A few miles south of Old Faithful, we took a short side trip to go watch a geyser erupt. Lone Star Geyser was an 8 foot gurgling mound of smooth salt crystals when we arrived. The area all around the geyser was parched white, it was a freak oddity in the forest. There was a book atop a pedestal nearby. The book contained a record of every eruption that anyone had bothered to record. According to the entries in the book, the geyser erupted every 3 hours, almost exactly every 3 hours. It had last erupted 1 hour before we arrived. What a great excuse for a 2 hour break! We set down our things under some trees, and waited.
There wasn’t much to see. It was like watching an egg hatch – not much happened until the end. The geyser gurgled continuously like a giant boiling cauldron. Wisps of steam rose from the top of the mineral mound. Occasionally, hot water splashed over the sides of the mound, slowly, imperceptibly adding to its girth and height. It was as if the mound was alive. It was speaking and gesturing, but what was it trying to say?
People began to arrive in ones and twos. “You’ve got an hour and 15 minutes.”, we’d tell them. They looked at their watches, weighed the pros and cons… most of them stayed. Before long the geyser had a small audience, about 15 people. We sat there, watching, waiting… It didn’t seem likely that anything was going to happen, what was going on down under the ground? What bizarre system of caverns and tunnels were filling and emptying down there? How did the thing really work? Then, it started to spew.
A jet of water, about 10 feet high, splashed out of the top of the mound. It rose and fell, steam drifted off to the trees. It lasted about 5 minutes, then the geyser relaxed. It was still 15 minutes to the 3 hour mark. Was that it? According to the book, there was a minor eruption 20 minutes before the main eruption. The little show must have been the minor eruption. A few people had seen enough though, and drifted off. 15 minutes later, exactly 3 hours since the start of the previous eruption, the geyser went off. The hot water shot with the force of a fire hose, 30 or 40 feet into the air, the geyser hissed and splished like it was angry, or excited, or trying its hardest to impress us. The water fell in a great arc, 20 or 30 feet from the base, steam billowed through the trees. It kept going and going… 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes… then the geyser ran out of water. It kept shooting hot steam though the vent, hissing loudly, then softer and softer… another 5 minutes and it was back to gurgling… ploop, ploop, ploop… We packed up and headed out, how long had Lone Star been doing its show? How many times? I thought… in the middle of winter, under the full moon, with nobody watching… those times must have been when Lone Star was greatest, but we’d never know.click to enlarge
The trail continued south. We passed a few gurgling hot springs, scattered here and there, just to remind us that we were still in Yellowstone. The terrain in Yellowstone was remarkably flat, which was a treat for us. Plus, the trails were well marked, another bonus. We’d heard so much about how fires had destroyed the park in 1988, but the few burns we passed didn’t seem too bad. Not all the trees had burned, and new growth was rapidly reclaiming the forest. The fire damage back in the Bob and the Scapegoat had been 10 times worse than in Yellowstone, but nobody knew about that, the fires in the Bob hadn’t made the ABC nightly news.
We passed a large family of backpackers. One of them told us about a place ahead where boiling hot water poured into a frigid stream, he said it was a great spot to take a dip. I took a mental note, then kept down the trail. We came to another big area of thermal weirdness – Shoshone Geyser Basin. It was a smaller version of the Old Faithful geyser basin – blue pools, gurgling and bubbling mineral formations… One little geyser went off every 2 minutes – a chaos of water shooting in every direction, then, ploop, ploop, ploop… something about it was just plain funny. There were no boardwalks, no multicolored tourists, no whining little kids, just a natural curiosity shop, a fantastic freak water show, a wonderful jewel of a place. We passed the geyser basin and took a break. I set out to find the bathtub.
I followed the small stream up, back into the geyser basin. I found some hot water pouring into the stream… was that it? No… wasn’t deep enough. Then, I saw it, a steaming torrent of hot water plunging into the stream, 50 feet away. I waded into the water. It was a dream. I floated, belly-up, limbs extended. It was about 5 feet deep, and absolutely clear. A light steady current pushed downstream, constantly refreshing the already pristine water. Every inch of my body was massaged and cleansed. I felt pure. I inched closer to the hot water to heat up, floated away to cool down. It was unreal, I couldn’t have designed a more perfect system – nobody could have. It was something that could not have been simulated in some backyard jacuzzi or health spa. Little fish swam between my legs, I said hello to them. I was sorry I couldn’t stay forever. I pulled myself out and returned to my companions.
