"I think true wilderness can still be found, but it's hard to reach and dangerous when you get there, which is probably why it still exists."
The plan was to explore the Wind River Range in Wyoming, beginning at the Green River Lakes Trailhead. From there, we continued through the valley and into the mountains via the Cube Rock Pass. Once in the mountains, we found a nice alpine lake to spend a day relaxing before heading back.
I desperately needed a real adventure to break up the monotony of my office life in Texas. My daily routine had turned into the young professional's dream complete with a salary, a secure and exciting job, and regular sips into nightly happy hour specials. But I couldn't shake thoughts about backpacking, something about the mountains called - especially those of Wyoming.
Something about the sheer remoteness and isolation of the square state spoke to me. City life has inundated my senses with those of civilization, and it was high time for a retreat in nature.
The plan was to drive to Wyoming and explore the Wind River Range, just south of Yellowstone National Park. I had been internalizing the trip for months, figuring that August would be the perfect time to take a sabbatical from Texas’ unrelenting heat. What I had not planned was the craze that started to stir, a single word that dominated the news and social media: Eclipse.
Everyone was rushing from all over the country to get under the once-in-a-lifetime American super eclipse umbra. Every hotel room was booked along its path from Nashville to Charlotte, and the state of Wyoming was expected to double in population. Yellowstone and Grand Tetons national parks were about to become a spawning ground for campers, RV’s and a sea of cars - not something that interested me, I was hoping to get away from all of that. However, our plans fell perfectly in line with the plans of the moon falling perfectly in line with the sun. We were going to be right in its path, with 100% clarity, in the most remote mountain range in America. Sometimes it pays to look beyond the brochure.
After thirty hours of driving through the heart of America, I made it to the rendezvous point. We planned to meet in the tiny mountain town of Pinedale. The village rests comfortably in the shadow of the Wind River Mountain Range.
The Winds, as I found the locals call them, are a stem of the Rockies that follows the continental divide. The mountains themselves are solid granite behemoths creating a single massive wall that obscures one of the last true wilderness in the continental United States - an unforgiving, primeval, pristine, untouched American wilderness.
I found myself ahead of schedule and waiting on the rest of the group to make it to Pinedale. The rest of the group was driving in from Pennsylvania, which was about ten hours longer than my trip from Houston. While I waited, I visited the one-street town’s local brewery and stopped in for a specialty beer. I appropriately ordered the ‘Rendezvous Wit’ - a foamy and delicious dark beer. As I sipped on the bitter suds, the gentleman nursing his own beverage next to me teased me into a conversation.
“You’re not from Pinedale are ya?”, the man next to me asked.
“No, just visiting for the night, heading into the Wind River Range tomorrow.”
“The Winds! Ha! Good luck with that.” he said while flagging the bartender.
“Have you been into the range?” - I asked as he handed me an overflowing beer to keep my other still full glass company.
“Not in a few years, but when I was a kid we used to explore them"
“Well, any advice?”
“I would see the boys next door and pick yourself up some bear mace, it's been a bad grizzly year.”
“What does a bad grizzly year mean exactly?”
“They’ve had to relocate three, five-hundred pounders this month alone from the Green River.”
“I guess I’ll deal with the bears tomorrow,” thinking to myself that the Green River Lakes Trailhead is exactly where we decided on setting off into the Winds.
“I just need to find a place to park my car tonight..”
“I own one of the businesses right down the street, feel free to park behind it tonight if ya want!”
I thanked him for the advice and place to stay for the night and helped him make it to the door of the brewery. The ostensibly drunk man slurred something about “damn grizzlies” as he stumbled down the road. I figured that the encounter was a productive meeting, it certainly beat sitting at the bar alone. The locals always have the best information on the area and I planned to truly heed his advice and visit the adventure store that was across the street first thing in the morning to get some more information on this ‘bad grizzly year’.
