One last stab at the Tetons, first light sharp on the snowy peaks, shadows long, air crisp and fragrant of wet sage and pine, distant meadows pebbled with the shambling forms of bison and elk, ground fog masking the river, photographers huddled over their tripods like protective mother birds and the clattering of camera shutters harmonizing with the trilling of a green-tailed towhee. Surely the ghost of Ansel Adams haunts this hallowed space and these photographers here for a séance divining their cameras the proper conduits for summoning the dead. Please, Mr. Adams, guide our aperture settings, let the light fall soft and luminary on the long curving sweep of the Snake, bless these our humble offerings so they may grace our walls.
Everybody juggled for The Same Angle. I spotted a lone pine in the sagebrush below the ridge and dropped down to frame it in my superwide lens. The upper branches arced into the cobalt sky as if supplicant to the mountains marching away in shimmering serrated ranks. The shutter snapped on what would become the defining image, my own iconic take.
South then, following the spine of the Rockies, the Hoback River shining in the morning light. Chod, our driver for the day, was uncharacteristically grumbly so we tried humor to alleviate the tension. After a while I noticed that though we were going downhill the river flowed toward us. It was unnerving. When I pointed this out, Chod snapped, “No it’s not.”
Jim rolled his eyes and laughed and I retreated to silence. What we needed was some levity. It came in the form of a Nebraska car in front of us that braked hard and swung to the shoulder in a spray of gravel, the occupants gawking at a powerful bull bison standing in a meadow. The creature was noticeably fashioned from some form of metal. “It’s nice to see people enjoying an authentic western experience,” I said.
We dropped toward the Little Colorado Desert, the mountains falling behind and the land opening up and with each mile drying and growing more desolate.
After a while, Chod said, “The river is flowing uphill.”
The Green River, known to the Crow as the Seeds-ka-dee-a, or River of the Prairie Hen, was a braided ribbon of green in an ochre sunblasted land, and Fontenelle Reservoir a drawn-down puddle of colorless water braced by rocky bluffs scraggly with sage. Below its namesake town the river withdrew into the distance and collected into the upper reaches of Flaming Gorge Recreation Area. The term recreation as applied here equates to watercraft and little else, though we found a campground seemingly in the middle of nowhere and pulled in for lunch. We’re reduced to dregs now, cleaning out the icebox in preparation for civilization, and lunch a mishmash of odds and ends.
As we ate we huddled beneath a picnic shelter to shield a cold wind. The few trees were mostly Russian olive and barely alive. It was a hellish place where even the sagebrush looked anemic, but the shoreline was rich with gulls, most of them Californians. A black-capped bird with massive orange bill flew over and we tracked it feverishly. My first thought, Caspian tern, was verified when it stooped over the gulls. Its size alone identified it—with a 50-inch wingspan, nothing else compared. It’s the first tern of the trip and cause for a celebration though the beer was long gone and coffee but a dream.
This was once subtropical waters and shorelines shaded with palms and ferns, the haunt of crocodiles and gar. Mostly it appeared as if everything of value had been stripped to fashion the world elsewhere. Before us rose the blue mass of the Uintah Mountains lying crosswise across the normal axis of the Rocky Mountains, an anomaly announcing an end to Wyoming. As the road ascended it twisted and writhed back on itself and passed through layers of stone and compressed sand each with its own tale of ageless ages, each tilted crazily, each marked by signs explaining the fossils implanted within each strata and the dates thereof. I remarked how our old Baptist preacher who calculated the world a smidgen over 6,000 years old would have found the signs blasphemous.
The upper reaches of the Uintahs were forested with pine and aspen and delightfully cool. Were I alone I would have pitched camp there and enjoyed the mountains one last time but we crossed over to the southern flanks and descended into Vernal, Utah. The temperature spiked to an uncomfortable level so we sweated like pigs when setting up our tents at a crowded KOA. It was a ghastly place to spend the night. Being back in civilization was an unwelcome experience which I longed to escape, and we did shortly with a jaunt into Dinosaur National Monument.
Here were cataclysmic geologic forces evident, with uplifts and faults and erosional beds the graveyard of saurians. It was a raw land though sprinkled with wildflowers and redrock pinnacles and deep rocky gorges carved by the Green and Yampa rivers heavy with snowmelt. Being cramped in the truck all day gave our feet momentum when we spilled out at the first trailhead and hastened toward a line of bluffs. The trail entered a bloodred arroyo and curved and twisted snakelike, its sandy floor scribbled with the irregular tracks of lizards and voles. The light dimmed as clouds boiled up and cloaked the sun.
A small trail branched off and I broke from the others. The path climbed precipitously to the base of a perpendicular cliff and petered out in a small clearing. There carved in the rock were two suns and two concentric circles, their pocked etchings a paler hue stark against the darker patina varnished by time and the relentless elements. So sudden was their appearance that it felt like trespassing and then like homecoming and I reached out to touch the indentations and paused with my finger an inch away and lightly traced its shape in the air and withdrawing my hand turned and left that place to the whispering wind and whatever spirits still lingered.
(To be continued)
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