Dwelling Pinedale – A Wyoming Circuit Through the Wind River Range
In the Rocky Mountains, the Wind River Range is a crown of glaciers, granite peaks and sky-tinted lakes between Pinedale and Riverton, Wyoming. My brother Michael and I make it up after driving for hours across the dusty badlands, which start 300 miles back just west of the Medicine Bow Mountains. The space between northern Colorado and Wyoming’s western edge is a tall grass piedmont home to cattle, the spare oil derrick and not much else. When we finally head north from the freeway at Rock Springs, the monumental spires come into focus.
The northern plains region of the American West is not the end of the world, but most folks will say, you can see it from here. These “badlands,” however, are just as much a part of the pristine mountains as are the highways and cars carrying all the hikers up to them. My brother and I are traveling to the Wind Rivers to see how far we can walk away from city-life into the clouds. We know that most of what dwells below will remain. As we go, the freeway becomes a highway then a gravel road then a trail then a pair of hiking boots, which we place ever so carefully on ridgeline trails.
Too many artistic representations of wilderness attempt an illusion by removing the marks of production from the final product. The cropped and glossy photographs from Sierra Club calendars portray nature at its most gorgeous and overly endowed. The animals are well fed and stately; the landscapes are sublime and power line-free. Though picturesque representations like this motivate natural awareness and preservation, they fail to represent the artist’s and audience’s relations to the wilderness—often they go to great lengths to hide the planes, cars and other industrial gear necessary to get there.
One photographer who works with grace and style to represent these relations is Robert Adams. His picture of Colorado Springs, for example, starts with a gravel lot and ranch house reaching back to the snow-capped mountains on the distant horizon.
The alpine wilderness is just like that, elusive. Speaking to his New West series, he explains why we should open our eyes to the quotidian places around national parks:
“One reason is, of course, that we do not live in parks…We also need to see the whole geography, natural and man-made, to experience a peace [sic]; all land, no matter what has happened to it, has over it a grace, an absolutely persistent beauty.”
The beautiful relations emphasized in Adams’ work help me see the forms of dwelling my brother and I navigate to catch a glimpse of the pristine Wind Rivers. After eating and sleeping in town, we walk up toward the sky.
In the motel the night before parking at the trailhead, the television plays Manhattan in which Diane Keaton uses a pay phone. TV life is like that, romantic, canned and dated, but these airline broadcasts are also a part of the dwelling. The immense distance from New York circa 1975 helps bring this western mountain town into focus in 2013. Pinedale has two pizzerias, one brewery, a camping supplier and various motels and hotels. Ranch houses shoulder Fremont Lake like stalwart toadstools on the tawny-grassed and rocky foothills. The altitude gives the sky a presence both unbounded and immanent, as if at any moment a strong wind could lift a body up into the clouds or bury it down deep into the earth.
Michael and I drive up to Elkhart Park to hit the trail toward Gannett Peak, the highest place in the state at about 14,000 feet. A four to six day bid comparable to summiting Alaska’s Denali is way beyond our ken, but we have a few days to traipse around with the elk and peer down on the sandy fields tufted with short grass.
On the boulder-edge of a meadow blooming with lupine and yarrow, I find a gnawed-up shank bone wide as my wrist. We imagine mountain lions and wolves. Roughly two hundred years ago, the only Euro-Americans here were bear-like men in the fur trade. I do not know too much about the Arapaho and Shoshone, but they were here way before that. The Museum of the [Euro-American] Mountain Man is down on East Hennick Street. Real sasquatches like James Bridger and John Fremont crossed these mountains exploiting the woods for natural resources profitable in 1830. And today, America repeats this kind of extractive industry mining for crude oil, natural gas and petroleum products, fracking underground shale, open-pit scouring tar sands, and increasingly, drilling encroached wilderness preserves.
Back in the motel lobby I found an oil industry newsletter, which predicted domestic operations to increase production to ten million gallons per day by 2020. If true, this increase would put the US at pace with Russia and Saudi Arabia, the world’s current leading oil producers.
Michael says, “We’re like vampires bleeding the earth dry.”
But the earth would not die if she ran out of fossil fuels. I ask, “What is that stuff, captured sun from dinosaur-times?”
He replies, “Then I guess it’s our own blood being depleted from the invincible earth body.”
We keep walking the ridges.
The motel television also told us about water through a NOVA special about oceanic-atmospheric dynamics. All water transforms into ice and brine at Antarctica, which we know by “science and satellites.” Every thousand years a water molecule makes the complete circuit from the super cold bottom of the ocean near the South Pole to the moving warmth of gyres at the equator, and finally up into the air as vapor. Just on the west side of the continental divide the Wind Rivers and Tetons to the north catch the heavy water as the oceanic clouds rise, condense and rain. Elkhart Park has hundreds of lakes and tarns on the high altitude steps to Gannet Peak. Shadowed crevasses and north-facing walls hold glaciers blue. Ice-cold creeks rush down craggy ravines into Fremont Lake and the sea.
Up here, Michael and I burn all our propane melting snow for coffee.