PART III (Continued from https://swanhikes.com/2020/05/24/the-wind-river-range-part-ii/)
I enjoyed, immensely, being in Cowpoke, Wyoming and The Wind River Range. Sometimes, I can still see the mountain range from Elkhart Park, and smell the aromatic, alpine air. The feeling of walking down the main strip in boots, vest, and hat, after coming down out of the mountains, has a way of making one feel like they have been transported to a modern, real life version of an old western film. Wyoming is “The Cowboy State”, and true to its name.
It is atypical to have any time off while working for a horse-packing/fly-fishing outfit. People normally work until the season is over. In Western Big Game Hunting and Fishing Outfits, if you work an entire season, you are almost a seasoned veteran due to high turn over.
The first few weeks I worked there, I stayed in town in the bunk house and cooks cabin. I cooked inside the house while the crew prepared horse tack and trails. The company also had to rent 50 horses to add to their stock. Shoeing all the horses takes a lot of time. There is hard prep work that goes into getting ready for fishing season in the mountains. There is a 3 car garage with half of the building being the “Cook side”. There are freezers, shelves, and a work table. Canned and boxed foods line the shelves from floor to ceiling. The Sysco truck delivers trailer loads of food here. All of the cast iron and other pots and pans are on shelves or in large totes. Hundreds of broken plastic dishes, utensils, etc. littered the room. Water filters, stoves, and everything you can imagine for the camping trip of a lifetime lives inside. This is an OCD outdoor gear junkies dream…or nightmare if they weren’t up to organizing the mess.
You see, with such a high turn over rate in this industry, Outfitters often have people quitting or getting fired before the season is over. They seem to rarely have anyone left at the end of the season. Trying to break down camp and reorganize is a huge job. Usually, by the end of the season, everyone has quit and the outfitters are left to chunk everything in a corner until they can hire someone 7 months later to clean up their mess from last year.
For me, this is great! I love to organize and keep things that way. If you tell me that I am in charge of these things over here and no one else is supposed to bother any of it, my workspace will be immaculate. There is no need to micro manage me, because having owned businesses myself, I do well at managing myself. I work most efficiently when I understand the job at hand and am left alone to do the work. To my delight, that is exactly what this outfitter did while we were in town. They said, we need you to have this place organized, cleaned, and stocked within 3 weeks. In two weeks, everything was done. The outfit was satisfied with me.
The owner gave me the weekend off as a reward and even drove me to the wilderness. I was ecstatic to be going to the Bridger Wilderness in Greater Yellowstone, alone on a backpacking trip. He questioned me on survival topics and made sure I had what I needed. His wife admonished me not to break a leg, because the outfit needs a cook. I assured her that I would be fine. I was shown a wall map of the area and took a picture of it with my smart phone. He described the terrain to me and asked me to take a route for part of the way, that had no trail. He described a few trees, rocks, and topography to me. My backpacking trip was becoming a reconnaissance mission to see how the snow pack was, in the high country. My personal mission was to walk and acclimate to the elevation, making it a bonus for me that I was able to help out my employer and be entrusted with more responsibility.
On the way to my starting point, I had the most enjoyable conversation with my new boss. He is an “Old School” outfitter and has seen a lot. Something that makes him interesting is that he also has a wildlife biology degree. The amount of knowledge in his brain is impressive. I often wonder what makes highly intelligent people get stuck in ways that are no longer effective. Maybe age does it to us all.
He told me stories from the 1950’s in Utah and “The Winds”, as this swath of mountains is colloquially known. I heard stories of how he persevered through the years in the outdoors industry. Here was a man who had 60 years of experience in a certain field. A man who learned from even older outfitters. His stories had me on the edge of my seat and asking questions. He told me of difficult holidays with barely any food, as well as times of plenty. The dogged determination he had would be inspiring for any entrepreneur.
Early in this mans life, he had a cross country/ down hill ski lodge. There were partners who were no good. As is often the case with business partnerships, my former boss did all the work and put in his money and the other partner contributed money and drama. Ski slopes typically open just after Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, it was a strange year with no snow. How was he going to feed his family and pay back creditors if there was no snow on the mountain?
He knew this local Italian guy who owned a lot of businesses in places like Vegas and New York. I understood the insinuation. The loan he took could cost him fingers and toes for being late. What better motivation does a man need?
He also took a loan from the grocery store for thousands of dollars worth of food. Surely there would be snow by December and people will want to hold parties at the lodge. Unfortunately, none came. The food spoiled. On Christmas Eve, this hard working man sat down to have a humble Christmas Eve dinner with his family. The emotion in his voice led me to believe that this was one of the most difficult times of his life. There was a knock at the door. It was his friend, Tom, the owner of the grocery store. His heart lifted, he thought Tom may have been there to bring a ham or dessert or something. Instead, Tom asked him to step outside and said there would be consequences if he was not paid back immediately. The young entrepreneur and father laughed with exhaustion. “Between you and the Italians, I just don’t care about your consequences. You will get paid when I make some money.” He slammed the door in his friends face and went back to his family.
Miraculously, there was snow. Everyone got their money soon after. Hard times turned to good. The seasons changed. 60 years later, he is still hanging on.
