“Hey, Bill. Com’eer for a second.”, says the cowboy-hatted Ranger over his shoulder. His hat then turns to me. “Okay. Ask him the same thing you just asked me.”
“How long do you think it’d take me to snowshoe to the North Entrance?”
They are clearly amused.
Bill rolls his eyes, tries to hide the grin. “Well, that’s a hundred miles or so.” This does not get the expected reaction from me. He puts his finger to his chin, looks away. “Ohhhh, maybe fourteen days. Why?”
“I just wanted to know how much food to take.”
“What makes you think we’re gonna let you do it?”
“What makes you think you can stop me?”
With my second season with ETC finished, a mountaineer turned river rat, I’m on my way from California to Chicago to work as a carpenter for the winter. Volunteering is good for the soul, and ramen noodles and peanut butter don’t cost much, but I still need to buy paddles and life jackets. I could hitch along Route 80 straight to Illinois, but Yellowstone temporarily lures me from my path. I’m making my way from city boy to outdoorsman, coming around, slow but sure. Still I must return to the scene of my first baby steps into the wild, if only to prove to myself whether those Teton memories are real or just a childhood fantasy.
Good old Andy drives me from Jackson to my frigid destination. It is January.
This time, I definitely know what cross-country skiing is. Snowshoeing, on the other hand—now there’s a different beast altogether. Never done it, myself. Rawhide and birch, woven like an intricate Indian basket, a place to tie your boots in—basic and simple. No easy gliding—every step conscious, willful. Time to reflect, have a look around, a small part of your consciousness dedicated to not tripping over your own damn feet.
Lift one foot and step past the other leg without hitting your shin with the snowshoe frame, place it far enough ahead so as not to stand on the other shoe and stumble, a caricature of Groucho Marx. Much more effort than skiing, especially on the downhills, where you continue to trudge rather than just standing there, feeling the air bite your face and watching the trees fly by.
And something more: again that need to return to something more primitive, more essential. To follow footsteps—but whose? Jim Bridger, mountain man? Chief Joseph, eloquent, dignified chief? My own essence, towards which I have been stumbling—bruised shins and all—in one way or another way ever since I can remember?
My goal is the thermal hot springs about forty miles north of my starting point at the South Entrance. (A spring, yet another essence–the very thing the cavalcade of my life flies headlong towards, each time barely missing. It will take years before I realize that what I am barreling after is right here, if I’d just sit still for a moment, dammit.) Bubbling water, heated by the earth’s mantle, warming the nearby icicle-bejeweled winter earth just enough to expose grass. Steam rising upwards—seen from afar, it is seemingly the only living, moving thing. Emerging from down deep, clean and pure. Even the wild animals are drawn to it. I’ll tear my clothes off before I freeze to death and leap into the hot spring and watch the wolves, bison, coyotes, and moose—winter starved and relatively tame—forage for the grass and mice exposed by the warm earth. They will lift their heads briefly at me, realize I’m harmless and brain damaged, and return to their business.
While the hot springs is my goal, my ultimate destination is the North Entrance. One hundred miles to get out, through a shivering, frostbitten wilderness that all sensible animals shun. They hibernate, migrate, acclimate or succumb. Not this kid.
Andy drops me off at the near-deserted South Entrance. I’m holding my cross-country skis in one hand and a brand new pair of snowshoes in the other. Andy watches as I glance from one to the other and back again, pondering. He shakes his head, his usual response to the outlandish workings of my brain. I put the skis back into his car. Predictable. Who knows—after a bit of getting used to, this might turn out to be fun. Signing in at the South Entrance Ranger Station after waving Andy off, I receive the first of many open-jawed stares.
Rangers don’t like doing rescues. Some years back at the Teton Ranger Station, Andy and I climbed the North Ridge of the Grand. As we stood in line waiting to sign up, the climbers in front of us asked the ranger about the easiest route up—the Owen-Spalding. After a few questions, it was clear they were novices out to bag their first big mountain. Nervous, excited, they asked about the infamous traverse, trying to seem nonchalant while their eyes bulged.
“So, uh, what do you think about that crawling traverse?”
