Somewhere between Muddy Gap and the old uranium town of Jeffrey City I became aware of my lungs, painfully expanding and contracting inside my denim shirt. Beyond Jeffrey City the smoke cloud was visible to the northwest, a pinkish-grey mass hanging on the mountainous horizon and planed along its upper edge by atmospheric winds: large portions of the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming burning up, millions of acres of evergreen timber, pinyon-juniper transitional forests, and grasslands. Who’s to blame? The Western Republican governors and congressional delegations finger President Clinton, the timber and ranching interests blame the National Forest Service and the Federal Bureau of Land Management, environmentalists blame the timber companies and—some of them—the NFS; the federal government as an entity blames what it might call an Act of God, if it believed in Him. Probably the conflagration is the result of all of these things, plus others. In brainwashed, juvenilized, sniveling, squishysoft, faux-innocent America, we always have to have someone to blame—and, wherever possible, sue—for a variety of inconveniences and unpleasantnesses that previous generations of humanity accepted as being merely the vicissitudes of life. Hard thoughts, but what else for a 297-mile, six-hour trek across bare interior Wyoming pulling two horses at 55 miles an hour, with no air conditioning in hundred-degree temperatures and nothing to eat or drink but pretzels and warm water in a gallon canteen?
North from Lander my lungs seemed to set like cement as the smoke intensified. A white plume twisted from the east slope of the Wind River mountains above Fort Washakie; from there, as far as Crowheart, the granite spine of the range was blotted by clouds of gritty smoke from the Boulder fire burning against the west slope 50 miles away. From Crowheart on to Dubois the air cleared, allowing me to discern a cherry-colored Toyota 4-Runner parked in the shoulder beneath a high cutbank and an arm waving frantically from the driver’s window. Two hours behind schedule already, and now I had to stop and change a tire, or empty my canteen into an overheated radiator, or stick my head under a propped hood and pretend I understand something about what goes on in an engine compartment. There are times I wish chivalry were dead, not just paraplegic and comatose. Oddly, the face in the window looked familiar. I’d forgotten Norma went and bought a new car.
I followed with the horses on the washboard road winding back through foothills to Torrey Lake. The hills were brown from drought, no green showing except for the blackish forms of the pine trees rising against the knobby cliffs. The brown was eerily uniform, and the dead grass crunched underfoot. We made camp on a rise above the lake, unrolling the sleeping bags under a pine tree and setting the gas stove with two attachable gas canisters on a patch of bare ground surrounding a fire ring left cold all summer by order of the Forest Service.
“This is terrible,” I told Norma, looking about at the stricken country. The southeastern part of the state around Laramie, while affected by the drought, hadn’t prepared me for what I’d seen this afternoon. “It’s like visiting a dead world.”
“There’s absolutely no moisture left: in the soil at all.”
“They ought to just let it burn,” I said. Somehow, ashes and scorched earth seemed a more natural prospect than the unlit funeral pyre before us.
We spent the better part of the following morning consolidating and packing gear, while drinking coffee unsatisfactorily boiled on the gas stove. It was past noon before we started up the Whiskey Creek trail, skirting low-lying sagebrush parks for the first mile or so before the trail steepened underfoot and the dry forest, heated by sunlight striking between the spires of the trees, closed in. Fat and soft from a lazy summer, heavily lathered along the flanks and between the hind legs, the horses halted regularly to blow and scent the piney air, putting their ears forward and turning their heads from side to side.
“We should be almost to the Noonday Rocks,” Norma, riding behind me, said.
“Why the Noonday Rocks?”
“I don’t know. I think it’s an Indian name.”
Half a mile farther on yellow-gray rocks, spotted with sunlight and lichen, appeared through the trees. Past the tree line was a park bounded on one side by a stony parapet standing at an angle to the trail. I consulted my compass, which showed the granitic mass aligned along a nearly exact east-west axis. Apparently, the ancient Shoshone had been right on time for Brew & Burger at lunch hour.
We stopped for lunch in a grove of limber pine, surrounded by vaguely observant whiteface cattle grazing the alpine grass beside Whiskey Creek, now only a dry runnel. Before mounting up again I had Norma take a photo of me beside the horse, wearing a straw hat, bandana neckerchief chaps, and a bolstered .41 magnum revolver on my hip, to send to Andrea Marcovicci on her return from Hawaii. Then we rode on, uphill through patches of scrub willow, past stands of gnarled Krummholz pine, to the bare summit of Whiskey Mountain, wind-polished at over 11,000 feet of elevation, from where the topography of a substantial portion of northwest Wyoming lay spread around: to the east the Owl Creek Mountains; the Absarokas in the northeast (including the southeast corner of Yellowstone Park); Lava Mountain and Togwatee Pass due north; to the west and 75 miles out, the snaggled silhouette of the Grand Tetons, darkly sinister, wreathed with smoke. Above Shale Mountain, black clouds were building, headed our way. They didn’t look thunderous, but you never can tell. Once, in an unprotected alpine meadow only 20 or 30 miles from here across the Continental Divide, I found the melted shoes of a horse struck by lightning, the carcass —hooves included—long since rotted into the thin topsoil. No sign of the sheepherder riding him, either.
“What’s wrong with Larki?” I asked, turning in the saddle.
“She won’t move.”
“Wliat do you mean, won’t move?”
“You’re looking at what I mean, aren’t you?”