We headed around the southwest end of Shoshone Lake. A giant wetland extended from the trail, out to the lake, a quarter mile away. It was an unbroken sea of thick green grass. After so many miles on the tops of mountains, it was a joy to see, another manifestation of natural beauty. That natural beauty wasn’t just in the park, it was everywhere, everywhere that it had been left alone.click to enlarge
We stopped near the shore of Shoshone Lake to cook some dinner. The lake was still, the sun got low. A man walked up the lake shore and talked to us, “Where are you headed?”, he asked. We told him. “Well, you better get moving, it’s getting late”, he suggested. We only had 3 more miles to go, and 2 hours to get there. “We’ll be ok”, we told him. Sunshine and Seehawk showed up, they’d started the day sometime behind us, taking nearly as many breaks. The man left, then came back, “I don’t think you’re going to make it.” He looked concerned and almost a bit agitated. He was camped nearby – one of those sites that was full – and seemed to think that we weren’t following the rules.
During the entire trip I met people in the early evening, sometimes while I was cooking dinner. “So, you’re camping here then.”, they’d observe. “No, I’m hiking another 4 or 5 miles today”, I’d reply. They always seemed perplexed by that, as if one had to be “in camp” by 3pm. I had no reason to stop hiking until it was nearly dark. I always thought it was better spend an extra hour on a quiet lake shore, than that same hour later under my tarp. There was nothing to do at camp but sleep, It only took me 5 minutes to set up my tarp, organize all my things and get in my sleeping bag, what was the point of getting there early?
We arrived at our designated site just as darkness was settling in. Nobody else was there, just us, 5 CDT hikers, almost half the population of the trail. We made a fire and stayed up late, telling stories, playing music, singing songs, farting, laughing, life was good.
The next day, we quickly arrived at the other end of Shoshone Lake. The trail crossed about 50 yards of the lake itself – where the lake poured into an outlet stream. The water was over our knees, but there was no current. We waded across. Then, being wet, we had an excellent excuse for another extended break. While we sat there, slowly drying in the sun, a lone hiker came up the trail, headed north. She had a hiking staff with a couple bells on it, a beat-up pack, and an aura that was familiar – she’d been hiking for quite some time.
“Where are you headed”, asked John. “Well, I’m hiking the whole state of Wyoming, I’m nearly done”, she replied proudly. “That’s where we’re headed”, he responded. Her name was Azure, and she was in a perpetual state of blissful shell-shocked happiness. She’d started her trip on horseback, but the horse had run off somewhere near Rawlins – spooked in the middle of the night by a thunderstorm. “If you see my horse out there, punch it for me.”, she told us. She didn’t seem to upset about it. “How were the Winds?”, we asked. She looked right through us and spoke in ecstatic tones, “Oh, the Winds were pure joy!”, she exclaimed, raising her hands as she continued, inflecting every other word with a happy twist of her head, “You’re up there above the trees! there are alpine lakes everywhere! almost no people, I loved it up there!…”. She had a similar recommendation for every part of Wyoming. She was bursting – bursting with the life of the trail, bursting with energy, overflowing with a frenzy of amazement. The coming winter, she was headed up to Alaska – she had a spot on a fishing boat way out in the Aleutians somewhere. “Look out for those boys…”, John warned her. He’d been on a boat like that, and knew what she was getting herself into. “Ain’t got time for boys”, she proudly smiled and squinted, “too much energy!”. Then she was gone.
We were awestruck. I was immediately in love, not so much with the girl herself, but with the thought that somebody could actually be that happy, that full of life. It was possible. Anything was possible. A few hours later, I queried John, “did that really happen?”. He slowly nodded his head, “I think so.”