Straight-faced, the ranger, one of the climbing-world renowned Lowe family, told them it was pretty easy, but very, very exposed.
“One slip, and it’s pphhhhttt! Off the West Face.” For emphasis, he shot his hand out in a graceful arc, like a slowly falling body.
They changed their minds and went for a hike instead.
These guys are giving me the same treatment, assuming I’m yet another idiot. They don’t know me very well. Of course I’m an idiot.
I take fourteen days of food, meeting their estimated requirement. They’re happy. Well, maybe resigned. Once out of their sight, I dump six days’ worth of it in the nearly snow-buried trash can, along with the extra fuel I showed the rangers to prove I wouldn’t light any fires to cook food. I trudge off, self-satisfied at having dumped the weight, planning on my infamous goat-legs to take me through in half the time, like always.
Open fires are prohibited in the Park. That’s a real good idea during the summer, when crowds of morons feed bears and throw cigarettes in the dry tinder and light bonfires in the campgrounds and drink beer and make believe they’re hardy outdoorsmen. Too much of an administrative hassle to change the rule for winter, when a fire could make the ultimate difference. I don’t figure on anyone trekking way the hell out there to arrest me.
Ten yards from the station, I’m on the main highway. To date, the year has been mild, little snow and not too cold—only twenty below zero at night. What snow there is, it seems, has been compacted from abundant skiers and snowmobiles. This unwelcome revelation is unsettling, but it’s late, and after a mile or so I veer off into the trees to make camp. The crackling of the frozen trees in the light breeze is punctuated by the crunching snow underfoot, my exclamations as I trip over my ungainly feet, the sawing of branches, the chunk! of the shovel as I dig my camp-pit.
In this frozen universe, hours of the day must be spent in survival mode. Every gesture or lack of one, every missed cue has a clear-cut, nearly instantaneous effect. Warm—life; frozen—not-life.
Here’s how it works: dig a pit in the snow, maybe eight-foot diameter. Along the outside rim carve a bench of snow, utilizing the original level of snow as a backrest. Dig the center down to the frozen ground—this is the fire circle. Otherwise, the fire would melt a hole in the snow beneath it and implode, spluttering and hissing. Collect enough dead branches for tonight and tomorrow morning’s fire; a few crossed branches nearby serve as a primitive clothes-drying rack.
If I’m lucky, there is a small stream or river nearby that flows liquid under an insulating surface layer of snow and ice. Perhaps luckier to not accidentally step into it, punching through the snow and getting my boots wet—a deadly turn of events. Still it’s nice for collecting drinking water. Otherwise, I must melt chunks of snow in a pan. Twenty or so pots will equal two liters of burnt-snow-flavored drinking water.
Sleeping bags and clothing hang on the drying rack by the fire. Mittens, gloves, socks, underwear. Meanwhile, I set up the tent, which stops the wind and reflects body heat, making it maybe ten or fifteen degrees warmer inside. Any maneuver requiring finger dexterity means a quick run to the fire to unfreeze them, or jamming my hands into my pants to fondle my crotch, the warmest part of the body. Finally, with pit dug, firewood collected, clothes drying, tent set up, I rest by the warm fire and contemplate dinner: frozen salami.
No voice disturbs the evening. It is dark by four-thirty. It won’t be light again until ten. Plenty of time to contemplate. Winter-tame Canada jays swoop onto my open palm, scarfing scraps. Their wing beats soften a world otherwise sharp. Loneliness creeps into the base of my skull. Such a difference between loneliness and solitude. The first an affliction, too often making us flee from the second, its wild and free cousin. I will get used to the steam from my own breath soon enough.
Going to bed is yet another ritualized chore. Any mistake can spell disaster. Make sure the matches are put away dry. Repack all gear that isn’t necessary for the night, leaving morning supplies easily accessible. The morning can be coldest, inside and out, the blood not yet flowing. Frozen fingers cannot strike matches. Consequences. I zip up my doubled sleeping bags, make a hasty retreat back to the fire. Then I toss the liquid water bottles into the tent, along with a high caloric midnight snack to help me stay warm during the long, long night.
