It was my first solo backpacking trip, in the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming; Indian Pass was an 11,800-foot saddle nestled near the raw peaks of Fremont and Jackson. The clouds eventually drifted off, and it was still light out when I snugged down into my tent, which was nestled amongst a few shrubs on the only flat spot I could find. I was on a hillside looming over the deepest and greenest glacial lake I’d ever seen, and I was surprised, and pleased, to find no other tent in sight. A big boulder protected me from wind, which meant sharing my spot with the mosquitoes. They soon hummed in unison outside, droning in a cloud against the screen. But it was my last night out—which also meant just my second night out—and I slept with the rainfly open, the cold air quickly numbing me into sleep.
It was the summer of 2003. That April Aron Ralston had become famous for amputating his own arm with a dull super tool. He’d been descending into Blue John Canyon, and a boulder rolled loose, pinning his hand to the canyon wall. He sat trapped for five days before deciding to cut himself free. 127 hours of dehydration, hallucinations, video-recording messages to his loved ones. Ralston’s story was still hot, especially in the West, and I thought about it that spring as my boyfriend and I drove from Arizona to Wyoming, where I was doing a summer internship in field ornithology before my final year of college. I especially thought about it as we drove through Utah, from the flat red expanses of Arches National Park, some 50 miles east of Blue John, on up to the coniferous homogeneity of the Uinta Mountains, where snow still lingered in the shadows of boulders. I thought about it as we passed the buckin’ bronco cowboy sign welcoming us into Wyoming.
The story was a loose marble that rolled around in my brain never finding a niche to rest in—a story that stayed quiet for stretches of time, then at the worst moments would pop back up in horrifying detail. I thought about it as I settled into the tiny house with my new coworkers in Sublette County, as I said goodbye to the boyfriend, as I ventured out into the sagebrush alone for my daily tasks of searching for bird nests and counting sparrows. I would forget about it in the evenings, as we headed into the bustling metropolis of Pinedale, population 1,000, to shake off our solitude and boredom. We got blitzed with local stockmen and gas drillers, and we faced nightly heckling—all meant in good fun, we were told—their sayings cribbed straight from the bumper stickers that lined the mirror behind the bottles of cheap whiskey at the Cowboy Bar: Are you an Environmentalist, or do you work for a living? My Wyoming has an East Infection!
Invariably, some sunburned climber, or a salty smelling mountaineer, would pop into the bar. He’d be fresh out of the Winds, probably having stumbled the last few miles by the beam of his headlamp back to his car. He was easy to spot—always lean and wiry, a white mask around his eyes where sunglasses had been. He always wore expensive, quick-dry shorts, Chaco sandals or flip-flops, sun visors or baseball caps with the top cut off. He was generally happy, if a little pompous, and he was almost always male. Eventually his story would come out, Yeah, me and my buddy just ripped a hella route down off the face of Jackson. Yeah, we shredded the shit out of that one. Another round of Michelob would make its way through the bar and invariably someone would remember to ask the mountaineer: Did you hear about the guy who cut his own arm off?
“When I amputated, I felt every bit of it. It hurt to break the bone, and it certainly hurt to cut the nerve,” Ralston later said in an interview with National Geographic. “It recalibrated what I’d understood pain to be. At the same time, it was also the most beautiful thing I’ve ever felt.”
While Ralston’s severed flesh still decayed beneath that boulder, I made a pact with myself that before my summer was over I was going to go backpacking up in the mountains. Even though we poked a little fun at the climbers, much as the stockmen and drillers poked fun at us, I knew there was a whole different world happening up over the sage. On various weekends throughout the summer, I got small tastes of what the mountains had to offer. The flat expanse of desert sagebrush became oppressive over time as I traced and retraced my steps looking for tiny drab songbirds. To go up to the mountains was to ascend from a kind of hell, to regain sanity for a little while.
I wasn’t supposed to go alone. Alison, my boss, entered a sailing race on Fremont Lake at the last minute, even though we’d been talking about a backpacking trip all summer. After a summer spent studying birds, my co-workers were only mildly interested in spending their free time in the wilderness, and really, I couldn’t blame them. So, as much as Ralston’s story scared the living daylights out of me, I decided to go alone.
I planned three days: the first just to get up there, deep into the mountains, the second to reach Indian Pass and Titcomb Basin—a row of jagged peaks cradling glacial melt in a series of rock pools—the third day hiking out. On a long weekend near the end of the season Alison drove me up to the trailhead.
“Got your pocket knife?” she asked as I unloaded my pack from the back of her truck.
“I have two.”
I tightened my bootlaces and shouldered my pack.
“Day after tomorrow at 4 o’clock?” she asked.
“See you then,” I said. And she was off.
