March 24, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
(Author’s note: In this constricted, claustrophobic, and generally disastrous spring of 2020 I take comfort in recalling a more spacious spring years ago, when we could all look forward confidently to the good old summertime to follow.)
Been up the Hams Fork yet?”
“I took a drive there last weekend.”
“How far’d you get?”
“Almost to the guard station. There’s a hellacious mudhole just south of it.”
“What about Fontenelle?”
“I ain’t tried it myself, but they say it’s dry to the Forest boundary. There’s two foot of snow yet past the cattle guard.”
Winter recedes inch by slow inch from the high country at first, gains momentum as it loses its hold, and is suddenly gone–almost overnight, it seems–leaving the aspen stands a fragile green among the black-green of the pine forests. As the glaring snowbanks retreat higher, the elk move up from their winter feeding grounds on the sagebrush flats and calve in secluded parks covered by arrowleaf balsam unfolding yellow blooms above their fleshy green leaves, bluebells, phlox, and Indian paintbrush. The passing of winter uncovers Wyoming and reopens it, revealing a complex backroad system of which the state highways are only a minor extension. For several weeks after the snow goes the bentonite roads are ribbons of purple mud, mostly impassable even with tire chains and four-wheel drive, but the strong spring winds and the climbing sun leach the moisture from them until they become pale and hard as old china. When the Aussie circuit riders are busy shearing sheep by day and pinching the girls in the bars downtown at night, and entire ranch families aged eight to 80 are bloody from the docking pens, it’s time to vaccinate and shoe the horses, haul out the gear stowed after hunting season last fall, and peruse stacks of topographic maps in preparation for harassing the backpackers, granolas, and earth muffins in the mountains once again. But first a matter of protocol, ritual, habit … love, actually.
Cutting west to east across the Tavaputs Plateau in northeastern Utah, south of the Uinta Mountains and north of the Book Cliffs, an enchanted fissure called Nine Mile Canyon stretches, debouching into the Green River directly above Desolation Canyon, so named by John Wesley Powell on his first exploratory trip down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869. One hundred-twelve years later my then wife and I discovered Nine Mile for ourselves by accident while trying to find jeep access to the Green and since 1981 I have visited the canyon each spring save one or two, as well as several times in midsummer. By April the plateau is dried by sun and wind, but the steep six-mile descent by switchback from the north rim to the creek bottom is often impassable until May; in really wet years, Nine Mile Creek floods the road that runs beside and above it. BY Memorial Day the cottonwoods are in leaf to form shady glades swarming with scarlet-and-black alder beetles, the sun is hot, and thunderstorms develop most afternoons, drawing a blanket of gray cloud over the main canyon and its laterals. There are still a few working ranches in the bottom. Several times we have shared our camp with bawling whiteface cattle, and once we were nearly overrun in a rainstorm by horsebackers in yellow slickers attempting to regather their animals.
As I’ve discovered that ex-wives can make excellent camping partners I phoned mine again this year and together we made the 250-mile trip from Kemmerer to Nine Mile where, plunging into the gorge from the north rim at seven in the evening, we followed the creek downstream for several miles before crossing and turning up Dry Cottonwood Canyon, past the startling Anasazi drawings on the blackened rock face to the switchbacks at the canyon head that deposited us at Peter’s Point on the south rim shortly before dusk. It was my first trip to Nine Mile in two years, Norma’s in three, but nothing had changed. Of course. There are very few happy places in this world about which you can say that after two whole years–let alone 13–nothing has changed. Even the rusty lines that once gathered natural gas from a series of wells drilled in the 1960’s looked the same, and several of them had ruptured. The kind of progress we like to see.
A quarter of an hour later we had the truck off-loaded, the tent up, the fire ring assembled, and the dead wood gathered and were perched on the outermost ledge of rain-pitted sandstone rock with a magnum of red wine between us, surveying the immense and infinitely reticulated canyon beneath our feet, the tawny plateau beyond, and–70 or 80 miles out on the northern horizon–the 90-mile sweep of the Uintas; a range also visible south another 70 miles from my home in Kemmerer. (It isn’t easy to shake a real landmark, out West.) Huge red and black ants crawled everywhere, snapping their jaws at everything and at nothing, and jays jinked 50 feet below the canyon rim, exhibiting a streak of white along each wing and two parallel ones down the lower tail and body. The far cliffs merged from beige to gray toward the canyon’s purple heart, turrets of red eroded rock stood like chimneys from the steep pulverizing walls, and the flat green table lands spread to the ends of the promontories below. Sunlight glowing in the ends of the pine needles, a black juniper snag clawing the clean colors of the sunset, a pair of planets burning in the ecliptic of the final sun …. Ah, wilderness! Oh, summertime.
I arrived home from Utah to the appalling news. For as much as two months–the better part of the short Wyoming summer–I must share my favorite (and, as I have come to regard it, private) mountain range with 12,000 to 15,000 members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light: middle-aged hippies converged from all around the United States and abroad who have chosen to hold their annual rendezvous and pow-wow in Snider Basin, a bare 60 or so miles due north of Kemmerer in Sublette County and directly athwart my favored route of travel up South Piney Creek behind Mt. Darby to Cheese Pass and thence to Wyoming Peak, the highest point (11,374 feet) in the Wyoming Range. The week before a topless woman had appeared at suppertime in the cafe adjacent to the Texaco station in Cokeville, terrifying the cowboys and oilfield roughnecks out of a year’s growth and their half-eaten suppers before she was escorted away by the local constabulary. (“I hear you had a topless young lady in the Texaco,” a resident remarked afterward to the police chief, who replied in a disgusted tone, “It wasn’t any young lady.”) When it snowed three inches last week the Rainbows bought up every blanket and article of warm clothing to be had in Kemmerer and Big Piney. Although most of the residents of the area seem amused rather than outraged, there has been dark talk in the bars at night and local pickup trucks with guns across the back windows wander north in the direction of Snider Basin. (Were the entire complement of 30,000 Rainbows to show up they would comprise Wyoming’s third largest city, however temporary.) In Kemmerer the municipal police are rumored to meet almost daily and the couny hospital is on full alert; tens of thousands of condoms are being shipped by international philanthropists to Snider Basin. This, apparently, is what the feds have in mind when they talk of range reform: Kick the 29,000 grazing leaseholders off the Western public lands and replace them with 30,000 fornicating hippies.