I tried to get in contact with the rest of the gang to see where they were and how far away they still needed to come. No cell service. I sent my brother a text saying where I was going to be parked for the night hoping reception would pick up just enough to send a bit of text.
Late into the night, the gang had found me parked behind the businesses. I jumped out of the car, greeted the bleary-eyed boys and clamored in the back of the large pickup truck’s bed where we made our beds for the remainder of the night. We snored until the sun rose over the mountains on the horizon.
The morning sun brought a bustle to the little town. Trucks of all colors and sizes rumbled down the single road. I rallied the weary congregation to the adventure store, where we bought maps, bear spray, bug spray, and warm mittens - as we were warned it was going to get cold in the mountains. The owner of the store said the bears shouldn’t be a problem since there were four of us, but suggested to get bear spray as a reassurance.
We left the store fully stocked and ready for a week in the Wind River Range. I drove my Camry as far as I felt comfortable going. Each mile became more treacherous for the vehicle than the last until I finally called it quits and ditched my trusted companion on the side of a road. The last thing I wanted to do was thank the car that drove me safely 1,500 miles by taking down a two-mile stretch of road that would total it. I joined the rest of the crew in Big Blue, Juan’s 1992 Ford F-250 pick-up which became the unsung hero of the journey. I made the right decision because soon after switching cars, the road became impassable to anything that didn’t have all-wheel drive.
The drive to the trailhead was magical. The countryside was a panorama full of green rolling hills, old log cabins, and wooden fences. It was glaringly apparent that we were in the most remote county, in the most remote state. The Winds were truly among the last unvarnished wildernesses left in the continental United States. An ancient, primitive land, apart from the footprint of civilization and progress of a first world country.
After some legitimately scary miles of backcountry rally car driving, we made it to our destination, the Green River Lakes Trailhead. The trailhead was a passage from our world, a world full of twenty-first-century problems, to a world of first-century problems. A place where survival meant eating rather than getting the most recent Apple product. Sometimes, the trailheads also represent a physical passage, and what a passage it was!
Green River Lakes Trailhead
The trailhead began in the mouth of a prehistoric valley. It demanded no creative mind to imagine giant beasts grazing among the foothills. The water in the lake below us was a color, unlike anything I had ever seen. It was a milky green, but a healthy green. A green in which you would feel comfortable swimming in but probably think twice about sipping on. The most noticeable, dominating, absolutely stunning feature of the scene was a very particular mountain. Sitting just barely in view, at the very end of the valley was Square Top.
Square Top might very possibly be the most distinct mountain I have ever personally seen. Of course, you are going to recognize Yosemite’s celebrity mountain, Half-Dome, or possibly the stunning summit of K2, but Square Top was, for me, the most remarkable mountain I had seen. First, it was enormous, taller than most of the mountains directly around us. It was also fat, almost as wide as it was tall. Second, it resembled a square, or more a box. The sides of the mountain followed exactly no resembling features of any other mountain I had seen. It was as if the laws of erosion turned a blind eye to that piece of granite.
Square Top was also our destination for the night. We wanted to make it all the way down the throat of the valley and set up our first camp in the protection of the mighty monolith. However, the mountain was deceptive in more ways than one. The size made it seem like we were closer than we were, and it took hours before we could even rest in the shade of the stone. We followed the trail for miles along the coast of the green lake, occasionally breaking eye contact with Square Top, but it would always return.
For the most part, the trails were extremely well maintained for a wilderness area. I figured it was because of the high volume of equestrians we met along the way. Horseback riding was popular close to the trailhead, but nonexistent further back into the country.
The First Night In the Winds
After a few hours of hiking, we decided to find a place to set up camp before the sunset - it is always best to set up with a little bit of light. We found a clearing in the woods a few hundred feet of the trail and a few hundred feet from the bank of the Green River. In wilderness areas, those are really the only rules, set up camp away from the trail and away from water.
