Wind River Range-Finding — Field Notes from the Southern Rockies
creative nonfiction by Gordon Johnston

Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary. 
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

July 29 and 30

After fourteen hours on the interstate from Troy, Alabama, Bickle Wrens and Red Tarry and I exit to follow our headlights through flat, empty country. In the dark, we pull in as planned at Skipout Lake Recreation Area near Reydon, Oklahoma to camp for the night. Finding a dry, level, well-drained site free of anthills takes a good ten minutes of walking and sweeping my light over the grass and sand. Under three substantial trees — my flashlight finds no dead or cracked limbs — I find a sandy spot and hustle to get my new one-man tent pitched. Lying in the dark, kinked-up from the long day in the small, gear-crammed sport-ute, I sweat and wait for the rain our phones have warned us about.

The wind comes first as a sound across the prairie, like a downstream shoal on a river, like stadium applause. Thunder trundles in the distance, from far beyond the tent door to my left, then closer, from the direction my feet are pointed in, then close, from the right wall of mesh and nylon. The storm has circled in. The tent wall suddenly bucks, the fly opposite the door flaps then goes stiff in a rip of air that flushes the late July humidity out the screen windows and chills my sweat. The right tent wall billows inward, rain spatters across the roof, and lightning flickers beyond my feet. The first strafe of the downpour rakes the fabric, which flares as if I’m inside a flashbulb at seven-, then four-, then two-second intervals until the tent strobes like a disco. Each flash freeze-frames the arced X of bowed, pencil-thick rods that strains against the storm. This little capsized skin boat of sticks and string will rip. I know it. 

I lie still and trust. I have been in louder storms on sandbars along my home Georgia rivers—the Chattooga, the Ocmulgee, where heavy rain hammered flowing water—but this is the plains of the Black Kettle Grasslands: nothing breaks the wind. Fear pokes at my faith. I’m tuned like a piano string to how narrow, fragile, and barely sufficient my shelter is. A drop strikes my left thigh, then another. Another. Five total. I expect more, chiding myself for bringing this new, smaller, lighter tent rather than the storm-tested one I’ve trusted for eight years. 

Then my eyes open on first sun scrimming through the tent roof. I hear Bickle’s tent poles unclicking and the rustle of Red’s quilt being rolled up. My sleeping bag and my floor are completely dry. 

Outside, the lake I could smell but not see last night ripples, its cattails nodding. The trees I pitched under are Osage Orange — wood so prized for bows by Native people because of its strength and flex that it was traded across great distances. So much for my worry about being brained by a fallen branch. 

My pack is wet where it rested against the vestibule, under the rainfly but outside the tent, but I don’t complain. Red’s tent floor took on water. 

Every cell in my body cries out for coffee, but I’m last packing up, we’re ten hours from Denver, and I met Red and Bickel in person only thirty-six hours ago. I’m still making a first impression. So I leave my stove in my pack rather than slow our departure. Two hours later, after passing through the wide-open Black Kettle plains at the western edge of Oklahoma and into Texas (oil rig after oil rig repeatedly bowing to us along the road), we stop at a quick mart in a flat, cluttered hamlet—an enormous, multi-silo grain elevator dwarfing and centering a huddle of tiny, worn houses with ancient trucks, tractors, and end-loaders in bare yards. I get a passable cup and a yogurt. The small store teems with big men in coveralls and Carhartt bibs. Two women clerk us through. Everyone ahead of me is greeted by name. We’re out within seven minutes of walking in. 
At our next overnight stop—Bickle’s friend Poynter’s home in a new Denver suburb—we dry our tents in Poynter’s bright, grassless, gusty yard, wash our sweaty travel clothes, and shower (my first in three days). The high air dries our tents almost instantly. My five-drop leak last night could be a real problem in the Rockies, where temps can drop steeply at night, so I study my tent, eventually seeing the leak came of my putting the tent pole-ends through the outer grommets at the tent corners rather than through the inner ones, which relaxed tension on the fly and let rain linger on the roof rather than run off.