Then, undressing. First the boots. Jam them into the bottom of the bag so they don’t freeze. Jam feet into bag because they’re already freezing. Warm hands in crotch for a minute or two. Unzip and remove pants, form them into a pillow, ram legs back into bag. Warm hands. Rapidly remove down jacket and vest, set aside. Flop down into bag and zip, fast. Warm hands. Grab water bottles through face hole and bring into bag before they freeze. Warm hands. Warm nose and cheeks with just-warmed hands. Shiver while bag warms up, remove balaclava, zip bag hood down to a hole just big enough for my nose. Adjust everything inside cluttered and constricted bag just so. Sleep. Wake often, unfreeze nose with palm of hand, have a bite of chocolate. Sleep some more.
On the trail in the morning, my mistaken expectation of solitude clarifies in the bitter air. Ski tractors, snowmobiles, and day-skiers pass me by at regular intervals, puzzling and smirking at my deliberately unhurried mode of transport and comically enormous pack. All are aiming north. Like me.
I persevere, snow-camping in the trees and reading Walden by the unlawful firelight. The further north I trek, the fewer astounded, chuckling people pass me in their infernal machines. On day three, I reach my goal, my cathedral—the hot springs. Dropping my pack, glorying in the primeval winter scene and steaming pools, careful not to disturb the humungous bison ten feet away, I begin the laborious task of removing numerous layers of clothing in a comically clumsy rush, hopping and tripping, yearning for a well-earned soak. I take out my heavy but obviously essential towel, my sole indulgence.
Seriously focused, I do not immediately notice the approach of the ski-tractor, jam-packed with tourists from one of the nice, warm, civilized lodges just outside the Western Entrance. Buck naked—another affront to Park laws—half-hopping over the iced rocks towards my bath, I turn towards the alien clatter, blink at the yellow diesel-belching tractor. A pink-faced Michelin Man peeks out the half-opened door, likewise the driver through the steamed-up windshield. I stub my toe and stumble. I have ten seconds to re-dress before I freeze to death.
Irritably, I retreat into the nearest lodgepole pines, build a fire and throw my towel in it, disgusted.
Never go to bed pissed off.
Sleeping fitfully, I awake several times in a panic. Bears are sitting on my chest, suffocating me. In fact, I am being smothered by my own shelter. I sit up and shove the collapsed tent off my face, beat it hard to shake the heavy snow off.
Overnight, the weather has deteriorated into the winter’s first serious snowfall. By dawn, the fire is dead-out and well lost under three feet of new snow. The pack is likewise buried. I dig it out, repack my gear, then head out once again, going north by the compass. I am now sensing that maybe this trip was a mistake. My goal ruined, now all that is left me is the effort required to reach my destination. I miss human contact. I miss being able to simply sit down and not have to burn energy to keep warm. Solitude is not replacing loneliness like it’s supposed to. Seeing others has actually heightened my isolation, left me feeling that this misadventure should end. I’m not used to any of this, and I don’t like it much. But I’m past halfway, so turning around is not an option. The good news is that the main attraction for the skiers and tractors (and me)—the hot springs—is also behind me.
The temperature descends from Really Cold to Bitter Cold. Unimaginable Cold. I repeatedly remove my glove to unfreeze my nose and cheeks, then jam my hand into my crotch to unfreeze it. I cannot stop even to urinate before my core temp plummets and I start to shiver. This is fast becoming a mission. An epic. Forty-five miles to the north rim, step by awkward step. The day passes, evening descends. Nothing stirs. No birds, no animals. They are wisely hunkered down. I, however, am not. The air crackles, snow snaps underfoot. There will be no stopping without a fire, and fire prep must be efficient, perfectly managed. Every stream is frozen solid, right down to the rock bottom. The trees tinkle in the light breeze. The sun seems so very far away, lost somewhere way out there in the universe. Weirdly, it offers no heat now; it is as cold as the moon, which soon enough replaces its cousin. Night. The stars sparkle, beckon, tease. Out of character, I do not appreciate each element of my wilderness. I am losing my way. Just take a break. It’ll be okay.