We managed to construct camp before the sun went down. For the first time in my backpacking career, we decided to make a small campfire. Normally, it would either be against the rules of the park, or dangerous to start a fire, but the site we found already had an established fire pit (or one someone used recently at least) meaning we didn’t have to make a new one and scar the land. We kept the fire small, but the warm, orange light illuminated our immediate area. The tree trunks and low branches glowed in the dark night.
There is something magical about a campfire. It allowed us to stay up much later in the night and that meant conversation became fascinating. Without the fire, the night would be too cold and dark to bare, and we would ultimately climb in our sleeping bags as soon as the last of the sun’s light left the atmosphere. A campfire also allows for long periods of silence. The crackle of twigs, the flickering flame, and the smell of the smoke seems to be the perfect amount of entertainment needed to keep us occupied.
Watching the dancing fire is like watching an ancient movie. Awkward silences can't exist because everyone is fixed on watching the fire. Finally, I have a theory that sitting around a campfire lowers people's natural inhibitions. Watching a fire is the epitome of natural tranquility, humans have been doing it for centuries. Sitting around a fire makes us feel safe, warm, and relaxed and we tend to be more willing to share in those kinds of environments. Once the fire died down, it was time for bed.
The first thing we did in the morning was to check the map to see what we were going up against for the day. The day before was a relatively easy hike. There was little elevation, there was no need to climb any mountains and passes, and the trail was well kept and clearly marked. We knew that if we wanted to get into the mountains, the path would soon start to gain seriously altitude. The map indicated that the trail would remain quite easy for a few more miles, and then make a steep climb out of the valley to get above the treeline. It was a mess of switchbacks for a few miles straight and we knew it was going to be rough but were in high spirits anyway.
A Change of Plans
The morning enthusiasm faded with each step. The trail was hard, really hard, at some point I realized that it was the hardest hiking I have ever done, but the views were spectacular. They never get old. It was a mental battle as well as a physical one. I counted four times that we were tricked into thinking we had made it up to the pass, and each time we were welcomed with a false-summit. There would be a little plateau, and then the trail would once again begin to rise. Whats more is that at this time, Mikey informed us that he was not well - fighting off headaches and nausea.
At one of these points, we had to make a decision. Due to the difficulty of the trail, and an equally steep drop in moral, we figured that there was no way we were going to make it to Elbow Lake, our agreed destination for camp. We reached a split in the trail, the sign indicated that the split off of the Continental Divide Route was a shortcut to Elbow Lake through Shannon Pass. An option for a shortcut could not have come at a better time. After consulting the map, the shortcut would save us a considerable amount of miles, but it would also be another day of difficult hiking. We agreed to camp just below the pass and hit it early in the morning.
Cube Rock Pass
Juan and Mikey were struggling, so Andy and I decided to head out ahead of them and find a good place to start setting up camp. You know in movies when you yell at the characters for splitting up, that is what I was saying to myself minutes after cutting the group in half. Andy and I, a few miles later, came across a place to set up camp at the mouth of Cube Rock Pass, the final pass before hitting a large lake that sits at the food of Shannon’s Pass. As we waited for the rest of our party to catch up, the weather started to change.
It grew cold, dark and windy within a matter of minutes, and soon hail was beating down on us. Andy and I sought refuge under a large boulder and made friends with the marmots that chose the same spot. We waited, and waited, but the other guys were nowhere to be found. Andy and I never left the trail, and it was clearly marked. We couldn’t have missed them.
Finally, we saw Mikey stumbled over the ridge. He was alone and had no backpack which was a worrying sight. He called to us and said that Juan needed help. Immediately, I started thinking of all of the horrible things that could have happened to him.
Andy ran down the trail and I tended to Mickey. He wasn’t looking good. His normally pale skin was ghost white, he was breathing heavily but I noticed he wasn’t getting any oxygen, and he was extremely haggard. I ushered him to sit and drink some water. We waited in silence for news on Juan. It turns out that Juan was uninjured he just needed help carrying Micaiah’s backpack the last mile - a distinction Mickey could have told us.