After the first few miles my knees ached, unused to the topography, but they warmed up. The incline was mild at first, and for the first five to seven miles I shared the trail with occasional caravans of packhorses, patient quarter horses and haflingers loaded to the withers with canvas tents and cooking supplies, others with tourists clinging awkwardly to saddle horns who always grinned and said “Hello!” as they bobbed past. At the head of each caravan was rugged man meant to look like a bonafide cowboy with an impassive, unimpressed look on his face. I could always hear them creaking and clattering from a distance. Other riders, in pairs or single, snuck by quietly, only a hoof against a root or a rock giving them away at the last minute. And hikers. Dozens and dozens of them. Clad in bright and sleek synthetic lightweight gear and complicated mountaineering boots, their titanium poles clicking time with their steps along the uneven terrain. I felt bulky with my old purple Kelty pack with its one big pouch—not the various zippered compartments and buckles and cinches and drawstrings and compression sacks and nooks and crannies for my compass and GPS, etc. etc. My pack was kind of old school; it was a little clunky. It didn’t form to my body the way some of theirs seemed to—like baby monkeys clinging to mama.
As I hiked, sun seared through the pines. I made my way up to an overlook, the gray jags of the Titcomb Basin spreading out in the distance, over which thunderheads gathered. I was alone, but I wasn’t alone. Everybody and his mother were enjoying the view. Hikers of various nationalities posed with their arms around each other or giving the devil horns, or they leaned in on their hiking sticks and grinned for the camera. So many diverse people up in the mountains! It was strange to think of the homogenous group of quintessential westerners down in the Cowboy Bar. I missed them suddenly, and for a minute I grew a local’s chip on my shoulder—all these outsiders—then quickly reminded myself of who I was. Being in Wyoming for three months, as any Wyominger will quickly tell you, does not make you from Wyoming. They won’t tell you what does—and almost none of the Wyomingers I met had been born there. Even though I claimed Arizona as my home, I’d only been in the west a few years. Not technically a westerner at all, I was really from Massachusetts, one step up in despicability from New York City.
I paused to soak in the view, which really was stunning—one of the most elaborate mountainscapes I’d ever seen. The peaks were like rows of crooked silver fangs, layered like sharks’ teeth. Snowfields still rested in scoops below the jags, and lakes were idyllic pools, inviting swatches of blue in narrow, rocky valleys. Eventually the other hikers peeled off in groups, two by two, three by three. Feeling the waning afternoon light, I hauled myself to a stand, still limber, and headed up the trail. Eventually I took another trail that branched off to the east and headed into quieter territory, eventually rounding a bend and happening upon a broad dark lake ringed with conifers. For a long while only pikas kept me company, their chubby bodies scurrying over rocks and perching to watch me pass, before they continued on with their own business. I had prided myself on my solo experience, and now here was solitude vast and deep.
Solo backpacking felt like a rite of passage, like something I felt I should have in my repertoire of life experiences, and it felt appropriate to be having my first in Wyoming, at the end of a summer of firsts.
The boyfriend who had driven me to Wyoming had been heading further north, then eventually west where he’d meet up with a group of people and travel to Alaska. He stayed for a couple of days, and on the afternoon he left we faced each other, knowing we’d be in minimal, if any, contact over the next three months.
“What should we do?” he asked. We stood outside the small house. My new home. The sagebrush spread out to the south in an endless flat expanse, and to the north it tilted up slightly until the plane met the base of the mountains, which jutted up like a rock explosion.
“Let’s let it go for now,” I said.
I suppose you could say the first cliché of the west had already wormed its way into my bloodstream: I wanted to be free.
Over the next few months, I watched a herd of semi-wild horses meander across my study plot weekly, a black stallion and a smattering of pinto foals. One morning, driving through the two-track to my plot, I watched a golden eagle take flight from the side of the road with a newborn lamb dangling lifelessly from its talons. I was rushed by an overly protective sage grouse father; I spotted a rare pair of endangered mountain plovers. Afternoons on the plain became so windy that sometimes my clipboard would spin mercilessly on its string around my neck nearly strangling me as I tried to record data—a kind of dry, desperate wind.
I suppose these were all experiences I could have had regardless of my attachment to another, here or elsewhere. But then there were other experiences—some for obvious reasons—that required an independence, a sort of boldness that I might not have acquired if I were still technically attached to someone else. I got into my first bar argument. I kissed my first faux-cowboy. I befriended, and argued with, my first roustabout-drill-rig crew. I picked up my first man in a bar and didn’t even feel guilty. I danced my first Tennessee Waltz. I entered my first (and only) pig-wrestling contest (and lost). I took nightly dips in Fremont Lake, swimming out far into the deep water, the mountains looming on one side as black cutouts against the lighter black of the sky. I walked into a bar and for the first (and only) time everybody turned and shouted my name—a completely spontaneous, semi-drunken Cheers moment. It made me warm and fuzzy. But like anyone trapped in a small town, warm and fuzzy can quickly turn into hot and close—much like the high sage desert in late summer. Even with all that open land stretching on forever, there’s a doomed feeling of no escape.