Sometime before the dawn, having hiked all day as well as most of the night, unable to continue any further, I pull deep into a thicket of lodgepoles to camp. Foolishly, I skip building a fire—too tired. It’ll be fine. I’ll just crawl into my warm bags. Some frozen meat and crackers is plenty of fuel. Mistakes are adding up, one on top of the other. I set up my tent and toss in the double sleeping bags, take my boots off and put them at my feet inside the bags, put my parka under my head, leave the rest of my clothes on. Just a little rest. Close my eyes.
…Your thighs are chafed…you’d better get up and put Vaseline on them or you’ll be sorry. Unwanted thoughts. Arguing is useless. My bladder adds it’s own complaint. Frustrated, I struggle with my zippers and begin to undo the ritual. Dressing gets me cold. Too cold. Faster! Go faster and you’ll warm up! I’m shivering before I can manage the tent zip, rewarm my hands, and dive out into the frozen night. Snow and blackness, shadows and silence. I focus on the pack, leaning against a nearby tree, grab the Vaseline and apply it to my thighs, contract my belly to force the urine out faster. I dive back into the tent and replay the long, freezing routine into the bags.
I cannot stop my shivering, even in the bags. Even so, past exhaustion, I drift off. In an instant I am shocked awake, consumed with terror, explosively fighting the constriction of my bag. I’m wet! What the…? My hands franticly search for the source, at my belly! I grab the leaking water bottle and hurl it out through the face hole. Hopeful, I feel around, assessing the damage. Oh. Oh no. Shit.
No longer coolly walking on the edge, I have now careened headlong over it.
The moon’s light bathes everything in gray. Wisps of scudding, filmy clouds slip past its luminescence, so far away, making weird shadows flit along the tent fabric. Brittle pine needles rustle. A ghostly breeze gently flaps the tent fly out there in the frigid, lonely forest, then holds its breath.
Fast. Move fast! I grab my parka and dash out into the night, veering towards my pack, the saw. Why didn’t I gather firewood before bed, dammit? At the pack, my search grows frantic. I stop, face contorted in confusion. No saw. Oh my God… That snow last night!
My breath is coming fast now. The wind has returned to see what’s up. A howl penetrates the vast loneliness. Agonized, primal, full of terror. A wolf?
Sleep of the deepest sort beckons. I gaze into it, shake it off, willing my mind to choose something, anything else. I realize my fingers are still exposed out there, touching the top of the pack. I cannot feel them.
All downed wood is buried under the new snow. My focus narrows to the lodgepoles—dead branches, “squaw wood,” sticking out like skeleton arms from the scrawny trunks, at head height. My head is ten feet from the earth underneath the snow. The steam from my breath silhouettes the moon.
Panting, snarling, I crouch. My slitted eyes peer into the night, identifying the dangers, the targets. I spot what I want: a smallish standing tree in the vanishing darkness, no visible needles—dead. Patience. Calm. I wade towards the snag through the deep snow and stop at its base. Then I backtrack, do it again, firmly packing down the narrow path, which transforms into a ditch. Finally ready, turning, I take off running low, panting, aiming the tackle with my shoulder. I cannot consider the consequences. Incredibly, the rotten tree snaps with a crack on impact—as I rebound backwards, sprawling—and soundlessly fluffs into the deep snow and disappears. Anxiously I roll my shoulder. Sore but intact. I dig the log out, balancing it in the middle of its fifteen foot length, and, wild and frenzied, run back the other direction along my packed track towards a very stout looking tree, hurling the log into the air with an insane scream just before I reach it. It breaks cleanly in half. I pick up each half and madly whirl as if I were doing the Scottish hammer throw. Centrifugal force lifts it above the snow, and I blindly stumble sideways until this also slams against my sturdy tree and snaps.
Step one: dry firewood.
I wade to my pack, shivering uncontrollably. Adrenaline warms me slightly, but the wet is seeping into my bones. Keep moving. I shovel a fire pit, fast and hard, snow flying. In twenty minutes I have a circular pit, dug through five feet of snow to the frozen earth, ready to accept the flames. I set it alight, keeping the fire going with a circle of breath that accepts and gives. The fragrant smoke drifts upwards. Soon, unearthly shadows make the surrounding trees dance and jag, pushing the stalking beast beyond my enchanted circle. One match—perfection.
