There's something about Wyoming
There's something about Wyoming, the high peaks, the plains, the desolation. The entire state, which is about the size of Colorado, counts fewer residents than Denver. And that's the appeal. We arrived there two summers ago for an 11 day trip in which we went five straight days without seeing another human being. 17 trail miles from the nearest road, we plopped down in the Shoshone Valley at an old camp and watched as rain fell, then hail, then snow. We swaddled ourselves in sleeping bags on a frosty August morning, and with hands I could barely feel, I took the photo at right.
I suppose in theory, I could find all that in Colorado---maybe in the San Juans---but in practice, I haven't. Wyoming offers an altogether different experience, at once immediate and ancient. Primeval you might say if you were prone to such language. Along with the Alaskan wilds, and Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remains one of the last great untouched stretches of earth in America. There be grizzlies there, and wolves, and entire valleys which function untrammeled by humans.
If that doesn't lift your spirits; if the existence of a landscape in which humans are irrelevant doesn't excite you the littlest bit, then, well, stop reading because this is a place to feel small, and insignificant. As I said on this site, longer ago now than I care to consider, we find solace in the mountains precisely because the mountains do not care whether we find solace in them at all. Wyoming is a place that does not care about you, or your concerns. Whatever you bring there, whatever you may find there, is your own. Nothing given, nothing taken.
But enough of that. Let's speak realistically about wolves and bears and high meadows awash in a sea of indian paintbrush and alpine sunflower. The snow lingers well into August. Glaciers inch down valleys, grinding the landscape into submission. We ran into a pack train about a week into our last trip. "Not often we see people out here on foot," their leader said. "Stay safe." They trotted off. And it was in those wilds that we crossed paths with two young grizzlies, racing from one drainage to another over a 12,000' saddle. The second stopped and gave us a glance at a few hundred yards, then continued on his way, unconcerned about our two-legged intrusion.
We preserve wilderness to preserve these encounters, to keep Wyoming in existence. Last month, we drove 450 miles over 7 hours to walk 50 miles over 5 days. In pursuing speed, our culture has lost a sense of scale and an ability to appreciate just how grand and expansive this American landscape really is. How far can you walk in a day? How far can you bike? Drive? Fly?
But those are the sorts of questions you ask in Colorado, where you can climb a 14er and return home that afternoon. Come to Wyoming and forget you were concerned about that sort of thing. Put one foot in front of the other. Walk, and in so doing, experience everything.
The Wilderness Paradox
Having said all that, there was everything I thought I knew about Wyoming--and then there were the Wind Rivers. The Winds defied my expectations in a good way, yes: they offered unmatched beauty. But I can't help but call the north end of this range anything other than "overrun." Even as a Coloradan, I can say that.
You know these mountains: the Winds are glacially-carved bliss an an almost inconceivable scale. Only the Alps present a superior demonstration of the interplay between rock and ice; each peak, arete, col and horn evinces a glacial past. How else to explain a tower of rock soaring 3,000', straight up, from the valley below? What else could scatter these thousand tarns? The rolling mounds of Colorado's Sawatch look positively benign by comparison. And yet, naturally, it is these features which draw so many to the range. The Winds may well be the Times Square of the American backpacking world, lack of lounge chairs notwithstanding.
So I'm just not sure what to make of that, particularly as a Coloradan who has grown used to, if not accepting of, crowds in the backcountry. On the one hand, greater use most likely leads to greater and wider appreciation of wilderness in the legal sense. In the Winds, three federally-designated wilderness areas---the Bridger, Fitzpatrick and Popo Agie---preserve the range's remote qualities by banning mechanical travel, and each comes with its own trail-side sign to remind visitors that they've entered a wilder place.
Whether that reminder translates into support of continued or expanded federal protection once hikers return home, I'm not sure, but I suspect it does. Let's say it does. So these crowds are a mixed blessing of sorts: necessary as constituents making the case for wilderness, but painful as traffic jams pile up on the trail. That's what national parks are for. You can find solitude elsewhere.
But I guess the lack of solitude's more our problem, really, and not a black mark on the Winds' reputation for incomparable grandeur. Except that it is. Although the 1964 Wilderness Act takes care to define wilderness in a particular way to preserve its original character, it was written at a time when fewer Americans followed in the steps of men like Jim Bridger.
Critically, I think, it came into being because of a few great men, not a mass movement. Car camping existed then, certainly. But only recently has backpacking gear become sufficiently light and the American population sufficiently enamored of the outdoors, to create the sort of challenge facing the Winds and other popular wilderness areas today.The presence of each additional group---and yes, I know that I contribute to the problem each time I hike---detracts from the wilderness experience, particularly when the other parties comprise adventuring church youth groups, not a few rough and tumble mountain men like Bridger.
So therein lies the "wilderness paradox." Places like the Winds inspire people to take up arms and cry, "Protect this place!" They have that effect on people, and we need the Winds---or more specifically, lots of people visiting them---for that very reason. But the number of visitors needed for support runs counter to the numbers needed to keep a place "wild." Too many visitors, and the Jolly Rancher wrappers, fire rings, and even the trails, multiply.
Where we've arrived is a sort of equilibrium in which a few wild places like the Winds, or the wilderness areas in Colorado, receive an outsized proportion of backcountry enthusiasts, while the others remain more less pristine. It's a balance that seems to be working, but boy, how amazing it would be to explore the Winds alone.