From 9,000 feet the triangulating mountains, snow-covered and hazy with spring, showed on three horizons bounding the broad brown desert of the Green River. Leveling at 9,475 feet we saw the steam plume from the power plant. Lake Viva Naughton, and the white scratch of clay road running toward the mountains north of town. The bumpy ride went suddenly soft, the engine caught, choked, and died, and I got out in the mud to turn the wheel hubs in. We continued on half a mile in four-wheel drive to a stand of limber pine and a compacted snowdrift across the trail, where we left the truck and trailer and rode horseback along the escarpment of Sheep Mountain with the sun and the fresh May wind in our faces. “Let’s ride over and see Ben Brown’s cabin,” Norma suggested.
“I just want to see it.”
“There isn’t anything to see.”
“I want to see it anyway,” she said.
Ben Brown’s cabin, broken in two by the heavy snows and filled up with garbage by elk hunters on their way down from camp, was in a stand of trees back a few hundred yards from the cliff. We had ridden within 100 yards of the wreck when a brown blur bounded through the break in the log wall and disappeared around a corner of the building into the woods. The mare shied and fled with the reins dragging, as Norma collected herself from the mud and the new grass.
“Bear,” I said, helpfully.
“He must be a yearling. Where’s Larki?”
“Over there by the cliff watching you.”
Norma spoke gently to the shuddering horse before remounting and we rode on together along the cliff edge to a few scraps of aluminum lying among the broken shale. Years before a pilot out of Big Piney and his passenger had flown into the mountain side 30 or 40 feet below the summit. Arriving hours later at the crash site a Search and Rescue team found a disintegrated airplane and some human remains, among them shoes with the feet laced inside. While magpies picked fragments of brain tissue from the branches of surrounding trees. Search and Rescue gathered up the plane and packed it off the mountain. Apparently they missed a few pieces. I reached for what looked like part of the gyroscope and turned it over in my hand.
“How could he have made an error like that.”
“It was an early fall snowstorm. He was trying to land at the Kemmerer airport.”
“This isn’t the country for flying planes around in.”
“It’s no better riding horses,” Norma said.
The warm weather held from April that year and we were with the horses in the back country by the second week of June, after the road along La Barge Creek dried out. We left the rig at the guard station on the Greys River and rode west up Corral Creek into the Salt River Range, where we fixed camp in a rocky swale below a long alpine ridge. Seated by the fire drinking coffee spiked with whiskey we watched a fine buck deer pick his way along the ridge line, turning his eight points in the sun’s final light. At the sound of engines boring out of the sky I shifted the field glasses from the buck to a big commercial jet flying east by southeast, low enough that the house colors and ensign were discernible on the fuselage and tail.
“He’s going to crash,” I said.
“Of course he’s not.”
“I’ve never seen them so low this far out from Salt Lake.”
“Look: three—no, four—bucks just joined the first one.”
“Three hundred people going 500 miles an hour on their butts, drinking California champagne and watching Hollywood movies.”
“Here’s where you should come hunting this fall.”
“While we’re thrashing around 20,000 feet below in down timber, falling off cliffs and getting thrown by horses.”
“Will you fix us both another drink? Don’t put any coffee in mine this time.”
In the morning we staked the horses to graze and climbed uphill over rough ground to Corral Lake in its rock-walled amphitheater. The lake was partly covered by ice, but cutleaf daisies blossomed at the water’s edge. Seated on the gravelly sand along the shore we ate dried fruit and nuts and watched the watery reflections of the round white clouds drift across the wavelets. I lay back to take the sun on my face and was already half asleep when a loud echo arose in the rocky bowl like the roar of a giant conch shell. From a sitting position I observed the vapor shaft lance behind its bright metallic point across the opening to the sky. When the uproar had faded and died I asked, “Have you ever thought what it was like to be in the mountains 100 years ago, before there were airplanes?”
Norma looked surprised, then pitying, as if called on to answer a question by what used to be called in her native Tennessee a child of God. “Why, just the way it is right now,” she said.
It was a hard ride coming out. The creek had risen to flood stage and there were slippery rocks and logs to get over. Several times the horses nearly went down, until we dismounted at last and led in the worst places. Where the footing was good the gelding would push from behind, and where it was bad he hung back at the end of the lead to gather himself for a leap calculated to put him exactly on the spot I had hastily vacated. Our shouts to one another were covered by the thunder of white water rushing over boulders and piled logs into black swirling pools descending by levels through green meadows edged by timber to the juncture of Corral Creek with the Greys River. Across the valley of the Greys the Wyoming Range blocked the lower half of the eastern sky, the glazed snowfields above timber line shining in the light of the westering sun. A few hundred feet below the summit of Coffin Mountain, an isolated brightness glinted from the surrounding brilliance. I called out to Norma, but the words were carried away by the racing stream. When we caught up with one another again I stepped aside from the trail and pointed to the gleam on the hanging slope.