A Teammate Down
Our group has been known to rag on each other, especially Mikey, him being the sandbag of the group. That being said, we were genuinely worried about our friend. He was clearly sick, but we didn’t know what. Merely hours ago, good health and spirits blessed all of us, there was no sign of illness. We had all been eating the exact same thing and had been for the last three days, so I ruled out food poisoning. Dehydration was my next thought, but he had actually been drinking more water than any of us. We ruled it to be elevation sickness but were also baffled by that diagnosis because we had all hiked at higher elevations in the past and had been completely unaffected by elevation.
Elevation sickness has confused scientists for decades. It is probably the least discriminatory illness in that it seems to target everyone regardless of age, gender, or even level of fitness. The most hardened athletes can suffer from it as much as anyone else. Elevation sickness can also be extremely dangerous, and really the only way to deal with the symptoms is to get to a lower altitude or hope your body acclimates.
We were all praying for the latter, after all, it took all day to gain the elevation and the trail was just started to smooth out a little. But things only got worse. Mickey began vomiting, a lot, which is bad news in the mountains.
Vomiting leads to more serious issues like dehydration because the body is trying to get rid of everything and you can’t keep water down long enough for you to absorb it. Additionally, we didn’t have many options. It was starting to get dark and there was no way we could go back down the trail at night, we also didn’t want him to get any worse because there was no one out there to help us. So we asked the man himself what he wanted to do. Mikey, not surprisingly, was ready to go home, but recognized there was no way of doing that - he said the next best thing was for him to rest.
We set up camp as we had originally planned with the strategy of hiking out (or at least to a lower elevation) in the morning. Our vision for a glorious trek in the most remote mountain rage was over, and concern for the safety of our friend consumed us. When we awoke, we were happy to discover that Mickey was back to his normal self! Mopey and whiny, but for the most part healthy. He said that he wanted to keep going, at least for one more day, as to not disappoint us. I slapped him on the back and said that I would even fill his water up for him.
With Mikey feeling much better, we once again met to discuss our plan and agreed that a few more nights in the Winds would be enough to satisfy everyone's needs. Taking another look at the map, we plotted our next point, Peak Lake, which was just over the pass. So we continued up the pass, which of course, looked much easier standing at the bottom.
"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home, that wilderness is necessity, and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."
Pressing on into the Winds
Cube Rock Pass was not easy. It was a mini glacier that carved through the mountains creating a ramp that led to the next level. The size at the bottom was an illusion, and once we started climbing we realized just how enormous it was. The glacier was too slick to climb without proper gear, which meant we needed to find an alternate route along the edges, where the ice had melted and boulders now lay. There was a lot of scrambling, slipping, and sliding, but we made it to the top in good time - despite Mikey’s woebegone condition the night before, he kept up the entire way.
Once we reached what we thought was the top of the pass, a small icy lake greeted us. We had finally made it above the treeline. The lake, however, seemed small to me. We checked the map and found that the lake we were staring at was Dale Lake, not Peak Lake. We still had a ways to go.
Hiking to Peak Lake
After another hour of tough backpacking, the opposite side of the mountain finally revealed itself to us. Below laid a beautiful example of an alpine environment. Hearty shrubs dotted soft, grassy patches hugging granite mountainsides. High mountain lakes sipped on the last piles of snow hiding in shadows on their shore. It was warm and sunny out of the shade and glacier snows of the Pass. Peak lake was much larger than I had imagined, I was excited to set up camp and make it our home for the next day.
I spent most of the wandering the perimeter of the lake attempting to trout. I caught a single fish after hours of fishing. I enjoyed every minute of it as I was engulfed in a wilderness playground. The weather changed every few hours but ultimately remained nice and warm. I gave up finishing just in time to catch the sun setting behind the tall mountains. Golden Hour was upon us.