In a Denver enormous store that houses a Starbucks and a climbing wall I find micro-spikes to give me traction on Dinwoody Glacier, bear spray, and two more dehydrated backpacker’s meals. As Bick and Red talk about needs, I worry out loud over my pack’s weight (twenty-seven pounds). Red’s and Bickle’s loads each weigh closer to forty, though their packs are smaller. I mentally handle each item and imagine again wilderness dilemmas. Seeing no needs I haven’t covered, I resist the nearly sexual spell of light, nifty, pricey gear. Invention is the mother of necessity. Walking to supper, we pass weed shop after weed shop. As we eat, I think about John Muir wandering the Sierra Nevadas for a week, high on wonder, his kit an overcoat with half a loaf of crusty bread in one pocket. 

Back at Poynter’s, wakeful on his couch, I scribble in my notebook, then add slashes to create line-breaks:

Black Kettle Grasslands, Oklahoma

The August stars vanish. The night comes / still and sweats. When the prairie’s distant edge /
flickers, I sweep the halo of my headlamp / over the ground: rucked, lumpy, aerated /
by anthills, damp nearer the small lake. / I pitch at last a minute before midnight /
under two trees on a slight, level rise. / My stakes lost, I sharpen sticks to pin /
my corners, cross the poles and arc them, / clip on the cloth, cast over it all the fly /
like a surf net and cinch it down. My pack / wrapped, I zip in, lie sweating on my pad /
in this slight shelter, floating each slow minute / closer to the sound of a river shoal, along /
the marshy edge of sleep. A curtain of air / cold as a ghost drops on me, chilling the salt /
on my skin. The right wall of nylon bulges in, / out, in. Rain’s paw-pads rake the roof, thunder /
crumples, and all that’s outside my sheath flares / once, then sizzles. The sternum-crack of a mortar shell / detonates directly over my bed, lightning quickening / until it strobes. My capsized skin boat quakes / and shudders, straining against the swells. I keep / still inside her, chilled, certain she will founder, / accepting. Two drops tap my thigh, marking me / for some gale-dug grave. I give myself up / to the rip and the wave, to the branch / that will brain me – then open my eyes / in a rinsed yellow morning. She unzips, / water breaking from the fly: I crown /
into the bright wide open, crawl beached / and blinking out to glimpse the horizon /
going on without me, the soggy, sunlit scar / of the trail. I turn and bow in thanks to my taut, / 
whole veil, stretched over two strung bows, / bent and strong – her shape is the D in Dwell. 

July 31
The next morning on the five-hour drive across the Medicine Bow River and the continental divide toward the Big Sandy Lake trailhead, the emptiness of Wyoming impresses us. We begin to keep up with the rising elevation which is noted under town names on the exit signs. My ears pop, not with the .22 caliber snap I’ve felt going up Blood Mountain in Georgia, but with a profound .44 magnum whomp. In Farson—a gas station or two, a store, and a deli, the last outpost of electricity, food, and fuel—we eat sandwiches and top off the tank before taking the jarring, winding, forty-four-mile two-rut through wide-open scrub and low, rocky buttes into the Bridger Wilderness to the trailhead. 

Ten miles in, the Rockies hang hazy as a mirage above the farthest horizon I’ve seen. Growing up among hilly hardwood creek-cuts in the Georgia piedmont, the vast sightline exalts me. Red gently paces the sport-ute over the washboard road. In the unfenced chaparral to either side, as many antelope as steers graze. Enormous rock outcrops gradually give way to an uphill zigzag through pines and scree, the last stretch leveling off along twisting, rocky creek that begs to be fished. In the two miles approaching the trailhead parking lot, camper trailers perch along the bluffs overlooking the road. I see flapping clothes on a line. People must settle in for a month or two at a time. The dirt trailhead parking lot, packed with cars and trucks, sinks my heart.

