Mammoth to Jackson
July 4, 2005
Independence Day. I had nothing inside of me, only a mechanical process to complete before I could begin walking. Get out of sleeping bag. Take tarp down. Drink tea. Pack up. I had no enthusiasm and everything from yesterday had vanished with the rising of the sun. I should stay in Mammoth today and hope to feel better tomorrow. There was no reason to hike out of town today, at least none that I could think of. Instead of doing what reason and feeling screamed at me to do, the mechanism inside of me completed it's list and I found myself walking down a trail to nowhere. There was a river, but I didn't care about it's name.
I climbed higher, following the river, and eventually reached a set of falls. Still I didn't care. I sat by the falls with a feeling of blankness, just as a blender might feel.
I walked along the trail, took a wrong turn, and ended up on a road. Still, I did not care. I walked along the road with multi-ton RVs and trailers whizzing by a foot from my 200 pound body, and could not manage to care. Something had died inside of me overnight, and I didn't have enough compassion for myself to try to revive it.
I found myself at a trailhead and began crossing the plains that, eventually, would drop down to the Yellowstone river. A few backpackers passed me heading in the opposite direction and their smiles seemed to awaken some human part of me once again. I began to question why I was heading to Cooke City, northeast of the park, when what I really wanted to do was to head south directly to Jackson. I could easily resupply at Mammoth, or any other campstore in the park. No real trail system led south, except for one in the Yellowstone Lake area, and that was separated from Mammoth by a lot of road.
As I dropped into the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, I felt positively human once again and was able to think clearly. I had originally planned to go to Cooke City because there was excellent, mountainous terrain between here and there. I could resupply, then hit the prime of the Absaroka range, one of the wildest mountain chains left in the lower Forty Eight. After those mountains, I'd cut over to the main Teton range and follow the Teton Crest trail south to Jackson. Ryan and Patty had both warned me that there still might be significant snow there, but there was no other way to get to Jackson, except by road.
However, I'd already passed through massive mountains and had not been overly impressed. Not only did I have things equal or better in my backyard back at home, but I simply wasn't in the frame of mind to enjoy them. I scratched off the Teton Crest, but I didn't know how to replace it. As I reached the heat of the low gorge, and crossed the Yellowstone on a high bridge, I knew I needed to rest and to think things through.
I found some shade and rested while looking over my maps. There was no way to get out of Mammoth except by road and I had long since given up any illusions of hitchhiking this summer. The trail system south along the eastern shores of Yellowstone Lake, combined with the extensive trail system in the National Forest to the south of the park, could get me a very long way to Jackson. Maybe only two days on the road. How I'd get to Yellowstone Lake was another matter. I could roadwalk from the Tower complex. Yes, that is what I would do. A simple plan, despite the amount of roads. I just couldn't deal with high, wild country any longer. I didn't have the strength to do it any longer. Indeed, from the first day I never had the mental will power or spiritual reserves to handle the rigors and isolation of the land I was passing through. All that had changed is that I recognized this fact now. If I wanted to get to Jackson, then I should just go to Jackson and quit muddling things up by walking east, rather than south.
Feeling better, I strolled along the shores of the river, finding an old elk antler that someone, many years ago, had put inside a split tree. The tree had then grown around and absorbed the antler, giving the scene a freakshow quality that I especially appreciated. The trail remained flat for a while, then began a winding ascent, gaining 1,500 feet in a few miles. Hot and sweaty, I found a tree for shade during my afternoon meal. I ate and drank enough to satisfy, then lounged about in the shade enjoying the distant view of the river, far below me. Shortly after leaving my resting spot, the trail left the forest and dumped me out on a large, open plateau filled with a few relics from the 1988 fires.
I passed into the plateau proper and heard a rather odd sound coming from my right, toward the river. A little startled, for I had never heard such a sound before (like a wounded animal, almost), I walked over a few feet to a low ridge to see what I could see. I looked down and saw a small gorge, through which the river, which I presumed to be the Yellowstone, flowed. On the other side I spotted a man scrambling up the other side of the gorge, away from the river, with an old fashioned canteen in his hands. Must have made a shout or something, I thought. I returned to the trail and began hiking through the open plateau, enjoying the views and the sage. A few minutes after I had spotted the canteen man, I came across a trail sign telling me that I was now on the Hellroaring trail, and listed a few campsites in various directions. A well dug trail headed off to the right, in the direction of the river. I continued straight ahead for another ten minutes until I hit another trail sign, warning me that an upcoming ford was dangerous. I looked to my right, again, and spotted a group of six hikers, young people, both men and women, on the other side of the shimmering river. I waved, but they didn't seem to see me. I continued down my trail and reached, a minute later, a large river, along whose shore I rested in the shade, drinking water.
I looked over my maps and realized that the river I had seen earlier was this one, the Hellroaring. Thirty feet of water separated me from the trail on the other side, which would run quickly out to the road. A two hour walk down the road and I'd be in Tower for the night. The river didn't look especially bad, but I grabbed a large, stout log to use as a brace during the ford. While the side closest to me was easy, the river became progressively deeper and swifter as I moved across the half way point. Legs buckling, most of my weight was on the log, which was very dangerous. If it broke, I was going in and the water was deep enough, indeed I was in to my waist, that if I went in bad things were going to happen. Ten feet from the bank (I almost could have leapt to it), I did the prudent thing and turned around. It didn't really matter as my map indicated that there was a swinging footbridge just a little ways back down the trail. That must have been the first junction I came to.