We took another alternate route – it was a mile or two longer, but skirted the shore of another big Yellowstone Lake – Lewis Lake. The water was absolutely still, reflecting the sky above, and the mountains on the other side. Grand Teton was visible – a pointed shadow on the horizon. We never got very close to Grand Teton, but it didn’t matter, there were plenty of other amazing mountains in Wyoming. click to enlarge
We crossed another Yellowstone road. A steady stream of traffic whizzed by, in a hurry, gotta get there!… but they were already there, somebody should have told them. There were a lot of roads in Yellowstone. I’d always heard about how remote and pristine Yellowstone was, but there were more roads in the area than almost any other section of the continental divide. Even the most remote parts of Yellowstone were rarely more than 10 miles from a road. The park was even building a new road, apparently, too many roads weren’t enough. But then, I figured, maybe it was just a sacrifice that had to be made. Maybe we needed to have some place wild with a lot of roads. For many people, it was the only way they’d consider visiting the “wilderness”. If they couldn’t drive there, it didn’t exist for them. And, things that didn’t exist were easy to forget about, easy to dismiss, easily lost forever to the insatiable appetite of progress. Hopefully the power of Yellowstone was sinking into those people, hopefully they were connecting, learning, growing, understanding the value of open lands, the value of “nothing”, a value that was beyond human objects and money.
We took a break at a trailhead parking area. A stream of teenagers came down the trail, one by one, excited to be there. “We’ve been out there for a week!”, one of them proudly told me. “Wow, that’s really neat.”, I was happy for them. They’d been doing trail work through some teen work program or something. They were getting paid to have the time of their lives. Sure, it was hard work, but big deal! What the hell was I doing at 16? Working at a Burger King? I was jealous, these damn kids didn’t know how lucky they were. Maybe they did, but they didn’t appreciate it. Oh well, better them than no one I thought, someday they’d be my age too.
We passed the last of the Yellowstone “thermal features” we’d see, and camped in our designated spot along Heart Lake. It was an amazing place. The park didn’t allow people to build fires there – the threat of them spreading was too great. I didn’t care. The fire we’d had the night before was the first one I’d sat by since Glacier. Fire was dirty, fire was a chore, fire was dangerous, it was something to worry about. I didn’t understand people’s fascination with it. I met a number of people along the way who seemed perplexed by the fact that I didn’t make fires, as if some essential element of camping was lost without a fire. I didn’t get it. I had my little alcohol stove, it was all the fire I needed.
As we were getting ready to retire for the night, a pack of wolves howled in the distance. The predators which had once been common all over the divide, all over the country, had been given back one small token of their former territory… and even that was too much for some people. I wondered how could too little be too much?click to enlarge
After leaving Heart Lake, we passed through another part of Yellowstone that nobody visited, the southeast corner. We played leapfrog all morning, spreading out according to our hiking speeds. More of Yellowstone had burned in the area, at least the burn was more apparent than in other parts of the park we’d hiked though. We surprised two bull moose. They ran up the side of a hill and stared at us… a lot like cows stared. We stared back. We quickly lost the staring contest though, and were on our way.
We climbed toward the headwaters of the Snake River, the same Snake River that wound through Idaho and into the Columbia, and into the Pacific. Along the way, we lost Mario. We figured that he’d taken a wrong turn back a few miles. He was still headed the correct general direction, it was just going to take him longer to get where we all were going. The valley rose higher and the clouds thickened as the day wore on. Soon, it was cool and grey. We passed high above giant meadows, probably used by the park’s bison in another part of the year. The park kept track of where all the wildlife was. All of the bison were in the north end of the park when we hiked through, so we didn’t see any. I had to use my imagination to see them instead. It wasn’t hard, I was used to doing that. click to enlarge
We crossed the border of the park in a nondescript patch of grass. Yellowstone was past-tense. Some fresh bear tracks appeared in the mud along the trail, headed our direction. These were huge tracks, easily as bigger than any we’d seen in the Bob. They seemed fairly fresh too – perhaps left earlier in the day. We pointed at the tracks and looked at each other. There wasn’t much to say but, “hmmm”. In another 50 yards, we passed the largest pile of bear poop I’d ever seen – a pyramid about 7 inches high. I didn’t check, but it looked like it was still warm. Lucky for us, the tracks soon turned off the trail.
