Friday, August 26, 2011

On Rattlesnake Mountain - Part 1

When I first met my Mountain Boy I was in a place where I had been through the wringer for an extended period of time both physically and emotionally and by the time we met I felt like a shell of a person.
We were both on the rebound and our first meeting in theory should never have led to a second meeting.
There was never supposed to be a second meeting but somehow there was.
My fall back positions over the years have always been the coping mechanisms of hard physical exercise and that of moving inwards - continually reinforcing the psychological walls which were already high but continued to be built stronger and even higher during that period.
By the second time we met we were less frantic and in less of a hurry and we both knew that our second meeting was actually a bigger step than the first.
We met at Big South Fork State Park in upper middle Tennessee and tent camped in the winter.
The first day we hiked 14 miles.  I carried a very heavy pack and had intended to use the hike as a training day because I was training for yet one more race.
There was always another race. 
Even as I was driving home from a race I was already thinking about the next one.
I was on trails all the time.
LC had not been on trails in years.
And so we set off on the trail with me setting the pace.
Within only a few minutes LC was calling for me to slow down.
Without even realizing it I had moved smoothly and directly into race mode - hiking with intent - hiking with someplace to be - hiking to travel the best route possible in the shortest time possible.
When LC called my name I turned back to look at him and saw his face and instantly realized two things.
The first was that this hike was not supposed to be about training.
Rather this hike was supposed to be about us getting to know each other better. 
I wasn't in training with one of my team. 
I was walking with someone who I wanted to know and understand, more than I had wanted to know and understand anyone in a very long time.
The second realization was that this man had been severely injured in the line of duty a number of years before. 
The road to recovery had been very long and very hard and was still incomplete and this man standing in front of me had not done in a very long time what I was now asking him to do.
To go on a long and strenuous hike in the mountains in the Winter.
Those two insights battled their way into my brain in one lightning fast instant.
I wordlessly studied his face for a long time, both of us standing on a half frozen trail, took a deep breath, turned back to the trail and slowed down.
It was a very long hike.
My pack was very heavy and loaded down with everything heavy I could think of including hand weights and old school text books wrapped in sweaters, but that was OK.
More importantly we made the distance in a time and at a pace that worked for both of us.
Along the way LC stopped frequently to ask me if I had seen this or that - a flower, a burned out tree, moss growing on a rock or the side of a tree, water spiders floating in the stream.
Invariably I had not seen them and was walking in the quiet and safe world I had created over time.
And inevitably he would pull me back and show me what I had missed.
And I began to see what I had missed.
Fast forward 4 1/2 years and yesterday we took a 4-wheeling drive from hell high up onto Rattlesnake Mountain.
Even though the base of the mountain is only 10 miles from Cody it was one of the most amazing and beautiful places I have ever seen.
A link to a blog post from June when we last explored Rattlesnake.
On that particular day we could only reach part way up the mountain, and were disappointingly turned back by an uphill wall of ice and mud even that late in the year:
Access to Rattlesnake Mountain is from the Belfry Highway and the first thing adventurers see when they turn onto the dirt and gravel road leading up the mountain is a sign with the dire warning of "Use This Road At Your Own Risk".
We dismissed the sign back in June and then again yesterday as somebody's over-inflated sense of the dramatic.
Back in June on a very warm and very sunny day we found the road to be slightly rocky and slightly rutted-out and there are many many places where there are very steep drop-offs down into the canyon below.
But generally the road was in decent shape with some intelligent driving.
That is, in June, until we finally came to an uphill portion of the road still completely covered in ice and mud and were forced to turn back.
In August and with the limited rain we have experienced for the past couple of months both LC and I expected the road to be in better shape and hoped that we could explore further than our last journey.
As we climbed up and up we were initially driving a road surrounded on both sides by endless green pastures.
Looking over to my right I was surprised to see the sky filled with white smoke, and then realized that I was looking at smoke from the still burning grass fire out towards Clark................
And Heart Mountain fully visible again after being obscured by heavy smoke only the evening before.............