I retreated down the trail, passing the trail sign where I had spotted the large group of hikers. I kept walking and began to get annoyed with the distance. I had remembered that the first junction, the one with the well dug trail leading off to the river, had been only ten minutes, maybe less, from the second junction, where I had seen the hikers. Assuming I had missed the first trail junction, I turned around and hiked back toward the Hellroaring ford. Nothing. I turned around once more, now rather frustrated, and vowed to walk the entire way back to where I had seen the canteen man, just after coming out of the forest. I walked, crossing the whole plateau, and reached the start of the forest. Now, I was worried. The dug trail obviously did not exist. It couldn't, and there was no way my mind had made things up. My frustration vanished and was replaced by a fear of sorts. I looked about for the minor ridge where I had spotted the man with the canteen, getting water from what must be the Hellroaring. I searched around, and could not find such a place. A bit further down the trail, I spotted a hill, but it was further away than I had remembered the ridge. It took me a minute to walk over to the hill and from the top my fear grew. I looked down to the general area where I had seen the gorge and the river and the man. There was nothing but a dry gully. I scanned up and down the horizon. After the gully,the land climbed to a high ridge, well above me. The Hellroaring was on the other side. It was topographically impossible to see any water from anywhere near the trail. I had seen water and I had seen the man after he got the water. My fear grew as I realized it was not possible to have seen these things.
I quickly returned to the trail and walked along it back to the Hellroaring ford. I never found the first trail junction with the dug trail coming out of it. At the one near the ford, I looked over to where I had seen the group of people next to the river. I couldn't see the river. The sign told me there was a stock bridge a mile and a half up another trail. I walked along it, trying not to dwell on what had happened during the last few hours. But I couldn't. I hiked up for 45 minutes and crossed the bridge, then started down the other side. I had eaten recently and had had plenty of water. I was well rested and it was not that hot out. Physically, I was fine. I didn't know what to call the experience. It wasn't like a dream that one, rationally, knows isn't happening. Nothing un-rational, as it had then appeared, had happened. Indeed, if I had made it across the Hellroaring I would never had known that what I had seen did not conform to geographical reality.
I reached the other side of the Hellroaring ford and scanned the trail as I walked for signs of hikers. A group of six hikers, plus the canteen man, would leave tracks and obvious signs of passage. There was nothing recent. The trail dust had been settled by the wind and it was clear that no one had come up or down the trail in the last few hours. I tried to reason out why the group would be on the other side, but failed. It was far too late in the day for anyone to be breaking camp. I didn't remember seeing fishing poles and no self respecting fisherman would be out trying to catch things in the afternoon. They were not day hikers, as they had the normal mammoth packs that most people tote around in the wilderness. They were not going into camp, as they were heading in the opposite direction. It might have been possible that there was a bridge across the river, just no trail leading to it. Perhaps the well-dug trail was fainter than I remembered it. Perhaps they had gotten across that way. There is no way that they, all seven of them, had managed to get across the Hellroaring while I had not. At a longlegged 6'4" and 200 lbs, I had the perfect fording body type and was well experienced at it.
My fear grew as I walked along the trail, reaching proportions that were beginning to become a problem. I mentally sealed the last few hours out of my head, succeeding only because I ran into an old man and a young man out for a walk. The old man had spent many years exploring this place and I asked him about the foot bridge, after complaining about not being able to find it and having to walk up to the stock bridge. "Oh, they took that out years ago. Said it was too dangerous." Without a foot bridge, I was at a loss as to how to explain the group on the other side. I had nothing left. I spoke with them for a few minutes, then wearily walked up the trail to the road leading to Tower. Because of my searching for the foot bridge, and other things, most of the day had passed and if I wanted to get to Tower I would have to hitch. There was barely any place to stand in the direction of Tower, but I tried anyways.
As I stood there with my thumb out and a forced smile on my face, I pondered what else in my life had not happened as I saw it happen. The only way I knew that I had had some strange, non-rational experience on the plateau was that I had been forced back across the plateau by my failure at the Hellroaring. Cars whizzed past. What frightened me was that there were, possibly, parts of my past that had not happened. What frightened me even more was wondering if this would happen to me again in the future. I would have no way of telling unless something akin to my failure to ford the river happened once again. And still the cars drove past.
Frustrated, and wanting nothing more than to get to a place with beer and camping, I switched sides of the road, knowing it was taking me away from Tower. Two minutes later a park work truck slowed down and I hopped into the bed. The bed was filled with blocks of frozen snow. Where the workers had gotten the snow and why they thought it important to bring the blocks with them was beyond me. After the initial shock of the wet and cold, the blocks felt good on my back and I rested in the bed as I watched the world fly by at forty miles an hour. Traveling in the bed of a pick up is the best way, except for walking.
The truck slowed as we pulled in to Mammoth and I hopped out at a stop sign near the store, thanking the workers for their kindness. I bought a tall beer and a bottle of cheap whiskey, along with some food, and went back to the campground, getting my same spot as the night before. The cyclist was still there, which surprised me as he had told me he was riding out in the morning, just as I told him I was walking out. We both laughed over it. He had gotten a noontime start on riding but just 15 miles out of Mammoth his chain had broken. "I didn't worry, though, as I had the tool to fix it. But then the tool broke also." Eventually a ranger stopped and asked if he needed help. She didn't have the tool on her to fix the chain, but she made a variety of radio calls and located one. After questioning him extensively, they tossed the bike in the back, drove to the tool, fixed the bike, and back he was as it was too late in the day to do much else.
