It was Valentine’s Day. I had just finished the first of two long days of a Wilderness First Aid course. My husband came to get me, and we walked down the block to have dinner at an old, kind-of-seedy, but homey and popular bar in downtown Denver. We like these kinds of places, places where you can sit at the bar, talk to the bartender, watch him work, (it’s not always a man, but this night it was) see how many beer glasses he can wash in a minute, and marvel that more things don’t spill and break. This is no white table cloth venue. It’s a bar with character, not panache. Art sat down at the bar and ordered me a red wine. I went to the bathroom. When I came back and began to drink my red wine, I noticed a beer tap, labeled “Unita.” Immediately, I was taken back to the High Uinta Wilderness. I was 18 and had just graduated from high school.
It was the summer before when I started backpacking, even though my mother wasn’t keen on it. When I first started talking about backpacking she said, “You can’t go alone. You can’t go with another girl, and you can’t go with a boy.” The reason for all this negativity was, of course, safety. I was stuck. My only option, despite being an introvert and not knowing anyone in the group, was to join the Wasatch Mountain Club. Going backpacking with a group on an organized trip was okay, safe. My mom had no idea where I was going or if I was prepared, and she never would have guessed that the two people who gave me a ride to the trailhead were each leaving spouses behind so they could be together. This was Salt Lake City in the ‘70s, where these things didn’t happen, but they did. The Wasatch Mountain Club had been around a long time and had a good reputation. For my mother, that was enough.
This first trip’s destination was the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind Rivers in Wyoming. It turns out I also had no idea where I was going. And I was missing some essential basics. I had a tube of polyurethane film for a tent. I had sealed the two long ends with an iron as instructed by a Sierra Club paperback. I didn’t have a stove or a sleeping pad, but I did have a swimming suit. I was a swimmer. It made sense. It was the fourth of July weekend, summer, and we were headed to camp at a lake. Oops! This lake was frozen. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when the second day started with an early morning blizzard. The next few hours I huddled inside my poly sausage, trying to stay warm and dry. I had a nice down bag, but the snow was blowing in at the ends of my “tent” and the wool sweater that I figured would suffice for a shield between the ground and my body wasn’t working all that well. It was grim. I wasn’t sure what to do. And though I could see others huddled in their tents and making hot beverages on their stoves, no one said anything to me. Thankfully, as the weather worsened, someone decided it would be better to leave than to wait around for the weather to change. Everyone was here to climb, except me. I was simply a hiker. The weather made climbing impossible. Even if the snow had stopped, the granite climbing routes would be too slick. So at about midday everyone started to pack up. I followed suit. We hiked out of the basin in a white out. I followed the footsteps of an experienced man who realized I was alone. He was about 60 and taught history at a private high school in Salt Lake. I was alone, all alone, even though I was in a group. I had nothing in common with anyone on this outing. Their bond was climbing, and their average age was about 28. The teacher and I were outliers. I was clearly an outsider, a strange young girl totally out of her element. An experience like this might have been a deterrent to some – alone, cold, unprepared, clueless. But for me it was just enough of a taste of the amazing places you could go on foot to make me want more. The Cirque of the Towers is spectacular, rugged, alpine beauty. I can still feel the gasp of awe in my soul when I came over the saddle on the first day and saw the lake cradled in the cirque. If I could just be better prepared and get lucky enough to have better weather, wow!
The next summer was different. My mom decided I could back pack with Todd, a boy two years younger and a fellow lifeguard. I’m not sure what changed my mother’s mind, but I think it was because she had known Todd’s mother for years and she sang in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This summer, I was prepared. I had the gear – a real tent, a stove my sister had given me for Christmas, even a sleeping pad. Todd and I planned our summer. Every week we picked a different lake in the Wasatch as training for our end of season five-day trek in the Uintas. We went up into the canyons outside the city right after the pool closed every Saturday evening and came back early Sunday so Todd could clean the pool before it opened. It wasn’t a perfect summer. I had a crush on Todd which wasn’t reciprocated. Luckily I didn’t let it get in the way of the backpacking. And I had a crush on the diving coach, Dave, who was five years older and also not interested. Maybe it was the summer of crushes. My crush on Dave led me to join the diving team, though I had absolutely no natural talent. What I did have was guts. When Dave said, “Hey the meet is tomorrow, why don’t you see if you can do a double?” I tried, again and again. The backpacking worked out better, it made this summer almost perfect.