More smoke from the fire as we continued to climb..........
Rattlesnake Mountain reaches a summit of 9116 feet.
If I had done any research before leaving the house yesterday (which I did not) I would have learned that the mountain is over 12 miles in length and almost 4 miles wide
Since arriving in Cody I have hiked to the top of both Heart Mountain and Cedar Mountain.
Both of these mountains had an actual "top" - you walked up to the very top of it, invariably it was rocky and surrounded by dense pine trees, and the only way to go beyond that point was back down the way you had come.
I learned yesterday that Rattlesnake Mountain is not anything like Heart or Cedar.
Continuing to climb and continuing to fall in love with an endless natural wonderland.
Everything in Wyoming is big and wide open.
LC and I have found the openess of this land cathartic and healing for us in ways that are difficult to describe.
After leaving Juneau and without realizing it we needed space.
Both physical and emotional.
And we unexpectedly found it in this unexpected and unplanned place.................
We were both excited and gratified to realize that the road was in even better shape this trip than the last time we visited here.
Wet spots had dried out.  Deep ruts in the road were gone. 
As we continued to climb we realized that a storm was building up on the other side of the mountain.
Looking in different directions we could already see multiple bands of isolated showers falling in the distance around us.................
Dirt and gravel road gave way to red clay which gave way to jet black soil that looked to be volcanic which gave way to red clay again.
And so it went.
An uneventful journey so far with the road constantly changing................
We passed by the stream where Jamie happily played and drank and snapped at the water, and where we turned around last trip.
This time the stream was almost completely dried up and the tall grass almost completely obscured it.
No more ice and mud, we continued traveling further and both of us were excited to be in the mountains.
I have no idea what these flowers are but once we had climbed through cows and pasture land and through a number of winding sections that led into the Shoshone National Forest we opened up into high mountain grassland and these un-named and somehow unusually beautiful flowers.
They were everywhere in the highlands.
Rain came heavily and only briefly and we continued following the double track jeep trail we had been following for a seemingly long time..........
We were now in high mountain country.
My heart races even just writing about it.
I have wondered many times whether or not it is just me who gets so excited while being in the mountains and I asked my Eastern TN Mountain Boy yesterday.
No it is not just me.
He was loving our trip as much as I was...............
Jamie has annoyingly taken to whining and barking when we first leave the house and when she knows that she is going for a drive.
I can't begin to tell how many times we have had to stop three times before driving even 10 miles outside of town.
But once the initial excitement has abated she always settles in to the drive and loves every minute of it.
By the time we were in the mountains she was attentive and silent - watching everything around her.............
Yet one more isolated shower blowing right by us.................
The double track that we had been following for well over an hour and a half continued to change regularly.
Sometimes it was wide open, relatively flat, dirt and easy to drive.
Abruptly it would change and we would hit 4-wheel-drive-only sections of very rocky road.
And then it would change again back to dirt or gravel.
LC and I had both planned on an out-and-back drive when we first left Cody, assuming that we would hit as close to the summit as we could and then have to head back the way we had come.
But as we continued our travels the road was so well defined, we had come so far, we knew what direction we were headed in, that we came to the unresearched conclusion that the road HAD to come out somewhere near Chief Joseph Scenic Highway.
It made sense.
If there was a forest fire up here there was NO WAY fire fighters would have to travel all the way from the Belfry Highway up to where we were. 
If there needed to be road maintenance or ranchers needed to mend their fences to secure their free roaming cattle there was NO WAY they would travel all the way from the Belfry Highway to get to where we were.  Hunting access HAD to be available from more than one highway down near Cody.
I have an expression "research if your friend".
I should have listened to my own expression.
In the meantime LC and I realized that we were dead in the middle of some of the beautiful scenery that either one of us had ever seen.
It was beautiful, it was rugged, it was completely and absolutely isolated.
We were not just looking at the mountains.  We were in the mountains.  In amongst them................
The mountains are calling and I must go............John Muir

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