I ate dinner and realized how tired I was. Not from today or yesterday, but from everything. I was weary. I was tired of fighting. Of hurting both inside and out. Of being afraid and of longing for another who is out of reach. Who would be out of reach even if I was at home. The physical abuse I was putting my body through, the mental strain of being out in the wilds, was just too much for a person divided. I didn't have enough resources to do it all. I needed physical comfort and safety before I could heal myself. I just didn't have it in me to do it out here. Some days, like yesterday, had been very good. They were rare. Most were bad. Before laughing at the Brit's story, I hadn't chuckled in a long time. There was no joy in anything out here. I was going home from Jackson for sure. I just had to get there.
I slept until the morning sun fell on my tarp. Then I slept some more. I had a true zero day coming to me, with quite literally nothing to do. My morning plans consisted of drinking some tea and then sitting in the sun. At 9 I finally got out of my sleeping bag and stood in the warm air wearing only my underwear. I made tea and waved at the people as they drove out of the campground, heading somewhere. When the Brit finally woke up (around 11; he was a good sleeper), I had finished my tea, but had still not dressed. We talked for a while and I began to feel hungry, which meant that I had to put my clothes on and walk up to the general store. I dressed, said my goodbyes, and sauntered up the trail (I had missed it the first time I was here) to the store. I bought a cup of coffee, a newspaper, some post cards, a bad sandwich, a big bag of chips, a soda, and two fried fruit pies. That should hold me till dinner, I thought.
I found a shady tree near the visitors center and had a sit underneath it to read the hopelessly idiotic USA Today. I used to think that the newspaper had as it's target audience those people with a fifth grade education, but now had to drop it still lower. I managed two hours with the paper and then wrote out the postcards for friends and family. With the late afternoon on my hands, and nothing concrete to do, I tried to figure out how to get out of Mammoth. I wanted to leave hitchhiking as a last resort. The Visitors Center? Why not.
Stinking and dirty, I walked in to the crowded, enclosed room filled with parents and their kids. There wasn't a hiker or backpacker in sight. The rangers were busy helping the kids with the "Junior Ranger" program or explaining which roads were closed in the park. Backcountry office must be elsewhere, I thought. When it was finally my turn, I asked a helpful ranger if there was any way out of Mammoth if one didn't have a car. This didn't seem to be a common question in a park known for autotouring and the ranger had to stop and think. "You know, something like a shuttle bus?" I asked again. "No, no shuttles in the park. You could try hitchhiking," he offered. I thanked him and walked out, not sure what to do.
As I was walking over to the general store for some more food, I saw the same signs that I had yesterday and the day before. Today, however, my mind seemed to be aware of what was going on around it. A sign next to the hotel proclaimed something called, "Scenicoach Tours". Intrigued, I walked inside the hotel and waited to be helped. I could feel the stares from the clean tourists staying in the hotel, wondering what exactly I was and why I was invading their safespace. Staying in a hotel in a national park seemed peculiarly stupid to me, but many parks had them and they were popular. The clerk that helped me was new to the park and a little unsure of what I was asking about, but finally produced a map and I could see where the coach would go. I could get as far as the Lake complex, which was about 10 miles away from the trailhead that I wanted. The tour would take in all the standard sights of Yellowstone, which was an added bonus. The only sting was the $54 price tag. It didn't sting for long. I bought the ticket, not for tomorrow but for the next day. I was going to take a good, long rest here in Mammoth before I went anywhere else.
I bought some goodies for dinner along with a six pack of Sierra Nevada and retired to the campsite, where no one would stare at me. As I strolled past the amphitheater, a friendly ranger named Michael called over to me. I had talked to him the night I came over Fawn Pass, but had declined to go to his presentation because of my exhaustion. He frequently worked in the Visitors Center, but when they needed someone to chop wood, he quickly volunteered. I'd have made the same choice. I talked with Michael about my trip so far and what was coming up. He added that the Teton Crest would probably still be buried if I took to it for some reason. He was enthusiastic about my route out of the park, adding that it was a really neat part of the park. Like so many other rangers in the park system, he took the job here not for the money or the work, but because it gave him a great backyard.
We talked for an hour and then he had to go back to the Visitors Center, and I to my picnic table. I took off my shirt and sat in the sun drinking Sierra Nevada. Michael had shown a lot of interest in what I was doing and expressed admiration. Although I normally try to keep my ego in check, I needed the words from him, from someone who had some idea of what it was like to spend time in Wilderness. I wrote for a while, enjoying the warm sunshine, and contemplated myself.
Much of what has bothered me this summer, as I had come to realize, is a reflection of myself. The other person involved, the person that I thought had caused this, really just brought this into clarity. It took me a while to see it, but see it I did. As much as I wanted her for myself, this was not going to happen. However, as much as my mind could see this, as many arguments as it could pile up, my heart just wouldn't let go of things. It didn't want to understand and was being stubborn. My heart kept telling me that things might change, that I needed to find out one last time. After my fourth Sierra, I decided that both were right. I needed closure for the heart and to confirm what the mind already knew. Then, perhaps, I could have some peace again and work toward something more positive.
Just as I was cracking open the fifth lovely pale ale, a cyclist pulled in to the campsite. Mike was cycling across America, but seemed to have his car parked at Cooke City as well. It was a little unclear where he was heading, but he was having a great time doing it. Despite having just been hit by a car while riding in on the road to the campsite site (truck got too close, bounced him into the ditch), Mike was all smiles. He quickly unpacked his bike, then road off in search of some hot springs just down the way. I finished my beer and ate dinner, then moved on to the partial bottle of whiskey that I had left from the night before. Mike returned just before the ranger program in the amphitheater and had to sprint up to the general store to buy food before it closed. I sat in the amphitheater and discreetly drank whiskey from a soda bottle while watching a slideshow on the marketing of Yellowstone as a tourist destination. Not very appealing. Neither was the cheap whiskey.
