The emigrants had the forts, McPherson, Kearny, Laramie, Casper and others, outposts of civilization in the middle of the howling wilderness where shelter, provisions and support could be found. We codgernauts had Lander, and if there were other refuges to follow, none so captured our imaginations nor made us so avid to rush home, quit our jobs, sell our houses, load our possessions pioneer-like and head to the foothills of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Kansas be damned.
Camping brings its own set of deprivations of which we willingly partake. This, in turn, leads to a renewed appreciation for the trappings of modern society. Almost any city or town with hot food and flush toilets looks good after a night in wet sleeping bags, but Lander was different. With its classy microbreweries, fine restaurants and upscale coffee shops—one specializing in gourmet chocolates, a sure sign of humanity at its apogee—its beautiful college girls and scruffy cowboys and clean shaded streets and the snowy mountains rising beyond, the town resonated with us as only home can. Jim prattled on about ways to convince his wife, Patty, to leave Abilene, Chod envisioned a nice house on the edge of town with a little acreage, while I imagined a rustic writing cabin beside the river where I could dap a dry fly at leisure. Lori would come in a heartbeat, I knew.
As we cruised Lander’s downtown we were tormented by signs advertising wood-fired pizzas and hot wings, specialty ales and coffees, and I think in the back of our minds, or at least the minds of two of us, our return would come in the early hours of evening when we would partake of the nightlife and sate our ravenous appetites. That it never happened still surprises me.
Leaving town, we paralleled the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River through lush wet meadows sprinkled with lavish McMansions, the first of many to come as we moved evermore westward. The canyon’s mouth was a narrow slash barely wide enough to accommodate the river and the highway. A few miles upstream it widened sufficiently for a small campground to squeeze between the road and the water, and it was there we stopped to make camp. It was not an auspicious site.
For one, the campground was almost full, with all the better sites taken. What remained was an unlikely duo jumbled with boulders, stunted lodgepole pines, aspens and wild roses, and the adjoining site swarming with a young redneck family group with the alpha male sporting a shaved head, bare chest and holstered Glock. The latter raised a host of questions, not the least concerning the location of the nearest law enforcement officer or park ranger. Also, there was a very real concern over what might happen during the night should a bear wander into camp, or a raccoon, skunk or crazed chipmunk. Mindful of flying lead, I stuffed my tent behind a large boulder in hopes it would provide an adequate barricade. I also wished I’d brought my own pistol.
The river foamed just a few yards away, thundering between the narrow canyon walls. About a mile from camp it took a sudden turn and plunged into a cave. The resulting racket was as physical as it was audible, a bone-deep thrumming vibrating the very air. Rainbows danced above the fine mist generated by the funnel. This was the Sinks, and a quarter-mile downstream was the Rise, where the river re-emerged in a broad, placid pool. Between the two was a barren rocky channel.
For many years it was believed two separate rivers existed for the disjointed segments could not be more unalike. The river enters the hill with a deafening roar and exits with barely a whisper. There is also more water entering the Rise than flowing into the Sinks. When dye was poured into the upper river to make a final determination, the results were startling: it takes over two hours for the water to flow between the two points, but the Middle Fork was a single entity, even if divisible.
I’d first come here with my family when the boys were young and it seemed as if their presence lingered. I remembered how Joel eagerly pointed to the brown trout finning in the Rise, trout as long as his leg, and how frustrated we were at the signs proclaiming the area off-limits. Grouse of some kind passed through camp that evening but I wasn’t a birder and found them merely another curiosity. Now the birds were like old friends, western specialities such as Cassin’s finch—a lifer for both Jim and Chod—and Virginia’s warbler, green-tailed towhee, lazuli bunting and violet-green swallow. High above a peregrine falcon silently hunted. And best of all a young cottontail hopped from a thicket and gave me a happy bunny dance, reminding me of the family I left behind.
After dinner I led Chod to the upper part of the campground where a suspension bridge crossed the river. Dusk was falling and the raging waters luminescent beneath us and our movement caused the bridge to sway and bob. We crossed and climbed the bank into a sagebrush meadow and continued on into the trees. Under the pines the light turned purplish and dim and cooler, and we zipped our jackets and hurried on and came at last to a sign warning of cougars and the cliff seemed altogether more menacing, the stillness ruffled with soft footpads of taloned paws. Here in the mountainous west we’d dropped a rung on the food chain and it was oddly comforting as much as it was scary. Again I longed for a pistol until realizing that one doesn’t have to outrun a cougar, one must simply outrun a partner. Thereafter my plan of action was brief: grab a thick stout cudgel, bash Chod in the knee, and hightail it. Every man for himself!
(To be continued)
(To be continued)