We spend an hour at the tailgate re-sorting gear and food we have already sorted twice. I repack for better balance and to keep the micro-spikes isolated from my mummy bag, inflatable sleeping pad, and tent. I carry only one extra meal and no books beyond my Kindle and a New Yorker, but I opt for my old, bulkier, 20-degree sleeping bag over the new, slimmer 35-degree model. I’m still on Georgia time, so it seems later to me than 3 p.m. when I rest my pack on the bumper and swing a fist through each strap, lean forward to shift the weight onto my shoulder blades so that I can snap the big buckle of the waist-belt above my hips, then pull tight that strap and the two smaller ones at my ears. My pack rests on the same center of gravity the rest of me does. Bickle, Red, and I walk the dusty road to the trailhead, sign the registry, and read the message board: Bears are claw-cutting bear bag lines that are tied off too low. No fires. Boil or purify water. 

We set out due north through pines and firs along a creek toward the fork that will take us on a three-day loop through Fish Creek Park and around the back side of the Cirque of the Towers, up over the mountains and down into the cirque via Texas Pass, out to Lizard Head, back to the cirque and out of it over Jackass Pass, then past Big Sandy Lake to return to this trailhead. Stepping onto the trail is like pushing off into a current in a loaded canoe. 

The relief I feel on finally being committed to the path unrolling before me, breathing in evergreen resin, trail dust, and thin air roiled and freshened by the rushing creek, is like walking out of a long tunnel of decisions—six weeks of choices about training and equipping for backpacking a hundred miles at a higher altitude than I’ve ever experienced with two men I barely know who are more than ten years younger than me, leaving my partner and my three kids for sixteen days. The choices are all made. Now my lungs and legs will work out their rhythm and pace. Or not. I’m free to be mindful rather than thoughtful, to, like Thoreau, “stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment: to toe that line.” 

The only thing I must think about hour by hour is drinking water. The southern Appalachians, the mountains I have hiked most, are green and moist as moss compared to the much higher, far drier Wind River Range. My home range drenches you. The Rockies drain you. The dry air draws sweat from your skin like a parched sponge as you climb, then chills that moisture in your clothes as you crest ridges and passes. Books and maps warn how suddenly dehydration can strike, the headaches and disorientation worse for those unused to altitude, which is why we took our time in Colorado and why we are keeping today’s and tomorrow’s miles low.

The well-defined trail—in places it’s a narrow trench eight inches deep and everywhere it’s rocky and uneven—makes the way through the thin forest and meadows clear. Some of the rocks are blue. The tall, skinny white-bark pines bristle with egg-sized cones. Snags and blow-downs where they have lost their bark are vividly colored and twisted. Air and trail are dry, though the grass, needles, and wildflower stems are crisply green. The harshness of the rest of the year bruises my soles. Winter is the straight, brittle cracks that halve boulders as tall as me. I’m surprised to hear no birds. 

We hike around four miles through forest and up 37 floors (according to the health app on Red’s phone: 8,932 steps) before Bickle strays right, off the trail into an open, sunny meadow of chest-high grass that slants down toward a stream. In three strides the ground goes from baked to spongy to soggy. I’m glad (not for the last time) my boots are waterproof. As we move downslope toward the stream, the grass becomes shorter, the ground rockier and drier. The wet area we crossed was a seep, where water from snowmelt runs over stone that is covered with a thin layer of soil.

We come to decently flat sites near a copse of evergreens within which we can hear the stream pooling and gurgling. Near an almost-flat quarter-acre outcrop of rock, I roll my pack over the knee-high grass to flatten it, then pitch my tent in a rock-free space exactly the height and width of my shelter. My older tent wouldn’t have fit. While my palm-sized pump inflates my sleeping pad, I explore the stream where it enters the grove of pines. I dip my water bag into the shallow pool, finding it tough to fill the bag without getting silt into it, but managing. Next time I’ll find a pour-over or falls. Once I screw on the in-line filter, the size and shape of a roll of nickels, I roll the bag down from the top to squeeze water through the filter and into my bottle. 