Mike was already in his tent when I returned from the program, but came out to talk for a while. I hoped that tomorrow would be just as delicious as today had been. I felt so good that I had started contemplating hiking on past Jackson. Nothing serious, but if I was feeling good when I got there, why not?
In the morning I realized that the desire to hike on after Jackson had a lot to do with the alcohol, as the feeling had faded completely. I sat in my underwear in the sun and boiled water for tea. Almost immediately another cyclist named Martin rolled into the campground. Young and intense, Martin was from Ohio, but was spending the summer working in Gardiner, just north of the park. He had today and tomorrow off and wanted to come down and see the park for a bit. Martin reminded me much of my friend Will from the PCT. Same age, same build, same quiet intensity. Mike emerged from his tent and the three of us sat around getting to know one another until noontime and hunger. Martin set off for a day hike and Mike and I hiked up to the general store, where we milled about with the tourists for a bit.
Fully supplied for the afternoon, we parted ways and I found a different, though equally pleasant, tree to sit under and read the indescribably simpleminded USA Today. Another beautiful zero day, but I needed more activity after finishing the paper in the mid afternoon. I called my mother and chatted with her for a half hour before she went off to work. I told her I would almost certainly be going home after I got to Jackson. She understood, wishing for nothing but my happiness. As I was clearly unhappy out here, it seemed to her to be the most reasonable thing that I could do. After I hung up, I tried calling another, but got only a voice mail. I wasn't sure if I really wanted to talk with her, so perhaps the voice message was for the best. I bought some more beer and dinner at the general store and then walked down to the campsite, where Mike and Martin were chatting away.
We talked about women for a while, as Mike missed his girlfriend intensely, and they knew something of my problems at home. Mike was worried that his relationship wouldn't last the trip, that the distance and separation would simply be too much, that they would grow apart. He wanted her to be there for him when he returned, but knew that this might be asking a lot. It seems relationships and long distance cycling don't mix well. They don't unless, like with long distance hiking, the other person is the right sort. Someone who understands the need to get out and throw off the tameness that ordinary life requires. Someone who can withstand the separation without feeling rejected or wandering. It happens, but it is rare. I reflected on the number of couples that I knew whose relationship endured such things in the past. I could only think of a few. Darkness began to fall. Sleep was required after my hard day.
Moving day came far too early for my tastes. I couldn't sleep in and then sit around in the sun drinking tea in my underwear because I had to get on a bus at 8:30 and tour Yellowstone. Mike was still sleeping as I packed up, but Martin was awake and doing his own moving thing. We talked for a bit, each giving the other some words of encouragement. And then I was gone. I bought a coffee and muffin from the general store, uncrowded at this early hour, and waited for the big yellow bus that would, eventually, get me to Lake. The crowd waiting for the bus was as expected: Old folks who were staying at the hotel. The bus pulled up and I accosted the driver, a young climber-hiker named Mike who mistook me for a park employee when I told him that I was just going to Lake. "Sorry, we're all full today," he told me. "I've got a ticket, though," I replied. He laughed and explained his mistake (park employees get to ride for free when there is room). We talked about the route I was taking and he, like Michael a couple of days before, was very enthusiastic about it. At least until I got on the road. Also, like Michael, he added that the Teton Crest would be rather difficult right now.
Everyone boarded and Mike gave a standard speech before setting out. We didn't drive very far before the first stop: Two hundred yards up to the hot springs which Mammoth is famous for. The bus unloaded and we walked about on the boardwalks as Mike explained what we were looking at. He was clearly comfortable with his job and liked doing it. I thought it took a person with special, rare qualities to be able to do that.
After a twenty minute tour, we re-loaded and set out for a further off destination, with Mike describing things along the way, including something of the history of the area. The flora and fauna, of course, were covered, along with the impact of tourism, which we got to see first hand. We hit a traffic jam on the road, with cars piled up along both sides. The cause, of course, would prove to be animal related. One car spots an animal and stops to gawk or take pictures. Then, more cars stop. Sometimes the animals will already have left the scene, but people still stop and stare, searching for something to see.
The cause of this particular traffic jam happened to be two bull elk, wandering about in a meadow a few yards from the road. Some idiot tourists were within a few feet of them, so after letting us off the bus Mike went over to warn them that elk have attacked people in the past and that they should give them a slightly wider berth. The ignored him for the most part. I didn't understand why people took such an interest in the elk. They are, after all, very common. But, I'd seen people stop in the Grand Canyon to look at deer alongside the road.
We whizzed past one of the main hot springs as the parking lot was already full, despite it's Wal-mart-esque proportions. Instead we cruised along, viewing some wildlife here and there, to Old Faithful, where we stopped for an hour so that we could see water shoot into the air and get some lunch. After securing a sandwich and some potato salad, I picked out a spot to watch the geyser erupt and waited, along with a host of others. When it finally blew, I was disappointed. The water went up for a few seconds, then came down. Puzzled as to why people found it so intriguing, I set off to walk along a boardwalk and view some of the other thermal features of the geyser basin.
These were much more entertaining, as they had things like color, smell, and texture. The thermal features of Yellowstone seem to fall into three categories: geysers, hot springs, and mud pots. The mud pots had their own charm, but it was the hot springs that I liked the most. Almost always they had some interesting mineral stains about them, and these stains came in many different varieties.
Some of the hot springs were deep and a perfect, almost glacial, blue. There were large ones and small ones, bubbling ones and still ones.