And so, like a crown jewel to my summer of firsts, the mountains beckoned.
I am sitting in the Winds, watching the sun take all night to set. It seers through thunderheads and bursts into a valley below, I wrote. I camped just below tree line, halfway up to Indian Pass. A thunderstorm tore through right as I set up my tent and I waited it out, a bit nervous, sure I was going to be fried on my first night out. I took a moment to divert rainwater by digging ruts around my tent to keep water from pooling up beneath me. The storm passed quickly. After, I sat a few hundred feet away on a small rock outcropping that looked over the valley I’d just climbed through and ate my bagel. I sat for awhile and wrote, but all I could think to write about was the people I’d left behind. I hadn’t written a page in months, and there were so many experiences to record. But where to start? Instead, I tried to focus on the landscape, on the scene right in front of me, on an ant marching across the rock brandishing a butterfly wing.
After several clumsy tries lobbing a small rock tied to a rope over a tree branch, I finally pulled my foodbag up into the air, out of bears’ reach. When I finally hunkered down in my bag I was asleep immediately. All those 4 am mornings and all the drinking nights caught up with me. I didn’t know how long I was asleep when I heard something crashing through the trees nearby. Something big and traveling fast that suddenly stopped short. I half sat up, heart pounding. The animal was stopped and waiting nearby. Or it was gone. I couldn’t tell which. I sat there, listening, listening. I didn’t hear anything more. I opened the tent after several minutes and let out a few half-hearted hoots. When I still didn’t hear anything, I closed up the tent. I lay in the dark for a long time, my body clenched and all my senses on super alert, straining to pick up on any detail. Eventually, I slept. In the morning the food bag was still intact and I couldn’t find any tracks. In the blistering morning sun, I was embarrassed for having been so scared.
But another story was rolling around in my mind that summer that perhaps justified my fear. That July a college classmate of mine, Dan, went fishing in Alaska. Here’s how the short version of his story begins on his website:
“On July 14, 2003, Dan Bigley was wrapping up a stellar day of salmon fishing along Alaska’s Russian River when a grizzly came tearing around a corner in the trail so fast it had to dip its shoulder to make the turn. He dove for cover, but it had him before he hit the ground.”
I’d heard about it from the boyfriend traveling in Alaska, and I remember the shock of cold that ran through my spine when I heard the story. I was already scared of bears, much of the fear precipitated by a mandatory video I’d watched a few years earlier before hiking in Kluane National Park in Canada. The video ended with the advice that if a bear starts to eat you, you should fight back. Grizzlies are more likely to charge and maim, and then take off. When black bears charge, which is unlikely, they stick around. Dan survived. He was blinded, but he has a family now. A career. A rich life.
“Dragged face-down over rocks and roots, then chewed and raked from ankles to shoulders, Dan tried to play dead. Just when he thought the bear was done, it flipped him over and bit him across the face. A loud, hideous pop. Then quiet.”
I’d borrowed a guide to hiking trails from our bartender at the Cowboy Bar, Jed. He had a goatee and a blonde ponytail that reached down his back, and he was gruff and unimpressed, but not so much in a cowboy way as in a metal-head way. He tended bar on crutches—he’d fallen during a climbing accident—and to break up the monotony of Coors Bud Michelob, Coors Bud Michelob, he sometimes made us elaborate shots like duck farts and atomic bombs—mini creations that took him ten minutes to prepare and were gone in a second. He liked to watch us throw them back, and he’d always say, “Tasty, huh?”
On one slow night we caught him in a garrulous mood, and leaned up against the bar telling us some Pinedale stories.
“One time, some guys went bushwacking up into the mountains. They were just messing around, exploring.” His cigarette bobbed between his lips as he spoke. “Found a body. Looked like the guy sat down to take a break. He was still propped up against a rock, pack still on.”
We sipped our Michelobs with full attention.
“Been dead for months.”
We were all quiet for a moment.
“Just some guy wandering in the woods. Alone. Nobody knows why he died.”