He dropped me off in the wilderness after pointing out some geographical features along the way and helping me learn the names of the peaks in “The Winds”. I was learning to identify every peak and pass from different angles. The first thing I did upon getting dropped off was pull out my compass, binoculars, and a photo of the map. Off I went, starting out at 8,000 feet elevation.
I followed the OHV road to the point where I would cut through the sage brush and make my way to a stand of burnt timber. Once I found the burnt timber, I hiked my way up a spur jutting off of the mountain. I made a live feed video on FaceBook while catching my breath. During the video, I found the horse trail that led to camp.
All in all, I ended up hiking about 10 miles and topped out at 10,000 feet elevation on a hill top. From the vantage point of a boulder sitting atop the hill, I was able to sit cross-legged for 45 minutes, lost in the wonderful beauty of the Wind River Range. I began to notice a mild headache and shortness of breath is why I initially sat down. High elevation begins at 7.500 feet. For me, symptoms of elevation sickness don’t show up until I hit 8,000 feet. At, 8,000 feet, my stamina weakens. At 9,000 feet and above, I can seem inebriated until I am able to acclimate. High elevation can be dangerous. People die and lose body parts, who have not properly acclimatized to the body working so much harder to provide it with oxygen and blood. Pulmonary edema is not a way that I would want to go out.
I have spent a lot of time alone. Many people do not seem to understand the difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is being alone and content. Loneliness is deprivation. I was missing my family, missing having a partner, and missing my Tramily (Trail + Family. LINK TO AT STORIES). Spending so much time traveling in rural areas and being in the wilderness, sometimes it is hard to meet anyone of a romantic interest. I had joined a dating site and had been emailing and texting this lady who was a world traveler, wildlife biology grad, and about to take on a job as a park ranger. Feeling the sting of loneliness, I pulled out my phone and saw that I still had service. We spoke for about an hour and I was trying to get her to come to Wyoming from a few hours away to go to the Mountain Man Rendezvous (more on that below). It was nice talking to her for a few weeks, but she moved further away to take a park ranger job the same weekend. We eventually fell off. It is hard to get to know someone new while working 18 to 21 hours a day.
I took pictures of the mountains with my smart phone through my Vortex binoculars. This acts as a great zoom and I was able to show my boss pictures of the snow on the peaks when he picked me up. I gave him his intel, thanked him for the opportunity, and went back to work the next day.
Another notable weekend was that of the Mountain Man Rendezvous. Have you ever seen the movie The Mountain Men with Robert Redford? The scene with the large gathering and the men doing drunken stunts on horseback? That was the first Mountain Man Rendezvous, 150 years earlier. There I was, a modern mountain man, 150 years later, in the same mountains, riding down into town to socialize and trade.
The weekend was filled with parades, rodeos, native dancers, re-enactors, living history demonstrations, and “Traders Row” filled with canvas tents and merchants selling things like hand forged knives, old fashioned soda, animal furs, historical clothing, and hand made jewelry. Up the road, at the museum, there were living history demonstrations. I walked all around town and enjoyed myself. I bought a few gifts for my nieces and nephews at the museum. Also, I picked up some bone and obsidian blade knives that I gave to a stranger who showed me kindness, and one went to a friend.
The most fun of all, I had in my head. I had been reading Jim Bridger: Mountain Man, as I lived and worked in the wilderness that bears his name. At the same time, there was another wrangler/ camp hand that was my coworker, who I have not mentioned. This man, Big Jake, was a short sawed off New Englander who grew up trapping and riding, and made his way out west for seasonal work in the mountains. About the time that hunting season is over in the fall, trapping season begins for him in New England and he travels back east. He once lived in the Adirondaks as a nomad. Now he is practically semi-nomadic, migrating with the fishing, hunting, and fur seasons across this great country. To my knowledge he has no children and has never been married. He doesn’t want to be John Wayne. He wants to be who he is. A man who has fashioned himself after the mountain men of yesteryear, but only 50.
We spoke often about trapping, riding, and camp. He was an avid reader of histories and biographies, as well. For a couple of years, he even worked as a wilderness guide for a wilderness therapy program, something I would really like to be involved in. He was the second person I met who had experience in that field. Although, technically, he was not in a management role in the company, he was a mentor to me. He was a man, happy in his level of responsibility, who was more experienced than me. Yet he was my helper, when MY Boss would let him. Excellent help is a real commodity. I also learned from his manner. There were things he actually meant to teach me and things I learned from watching. The most valuable advice I ever got in a work or school situation was from an ex-girlfriend I can’t stand: “Learn everything they teach you. Also, pay attention to the things they AREN’T trying to teach you (to have a full understanding).” If I see a person who is my elder and they do things that I want to do. I watch them like a hawk. It was a blessing to meet that guy.
The whole time I had been fantasizing about buying some horses and riding from Wyoming down to Doc Campbells Post in the Gila Wilderness come autumn. It sounds crazy, but over the course of a month, I planned routes that would keep me out of the high country and able to resupply. Locals were keeping there eyes on horse sales for me. It would be an epic trip that I would still love to take. I have yet to get my partner on a horse, but she is excited to try.