But, always, I found the mineral trails that surrounded them, or led away from them, or into them, the best. Some were so odd that I couldn't imagine people wasting time with things like Old Faithful. I wished for more time in the basin, along the boardwalk with all the other tourists (for, that was what I was for the next few hours), but the bus was leaving soon and I had to hustle back.
The basin was, indeed, a special place and I was sad to find that I was the first person back to get on the bus. All the others had lingered on the boardwalk, or in the cafeteria (?). I should have done the same on the boardwalk, but my window had passed. The bus was now leaving.
Our next destination was the West Thumb geyser basin, sitting right alongside enormous Yellowstone Lake. This was another famous basin and held quite a bit of interest for me. The blue lake formed the perfect backdrop for the otherworldly thermal features. Although I stayed with the tour group for a while, I wanted to get out on my own for a bit. Even though Mike gave interesting talks, there is something about moving about at your own pace that is more appealing.
As I walked about the boardwalk, I was amazed to find that the hot springs here were significantly larger than those I had seen in the Old Faithful basin. Some were as large as home swimming pools and looked very inviting for a dip. A dip would mean a rather painful death, however.
Separated from the tour group, I found my own space and stopped where I wanted, for as long as I wanted, though I quickly found myself far ahead of the group. I searched for stains and interesting things to take pictures of, indulging the wannabe artist inside of me.
One stain in particular really drew my eye. Wide and flowing, like a river, it washed down toward the lake in a stunning array of reds and yellows and browns and, gasp, purples. When Yellowstone was first reported to the Eastern cities, it was known as Colter's Hell, named after the first, probably, white man to come across it. John Colter, who would later go on to become a famous mountain man and guide, was one of the youngest of the men who helped Lewis and Clark cross the continent.
On their way back down the Missouri, the party ran into a fur trapping outfit on their way up to the Rockies. Colter asked permission, and received it, to guide the fur trapping party upstream to where beaver could be found. Colter would eventually find the thermal features of Yellowstone and reported them with such style that the place became known by its devilish name.
Looking at the West Thumb thermal features, I wished the park had stuck by this first name. It captured, much better, the essence of the park, I thought.
I waited in the shade for the tour group to reform and to finally get to Lake. This didn't take long and, after a short ride, I hopped off the bus and thanked Mike for everything. Unfortunately, I had misread the map and the closest ranger station, where I could get a permit for the one night I'd be camping in the backcountry, was back at the Bridge Bay Marina, past which we had driven a few minutes early. Only a couple miles, I thought. I can manage that. I walked through the hotel at Lake, a very posh one, and exited through a door only to find a bison feeding on the grass next to the door. The bison didn't care a lick that I was there and I slipped quickly by it and walked down the road.
The marina was only a forty minute walk down the road and traffic wasn't too bad at this time of day. I had to watch a video about being safe in the back country and explain, three or four times, what my route was going to be. One of the rangers called in to the main office to ask about fords and reported that there would be no serious ones where I was going. My permit secure, I bought some very scanty supplies in the general store (all three dinners would be Cup O'Noodles) along with some beer for the night. Another $5 bought me a tent site reserved for hikers, comfortably in the woods and well away from the RV and trailer crowd, with their satellite dishes and generators.
I thought about the future as I swilled beer and swatted at the mosquitoes, which kept me from taking off my clothes. The future back home, that is. For, out here I have only a week or so before I reach Jackson and end this thing. The same mind-heart struggle as before, with the same results as before. I needed, at some point, to consider what I wanted the future to bring. Did I really want to be domestic and middle class? What would I give up to attain such a thing, if I did want it? Did I want things to continue with her as they had before I left? I didn't really know the answers to those questions, but I had a lot of time to ponder them before I got home. Starting tomorrow, I'd be back in the solitude of wilderness and would not be able to run away from the questions any longer. Starting tomorrow, I'd have to face things as they really were, without lies or veils, without self deception. I'd be back under the microscope, being stared at by myself.
I wanted coffee this morning before setting out on the road, which meant sleeping in late to make the 7:30 am opening of the store at the marina. Besides wanting the flavor and caffeine of the beverage, I thought that by holding a cup of coffee while hitching would improve my odds for getting a ride out to the trail head. I was actually happy to be starting out on this leg of the trip. Three days in relatively easy, pretty country and then a few days along roads to Jackson. A simple plan, I thought. I walked the few miles out to the Fishing Bridge (where fishing isn't allowed) and drank my coffee, but had to stop and wait for three bison to walk across the bridge.
I cowered with two women rangers by their car as the bison came close, hoping they might offer me a ride to the trailhead. Alas, once the bison climbed up the hillside, the rangers went about their duties, which seemed to consist of using a GPS to fix the location of the bridge. I walked over the bridge to the General Store on the other side, where I dropped my pack and put out my thumb. The cars rolled by, barely even noticing my existence. I waited for about an hour and then set out down the road as the day was nice and the shoulder was wide. After less than a mile, however, the shoulder narrowed to a foot and was non-existent in some places. I walked until I was tired and then tried hitching near a road side pullout. I took off my PCT bandanna and unfolded it to use as a flag. On one side was written, "Hiker to Trail." This worked on the PCT, why not now? Cars drove by and actually slowed down. As they approached me at 5 miles per hour, I could see their eyes reading the message on the bandanna before they passed me and sped up to a normal cruising speed. I was a road side attraction, it seemed.
Although watching the tourists slow down for me, read, and then speed up was funny for a while, after an hour I set out walking again and after three miles, and a few bison encounters, I reached the trailhead. Ten road miles had wearied me, but I was here at the start and that was what mattered to me at the moment. The day was hot and there was no shade: The area had burned hard a few years back (after the 1988 fires) and there was no tree cover for me to relax in for the first two miles.
