“If ever I should tell the moment: Oh, stay! You are so beautiful! Then you may cast me into chains, then I shall smile upon perdition!” Faust’s deal with the Devil, from Faust, Goethe.
“Don’t come back early.” I had just told my wife I was going to miss her as she dropped me off at the airport at 5 a.m. for my trip back to Wyoming’s Wind River Range, so her farewell had the taste of “come home carrying your shield, or on it.” We’ve been married a long time and I knew what she really meant, so I silently translated that to “enjoy your trip, don’t worry about me.” She’s funny that way.
My starting point was the Green River Lakes trailhead, about 80 miles south of Jackson, Wyoming. On Wyoming trail maps they call flat areas by rivers “parks” and claim they are great places to camp, and so I’d planned my first night’s stop at a place called Beaver Park. The trail is unremarkable, with the exception of Squaretop Mountain off to the west, which caused me to hear an endless mental loop of the five tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind during the entire hike.
After about five hours of walking, a sharp pain had mysteriously begun in my right knee–it’s the only part of my body that has never hurt at one time or another up until now–and when I arrived at Beaver Park it was occupied by a large pack train run by rough women. No beavers were sighted. Feeling out of place and crowded, I continued on. By the time I got to Three Forks Park two miles further on, my knee wouldn’t take any more and I decided to camp. Amazingly, the one flat, dry area I could find in what turned out to be a mosquito-infested swamp had someone’s bag of food suspended directly over it in a tree, where bears couldn’t get to it. There was no one around to claim it, but I wasn’t going to camp directly underneath bear-bait, and so finally found a tiny spot of grass right next to the river and passed out without eating. I’d covered 13 miles of trail my first day, and the only thing I had eaten was a bag of pretzels on the airplane.
When I awoke the next morning for my first full day of hiking, the knee felt fine. I ate last night’s bag of dinner for breakfast–I recommend that everyone eat lasagna for breakfast at least once in their life–and took off for Vista and Cube Rock Passes. The Vista Pass Trail isn’t used very often because it takes you to only one place, and then once you get there it is even more difficult to get out of. The pass is a 2000-foot altitude gain in perhaps a mile and a half of walking, but as I said it is not much of a trail and the higher you go the less trail you’ll find. But I worked my way up the boulders, and could see above me where the pass topped-out.
Vista Pass Trail, lower and upper
Suddenly, sitting there in the shade of some very big boulders, were three fit older hikers, just sort of relaxing while one of them stared at their map. “Excuse me, but do you think we may have missed the trail to Vista Pass?” I promise you, when you think you’re lost, your brain dispenses with pleasantries until it gets the only important question out of the way. I told them they were in the right place although it might not have looked like it at the moment, and that I could actually see a bit of trail and the top of the pass, although they sounded doubtful when I tried to get them to see what I saw in the boulders above.
I’m always amazed at the wonderful people I meet once I’m at least one night out from the trailhead. “This is a lovely place, isn’t it?” said one without the map, even though he thought he was lost. He told me that as a teenager he’d hiked into the Winds from the WR Indian Reservation on the east side, all the way up Glacier Trail to the Divide and all its glaciers, and that now he was finally back. “I’m 68 now, so this is sort of a last hurrah” he laughed. “Speak for yourself, old man!” yelled across the rocks the third, a woman. “No last hurrahs for me yet.” He explained that she was from South Africa, as though that explained her.
Anyway, I told them I was heading that way, so if they saw me make it over the top they’d know it was the right trail; otherwise, I’d come back because I’d be lost, myself. Halfway up, in sight of the pass over the top, I realized we couldn’t see the trail because it was covered with a recent avalanche, and that the boulders I was scrambling over were moving and unstable. I’d reach and jump from one rock to another–not a childlike maneuver with a 35-pound pack on your back–and occasionally one would move slightly, and I’d be aware that the whole mountainside could just continue it’s way on down any moment it chose. I did finally make it over the top, but never saw them again.