I collapse onto the snow bench to one side of the fire, holding out my brittle, frozen sleeping bags like offerings to the Gods of Flame. As I warm and the fire grows and takes on a life of its own, I build a makeshift stick lean-to on the other side, to hold up my icicle pants. My heart slows, spine warms, consciousness drifts.
I awake in a sitting position some time later to the smell of burning wool, and drop my bag with a shout. I run to the other side of the fire, grab my burning pants, and stomp them out in the snow. Then I smell burning nylon, and look up to see the bags I’ve just dropped, run back.
I pass the rest of the pre-dawn darkness singing songs and reciting Robert Service poems to the moon. My fingers finally working, I darn and sew patches by its light. This first real brush with death engraves itself into my being, an early work on my clean palette.
A dawn of whites, grays, and silvered greens arrives to my finished mending. Soon I’m back on the trail, rehearsing my hapless mistakes, settling up. A strange sound rouses me from crystalline fantasies. A snowmobile—the first motorized sound in this newly precious life. It’s a ranger. As he pulls alongside, the sound of the motor snaps off. His frozen breath drifts, disappears in front of his goggles.
Facing each other, like those elk, steam and a silent sizing-up.
Chicago stares straight into the goggles. Ranger looks at the snow, spits.
“You sleep out last night?” he asks in the customary Western laconic style.
“Sixty degrees below zero, not counting the wind. Set a record.”
“Huh. You don’t say.”
Mr. Ranger and his wife spend winters in a log cabin on the shore of Yellowstone Lake, boundless and frozen, patrolling via snowmobile and ice skates under the moon for entertainment. It’s about five miles from here. He invites me to spend the night, hoping I’m not so big a fool as to refuse his hospitality. I am not. I have seen my mortality, not for the last time, and I am humbled (also not for the last time). Arriving before dark, depleted, I embrace the chance for human company. They entertain me with fine wine, Western steak, and a warm bed. The moonlight bathes the frozen lake, infinite and enchanted, deserted but for the wolves and bison pawing along the near shore. I collapse, smiling, into my bunk and oblivion.
Next dawn, I am off north once again, hoping to make the final twenty-five miles in two long days. Up and down hills, I move in dyslexic migration north, head down, stopping only for food or to urinate.
A sound catches my attention, one I recognize in my very core. Compelled to stop, I slowly turn. There, in a deeper darkness formed by the ancient earth curving into a chalice, are the framed waterfalls—huge and deep-throated—of the storied Yellowstone River, illuminated by the moon. The basso, liquid roar counterpoints the crispness of winter, the many natures of water, a magnum opus.
The trees occasionally announce the silence by their creaking in the intermittent breeze. It is still very cold. Onwards. I do not pause until dawn, arriving at the North Entrance gate. My body did not betray my need. Twenty-four hours of non-stop snowshoeing brings my little escapade to its final conclusion—the Destination.
There is an abandoned gas station here, boarded up and desolate, but it is shelter, and I lay out my bag to catch some shut-eye. After a time, the sound of a diesel engine rousts me, and I struggle to emerge from my cocoon as an empty school bus rumbles past, down the plowed road. Packing in a rush, I run to the road, and miss the bus. Two hours later, standing by the side of the road and shivering uncontrollably, a semi appears. I hold out my thumb. The driver stares at me from underneath his cowboy hat. He is not planning on stopping. Bullshit. I am desperately cold, having stood immobile for hours, the longest such stretch of the trip. I dash out in front of his truck, slide to a stop like a hockey player, wave my arms, stare back. I dare you to run me over.
I pile my gear and myself into the heated cabin. After an apology, we become friends. Again I am grateful for human contact. I will buy a bus ticket to Chicago in Bozeman.
Only when the trucker drops me off do I realize that I’ve left my snowshoes back there at that gas station. I hope someone gets some use out of them. I sure won’t be needing them again.