We finally made camp just inside some trees on the edge of a giant meadow. It was almost a square mile of sloping brown grass. The Snake River, an ankle-deep stream, wound through it down below somewhere. It was almost dark when Mario showed up, shaking his head in frustration. Yup, he’d taken a wrong turn. We were serenaded by wolves again that night, a couple owls joined in. I figured, it was the way things ought to have been.
Early into the next day, we surprised 3 giant bull elk. They were only about 5 yards from me when I came over the top of knoll. The animals were huge. As they ran, they dug their hooves into the soil, making the ground thump. In another season, theirs might have been a fatal mistake. The area was some of the most prime elk-hunting land in the country, in the world. Yellowstone was filled with a lot of gigantic elk, and every year, hunters picked off the few elk that couldn’t read and drifted beyond the park’s boundaries. A little while later, we passed two men on horseback. One of them was a graduate student doing a “salt study”. We later learned there was a lot of controversy regarding salt licks in the area. Ranchers put out salt licks – big blocks of red-dyed salt that disintegrated and killed everything in a 10-foot radius – because they said their cattle required it. Elk were attracted to the salt too, but baiting them was illegal. So, how much salt licks did the land require? Whatever the results of the study would be, I was sure they wouldn’t end the debate. People never listened to facts.
We made it down to Mink Creek, the creek we were supposed to cross, but something didn’t seem right. It’d taken way too long to get there. The terrain looked right though, the map showed it was where we were supposed to be… Hmmm. We kept following the trail, upstream. It kept going, and going. Where the hell were we? I figured maybe somebody re-routed the trail? I was losing my mind. I had managed to avoid taking any major wrong turns the entire trip. But I’d finally done it. We’d somehow gotten on the wrong trail, and crossed Mink Creek too far south. It just so happened that the topography at that crossing looked a lot like the topography at the correct crossing – adding to the confusion. We finally intersected the correct trail again, we’d added 7 miles to the hike. Damn.
The trail rose to a high plateau. On the climb up, we passed about a quarter mile from a forest fire. Smoke billowed through the treetops, we could smell it, almost see the flames. It was the middle of the fire season. All the trees that hadn’t burned in the last few decades were dry, primed and ready to explode. All they needed was anything hot – a campfire, a spark, a bolt of lightning… We hoped for the best, and tried to keep up on the latest fire news when we hit towns. As far as we knew, there wasn’t any fire burning along the CDT… yet.
We got another view of Grand Teton from the top of the plateau, our last view of the distant famous mountain – we’d walked a giant semi-circle around it. Like so much land along the divide, Grand Teton had become just a memory. We looked ahead and saw how the land was changing. We were in the Absorokas. The mountains were gigantic flat plateaus, islands in the sky, isolated by vertical rocky cliffs. Down below, rivers flowed through familiar U-shaped glacial valleys. Somewhere, the trail found a way through the cliffs, over some passes, forever south. I forgot everything I’d seen before, none of it mattered, the land ahead was all new, my home had been re-arranged.
We walked through an area where a tornado had swept through 10 years earlier. The patches of forest had been devastated. Dead trees, whitened by the sun and time, lay in discarded piles here and there. I was glad we had better weather today. I didn’t know the correct protocol for being stuck outside with a tornado. What is one supposed to do? What could one do?
We descended to one of the most unique features along the length of the CDT – the parting of the waters. A bustling creek flowed from above, and there, it split in two. The left fork headed to the Atlantic Ocean, the right fork to the Pacific. I’d been hiking on the divide for almost two months at that point, and was very familiar with the concept, but seeing it there made it real – proved that it really worked. I was on top of the country, walking the fine line between east and west.click to enlarge
We got down to the valley floor and hit the horse-packer highway. I didn’t know why, but the area attracted a disproportionate number of “see the wilderness” horse-packing businesses. The packers took groups of tourists out to the back-country – “roughing it” with folding chairs, iron skillets, army tents, air mattresses, eggs, bacon, steaks… In order to bring all that baggage, the outfitters needed to bring extra horses – sometimes two horses per person. I was glad that people were getting to see land they would otherwise only know as white space on a map – land they would otherwise not even be conscious of – but I was sorry it had to be done the way it was done, I felt they were being cheated. Was it enough to just see the land? To me, the back-country was more than just a pretty picture. It was a reminder of our human heritage. Not the history we’d created, with folding chairs and iron skillets, but the history of our birth as a race, a history that started in the wilderness, when everything was wilderness. The land was our Father, our Mother, Ourselvs. I was sorry that these people would miss that, because for me, that was far more important than the pretty views. Sure, people needed some amenities, I had a few amenities… but those people had so many that they constituted a distraction.