I came to the edge of the burn area and a minor river ford, which I waded through with ease. And then Biblical plague of mosquitoes met me on the other side. They came at me like those in Northern British Columbia. They came at me harder than those of the Oregon PCT. They came at me with the intent to destroy me, to avenge all their brethren that I had killed over the years. I tossed my pack off quickly and pulled on my rain jacket, despite the heat. And still they came. Like walking thought a rain storm, I could feel them bouncing off of me as I sped down the trail, hoping I could out hike them. With normal mosquitoes one can outpace them if one walks at four miles per hour or so. Not with these. They bit through my beard and drew blood on my face. My hands began to swell. I was killing them by the score, but it made no difference. Indeed, I could simply open and close my hands, making fists, and kill several every time. I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head and cinched the opening down as small as it would go. Sweltering in the heat was better than being stung through my beard.
I came out to an open hillside where the wind was blowing hard enough to keep the bugs at bay, and where the mass blue of Yellowstone Lake shone for the first time along the "shoreline" trail. My reprieve lasted only twenty minutes. Plunging back into the forest, I resumed my struggle to keep blood inside body. I failed for the most part. Racing, pushing, almost running, I tore down the trail, not in the hopes that I would be able to outrun the bugs, but simply to get to my campsite for the night and put up my tarp, inside of which I would be safe from the horde. I was near the end of my mental rope when I reached the turn off for Camp SE3 (Brimstone Point sounds much better) and ran down the access trail to the camp, which was fortunately directly on the water with a pleasant stream near by. The wind wasn't strong enough to keep the bugs away completely, but it was of sufficient strength to keep the mosquito levels down to an acceptable population. Acceptable in terms of what I had just come through. I put up my tarp and then sat down in the shade of a tree to write and relax and kill the bastards. I spent five minutes killing bugs on my calf (just the left calf) and then took a picture to record my work.
I had had a powerful dream last night and now had the opportunity to think it over a bit. Not filled with sadness, but rather with evil, the dream had left a mark on me without much memory of the specifics. Just a feeling of evil and a disfigured face. The evil was one thrust upon myself and another. We were the victims of it and it was disturbing. The tough thing about dreams is that the harder one tries to remember specifics, the more they fade away. My thoughts drifted away from the dream and to what I would do after Jackson.
Going on seemed unimaginable at this point, but still possible. Going home seemed very pleasant indeed. I could get the closure that I needed and them set out on some local trips that I had been wanting to do, but had lacked the time during the year. With the Olympics and the Cascades in my backyard in Washington, I could indulge myself and explore my new home properly. I could visit friends that had been neglected and begin a new life for myself using what I had learned, painfully, during this first segment of the summer.
My belly rumbled and that drew me to dinner. Mosquitoes buzzed and I killed them. The sun began to set and that drew me to my tarp. I got out of my clothes and laid on my sleeping bag listening to the buzz of the mosquitoes outside. It was nice to finally be cool and unbothered by the bugs, to be able to relax and read and write without having to constantly defend myself from their attack. I would have a few hours in the early morning when it would be cool enough that the mosquitoes could not attack. A few hours should get me to Thorofare, after which the bugs should start to drop off as I left the shore of the lack. At least, I hoped they would drop off after Thororfare, for I did not know if I could take an entire day, let alone two, of the bastards.
My hopes were fulfilled in the morning. While there were a large number of mosquitoes on the bug netting of the tarp, once I had packed up and was moving in the cold air I was free of them at last. I wasn't especially happy to be walking again, but I was comfortable at least. I could see the southern end of Yellowstone Lake and something of my route after it.
Ninety minutes of easy walking brought me to the end of the pleasantness. The trail brought me to a ford. The ford was the trail. The trail had been, I suspect, flooded by a rare beaver dam. Knee deep in some places, the water was cold enough to numb my feet almost immediately and to make walking the several hundred yards of flood rather painful. At least the bugs were not out yet.
When I reached a trail junction, telling me that the Yellowstone Ford was just ahead, they attacked. I pulled my hood over my head again and marched on, not concerned about the ford in the least. After all, the rangers at Bridge Bay had assured me that there were no hard fords on my route. They had even called the main backcountry office to get the important information. Surely, there was a bridge. The sign must just mean the horse ford. My faith in the rangers and what they knew of the Yellowstone backcountry was quickly dashed when I reached the gravel shore of the lower Yellowstone River.
I laughed at my faith and my position, for there was no way that I could get across this river with my gear. I could easily have swum across, but not with my pack. I waded out less than ten feet into the forty or fifty foot wide river and was up to my hips. I hadn't even gotten to the fast part of the river yet. I waded back across to the bank and sat down in the gravel to rest for a bit and think. The openness of the river area kept many of the bugs away, but not completely. I waited for a few to settle on my legs and then took a photo of them. [The bugs seen below are all alive and are typical of the number that would settle on me if I didn't continually swat at them.]
There was another trail leading south out of the park, but while a bridge was marked across the Thorofare River, there was only a ford of the Yellowstone. The Yellowstone would certainly be lower there, and if I could ford it I could still walk trails for a long way to Jackson. But, the river would have to drop by something like seven or eight feet in order for me to get across it. It just wasn't going to happen. I had to go back. And so hike back I did, running into the Thorofare backcountry ranger and a group of volunteers working on improving a patrol cabin. The ranger station was on the other side of the Yellowstone and I asked the ranger how she got across. "Oh, we came in in May before the river rose. I won't get back to it for another month or so, when the river goes down again." Marvelous, I thought. She shook her head in disgust when I related what the rangers in the backcountry office had told me.