The place Vista Pass takes you is Peak Lake and the source of the Green River, which eventually becomes the Colorado River. But people aren’t going to Peak Lake, they’re going to try and go over Knapsack Col above Peak Lake. I tried last year, but the snow turned me back.
What you get a lot of going to Knapsack Col is liars. On the 18 miles or so of trail up the Green River to Vista, I passed three other small groups. You run into backpackers in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly it is some kind of competition. “Where are you headed?,” they ask fake-innocently, “Knapsack? Us too!” I’m not the strongest hiker on the trail, but I looked at them and instantly thought “oh, heck no you’re not.” I never saw any of them again, either.
Amazingly, after I’d made it over Vista and Cube Rock Passes and was on my way down to Peak Lake, I met a woman at precisely the point where the only other trail coming into Peak Lake met my trail. After who knows how many dozens of miles in the backcountry, we each arrived at the precise point where we could neither avoid nor ignore each other, and I immediately saw that same look of fear I see every trip when a young woman alone encounters an old scruffy guy alone. “Did you just come over Shannon Pass?” I asked just to be polite; it was the only way she could have possibly come. “No, I’m doing Shannon tomorrow. I think I came over Vista, and then Knapsack.” I tried to get it straight in my mind, explained that the trail she was coming down came over Shannon (I came that way last year), and that Knapsack was across the ford below us and then up the Ice Age-looking valley after. “The rest of my party will be here any minute” she lied, really uncomfortable there in the middle of the mountains and glaciers and no one else except a strange man.
I made my camp that evening just beneath Stroud Glacier and the enormous waterfall pouring out of it as it melts. I had seen it last year, and thought “who’d want to camp with that constant roar?” But it was exactly where I needed to camp this year to be ready to try Knapsack early the next morning, and so when I stopped there this year the only negative I could find was a very bold marmot that was obviously going to try and steal my food the instant I turned my back if I camped there. This turned out to be that central moment I experience on each of my trips: when you start walking, everything is a jumble. You are still thinking about your life and the world and all the transient problems, and you just have this persistent feeling of being off center. And then you have this instant of perception, a moment where suddenly everything becomes clear, and the scene composes itself around you, as though that precise moment has suddenly become a snapshot, and you are so extraordinarily content. The trail, the glacier, Knapsack, myself–everything was so clear to me, both in its relation to me and taken alone. Except that marmot. He was a problem. And my knee had suddenly locked up again.
Knapsack Col is sort of famous, mostly because it is the only way out of or into the back end of Titcomb Basin–one of the most incredible places you will ever see on this continent. You can hike into Titcomb’s front end, but unless you’re willing to risk going over Knapsack, you just have to turn around and walk out the way you came in. Going up Knapsack from the west was not easy, but I didn’t really give myself a choice this time. I thought “other people have done it; there is no reason I cannot do it.” Last year I turned back because of the weather, but this was an extraordinarily beautiful day. So I made it over and down, and am proud of that and will never have to do that again. At the bottom, I met the only CDT through-hiker I’d cross this entire trip. He asked some questions about Knapsack, and I said I was glad I’d done it west-to-east because I didn’t envy anyone going over the other way–his direction. “It is straight up a scree slope, about 70 degrees, with that big snow cornice on the other side. Just big boulders down the back, also steep” which is what he said he had heard. When I told him that I hadn’t met any other through-hikers, he said forlornly “I’m all alone,” and I realized how late it was in the season to still be so far south. I met some hikers three days later who had seen him, and he was bloodied and torn from that scree ascent, but on he walked toward Canada.
There isn’t a trail at all between Knapsack Col and the end of Titcomb Basin; you cross a big snow field, and then snow turns to water flowing over rocks the lower down you go, and then you are basically walking down a waterfall. My knee had felt amazing once I understood I had made it over the pass, and I made very good time–ahead of schedule, even–as I met the trail and headed out of the Basin. But the knee suddenly hurt again, right around my tenth hour of walking, and so I found a wonderful campsite in a spot that had seemed totally inhospitable to me when I passed the year before. Outside my tent, just before retiring, I sensed again that feeling of sufficiency, of each thing clearly in relation to each other. And then a bald eagle, which I had not even seen until then–which is not easy to miss because it’s a really big bird and the sky was mountain clear–dropped straight down out of the sky like the finger of God and killed something for dinner, reminding me that even when you feel a scene composing itself around you, to never let down your guard.