When I offer Red coffee once I’ve got water boiling on my stove, he accepts and adds a finger of Bailey’s Irish Cream to our two cup –perfect punctuation to setting up camp, especially with the breeze stiffening into gusts. After pouring boiling water into the foil pouches of our dehydrated meals, stirring them, and zipping the tops, we chat about where we might be on the map, talking about tomorrow’s route until supper is rehydrated, hot, and ready. We eat on a hump of stone downwind of the tents to keep bears from mistaking us for chili mac, then we put our used meal pouches in our bear bags and venture across the stream upslope of camp. We hang the bear bags—Bickle has a sturdy round vault, Red a steel mesh bag, and me a vinyl dry bag puny by comparison—in a grove of pines a hundred yards from our tents, making sure they’re suspended from a branch ten feet from the tree’s trunk by a rope whose other end is tied off as high as six-foot-four Red can reach. When it comes to bears, and all animals, I feel more respect than fear. Trekking and paddling, the world I’m entering is theirs. To defer to them is one of my motivations for entering the wilds. We don’t pack a gun or the false sense of security it seems to bring many people, but we all have bear spray. Mine will be in the corner of my tent nearest my right hand every night and in my pocket every step of the trip. 

The cold wind that moved through right after we stopped to camp and made us each don a puffer jacket ceased as the sun touched the tops of the trees above the trail, but now the temperature drops again with twilight. On an Ocmulgee sandbar, a fire would be just the thing. Walking our first miles, I lamented off and on to myself the prohibition of fires posted at the trailhead, but arriving back at my tent all I really want is to be horizontal and zipped into my bag. We’re all in our tents well before full dark, which, this far north, isn’t until almost ten. Exhausted, wired, I open my notebook.

Note at the Trailhead
Habituated bears have cut 
bear bag lines tied too low.

Let this be a sign unto you, I go, as we walk 
into the mountain's maw, slowed by heavy packs. 
We're snacks carrying snacks. Good to know.
Bickle gives a little fake laugh: Tie it high—
so? A cub with a K-bar can still climb. 
Do they chew the cord? Click out 
one claw and saw through? We 
drop the subject once we begin 
to descend into the noun 
both our brains 
are verbing: 

The poem gives me the breaks last. The second I see that last one-word line, I nod off, my face smacking the cold page. I sit up, shed all my clothes, zip them into a freezer bag inside my pack under the vestibule, and slide into the mummy bag. To smell in its taffeta, sleeping at 9,670 feet, the cedar smoke from an Ossabaw Island trek last March—Ossabaw altitude: three feet—is comforting. My under-oxygenated blood warms the bag quickly. I fall asleep with a finger on the familiar texture of the short, taped-over rip inside the bag near the collar.  

The moon wakes me when it rises, two days past full, the smallest moon of the year. Through the tent, it’s a muted white, a milk stain at the bottom of a green glass. Every ninety minutes or so, I wake enough to inch the bag’s zipper a bit further up. By morning, the hood of the 20-degree bag, a secondhand Kelty, is over my head. When Red tells me the next morning he slept in all his layers and still shivered. I don’t say I wore nothing and was gosling-cozy. Thoreau: a man should “be clad so simply that he can lay hands on himself in the dark.” I don’t quote him to Red, though the words sum me up well. 

August 1   

The morning, colder than the night, has me stuffing my wool shirt, wool socks, down jacket, and pants into the sleeping bag to warm them before I put them on. Once I’m up and out—the low vestibule makes me exit in an awkward crouch—big mosquitoes descend, despite the chill. They’re five times the size of their Okefenokee cousins, but so slow they land few actual bites. Their keening around my ears is nuisance enough. I zip my jacket collar to my chin and trade out my Braves cap for my bucket hat, which instantly helps. After an envelope of Trader Joe’s maple oatmeal and a cup of coffee, I break everything down alongside Red, finding my fly and tent bone-dry in the high air. Packing up is neat and easy, nothing like a humid, dewy Chattooga River dell or a Black Rock Mountain backcountry site would be this time (really any time) of year. Red gets up last but packs fast, as he will most mornings. Bickle and I hang bags of stream water from a sapling to drip water through the purifier into our bottles and backpack bladders. Red has already used his lever-pumped filter to fill up directly from the stream. 

