South of the small, unassuming town of Dubois, Wyoming, 9 miles of gravel lead to Trail Lakes Trailhead. We devoured a veggie pizza each from the local parlor by the turn-off as the sandy badlands and highway pavement bumpily receded in the rear view mirror. At the last curve in the road, the overgrazed hills metamorphosed into tumbled domes and high walls of granite- the northern foothills of the Wind River Range rising.
Prana put the car in park, and we stepped into the evening light, into the dusty sage air.
“Wow, I had no idea this area was like this.”
Our shuttle driver, a guy we’d met while climbing last month who was friendly and in a position to accept random gigs like this one, pulled up ten minutes later.
“Wow, did you guys know this trailhead was like this?”
We combed our car for any stray gear, and loaded our packs into the back of Doug’s truck. We chatted about climbing, Alaska, the summer, the world, as he drove the hour and a half back to Lander, his current home and our starting point.
“You guys got everything you need?” he asked.
I’d been reviewing that very thing in my mind. “I’m 95% sure I didn’t actually pack the back up lighter.”
“Ah, I’ve got one here you can take if you want,” Doug said.
“Ooh, heavy, a full sized one,” Prana teased. We’d spent hours over the last 2 weeks painstakingly culling ounces from our gear.
“I’ll do you one better.” Doug rooted through his door pocket. “I have a very light book of matches, from a bar in Alaska, that I’ve never had to use.”
“Thanks!” I said. “9, 10, 11 matches. Ok, we just can’t ruin our lighter until day 4.”
The air was velveted with dark and filled with chaotic wind when we pulled out our packs at the Bruce Bridge Trailhead, up Sinks Canyon just out of Lander.
I double-checked for trekking poles, sunglasses, hats: the usual forgotten suspects. “Yep!”
“Alright, you guys have a good trip; let me know how it goes.”
The wind gusted hard, wafting the faintest tickle of smoke. I’d obsessively checked the fire conditions website half an hour before leaving home, as new sparks had been cropping up everywhere. Sure enough, a report had been added: a fire on our entrance trail, about 5 miles in. The Forest Service agent who answered the phone was cheerful in his reassurance. “Oh, we have jumpers in there already. I can’t imagine it will be a problem at all, it’s just a little one. Probably under control already. Have a great trip – it’s your national forest, enjoy it!”
Prana and I buckled on our packs- heavier than we wanted with eight and a half days of food, but still, surprisingly manageable- clicked on our headlamps, and strode into the swirling night.
The rush of cascades on the Popo Agie, whose middle fork we’d follow the first 10 miles, drifted up from the void on the left. The sand crunched as we slowly worked our way up, stepping around boulders in the starlight. An hour in we started looking for a camp site, but we’d apparently left all the flat spaces behind, only steep slopes to either side now. Poking our headlamp beams into any possible spot, we found ourselves at the side trail for Popo Agie Falls before we knew it.
“Maybe there’s a spot by the river?” Prana suggested.
A few steps in a series of rock ledges appeared; flat, but no spots big enough for our tent.
“Cowboy camp?” Prana proposed.
And so we did. One shallow hollow cradled our 2 bedrolls exactly, and the sky danced above, diamonds on velvet. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept out- weather or bugs or privacy had kept me under nylon for far too long. Prana’s breaths evened to an almost-snore in minutes, but I stared up, wide-eyed, agog as if I’d never seen stars before. The milky way arched overhead. Meteors shot. It sank in how quiet it was; no old fridge muttering away, no fan on high to smother the shrieking of kids on the sidewalk. My soul needed this trip.