“Look—there’s another one.”
“Another plane. It was covered when we rode in the other day. The snow has melted from on top of it since then.”
She took the glasses from me and studied the mountain side. “It does look like a plane,” Norma agreed.
“They’ve had one missing from Afton since last November. We need to stop at the guard station on the way out and let them know about it.” I brought the horse around parallel to the bank in the creek and stepped up from it as he moved out into the water, missing the stirrup and falling into the rushing, chest-deep cold. “I’m surprised the environmentalists don’t have something to say about sky dumps like that. Get over here, you knothead sonofabitch,” I told the horse, pulling hard on the reins.
The Forest Service spotted the wreck the same weekend but it took them a week or more to reach it by helicopter. It was the Afton plane, flown by a couple from California who had ignored warnings against taking off in a snowstorm and crashed at full throttle as they attempted to gain elevation to clear the highest peaks. The pair were strapped into their seats when the salvage crew found them, and the maggots were just beginning their own clean-up job on the mountainside.
All that summer in the mountains I was aware of airplanes, their intrusive rumble overhead and the unsightly contrails binding the sky like string, taking the measure of the earth.
“Where did this fascination with planes come from?” Norma asked.
“I don’t know. I used to run out of the house when I was a kid to see the B-52s from the Air Force Base in Burlington fall out of the sky.”
It was a dry fall that year, with a full moon for opening day of elk season. The herds grazed in the parks at night and timbered up near water during the day. Tracy Thompson and I worked hard to find them, riding horseback for long distances and going on foot through thick timber while outfitters in chartered planes scouted in circles overhead. On the third morning I shot a cow at the bottom of a steep gully half a mile from camp. I climbed down hand over hand to field dress the carcass, climbed up again, and went for Tracy and the mare. When we couldn’t get her down the steep I snubbed her short to a pine tree and Tracy and I descended to the kill, where I boned the elk and packed the meat in plastic bags for Tracy to lug uphill to the horse. While we labored in the cold forest shadow a plane approached Indian Ridge from Fontenelle Creek, banked, and made a half-turn to the east over Minnie Holden Creek. “I hope the sonofabitch crashes,” I said. “It’s illegal to scout elk with a damn airplane anyway.” We packed the meat into camp and rode down with it the next morning to Fontenelle Crossing behind a storm front that had moved in overnight. I bought a Star-Tribune in town and read that the Game and Fish Department had lost a plane the day before, somewhere in the vast wilderness area surrounding the southeastern corner of Yellowstone Park. The charter pilot and two game biologists assigned to track grizzly bears by electronic transmissions from their fitted collars had been flying with the radio shut down when the plane disappeared.
The Game and Fish plane was the object of an intensive search for two years before the Department gave up actively looking for it, but its fate was still a matter for speculation when Norma and I rode up the Wiggins Fork of the Wind River to Emerald Lake in the Absaroka Range. It was an easy ride following the creek between the forested blocks of compacted lava ash, carved by the wind and by water. We camped the first night on a gravel bar and climbed the next day above timber line to a thin high world of alpine flowers and elk in their red summer coats grazing across the steep-pitched greensward. Late in the day as we descended, leading the horses to stretch our legs, I looked up from my boots and saw light glinting from a side canyon across the blue haze of afternoon. It vanished when I had gone two steps farther and I backed the horse in the trail until I had the angle right again, and put the glasses on it. It could have been metal, or it could have been a patch of snow or a water seep. Whatever it was, it was on a ledge 50 feet or so beneath the canyon rim, hidden from above by an overhang of rock and visible from this little used trail for only a few minutes a day when the sun’s rays found it.
“There it is,” I said.
“The Game and Fish plane.”
I made calculations and marked the place with an X on the topo map.
“I’ll take it in to the Forest Service first thing in the morning,” Norma promised.
The plane was found more than a year later by two women elk hunters who walked up on it 300 yards off a well-used horse trail: a burned-out airframe upside down in the tree tops, the three skeletons hanging in their harnesses. Airplanes are fascinating things, like women, fate, and God.
The following summer I rode with Norma from Brooks Lake 22 miles in to South Fork of Buffalo Creek. We found a big outfitter’s camp with Eastern dudes in lawn chairs, a recreation tent, gourmet food, and no power tools in this designated wilderness area. There were mountain sheep on the heights and bear scat in the trail, and the smoke from forest fires burning to the west over in Idaho. In Dubois again we left the horses at a friend’s ranch and went for supper at the Yellowstone Garage.
“It’s a rugged, magnificent Paradise back there,” I said over the first bottle of wine. “A fine place to die, when the time comes for it.”
“Did I tell you,” Norma asked, “it’s where they found the plane? Just a few air miles from where we were camped.”