THE FIRST TIME Marypat and I looked across the craggy alpine expanse from Adams Pass, above 10,000 feet in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, we were very pregnant with our first child. We were on a day hike. We were young and full of plans. The high peaks and windy plateaus beckoned. We vowed to come back, to roam the austere, sky-sweeping land that drew us so forcefully.
By the time we do stand again at that tundra threshold, Eli, the oldest of our three children, is planning for college and I have just gone blind in my left eye. Nearly two decades, raising a family, and a melanomic eye tumor have happened in the interim. We stop there — our family, the dog, Beans, and our adventurous cousin Quinn — to appreciate the view and have lunch. Bears Ears Mountain and Mt. Chauvenet spike into the horizon. Dickinson Park and the hazy floor of high plains drop away down the trail we have just labored up. Sand Creek ribbons through the flower-studded meadows. The path leads on into ancient granite, full of tomorrow.
The kids start a game with a ping-pong-size ball they mold out of the wax coating on our lunch cheese. As we hike on, they flip the ball over their shoulders to the hiker behind. The last in line slings it up to the front and the cycle starts again. To everyone else it is child’s play. It is child’s play, but I fumble the catch seven out of every 10. My throws are only marginally accurate. The wax ball gets grittier and grittier. I repeatedly stop the flow of the game to chase it down. I feel like the clumsy kid no one wants to pick for the team. Sawyer turns and gives me baby tosses.
“Ready, Dad?” he asks. His thoughtfulness only makes it worse. Half the time I can’t even catch those.
It isn’t that I can’t see. I see half the world just fine. But I can’t triangulate, which is how, effortlessly, I have caught balls, reached for a glass, judged the height of rocks, and walked without stumbling for almost 57 years. Catching the wax ball is just the latest lesson in the monocular humility that began a month earlier, when a week after my radioactive eye treatment, the left half of life went black. More immediate, and dangerous, is the suddenly dicey business of walking over rough ground.
I see the obstacles, the boulders and dips and ledges, but judging their height and contours is very much a crapshoot. I walk through boulders the way I feel my way down stairs in the dark. I have never been much of a walking-stick hiker, but having a pole in hand, touching ahead, is now an essential sensory aid to judging the next step. Feeling my way is no longer a figure of speech.
I know it will get better. I know I should keep practicing at catching things, but there is only so much humility a person can handle. I exempt myself from the game, drop back, watch the antics the way grandparents watch kids play, from a safe distance. It is also an excuse to savor the undulating plateau above 10,000 feet.
The Wind River Mountains erupt spectacularly out of central Wyoming. They hold the state’s highest point, Gannett Peak, at 13,809 feet. They are touted as having the greatest concentration of glaciers of any mountain range in the continental United States, although that claim is literally melting away year by year. Trout teem in the lakes and streams. Sheer granite walls rear up with Yosemite-scale rock climbing challenges. You can spend decades getting lost in this toothy high country east of the Tetons, and still have places to explore.
From our vantage, above treeline, the range sprawls away to the horizon. Snowfields, knife-edges of gray rock, dark forests licking up valleys, a freckle of lakes. Every view is potent with wildlife and campsites and waterfalls. Every view poignant and exhilarating; which is the way it feels to be here together. This could be the last family backpack trip. Eli will be leaving. Sawyer a year later. Then Ruby. Time slides past. Things happen. I can’t fathom that it took us almost 20 years to make good on a promise to come here. In that same startling, insidious way, one of these trips will be the last. More and more it will be fragments of the family, or just Marypat and me, the way it used to be.
For two days we roam through the thin, cold, rare atmosphere. Our camp is above 11,000 feet. Ruby complains of an altitude headache. There is ice on the pools at dawn. The kids drop packs to glissade down snowfields. Marypat climbs a granite knob before dinner. The arid, verdant, wind-swept plateau is rimmed by soaring rock walls, sudden drops, tarns still full of last winter’s ice. We beetle under the sky, a ragged, colorful line with a dog vectoring off on tangents; grouping up for photos, studying the map, bandaging blisters, pausing in the warm afternoons to let place sink in. At night the kids have their own tent. Marypat and I listen to their jokes, their banter about friends and plans and exploits.
Then, midday, after a long, pounding switchback descent, we turn towards the Cirque of the Towers. They rise above the willowy meadows and the view is heart-stopping; like the first glimpse of the Tetons at sunset above the Snake River, a shock of sawing peaks. A view romantics would call sublime, and rightly so. They draw us up the trail.
We find a camp part way up the valley wall, on a grassy ledge with a snow-fed trickle for water and a front porch view of the towers. Marypat and the kids itch to explore, to do more than look. They drop packs, converse over the map huddled together like conspirators — Wolfs Head, Sharks Nose, Overhanging Tower.
Photo by Mary Pat
I feel the same itch, but I also imagine the talus fields, the snow glissades, the boulder hopping, the need to keep up. I opt to climb the trail to Big Sandy Pass instead. “I’ll set up camp,” I say. “When I see you coming I’ll start dinner.” They strike off, Beans trotting behind. Marypat turns and gives me a wave, blows a kiss. I can hear them chattering for half a mile.
To be honest, I crave the solitude. For a long time I sit in the sun, listening to the diminishing sound of my family, letting the warm airy silence lap around me; feeling that strange mix of humility and empowerment that surges up in places like this. Especially now, when I am so lucky to be here, so graced with the riches that have nothing to do with money.
Later I saunter up the trail to the narrow, rock-bound gap. On the other side the path bends down into the cool shadows, heading west, heading out. I turn back to the peaks, find a warm boulder, savor the view. Ravens circle above some snow, raucous and utterly at home. Air rushes up from the lowlands in sudden gusts.
EVERY DAY, AFTER LUNCH, the same game starts up with a new ball of wax. I participate, challenge myself, get better at the new focus required, but still fall short of my expectations. I retaliate with challenges of my own.
“Okay you guys,” I say, “you catch the ball with one eye closed.” I have them hop across a stream on tippy rocks with one eye shut, or teeter across on a skinny, bouncy log. They appreciate my plight in a momentary way.
Another night. Camp is set between East and West Echo Lakes, right at treeline. Dinner is preceded by a skinny dip. Camp routine is just that. I haven’t looked at a watch in days. We sleep without the rain fly. A meteor shower scratches bright trails through the dark. “Wow, did you see that one?” Sawyer asks.
It is still cool the next morning when we bump over the ridge overlooking the pair of lakes. A nuthatch calls. We stop to adjust clothing. Another vista full of peaks rolls away: Little El Capitan, Wind River Peak, Continental Tower.
Marypat and I pore over the map. A route leads off, staying high, winding through lakes and glaciated outcrops. Peaks to climb. Country to get lost in. We are heading out, down the Popo Agie valley, but the lure of another trip sets its hook in our imaginations.
Another threshold, potent with exhilaration, waiting for us. We point things out, see how it could be done, wish we had another week. I remember the same longing when we stood at Adams Pass and Marypat was seven months pregnant, how we promised to be back.
“Wow, that looks really cool over there,” Marypat says.
“Let’s not wait 20 years this time, okay?”
I fold the map and stow it in the lid of my pack. Ruby fishes out yesterday’s wax ball from a side pocket, raises an eyebrow at me.