An hour after setting off in the chilly morning we sweat to a stop to shed jackets in a long, rock-humped grassy field that trails off toward the snow-patched mountains that are distinctly closer. Today I learn that my unlined nylon running shell over a long-sleeved wicking t-shirt is perfect for being in motion over the trail. My pace, I will learn by day’s end, is about two-thirds of Bickle’s on level ground. Red, 34, matches him easily on level ground. I will bring up the rear, which I’ve never done in my past trips. By the end of this first full day—9.8 miles, 23,400 of Red’s steps, ascending 36 floors—I have dropped a little pride into each of the many clear, rocky lakes that we pass. I try to love my short stride and Southern lungs. The quiet is generous, the landscape too open to hide bears, and the headache and nausea of altitude sickness never come. 

My feet in their four-year-old Keen hikers steadily reel in the narrow ribbon of dusty trail. In some stretches, where water stands or where the path comes close to a creek or pool, a second trail parallels the main one. Hikers have made it to avoid trenching or muddying the way or to avoid further churning up the ground where strings of horses have passed, leaving clots of manure. A trout lips the reflective surface of Mirror Lake as we skirt the west shoreline. It looks deep. 

We climb up through treeless scree to Dad’s Lake, then take a long late morning break on a level, rocky grass saddle overlooking the long, placid surface. The mountains stand on their own reflections. The glint of the water makes a pleasing contrast to the buffs and grays of the stone and the short grass around it. The sky, even wider and more open than the landscape, has begun to darken. While we rest, four other hikers pass going our direction. We see trekkers every hour or so all day. In the vast sightlines, they barely ripple our sense of aloneness. Clouds pile up and we get into rain gear as the first drops fall, then hoist up the packs and go on. My pack cover keeps coming loose, but the rain stops within ten minutes, so no harm is done. 

We ascend gently through the early afternoon, passing through a long, rocky meadow, climbing steadily past Marm’s Lake and steeply up to a big, grassy bald warted with boulders. The bald—a Southern term that feels out of place here, more than 5,000 feet higher than Brasstown Bald—cups a wide, shallow tarn. Beyond it roll domes of rock grown here and there with stunted spruce and beyond the domes are the mountains, graphite-colored granite dappled in the heights with patches of snow. We relax on the bald for a good forty minutes, lunching on trail mix and protein bars. I brew coffee for Red and me. Bickle stretches his bad back out flat on a rock. As I will at many of our longer rest stops, I find a rock the millennia have worn into a perfect contour for my body, an elemental recliner where I doze and catch up on breathing, my puffer jacket over me against the wind that will bluster over every height we cross. The second we stop, my sweat will always chill in the wind. Summer feels mythical here. I take out my notebook to write that down, but by the time I have it open I’ve forgotten the phrase.


Between firs, among aspens, stone to stone across
a white creek, through furzy tussocks of meadow
sogged with thaw, up gritty pitches by steep switch-
backs of scree to a high slope of summer snowfield
winds this ribbon of wear – a scar making a here
by flowing to a there. Take care to keep on it,
though your boots dig it deeper, though for whole miles
you hump a ditch. Dry air will carry off a breath
of dust each step: rock sifted to soil, thin as silt –
a wear you wear, a ground-smoke to drift over a drop-off
or foot-log. Grizzly, ankle-breaking hole, slab-teeter,
coral snake, storm – these killers the trail abides, in the lee
of boulders, over the pass, as it leads you beside still waters, 
lays you in a valley of shadow, as it takes you in stride. 

Back on the hoof, we descend along Washakie Creek, fording it and following it a long way as several 12,000-foot stone peaks tower over us. Weaving between the trail and the peaks, the creek wanders, bends, pools, and plunges, no ten feet of it the same, while beyond the streambanks the sheer, rock-strewn enormity of the mountains never alters at all as we cover the last miles of the day parallel to them. It’s as if we are walking in place. In a passage I’ve always liked, Thoreau quotes the Damodara in Walden: “There are none happy in the world but those who enjoy a vast horizon.” True, if you’re happy feeling infinitesimal, as these vastnesses—which are vertical as well as horizontal—dictate. 