I shot out of the front end of Titcomb the next morning and turned back north, up the Fremont Trail and over Fremont Crossing, and before I realized it was already on the section that cuts west across the Elbow Lake plateau to Summit Lake. The knee felt fine, fantastic even . . . until, again, it suddenly stiffened and stopped in the middle of perhaps the least welcoming landscape I have ever seen.
When you stop and look and listen hard at Elbow Lake, you understand what it feels like to be truly alone. It is as if the Ice Age has just ended, the glaciers receded, and you are all that is left. I have rarely heard such silence, and I realized that despite the great amount of water up there, there was no sound of running water. No wind. Only rock. And mosquitoes. I finally found a small patch of flat, rocky soil to pitch my tent on, prepared dinner, and took a moment to be grateful for the experience. And then I took another moment to laugh at the mosquitoes. They had been of Biblical proportions last year, but this year I was ready for them. It took considerable mental re-training to allow dozens of mosquitoes to gather on the netting inches in front of my face, and understand that I did not need to swat them away.
When I awoke the next morning, the knee felt fine. Reasoning that if I had injured it, it would hurt worse as time went by rather than feel better each morning, I decided to continue on. “The worst that can happen is that you will die” I said, and that is not much of a threat when the issue is that you are too old.
Several hours of trail later, I did not realize that I had reached Summit Lake. I knew only that I had suddenly come upon a scene from a more beautiful world, something before us. After the severity of the Elbow Lake landscape, it was like walking into a Luminist painting. Faust would have spent eternity in Hell had he even murmured “make this moment last forever,” and although I was way ahead of schedule and had plenty of daylight left to cover more miles and build up a cushion if the knee gave out, I stopped long enough to allow life to stand still a brief moment.
I met three very friendly hikers, based lower down and out for a long day-trip with lighter packs. When they asked where I was headed, and I answered “I’d like to get as far as Summit Lake,” there was an awkward pause as they stared at me blankly, and then informed me that I had arrived. I could not believe I had come that far that fast, but they were correct. I should have taken note, because this was going to be a problem later.
From Summit I passed quickly “No Name Lake,” which is the actual name of the lake on the map, leaving me to wonder what they call lakes that have no name (there are plenty up high). I was so unbelievably ahead of schedule that I stopped for a real lunch at Cutthroat Lake–boots off, food you need to eat with a spoon, fill up the water bladder, maybe take the shirt off and get a little tan.
No sooner had I found a comfortable spot to relax by the lake than an angry front of black clouds roared over the tops of the surrounding mountains, pelting me with enormous rain drops. During the frenzy to don my rain gear, a barrage of marble-size hail began to fall, and it seemed strange to get hit with balls of ice when it was only in the 60’s. The storm of course ended as soon as I had all my rain gear on, but somehow its passage made the lunch seem more delicious.
At Palmer Lake the trail turned north again, and I planned to camp that evening just after my trail’s wishbone juncture with parallel trail coming in from the other side of the mountains to my left at a place on the map called “New Fork Park.” I felt great; the knee felt great. At 5 pm I came upon another one of those Luminist scenes, a site so beautiful, so still yet full of potential, so pre-mankind, that I considered stopping early and camping there. But I knew I had at least another hour of walking before I reached New Fork Park, and there was still plenty of light, and so I walked on.
And on. And on. At 6 pm I thought “I should be there by now.” I knew there was a ford just before the park, and finally by 6:20 I crossed it. But then it was 6:45 with nothing but steep slopes, and then another ford where there shouldn’t have been one, and I understood that somehow I had missed my turn. Miraculously, I stumbled upon a lovely woman camped in a niche off the trail, and she confirmed my mistake. She was older, perhaps my age, with a beautiful ponytail that ran down her back past her waist. She asked where I’d come from, and when I said I’d slept the night before at Elbow Lake she said “you poor thing, you’ve gone a long way today (a little over 13 miles),” and invited me to share her campsite in the fading light. Despite this being a variation of every guy’s backcountry fantasy come true, I had distance to make up: I’d passed my turn by three and a half miles, and New Fork Park was the inviting spot I had wished I had time to camp at. I made it three miles back before nightfall, camping just the other side of the ford I had made, sharing my spot in the woods with a young moose and a really big deer, each of which walked through my campsite with a total lack of concern.