Only dudes and amateurs ever strike a horse. Fortunately, there are other forms of discipline available to the seasoned horseman. When a couple of these had been employed, we rode on at a trot over the summit and dropped down into the shelter of the timber below, where the trail turned south and continued on across the face of the mountain, contouring through thick forest in the direction of Ross Meadow, only two miles distant according to the topo map.
Ross Meadow, with its pond of tea-colored water in which leaf molds and various other ingredients float (and swim), in this season of drought was the only source of water we’d seen since Whiskey Creek expired two thirds of the way up the other side of the mountain. Of course, we had a large supply of Jim Beam along, but still not enough to share with the horses. Ross Meadow, therefore, was camp. We unloaded and picketed the animals, assembled the gas stove, and went to the pond for water. It was not, in fact, Evian, but we planned on boiling it 15 minutes to kill the Giardia parasite, and old Jim is famous for covering a multitude of sins when he has to. The first gas canister expired before we’d finished sterilizing the first bucket, so we ate a cold supper in the interests of conservation, stretched our bedrolls under a tree, and fell asleep early, half drunk on Beam and starshine.
After breakfast next morning, we snubbed the horses close to a couple of pine trees and set out on foot for Ross Lake, two miles out and 1,500 vertical feet below camp. The day was overcast, so we brought along raia gear in the event of a miracle called rain; also lunch, the bottle of Jim Beam, matches, maps, et cetera, tucked inside my daypack.
At the top of the switchbacks dropping 500 feet in an eighth of a mile, we paused to admire the lake stretched in a granitic trench beneath glaciers hanging from the Continental Divide, then started the descent. The trail, difficult enough on foot, was a horseman’s nightmare: Scattered horse apples at intervals suggested the last horse to attempt the rockfalls and granite slides felt the same way. I worked my way down cautiously and proceeded ahead on level ground a few hundred yards before halting in a drizzle of rain to pull the poncho from the daypack and draw it over my head. Norma was out of sight behind me; still negotiating the switchbacks, I supposed. I started forward again, then stopped. Hiking is supposed to be a companionable affair, and my companion couldn’t be more than 30 or 40 seconds behind. I waited a minute— two minutes, three—before retracing my steps to the switchbacks, watching the ground for footprints among my own, vaguely apprehensive. When I reached the base of the cliff and started up the first switchback, I knew we had a problem. Heart attack? A blow to the head from a fall? Standing in the trail, I turned outward to the depthy wilderness and shouted, through megaphone hands between the trees—”NORMA!”—then waited to listen. “NORMA!”
Far below the trail, a faint voice responded from a timbered basin. “I’M LOST!” it seemed to say. Or perhaps it was just my imagination. We’d never had anyone lost from camp before.
I took a compass reading on the direction of the call, and considered. Beyond the point where the trail struck level ground it crossed a dome of exposed granite, an easy place to lose one’s way. Finding no sign I continued on a hundred yards, checking and rechecking the compass, until I came to a cliff falling a sheer 100 feet to the basin from where the sound had come: an ideal broadcasting station. I called again, then drew the .41 magnum from under the poncho and fired a shot in the air. As the echoes died away among the peaks, the cry came once more, closer this time and clearer: “KEEP TALKING!”
It took half an hour to call her in, through heavy timber toward the curving wall of cliff beneath my feet until she emerged at last, a small figure in a purple parka picking its way toward the forest edge. We spent another 30 minutes finding a way up for her, and then she was safe beside me in the drizzle, her breath coming hard and water trickling from the end of her nose.
“How did you ever manage to find your way down there?”
“I don’t know. I knew we had a chance if you just kept talking and didn’t try to get down in the woods with me.”
“I knew better than to do that. If worst came to worst, I was going to go back to camp, take Star, and ride all night to bring help from town,”
“I was going to try and find Torrey Creek and follow it up to the lake, where there might be someone camped. I was so scared when I realized I was lost!— without a map, a compass, matches, food.”
“After this we both carry a pack, every time. My main worry was this rain would turn to snow and you’d be out all night without protection.”
“I’d have survived, but it wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience.”
From the direction of the trail, a female voice drifted. “Oh,” it said in a singsong manner, “I hear people speaking!”
A pale, pointy head appeared around a tree before The Wanderer emerged: small and slim, wearing translucent rain gear over hiking shorts, the hood drawn up over a black baseball cap, and carrying an aluminum walking stick in each hand, like ski poles, on her back a pack nearly as big as she was.
“I’m sorry about the gunshot,” I told her. “We had someone lost for a while.”
“I didn’t hear any gun,” the girl said, pulling a Power Bar from under the raincoat and taking a bite of it, “just the voices. I’ve been out 11 days already. If I ration myself, I’ve got enough food to last me another day and a half”
We asked what her destination was, and she said the Torrey Lake trailhead. When Norma explained the trail had been closed since the previous year on account of an active mudslide, the girl smiled.
“If I don’t get down to the car by tomorrow night, they’ll send the helicopters out looking for me.”
We reminded her the rain could activate the slide and invited her to stay over at our camp for the night. She looked pleased to be asked, but shook her head.
“I half expected to be burned up in a forest fire anyway, so I guess I’ll go ahead and risk getting buried in mud instead. If you see my green Dodge Duster in the parking area when you come out, you might give the Forest Service a tip where to look for my body. If they feel they have to have it.”
She accepted a handful of the gorp Norma offered her, showed us her will-o’-the-wisp smile, and moved off into the forest, her muscled brown calves pumping beneath the hem of her raincoat. “Well,” Norma said, “we started off this morning to see the lake.”
“Sure,” I agreed. “Let’s go on down there now, and see it.”
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