"Can you feel the power?" Dave asked with the look of a man who'd returned to his natural habitat. "Can you see the mountain spirits?"
Six of us stood high on a massive rock, scanning the rugged landscape of Wyoming's Wind River Range. I looked in the direction of Dave's gaze for a long moment, then turned back to study his face. While deeply moved by the wild beauty of my surroundings, I was fascinated by my companions as we made our way into the epitome of backcountry, without the aid of designated trails. We'd followed moose and bighorn droppings, and Dave and Scott's acute sense of direction and familiarity with the area, picking our way further and higher into the Wilderness.
This was Dave's fifteenth and Scott's ninth visits to Lakes Louise, Hidden, Ross and beyond. The stories the two men told of climbing near vertical walls of stone without the assistance or assurance of ropes made my jaw drop. They studied the topographic map time and again, pointing first to the lines on the paper and then to the actual peaks, ridges and other dramatic features they represented. Dave and Scott described where they'd been in years past, explaining their challenging routes and delighting in the memories of the dangers and difficulties they'd overcome, as well as the rewards of their accomplishments. They shared a deep love for those mountains, and that emotion was as evident in their eyes as in their words.
We were a group spanning four generations and with a wide range of experience. Forty-seven year-old Dave maneuvered over jumbled rocks and jagged, downed trees without breaking his momentum. He knew how to navigate through those mountains as much by instinct as intellect. Scott, 35, had no fear of skiing loose shale on a steep mountainside or leaping across a deep crevice from one huge boulder to the narrow edge of another, with more than sixty pounds on his broad back. He trusted his boot soles and his skill. Thirty-seven year-old Teresa and 23 year-old Rachel were new to backpacking, yet both moved with relative ease and natural ability over the rough terrain, despite the weight they toted in packs they'd never before carried. Linda struggled some in the high altitude. At 52, she'd resumed backpacking two years earlier, having once frequented the great outdoors as a teenager.
And then there was me. At 32, I'd hiked more miles than the others combined. Less than a year before, I'd summited Maine's Mt. Katahdin, completing a six-month and more than 2,000-mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. When I returned home to the small town of Confluence, Pennsylvania, it was soon obvious my husband had told a number of people I'd hiked the A.T. Those people had told others. Almost daily for a while, someone would approach me with congratulations and questions. Scott was one of those people and probably the most interested and enthusiastic of them all. And it was Scott who'd invited me to join this trip to the Winds.
During the months before our group headed into the Wilderness, Scott sang my praises to many. "This girl's hiked the Appalachian Trail!" he'd announce, looking as proud of me as he sounded. That always made me smile and feel ever more confident about the upcoming adventure he said would be "really tough." In August, 2001, however, as I stood frozen with fear on a tallus slope of Wyoming's Middle Mountain, I felt anything but proud of my A.T. achievement or at all convinced of my abilities. Later that evening, safe in my tent--safe from falling and dehydration after many hot and waterless hours inching my way thousands of feet down to more stable ground--I felt angry at myself for having been so afraid, so nearly immobile.
Despite the miles of trail I'd walked, I continued to have the same fears. I'd hear thunder rumble in the distance, and my heart would skip a beat. The awesome, deadly power of lightning. I'd lie in my tent at night, wondering what had awakened me, and then I'd have to give in to the call of nature--to leave my nylon shelter and get the job done quickly. Fear of the unknown and unseen in the dark forest. Add falling from heights to that list and you've got my almost daily inventory of unavoidable panic attacks. Unavoidable, that is, if someone like me chooses to go backpacking. Have I mentioned how much I love backpacking?
During the days that followed my Middle Mountain panic session, I watched my friends, contemplating how they were different, not only from each other, but especially from me. Why had they not been afraid? Or at least not as fearful as I. Did they ever lie awake at night, listening? Did a distant rumble make their pulses race? From time to time, I questioned them, individually and collectively, but the most anyone conceded was having been "a little jittery" once in a while.
Sitting there on that massive rock, where Dave communed with spirits, where Scott repeated, "I love these mountains!" in his usual loud voice, where Teresa and Rachel stood on the edge of a very long way down, and Linda took great pleasure in seeing first-hand the geology she'd studied in a classroom, I sat clutching stone, my fingers gripping a narrow crack. There was no chance of falling from where I sat; I knew that. But it didn't make a difference at the moment, as I imagined I felt the earth turning. Somehow, though, as I sat there holding on while contemplating my companions, something changed. Perhaps I should thank one of Dave's mountain spirits, but I finally forgave myself my fears. I have no need to conquer them. They'll be expected companions on all my future adventures, I'm quite sure. But they won't stop me from doing what I love.
"Man, I can't wait to get back to civilization and get me a burger!" Scott shouted as we descended to camp for our final night in tents for a while.
"Me too!" Teresa chimed in.
Rachel agreed. Linda had mixed emotions about the end of the trip. Dave said nothing. And I felt content as I stopped to take in my surroundings--a sight seen by only those who are willing, able and fortunate enough to walk there.
As we neared the end of our six-day journey and approached the dusty parking area, I couldn't help but smile. I smiled at my scrapes and cuts. I smiled at sore muscles and bruised pride. I smiled at the mountains and the wind and all that was wild and unrelenting to my fears. I can't wait to go back!
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