The horse-packer highway was a trail of immense proportions. It was as wide as a road. Across every stream, the trail doubled in width to a sloppy muddy mess riddled with hoof prints. It looked like a cavalry had ridden though… routinely. Where the highway was routed over dry meadows, it became rows of parallel ruts, side by side. Horses didn’t like to walk in ruts, so they endlessly created new ones… especially when people didn’t know how to control them or didn’t care. In some places, the trail was 13 rows wide.click to enlarge
We finally made camp along the horse-packer highway. We were tired. We’d pushed ourselves all day to make-up for our 7-mile detour. The sun slowly set behind the mountains. As darkness fell, a man was still fishing in the river nearby. He hadn’t caught a fish all day, but didn’t seem to mind. The day was long, but never long enough.
At midnight, I awoke to the sound of distant ringing bells. It sounded like a hundred belled cows, dancing. It was a completely bizarre and out-of-place sound. I’d never heard anything quite like it before. It got louder, closer, it was moving, headed our way. “What is that?” I called out to my companions. Before anyone could guess, a dozen horses stampeded through our camp, through the darkness. Horses were racing all around us at full gallop. They’d been spooked by something, and were far from calming down. The ground shook all around me, I could hear nothing but the dull thuds of hooves, and the cacophony of clanking of bells. I hoped that horses could see in the dark, I hoped they had at least enough sense not to step on my tarp, on me. Then, they passed. The bells grew quieter and quieter, slowly fading into the night, miles away. “What the hell was that all about?”, John called out. I had to laugh inside, somebody was going to be mighty pissed come morning time, the horses seemed headed all the way to Cheyenne.
Then, a half-hour later, it all happened again. More horses, headed the same way. Once again, we avoided being trampled.
We never saw anybody looking for the horses. But the next morning, we passed a couple who’d camped 5 miles south of us. The horses had passed them too. They said that a group of students from Ohio were out there somewhere, taking a course on “how to horse-pack”. I figured they’d flunked.
We crossed a wide stream, and took a break to dry off… (like we needed an excuse). John was thinking of taking another route – one that hit the highway at someplace called “cowboy village”. He couldn’t decide which way to go. So, he flipped a coin. Cowboy village it was. But, when we got up, he changed his mind and came with Mario and me. We had no desire to go to cowboy village. A minute later, an overwhelming sense of fate overtook him. “Nope, I gotta go.” He did an about face. “see you in Dubois!”, I called out to him. His destiny was on a different path. There was no use denying destiny.
As we climbed, we passed two men leading teams of burdened mules the other way. They didn’t look happy, they were at work. Their job was to go ahead and set up “camps” before their paying clients showed up, then take down the camps after the people left. They had to keep doing that, leapfrogging campsites, while the client’s trip progressed… so the client wouldn’t have to be bothered with all the set-up and take-down, I suppose. They were like roadies for a hard-rock band. Ka-ching! more ways to make money in the woods. It was business as usual, back-country style.
The trail had drifted away from the divide. There weren’t as many routing options in the rugged terrain. The cliffs were like walls of a giant maze. One consequence of hiking far from the divide was that the streams had a chance to gain strength. We descended to one such stream – the Buffalo River. In periods of high snow-melt, the river was nearly impossible to cross. But, we didn’t have that problem, it was a knee-deep ford. We didn’t even think about fording rivers anymore, it was just another part of the land, a part of the trail.click to enlarge
The end of the day found us crossing one more pass. Upper Brooks Lake was on the other side of the pass. It was one of the loveliest lakes I’d seen the entire trip. The water was absolutely still, the shore of the lake wove in and out. It was populated with smooth rocks, soft grasses, and trees that stood out over the water – reflected in the dim sunlight.