When I retreated back down to my tent site from Indian Pass, and before I went to sleep that last night out, I took a dip in that glacial lake. But the water was so cold I could only jump in and then back out, gasping involuntarily—long enough just to say I’d done it. I wandered through rubble that glaciers had only too recently left behind. I poked around and examined alpine flowers. There were little outcroppings I might have scrambled up and explored if I weren’t alone, but I was too wary of loose boulders that looked like they might want to roll and pin me down. I’m not sure I was lonely so much as bored as I waited for the sun to set. I tried to appreciate my solitude—alone! In the mountains!—to journal, to have profound thoughts. But mostly I found myself not challenged enough to enjoy it, but too scared to challenge myself any more. Whereas at first it seemed like a stroke of amazing luck, I soon became suspicious that nobody else was camped nearby. Was this bear territory? And even if a bear didn’t come and attack me in my sleep, what if it went rooting around for grubs somewhere uphill from my tent and loosed a rock that came tumbling down and knocked me out in my sleep? Eventually my mind wandered from these sorts of scenarios to thinking about my friends down below. I knew what they were doing. I probably could have predicted the exact events—what shitty songs were on the jukebox, who was hooking up with whom, at what hour everyone stumbled out of the bars and down to the moose statue in the middle of Pinedale and climbed astride its broad hard back.
Thinking of that moment now, my inability to appreciate my solitude, I’m reminded of the final notations Chris McCandless made in books in his abandoned bus in Alaska. Right before he’d attempted to leave the bus—just to find that the Teklanika River had swollen with snowmelt and become impassable, causing him to return to his camp—he’d marked a passage in Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness”: He was right in saying that the only certain happiness in life is to live for others….
When he returned to the bus, he read Dr. Zhivago, and noted “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED,” in the margins of the book. Two days later he marked his fatal error in his journal—the plant he should not have eaten—and less than a month later he was dead. Did that mean that he missed people? Was he going to return to civilization because he wanted to share his happiness? Had he done enough? Was he ready to cross that experience off the list? Was he bored, or had he perhaps, a little too late, reached the limits of what kind of situation he’d allow himself to get into?
It’s always a guy. Aron. Dan. Chris. The unknown hiker. How come women never get themselves into these jams? Of course they do, but we hear about them a fraction of the amount that we hear men getting into them. Are we just more careful when we do dangerous things, or do we just not do dangerous things? (Or are those two the same?) It’s a fact that makes so much sense to me, but also bugs me to no end. I wanted to do dangerous things. I wanted to be rugged and solo, to rappel into unknown canyons by myself on the weekend. Sometimes I feel the heat of competition alive within me. I can feel it travel up my neck like fire. I used to burn with jealousy whenever a guy would talk about his adventures of hitchhiking into Bumfuckland, then setting out into distant forest and bushwhacking for four days with only map and compass and a liter of water. I wanted to do those things, and sometimes I did things like that, but I would only do so much.
The year before my summer in Wyoming, a friend of mine had taken a white water kayaking course in New Zealand. She had a terrible accident where she flipped and was pinned upside-down. She broke her arm and couldn’t flip herself over again. Luckily, she’d been with a group of people and someone had pulled her out. If he hadn’t, she would have drowned. She and one other person left the group and hiked eight miles back into a town.
Months later she would talk about her disappointment with herself when it came to doing whitewater tricks. Even before her accident she’d felt this way, and her accident only solidified her feelings. She knew, if she worked really hard at it, she could navigate serious rapids, that she could do the turns and other moves that kayakers do. She had the technical ability. But she also had a limit. She knew there was a point when she’d reach a situation that she just wouldn’t go for—that even if she knew that she could probably do it, she just wouldn’t let herself do something if the risks were too great. And she’d watch her guy friends do just those things, unhesitatingly, zipping through a course that if one thing went wrong it could mean death, but the guy always came out laughing and elated, dripping and grinning and shouting, Did you see that shit? It made her mad—that because she was a smidgen more afraid of death, it meant that she would never be as good of a kayaker. We’d fallen victim to a paradoxically female brand of machismo, and our own psychological limitations frustrated us.
Even with all the horror stories rolling around in my mind as I hiked up to Indian Pass, I never really left the trail. I was never really in great danger. If I had been seriously maimed it probably wouldn’t have taken more than a few hours, a day at the most, for someone to find me. Mostly, being alone was just a little mundane. Alone is, if anything, internal, and I found myself mostly caught up in thoughts, too much in my mind.
The next day I woke early, decided to take the long route back down—eighteen miles via Lester Pass. I descended through fields of Indian paintbrush, rocky mountain aster, pink plumes. I met Alison at the trailhead, glad to get back to our little house. Over the next week I helped Alison clean up our house, get it ready for a next round of renters. She drove me down to Rock Springs, the valley dry now, parched with late summer’s tease of thunderheads that always built angrily in the distance and dissipated again. I caught a bus to Salt Lake City, a flight to Massachusetts. Before I knew it I was back in the world of the politically correct and tactful, back to progressive liberals and intellectuals. Then it was back to school, to the mundane world of paper and schedules. Working on my senior thesis—a paper on nesting densities of certain species of sagebrush birds—I’d pause for a moment and think of the mountains. I’d wish myself back to Indian Pass, to that moment before the hail set in. I’d remember the way the peaks seemed to call in the clouds, and how for awhile not another person was in sight. Just me and the mountains, cold and quiet and alone.