As the bugs were attacking in full force, I put my hood back on and started the race back to the road. I was running for a road. A bloody bit of asphalt. That was my goal. I turned off my mind and began my race. After two hours I was nearing Brimstone Point, my camp last night, and almost ran into the largest grizzly I have ever seen. I was walking up hill and around a corner. Mr. Grizz was coming down hill and around the same corner. We met at the apex and stared at each other. I could do nothing at this point. A swat from the 800 pound alpha predator would be it. Probably wouldn't even hurt very much. Not a bad way to go, but I didn't especially feel like dying out here. The bear huffed at me, turned around, growled, and sauntered off into the woods. It didn't run or walk. It sauntered.
Although tired, I wasn't about to sit down and rest. I powered on, noting the bear tracks along the trail and splash marks coming out of a near by creek. I walked on for an hour and then took a short rest, swatting continuously at the bugs. I lasted five minutes and then had to race on. I found my open hillside once again and rested more properly in its bug free haven. This really sucks, I thought to myself. This really sucks, I said out loud. This really sucks, I yelled to the sage. No one but myself was going to get me out here, and the only means was on foot. I walked on.
Shortly before 4 pm I reached the road and the end of the bugs. I was physically tired, having covered 26 miles in short order. I was mentally tired as now I had to walk roads all the way to Jackson. I was spiritually empty and slugged along the road with nothing left. I found a bear-induced traffic jam. A parks volunteer pointed down toward the shore of a lake and told me there was a grizzly down there. I looked and saw a yearling black bear, wondering how a parks volunteer could mistake a little black bear for a grizzly. A ranger pulled alongside me and asked me if I had seen the bear. I nodded, not feeling like speaking much unless she was going to give me a ride. She sped off in the opposite direction.
And so I kept pounding my feet against the pavement, not even bothering to try to hitch. I had walked almost four miles before a miracle happened. A black Saturn was waiting on the other side of the road in a pull out. Waiting, apparently, for me. The woman driving it waved at me and asked me if I wanted a ride. I came over immediately. She had seen me walking and thought that I really needed a ride. I did. She worked on a road crew that was improving one of the park roads and was on her way back from work. She never picked up hitchhikers and her husband would be furious if he found out, but she just couldn't pass me up. I wanted to marry her there and then, but instead got out of her car at Bridge Bay Marina and bought some beer. I got the same campsite as the night before, drank my beer, and went to sleep very weary and very tired. The Xanterra people, who ran the campsite, had warned me that the mosquitoes were very bad here. That was the only thing capable of bringing a smile to my face as I buried my head in my sleeping bag and waited for the slumber that would end the day. The sleep that would bring me one day closer to going home.
It rained over night and well into the morning, giving me a good excuse to sleep in. When the patter over head stopped around 9, I packed up and walked down to the store to get coffee and a muffin. Three park church guys were there and we talked about my trip and the trials and tribulations I had gone through so far. Their enthusiasm was powerful, but not nearly enough to inspire me to walk down the road all the way to Jackson. There was no other way to get there, however, as I had no confidence that I would be able to hitch. There were no viable trials leading south until I got out of the park, and even then I doubted that I'd want to undertake the Teton Crest and all of its snow. I just wanted to go home.
The sky was overcast and it only occasionally spit on me as I walked. Perfect road walking weather, I thought. I was searching for something good today. I needed something good to happen today. When the rain would pick up, I'd hide under some trees. When I got tired, I stopped and rested. That was as good as it got for most of the morning. At least I hadn't been hit, yet, by one of the many cars screaming down the road. I was mostly worried, due to the non-existent shoulder, about being clipped by a truck or an RV equipped with extended mirrors.
I made good time on the road and began to spot the signs of the West Thumb Geyser Basin in the distance. A bit of smoke. A pile of cars. I could also spot a tiny island in the lake with a single tree perched on it. That was something good, I thought. I was really searching for something to brighten the day.
A violent storm was all that I got. It hit me only a few minutes from the West Thumb, where there was plenty of shelter, but it was strong enough to drive me off the road and under the shelter of a tree. Marble sized hail beat down on the land, followed by a torrential rain. Once the rain was dominant, I began walking again and reached the West Thumb parking lot, completely soaked, just as the storm ended. Tourists milled about, trying their best to ignore me. After resting for a bit in the parking lot, I set out again, heading for Grants Village, where I was planning to camp for the night in the front country campground, drink some beer, and eat a can of Dinty Moore beef stew fortified with eight hot dogs. Cars whizzed past me once again, but one actually stopped. A car stopped. A car stopped for me. Even though I was only a mile or two from the campground, the smiling faces of the three volunteers that I had met after failing the Yellowstone were enough to snap me out of the blankness that had enveloped me for most of the day. They drove me to the store and then left me, but I felt much better for our brief contact.
The General Store was amazingly well supplied and I bought far more food than I could possibly eat at one sitting. I added some beer, whiskey, and a pop-trash book by GM Ford to my shopping basket. I was in no mood to read metaphysics and felt like lowering my IQ by indulging in something written for mental eight-year-olds. The campground was something of a walk from the store and it rained on me along the way. Fortunately, I arrived at the check in station before the hail came down. There was a long line and I ate down a "family" sized bag of jalapeno potato chips while waiting for my turn. Five dollars bought be a square of hard ground next to the campground host. It did have a fabulous picnic table, though.