Fortunately there are plenty of trails, most of them negotiable by horse, into the Wyoming Range, which includes an immensity of ruggedly spectacular wilderness. Following a winter of normal snowpack horse travel is problematical until around the Fourth of July owing to the vast drifts of rotting snow through the black timber, dangerous snow cornices above timber line, roaring swollen creeks, and trails slippery with mud. But the winter of 1993-94, like the eight previous ones excepting that of 1992-93 (a “normal” winter experienced by the human and animal populations of Wyoming as a sort of frozen Deluge in the context of ongoing drought), was painfully dry, making access to the highest parks with their desiccated soils, sparse grasses, and muted floral display possible by early June.
Leaving the pickup and trailer in La Barge Meadows, the headwaters of three mountain creeks or small rivers, I rode up Little Corral Creek, crossed over the saddle, and followed Poker Creek down to Lake Alice, a long narrow body filling a fissure created by an earthquake in the early part of the 20th century and named for a young girl who drowned in it in the 20’s. I camped on the lakeshore overnight and in the morning proceeded along the terrible trail where the horse nearly rolled on me as I led him up Alice Creek and onto a high ridge 1,000 feet or more above Coantag Creek, which I followed in a sweeping curve north to Mt. Isabel. Ascending the opposite ridge on its western aspect through the twilight shadow of a pine forest we started a herd of elk that broke, more heard than seen, over the summit where the late-afternoon sky showed through the trees and where, following more sedately, we rode straight into the astounded animals who, having arrived in the open park on the east slope, had paused to crop the forbs that grow there. They were so close that, by leaning from the saddle, I could have touched one or two of them with my riding bat. After training on us a petrified stare lasting several seconds the herd wheeled, fled almost as one animal into a draw, and vanished. It was growing late, the trail had long since been erased by the elements, and I rode for the next several minutes with my face in a map, searching for a way across to Commissary Ridge and becoming gradually aware of a sound which I took for the cry of a circling hawk before, turning as I rode across the lengthening shadows of the spired firs, I saw that I was being followed closely by two calf elk. Left behind by the running herd, they had sensibly attached themselves to the largest quadruped in sight. One was slightly larger than the other, but both calves were still in spots. Of course they could not possibly have seen a horse or a human being before; living so deep in the range where even hunters rarely venture, the adult herd was probably as innocent as its young. For ten minutes they circled my horse, pawing the ground and tossing their heads, while Saab Star pranced and pawed in response. I succeeded in unfastening the pack attached to the cantle at the small of my back and removing the cheap camera I carry on trips into the mountains, but the shutter declined to function. The larger calf ran off a hundred yards and lay down under a tree; the smaller one simply folded her legs beneath her to rest. I dismounted carefully, walked over, and stood a few feet behind her as she watched me across her shoulder with her great moon-creature eyes. As I remounted and rode away, she was still watching.
From camp on the brow of Commissary Ridge I looked up the Greys River Valley that separates the Wyoming and Salt River ranges where Wyoming Peak rose in full view and, 90 miles distant, the horn of the Grand Teton showed. By early June the once-pleasant town of Jackson is refilling with the beautiful people, as well as the not so beautiful: hard to say which I appreciate less. Not more than five miles distant by line of sight the blunt southerly abutment of Mt. Darby frowned down upon Snider Basin and its thousands of hippie campers, dissenters from American society yet so utterly American–as hopelessly so as the tourists in the Yellowstone–in their instinct to experience wilderness as a mob. How is it that so many people who turned their backs on America since the 1950’s on account of what they consider her unloveliness are among those most responsible for having made their country, to paraphrase Edmund Burke, so unlovely?
Yet seated here on a flat fragment of shale, rising now and again to dodge the fanning smoke of the small pinewood fire that heats my supper of beans and chile while I suckle a pint of Jim Beam; watching the night rise in a slow lavender sea over the edge of the golden plain to the east, the talus slopes glow red in the reflected glare of the setting sun, and the canyons and valleys fill with a light like some newly discovered substance, part water and part smoke, I find it hard to condemn these people for having “dropped out”–dropping out being, in the context of mass American society and the coming totalitarianism, a rational and even a laudatory act. I myself, after all, am a dropout from that world far beyond the fading rim of the Green River Basin–the world of money, of power, and of politics; of careerism and the Great Game; of sycophancy and self-promotion; of imperial culture and the cultural imperialism of the modern megalopolis; of the effacement of God’s Creation by that of man; of growing terror and unreality. Dropping out is not the issue; it is where you land that matters. And here am I, seated beside a campfire eating beans and drinking whiskey, listening to my horse crop the little grass he can find, and watching the Milky Way form its gaseous belt diagonally across the sky. From an elevation of 10,000 feet, with no one to my knowledge within 30 trail miles of us, life on this first day of summer, June 21, looks good to me. “Here,” Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, “is but wilderness.” You can have the rest.
(This article was originally published in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.)