it’s no distance at all, really—like passing from one dimension into another.”

“I’m glad you’re not disappointed,” I told her, thinking how Rhonda Lyon back in California would have enjoyed this day.

We rode out in three hours and went for supper and a bottle of red wine at the Old Corral in Centennial, population 100, whose most famous part-time resident is Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and author of the story “Broke-back Mountain,” about two Wyoming sheepherders who spend the winter months at home with their loving families and the summer ones sodomizing one another in their mountain camp.

It was dark when we left the restaurant and started back across the plain toward town. An electrical storm behind the Laramie Mountains spanned the eastern horizon, one lightning flash overlapping another like a fireworks display, sheets and cells and glimmering globes of electricity maintaining an overall illumination as constant as the accompanying artillery thunder. When raindrops spattered on the windshield, I put the truck window down to receive the welcome scent of rain and the cool freshened air on my face.

“You’re only doing 45 miles an hour,” Ann, her straight profile outlined by the dashboard glow, said.

“I didn’t know we were in a hurry,” I told her.

“Well. We do have to get home, sometime.”

I didn’t agree with her, but it seemed pointless to say so.

“Yes,” I said, “I suppose we do.”