I can remember the first day in the Uintas. Todd and I were winging it. Five days is a lot longer than an overnight. And neither of us had ever been to the High Uintas. Well, wait. I had been to the Uintas to fish with my dad, but not in this part of the Uintas, and not more than three miles from the car. The Uintas, in northeastern Utah, are the only mountains in the lower 48 that run east and west. Though it is the highest range in Utah with elevations from about 8,000 feet to over 13,000 feet, we chose the Uintas because the terrain was much kinder than the relentless climbs out of Big and Little Cottonwood canyons where we had been practicing. We knew we would be carrying much heavier packs, so we planned our route to include only one tough pass on the second day. The first day, when we stopped for lunch – gorp and cheese and crackers – I already had a broken a blister on my right heel. But I can remember sitting against a tree, in the sun, thinking I was the luckiest person in the world. The smell of the pines, the dirt, the sweat, and that chap stick. I can’t remember what kind of chap stick it was, but I can still see the yellow tube. And for years, every time anyone would take out that kind of chap stick, it would take me back into the Uinta Mountains, eating gorp. That first day, we made camp in the early afternoon after a pretty easy day, on almost all flat terrain through sparse pine forest, with no human company. We hadn’t seen one person.
The second day started out much like the first. But at about noon, we found ourselves at the bottom of the BIG rocky pass. The packs now seemed way too heavy. We took a break. Then we heard noise coming up the trail that turned out to be two guys on horseback. We debated, looked at each other, but then, without too much hesitation, we asked if they were going to the top and if they would take our packs. They were and they did. As I write this, the memory surprises me. I don’t think I would ask today. It seems like a cop out. But the giant grins below wide eyes and windswept hair in the picture at the top of pass show no signs of remorse. After the pass, we had a short hike to a stunning glacial lake ringed by spikey, grey-blue peaks. We put up our tent close to its edge – a platter of deep blue surrounded by rocks studded with brilliant green tusks topped with yellow and white crowns. It wasn’t as spectacular as the Cirque of the Towers, and it didn’t become my old friend like Lake Blanche, one of our practice hikes, where I have hiked over and over, taking every significant person in my life, but it was the most serene place I have ever spent the night. We spent two nights there, hiking nearby the following day. I can’t remember where we camped the fourth night. After the stunning lake, the final campsite didn’t become lodged in my memory. The next day we hiked out. We were hot, dirty, and hungry, even though we had eaten the most amazing cheesecake the night before. It’s hard to imagine that freeze dried cheese cake could be so good. But we put the graham crust in the tin pan, mixed up the powdered filling with cold water, poured it into the crust, let it set… and wow, a few lunches of gorp can really make you appreciate cheese cake, even freeze dried. We were looking forward to a shower and a cheeseburger, but I can remember lingering, walking more slowly, not quite ready to go back to the pool, back to lifeguarding, back to trying another double that would never materialize.
This trip, just five days, is a life marker for me. It gave me the time to form a relationship with the land, a relationship that couldn’t take hold during a day hike, or on an overnight. It was about being with the complete calm of a sunset in high country, where the only sound is the lapping of lake water against its rocky rim. It was about some memories that are so vivid the picture is completely whole in my mind’s eye, and others that have faded. What the trip wasn’t about was Todd and me. We didn’t talk all that much. We were together, but we weren’t. We hiked the same trails, slept in the same tent, sometimes with our backs touching, but the significant connection was not between us. The only thing we had in common was backpacking. At 18, a boy two years younger makes for a big gap in ages. And he was very Mormon, with a very Mormon girlfriend. I was not, and was mostly cycling through crushes on boys who didn’t backpack. Looking back I’m not sure what brought us together on this journey. We sent Christmas cards back and forth for a while after we were both married and had children. But I have lost track of Todd and he of me. I can’t say what his relationship with the land is like today, whether he remembers the High Uintas. But I can tell you, that this trip cemented my love of wild places, quiet places, places of wonder, places where words are not what’s important, places that dazzle and yet calm the soul. I’m thankful for Todd. I would never have been able to be still in the wild if I had been required to go out in a group with the Wasatch Mountain Club. There would have been too much chatter, too much awkwardness me being there alone and wondering if I could make a friend. Todd was the perfect backpacking buddy. He expected nothing of me, and I made no demands on him. We went into the woods together, but apart. There was camaraderie, but that was it. I guess it was like having a brother. I can’t say. I come from a family of five girls.
But now, on valentines, I have the best of all loves. Someone who talks at length with me. But he doesn’t talk to make me different, change my mind, point out the errors of my ways. He takes me as I am, listens and cares. He knows what it means to give. And we go into the wilderness together, when the trail allows, hand-in-hand.