I had been worried about Porcupine Pass the next day: I knew that Knapsack looked easy on the map but wasn’t, but it turned out that Porcupine looked difficult but was relatively easy. Coming into Porcupine Pass from the south, there is a fairly steep and wooded trail to what looks deceptively like the top of the pass. But arriving at the top, you realize that you have reached simply the first step, a beautiful alpine meadow where grazing herds of elk are quite easy to imagine.
Across the meadow and up the last level to the top of the pass, where the wind suddenly roared above the shelter of my leeward side of the mountains. I had to lean into it to look down the steep other side, and the way down.
Standing at the top of Porcupine Pass and looking down, I thought “this is my last ‘down.’ I’ll not be going up again, at least not on this trip,” and so I took an extra moment or two in that blasting wind to take it all in one last time, and then started the trail down and home.
It took about an hour and a half to get to the bottom and the Porcupine Creek drainage. My knee felt fine. I stopped for lunch at a stream crossing in the shade, and the deer that wandered literally right in front of me as I leaned against a rock was more surprised than I was, although it seemed entirely proper that we were each there.
I flew down the trail after lunch; I felt free. My knee felt great, and I knew I was moving fast, very fast. Until suddenly, still inexplicably, the knee simply stopped. By good fortune I was in a beautiful place to stop; it would have been a beautiful place to stay forever, but I decided to take a nap. I have never taken a nap on the trail. But I took my last two ibuprofens, put on my raingear and mosquito netting so that I could sleep insect-free, pulled my pack under my head as a pillow so that nothing would be tempted to steal my food, and curled up on my side on the cushioned forest floor, surrounded by pine trees, and beyond them the river, and beyond that those mountains.
When I awoke, I felt good enough. I was now more than a full day ahead of schedule, despite the knee. Between the layers of DEET and sunscreen and a week of sweat and grime and inadvertently peeing in my right boot and face due to poor decision making in a strong wind up in Titcomb, I really needed a shower. Even my left index finger smelled like bad cheese, something I noticed my next-to-last day while sucking water out of my hydration tube, and I began anticipating that extra day in a hotel, with a bed and a bath. But it would have been useless to make it to the trailhead this late in the day: it would take a couple of hours to drive out and find a hotel, too late to get clean and then find some meat and beer, and so I camped at the foot of Green River Lake.
That last morning as I broke camp, I went through my usual routine. Everything one step at a time, everything in its place so that nothing is misplaced. I irritate even myself, because I’m so slow getting out of camp every morning. I boiled water for my coffee, and as I broke down the stove and put away the gas canister I thought again “this is the last time I’ll do this on this trip. This is perhaps the last time I’ll do this, ever.”
And then suddenly, as if by magic, I realized that unseen spiders had in an instant spun single-strand gossamer webs horizontally from pine tree to pine tree–hundreds of them between the trees, all seemingly perpendicular to the sun’s rays, all spun only between my spot on the spinning Earth and the lake and rising sun–as though created simply to catch the morning light streaming over the mountains and glisten to my eye alone.
Somewhere there was a waterfall that had roared all night, but I hadn’t really heard it until then because I couldn’t see it, and I suppose by then I was used to the sound of constant waterfalls. Standing there, I thought “please God, I know I haven’t seen a soul in two days, but don’t let anyone come down the trail just now and see me like this.” There’s a line in “A River Runs Through It,” my favorite book: “What a beautiful world it was once,” a wistful reminder of the transience of things. I would not hold a moment forever, not ask Life to stand still. But suddenly that is all I could think about, this beautiful world, and the line repeated itself, over and over, as I walked out and home