I dropped the large green duffel on the grass and zipping it open drew out the various stuff sacks and emptied their contents and began assembling the nylon tent. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky and promised heat we had not experienced on what I considered the first true day of summer, the Harris’s sparrows having fled, indigo buntings their replacement and the transition complete, or almost. No cuckoos yet. The collapsible poles slid easily through the frame loops and with a simple twist the tent lurched into shape. I thought of how the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River flows from deep within the Wind River Range to a spot just outside of Lander, Wyo., where it suddenly disappears down a cave, and what it was like to step from boulder to boulder and enter that gaping maw with the air humid and throbbing from the violence of the river as it foamed past splintered timbers and plunged into a series of narrow caverns where none could follow. And I thought, I am going there. I am going to the West.
It’s always been the case that the planning stages of a camping trip inevitably bring a low-level thrum of anticipation, something like an electrical shock that goes on and on. Since moving to Kansas eight years ago I’ve become somewhat rusty at generating the sensation after finding the summer heat inescapable, which was not the case in Colorado where a few thousand extra feet in elevation made all the difference between tolerable and intolerable. I’m not one of those who likes to cram cheek to jowl with others in what passes for modern campsites huddled around bodies of water, especially when all sounds of nature are drowned in a thunder of generators powering the air conditioners, microwaves and television sets that particular type of camper finds necessary. While I do appreciate certain amenities I also believe in roughing it now and then, if nothing else to connect to the wild more on its terms and less on mine.
Wild this trip should be because I’m once again accompanying the codgernauts, Chod Hedinger and Jim Mayhew. Our itinerary takes us along the Oregon Trail through Nebraska and into Wyoming, where near the small town of Guernsey emigrant wagons wore four-foot-deep ruts through soft limestone outcrops and a nearby bluff is carved with hundreds of names as a sort of frontier registry of passers-by. When I was last there I received a jolt upon seeing my name with a date from the mid-1800s. Also nearby is a massive fortification crowning the highest point around, actually a stone outhouse built by the CCC in the 1930s. The view is spectacular though nothing like that near Lander, when the Continental Divide rears its jagged spine and the unwitting visitor is stunned to insensibility. It’s true that the West technically begins at the 100th Meridian but it takes real mountains to hammer the point home.
From there we gain altitude until topping out at Togwotee Pass and the headwaters of the Wind River, beyond which the magnificent Grand Tetons lift like a ragged sawblade tearing at the horizon. This is the West of the imagination, the iconic standard, inarguably the most scenic point in all of North America. It’s where one finally understands something of eternity. Two days later we’ll be in redrock country straddling the Colorado-Utah border where the bones of dinosaurs mingle with sands from an antediluvian age and the rivers run brown and turbid through canyons of tortured, folded and warped stone. We’ll once again cross the Continental Divide for Rocky Mountain National Park, my old stomping grounds, before ending our trip midway through Kansas where we’re guaranteed hotter, buggier and more humid conditions. I would consider that a major letdown were it not for the fact that we’ll be almost home. What I left behind will be sorely missed.
As if reading my mind, Lori suddenly appeared.
“Is that the tent we used in South Carolina?” she asked.
Indeed it was, and along the Texas coast, too. I crawled inside and invited her to join me but she balked at the offer. I stared through the mesh at the green Kansas countryside and remembered how we froze to death at Goose Island across Aransas Bay from Rockport, and of how we lay awake listening to the mysterious gurgles, groans and splashes coming from the alligator-infested marshes of Huntington Beach. How there was none of that companionship on the codgernautical journey across southern Colorado and the holy canyonlands of New Mexico. It was like the sun suddenly dimmed or went behind a cloud, and Lori, sensing the shift, said, “I want you to enjoy yourself and have a good time. And think of me.” As if I could do less.
She disappeared into the house leaving me to my lonesome thoughts. My eyes following her wake fell on a baby cottontail studying me with depthless brown eyes. When I said hi its tiny ears swiveled my way like miniature antennas, reminding me of Sheba, that other female in my life. My disconsolation blossomed and I wondered why everything no matter how enriching extracts its own pound of flesh.
The heat was lulling but I backed out of the tent and knocked it down and stuffed its various components back into their sacks and deposited the duffel in the living room. Lori was in the kitchen slicing pineapple so I wrapped her in a hug and kissed her neck. Sheba got a kiss on the nose and sitting on the floor beside her I opened my DeLorme atlases and began tracing our route. Chimney Rock. Scotts Bluff. Register Cliff. The Sinks. Mount Moran. Jackson Lake. The Teton Range. Dinosaur and the Yampa River. Long’s Peak. The Never Summer Range. Lori. Sheba. There and back. The endless circle.