When we pitch to the right of the trail, I’m almost too worn out and hungry to appreciate the creek meadow and the peaks visible through breaks in the spruces. There is a small cave under a boulder the size of a small house. Trees screen us from the trail’s regular gaggles of passing backpackers. I boil water for coffee and ramen fortified with chili-mac, spilling the pot of noodles when I try to set it on a rock that isn’t as flat as it looks. I clean up the mess as well as I can, grateful that ramen has little scent, embarrassed by my clumsiness. I feel restored after the first mouthfuls of my second batch.  

All afternoon, the tumble and plunge of the Washakie rushing ahead and zigzagging across the flat places like a dog off the leash has made me want to fish it, to feel its tensegrity through a line, to read its surface to detect and contact the lives underneath. So I fit my spinning reel to the $10 telescoping rod I bought back in Macon and bushwhack down through the meadow—braided, spongy green tussocks of uneven ground, grassy in the high spots and boggy in the low, choked with waist-high, densely twiggy thickets of brush. On the rocky bank, I change into my wading shoes and step into the fast, clear current. 

It’s cold, but gradually I find I can stand it if I stay in motion. More challenging than the cold is the uneven stone shambles of the bottom. Getting no action, I make my way upstream to a wide hole below a rocky torrent running down from the lake above. The rod, a little too limber, takes some touch to use. I miss or lose several fish before I start landing fierce 8-10” trout, gold-orange along their bellies. The blue moles on their flanks are vivid; some have red centers. Every fish rages at the air. I try not to touch them at all as I free them, but most have two if not all three points of the Rooster Tail’s treble hook embedded in their jaws, so I wet my hands and grasp them. Their raspy teeth are no joke given how the dry air has cracked my Georgia hands as I used the trekking poles all day. I hook fourteen fish in about forty minutes, landing ten or so. My weariness washes completely out of me. As I bring in the last fish, I know it should be the last. The creek has given me enough. 

Back at camp I boil water for more coffee. I quietly drink it, watching the light on the face of the mountains, then find I’ve returned to the creek. I bathe with a dipped pot of Washakie. The cold sears my wet scalp, my bare chest with its dried sweat. I shiver, rubbing myself down with my pack towel, my fingers so chilled I can’t button my shirt. When I zip my jacket closed over my open placket, the inside of my finger-joints on both hands begin to bleed. The sun sets gradually, clouds making shifting roseate patterns on the towers of rock. Red comes down, too. We sit on big boulders out in the current, turned downstream to watch the orange, then pink, then purple inkwash on the horizon. I’m stiller than I have ever been. I’ve spent everything in me.

Tonight I will leave the fly of the tent turned back so that I can lie on my sleeping bag and watch the first stars appearing over the shoulder of the peak directly opposite my door. As soon as dark falls, I draw my down jacket over my bare chest. The cold and my own exhaustion get the better of me before full night. It’s my fifth night away from my family and the first day of high school for my youngest son. I climb out and secure the fly just as a spat of rain blows up. My headlamp finds a page in my notebook from last year—ten sketchy lines written within earshot of a waterfall on the Cheat in West Virginia, the steady susurrus starting a poem, then drowning it out. Now the Washakie completes it:

High Falls, Shaver’s Fork of the Cheat River, Late June

Because we have backpacked from Bemis
between the gleam of the tracks, boots on gravel
all the way, I’m done in by every suppleness I witness:
current rounding over a river-wide warp of stone, 
drift sticks licked gray and skinless by the pour
until they’re vascular and tenderized, vulnerable
as the inside of a girl’s wrist, the rhododendron thicket’s
springs and bends and green slap fight of passage that musks
me up with semi-stiff rubbings. Branches bow, neither
low nor high, but always — always— mid-thigh. 
  Still, I pass 
upstream, descend again down the moss boing of bank 
to the clear bustle of a deep hole below a shoal.
The surface is a warble of cold through which brook trout,
fearless, see me magnified, their fins fingering the cobbled bottom.
God, the give and resistance of this old, broken whole, the flow –
the easy hold of each fish in the Cheat’s ceaseless blow. I’ll not fool
one, but the river has me, too – rod, soul, mind. So I throw and throw
and throw. 
     Daylight runs out. The bright rails and black ties, wave
and laurel and brook and hole – they all go. Mountain and river roll into
a single shadow, still not speaking, in words I ought to know. 