We stopped for the night above a long grassy meadow, a small stream meandered down its center like a pencil-thin snake with no head or tail. As darkness fell, the stars lit up the sky. There was a meteor shower happening. I saw shooting stars almost every night, but there were more that night… every few seconds, a silent whoosh. Then, just when I started thinking it was a fluke, whoosh, another silent visitor, another reminder that we were riding the earth, a giant spaceship, set like a pea in the ocean, alone, wandering.
We made it to Brooks Lake Lodge early the next morning. People staying at a nearby car-campground were just waking up. A bald eagle screamed and soared overhead as we rounded the lake. Tall cliffs stood above Lower Brooks Lake, a nice lake, but plain in comparison to it’s brother up above. Some people were lowering a boat into the lake. The lake wasn’t very big. I assumed they were fishing, justifying the ownership of the boat. I wanted to tell them… just walk 3 miles… it wasn’t even steep! see the other lake, it was so much nicer, I was sure there were fish there too… But their world ended where the road ended, the lake was their final boundary, they could go no further.
It was a few miles along the road to the highway. Mario and I decided to try and hitch a ride with any cars that passed our way. We got a ride from the second car.
We’d stepped into the middle of another man’s drama. It was the turning point, the pivotal scene. The man driving the car had been laid-off from his job of 15 years, a job that had been his life, his identity, an office job at a big telecommunications company in LA. He’d lost his purpose, his meaning, his everything. But there was hope, he knew what was going on. “I’m sort of going through a mid-life crises here”, were the first words out of his mouth, but hardly the last. He talked non-stop. Since “the incident”, he’d been driving around the country, fishing with his 8-year-old son, looking for… something… he didn’t know what. He’d obviously done a lot of thinking about things, and we got to hear all of it. The only words I could get in were, “u-huh” and “yup”.
He thought he’d found his new thing, “I’m gonna open up a fishing shop, right in Dubois… but you have to do it right you know, go to all the fishing shows in Las Vegas, it’s all about marketing…”. But it seemed he was just talking through a decision, we were nothing but a sounding board, he hadn’t really figured anything out yet. If he had, he wouldn’t have been so scattered and unfocused. He hadn’t yet broken as far as I could tell. I wondered, how could one fix something that hadn’t yet broken? He was still in denial, he needed more of a crisis, needed to wipe things clean and start over. His son sat there, listening to every word, seeing his father slide downhill, seeing the one man he’d always counted on for strength & security lose both. He was a friendly man though. I hoped that he’d find a life before it was all over. I saw him in town later that day, he avoided my glance and shrugged when I said, “Hello”. He still had a long walk ahead of him.
The laundromat in Dubois was the center of town for us. Mario and I walked by, Seehawk and Sunshine were already there, getting their things temporarily clean. John walked by a few minutes later. He’d somehow wound up at the Mayor’s house the night before. He told us some story about a big buffalo-burger feast, and Mormons, and not being able to drink beer… Fate was a wonderful creature. I spent the rest of the day doing real important stuff – checking out the many tourist shops in town (all with a full line of rawhide clothing), seeing the bighorn sheep museum (bighorn sheep from around the world on display), and hanging out at the bar (run by an ex-schoolmarm who could’ve easily kicked our collective ass!)
The next morning, we were pressed for time. We all had to buy food not just for the next section, but for the next 3 sections – 17 days of food. We stuffed shopping carts full of snickers and “lipton’s noodles and sauce”. We got some boxes and ran to the post office, mailed our food ahead, and got out of the hotel before the guy running it charged us for an additional day. We were excited. The Winds were ahead.
Wyoming’s wind river mountains were something we’d all heard about, but had never seen. Right in the middle of Wyoming was some of the most amazing and rugged land in the lower 48 states. The only way to see the Winds was to hike… or ride a horse… at least a day. No major road came within eyesight of the mountains, and they were huge. The divide cut right through the heart of them. We wanted to get the most out of our time in the Winds – go high, stay high. We laid-out our maps and planned our attack, “See here? I think we can get down this… it doesn’t look too steep”… “oh, man, we have to go up here”… “I wonder if we can just walk along the divide to this point, then…”. We had it all figured out: plan A, plan B, and, well, that was about it. “The Winds are gonna go off!”, was John’s refrain. We finally got around to hitching a ride – that time from an alligator skin salesman who drove us 4 miles.