Once the sunset, Andy and Mikey decided to make a small fire as Juan and I took off to find a good location to try some star photography. I am unmistakably bad at shooting stars, but they were so bright that I found it was easier than normal. The Milky Way lit the night sky in the most amazing fashion.
Leaving the Winds
Leaving the rocky bank of Peak Lake proved extremely difficult. The rest-day was perfect and the campsite was comfortable, but it was time to go. We found, a few days previously, that Peak Lake was not actually going to be in the 100% totality of the eclipse. We were close though, only an hour drive away from totality. Agreeing it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, we thought it was best to leave early and find a new spot, directly under where the moon and sun crossed. So we packed up incredibly early, made a quick breakfast, said goodbye to Peak Lake, and in an incredible fashion, made it all the way back to the trailhead before sunset.
Turns out that hiking down a glacier pass is much easier than hiking up one. We took advantage of the steep, icy, decline and slid most of the way down. It took us minutes to descend what was a grueling two-hour climb the day before.
After a light rain, one of the stream crossings became a different challenge than it was on the way up. Juan was the first to cross and barely made it across the log, slipping and catching himself just before falling in. Andy and I, nimbly and swiftly, crossed the log with no issue. Then it was Mikey’s turn. Even at a small stream crossing Mikey struggles, this was not easy for him. About halfway across the log, the stick Mikey was using for balanced snapped and he stumbled. Mikey managed to catch himself, but not before slicing his hand open. It was the only time we have ever had to use our first aid kit.
After the treacherous river crossing (for Mikey anyway) the rest of the trail went remarkably smoothly. Making it back the truck in record time, we figured we even had time to drive all the way back to Pinedale to get a real lunch before heading back into the Winds to find the perfect viewing spot.
The exhausting excursion we all craved a real, warm meal. The Winds beat the hell out of us and I could feel my energy returning with each bite of the massive burger I had ordered. Pinedale had become packed. People from all over the county came to the town via a single highway. Luckily, we didn’t have to fight the traffic because we had some south from the Range. Nonetheless, we ate quickly and were back on the road in no time. I wanted a place to ourselves, a bit greedy, but I had no intention to share the moment with anyone but the guys.
So once again, we braved some ‘roads’ in Juan’s truck. We found an unused national forest maintenance road and followed it until the end. If our calculations were correct, we would be directly in the path of totality, and if conditions held up, we would see a full eclipse for a few minutes. The weather, by the way, was perfect - not a cloud in the sky. Along the road, we found an abandoned cabin, which Mikey thought was “pretty cool”.
The Great American Eclipse
Our location could not have been better. We had an entire valley to ourselves, a river snaked through the fields below, and we had an unobstructed panorama of the sky above.
Each one of us wanted to capture the event in our own way. I was interested in how the landscape would react to a pseudo sunset and sunrise that would take place in less than an hour. Juan was adamant about getting the perfect shot of the sun in totality. Andy was more interested in our reactions, setting up his GoPro facing us to capture the moment. Mikey was distracted by some dead skin on his hand and was uninterested in capture any part of the moment.
Our watches alarmed us that it was time. With everything set, we leaned back, donned on our (NASA) approved eclipse glasses on, and watched the show.
The transformation started slowly. In fact, we didn’t even notice an atmospheric change until the sun was almost completely covered. Though when it was time, the landscape changed quickly. Everything grew eerily quiet. The birds and insects hushed as the light dimmed, and none of us spoke a word. It grew cold and dark - very dark. It was so dark that we could actually make out the twinkling of stars. And then it hit. The full total eclipse.
Our reaction was.. unexpected. It was such a phenomenal, inorganic, strange event, that we went tribal. We began dancing and laughing and hollering. It was intense, introspective, and honestly, fun. I was utterly glued to the black dot in the sky, and couldn’t take my eyes off the haloing moon. It was beautiful and terrifying. I, for a moment, thought that must be how the end of the world will feel; quiet, dark, cold, and next to Mikey making very strange noises.