August 2

Today, I carry the notebook in my pocket, to write each time we rest. 

The early sun gradually illuminates the mountains across the creek from their peaks down, softening their textures and making their swatches of snow look warm as bedsheets 

The woods give way to rock and tundra as we climb, reaching a wide, clear lake as we crest the rise. At its far side, the lake laps a sheer rock mountainside. We are no longer below the mountains, but in them. 

In this snowless Himalaya, the rock and water and distances are thrilling and terrible, the daylight utterly uncut, sharpened on the Rockies’ grindstone shoulders. The face of the rock dome across the lake is all folds of magma, like cake batter solidified, as new as ancient gets. 

Texas Pass: Whatever you do, however slow you go, don’t stop, Bickle said last night. I say it again now, spreading my palms over a big, flat-topped slab of stone like an altar. Your hands are the sacrifice, Red says. We climb, looking back down at the pale, silt-fine sand in the lake’s shallows. The lake seems perfectly full. In a landscape of rock, even the most ephemeral element feels eternal.

We crest the pass: 11,447 feet. Opposite us through the thin air is Pingora, the closest and most impressive and unitary mountain, as tall, rooted, riven, and pointed as a height out of Tolkien. It soars across the valley. The crusted white snow underfoot, the river melting from it that we hear loudly coursing out from under the white pass to break out downslope of us, the dark stone of the Rockies—all of this clarity wicks up through me to meet the burn of my muscles. I’m a candle flame flaring on clear, melted wax—bright, wobbly, easily snuffed—carried to a titanic altar and set there, a minimal mote of glow against miles of transparency. 

I stand in the presence. Then I sit in the presence. Is my being here presence, when this ground holds me up to see so far and so deep, over such distance? Can a here encompass this much there? The whole valley of the cirque lies open, sending up and drawing down an air like well water. The clarity seems to saturate the valley’s green, to grain its textures and focus its distances. Patchy snow prims the heights across the lake setting off the ash rock that edges it. The air is ground so thin it magnifies everything’s actuality. 

The solid rock around us holds no hint of wear or trail. Soon we will start down it toward the haze of green held in the bowl of these mountains, through what will be a chaotic tumble. For another long minute, I survey the fault lines that the rocks below me broke from a week or a week of centuries ago. I swallow the discernible process of geology and tectonics that swallows me. Walking slowly, carefully down, I will gradually return to human scale, reach the green riot of the meadow grass around Lonesome Lake, with the parched trail slithering through it. Like the cirque, like the entire Wind River Range, the way is steadily weathering, inexorably becoming more itself. The linear trail, its beginning and end, feels like a violation of the circular, cyclical travel that continuously spirals within this vast bowl, that is its continuity. Geology works by a gradual, ceaseless turmoil I don’t have length of life to discern. All I do is touch the scars. And yet that is an ample margin to live in. If I could see it in its flow, rock would warble, run, and puddle like water.

In the end, there isn’t an end, really, except for human beings. In the end, the mountains cannot lose. Tonight I will fall into deep, restorative sleep, this notebook quiet at last in my pack. 

Gordon Johnston is author of Seven Islands of the Ocmulgee: River Stories (Mercer, 2023), Scaring the Bears (poetry), and Durable Goods (poetry chapbook), and is co-author, with Matthew Jennings, of Ocmulgee National Monument: A Brief Guide with Field Notes. Johnston also collaborates with potter Roger Jamison to fire poems onto clay pages in Jamison’s anagama kiln in Juliette, Georgia. A former journalist with work in The Georgia Review, Southern Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, Susurrus and other journals, Johnston is Professor of English at Mercer University.