Finally, I thought, tomorrow I would leave the park. I had been here far too long and my once grand impression of Yellowstone had been replaced by one of general misery. I was done, but I still had to walk for almost a week before I could go home. I was going home because of myself, I decided. I was not going home for the sole reason of another. I had dreamed of the reception that I would receive when I did finally make it back. The dream was strong enough for me not to doubt it. The dream was not a pleasant one. I was gaining clarity on the Springtime, the clarity that only comes with separation and contemplation. The more painful, the more clear things become. I understood much more about myself now. I understood her much more. I understood the thing that we had before I left. I stopped writing and began to read about a biological attack with a super Ebola virus on Seattle. The author couldn't even spell correctly, let alone write a competent sentence, or create a character of any depth. The sheer stupidity of what I was reading was overwhelming. The equivalent of television, the book kept my mind numb and not engaged, which was exactly what I needed right now. Rain thundered down on my tarp just after I retired for the evening. My sleeping bag was again my haven from the outside world.
Although the rain was heavy overnight, in the morning the storm had passed and there were only a few white puffies floating in the sky when I crawled out of my tarp. I wandered down to the store and bought coffee and donuts before setting out once again on the road. Early morning on the road is not so bad: Tourists sleep late and don't go anywhere until at least 10 am. I crossed a sign for the Continental Divide and wondered where the trail might be. I didn't especially care, really.
I walked along for a couple of hours and then took a long rest alongside a pleasant lake, which was empty of boats at the late hour of 10. Just sitting on the shores of the lake was relaxing, especially as I knew that the cars and trucks and RVs and trailers would be out in force when I returned to the road.
I walked and walked and walked some more, following the shoulder as best as I could, but frequently resorting to the sloped embankment as traffic became thick and there was no space on the roads for anything but a vehicle. Although people rarely walk roads in Yellowstone, it is a common cycling destination and I wondered how many cyclists were hit every year in the park. Probably several hundred.
I lunched on donuts at a particularly scenic overlook, well away from the road, and dried my gear in the sun. In full hobo mode, I was actually enjoying my walk out of the park, despite the fact that it was taking place on a busy road. The weather was mild and I was almost to the boundary. Things got even better. An hour after returning to the road and walking along a massive gorge, a white car pulled alongside. A woman's voice crooned, "Hey Suge." Looking over, astounded that someone in a car in Yellowstone knew my trailname, I saw the grinning face of my friend Yogi. I paused and thought about the episode on July 4. Was I hallucinating? Yogi lives in Kansas City and was working all summer. No way she could be in Yellowstone, in a car, I thought. Definitely something wrong in my head, I thought. Still, I crossed the road and gave her a hug, confirming that she was actual flesh and blood. And so I had a ride.
Yogi, it turned out, was on a three week vacation driving along the Continental Divide to do research for a book she was planning. It was just dumb luck that I had been on the road out of the park while she was driving in. She turned around and headed back to Grants as I unloaded the story, at least part of it, of my summer on her. A sympathetic, understanding ear.
In Grants we immediately spotted a hiker. A hiker in Yellowstone is much more rare than a bison sighting. Stick was heavily tanned, dirty, and limping. He seemed to know me from the Appalachian Trail in 2004, but I couldn't recall meeting him then. He and a friend had set out from Old Faithful a few days ago, but Stick was now hurt. A week before starting he had fallen while climbing in Colorado and hurt his heel. He thought it would heal over time, but he could now barely move and needed to get to something resembling a hospital. But Stick was broke, homeless, and alone, his partner having kept hiking south. No problem. The three of us were going to Jackson.
Speeding south, we covered the distance to Jackson in a ninety minutes, as opposed to the four days I was contemplating. I had been looking forward to Jackson for quite some time and had imagined it would be a town built for hikers and climbers. A quaint town with people who did interesting things in the outdoors. What I found was a town that is now number 1 on my "Worst Places" list. Within minutes I knew that it would vault past such holes as Gatlinburg, TN. and Leavenworth, WA. and Banff, AB. (that is in Canada, eh?). The streets were crowded with tourists not adventurous enough to camp somewhere. Waddling, complacent families shopped at curio stores. Traffic jammed in as we searched for a hospital for Stick. Waves of humanity were crushing, even inside the safe car, and I felt more isolated from humanity than I had yet this summer. I scanned the crowds for a tan face or a dirty beard. I looked for a pack or a cycle or some sign. Any sign. I would have taken a set of trekking poles in a garbage can as a positive sign. No, this place was now for the wealthy and affluent. I was glad to reach the hospital.
Stick was in luck: Tomorrow was the monthly free clinic and he could get his foot looked at then. I was not in luck: There was no Greyhound service from Jackson. In fact, all the people I talked to told me that there was no way out of Jackson except in a car. We were not in luck: The cheapest motel in town (the Motel 6) wanted $100 for a room for the night. There was a hostel, but they wanted $25 for a bunk in a dormitory. Finally, we found that the trailer park allowed tent camping and we could get a slice of grass next to a brook for a mere $37. Good enough.
I didn't want to think much about how I was going to get out of Jackson. We walked over to a local diner, where various tasty beverages and copious conversation helped drive unpleasant thoughts from my head. Once the sun went down and the town became quite, Jackson turned pleasant. We retired to the trailer park where Yogi put up her tent and Stick and I threw out our sleeping bags on the lawn next to to the quiet brook. The stars shown brightly, despite the lights of the town, adding their texture to the returning thoughts in my head. Stick and Yogi slept and I thought. My trek had not gone as expected, but it was what I needed. I would find a way home. We would have a talk.. And then I would heal and move on with my summer and my life as a stronger, better member of the human race.