For three days I’ve been roaming around Southern Wyoming, an aging gypsy woman in a muddy four-wheel drive truck, too long confined to Texas flat land, now set free to wander at will. I came with the notion of having my own way, consulting no one’s preferences but my own, taking the trip as I found it.
Wyoming’s Medicine Bow country suited that lack of ambition just fine. It allowed, even encouraged, me to meander, up this scenic by-way and down that dirt track, in a haphazard, more or less westerly direction. When, over and over, every few miles, some particular sight or sound called special attention to itself, I parked the truck and set out on foot, even against one day’s cold rain and another day’s stiff wind that nearly blew me over and was called fierce even by a passing native Wyoming resident’s weathered standards. She was the only human I saw that day, and she was complaining about the cold. I had left Texas in mid-August. I didn’t mind the cold. I was falling in love with Wyoming, and like any new lover, I was oblivious to its contradictions. I was even entranced by the dark grey and utterly horizontal cloud quilt, obviously dense with moisture and unpredictable thunderbolts, that pulled itself rapidly flat-out across me, so close overhead I actually tried to reach up and touch it. By then Wyoming had me in its spell. With its gently rising but increasingly steep mountains, its clear lakes, its upright forests, its sage-grass stretched-out valleys, its balance of wide-openness and blessed tucked-away hiddenness, and even its arid drought lands, it complied completely with my needs.
After Texas and before Wyoming, I’d been through Oklahoma and Kansas and across Nebraska all the way, east to west. Lovely, all of it, but more or less flat and endlessly familiar. When I finally got to the Wyoming border, I was so hungry for drama, for variegated high country, that I almost went right through Cheyenne and Laramie as if they weren’t there, or didn’t matter at all, except as necessary pit stops for gas and water and food on the way to wilderness. I was headed upward, for the Continental Divide, no doubt about it.
But I found myself slowing down once I had gotten past the boundary of the Medicine Bow National Forest. The truck wisely geared itself down to about 35 miles an hour, just so I’d be able to dilly-dally. With no other cars anywhere in sight whose driver might get agitated about my slowness, I gave myself time to taste the blessed beauty of what was cropping up all around me.
Soon, I found cause to park the truck on the side of the road so that I could get out and make my way up, down, and sideways along a slope to a mirroring lake I’d spotted from up above. By the time I’d worked my careful way far down out of sight of the highway to sit on a boulder by a lightening-blasted fir tree, there to rest my sea-level lungs in this 8500 foot altitude, I was no longer in a hurry to get anywhere. I just sat there.
The same fierce wind I mentioned before was whipping sudden currents so rapidly across the surface of the lake it looked as if several startled fish had suddenly become jet propelled and were on extremely urgent missions to the other side of the lake, headed downwind. Maybe they were, because far off across the lake, tiny from my distance, two fly fishermen, the only people I saw that whole morning, were doing their graceful casting thing and making their own circle-spreading ripples on the lake’s surface. Watching all this, as well as the scudding dark clouds overhead, I pulled an apple out of my little knapsack and with it a can of juice. I felt like an original human person, knowing I could sit there as long as I liked.
But eventually I got up and was finally back on the road. And good thing, too, because several hawks were there, swooping down and hovering so close overhead I could see their eyes, seeing me seeing them. In fact, all three days now, hawks have greeted me in the morning hours, flying close by the truck, as though to show me the way, or at least to cheer me on. They were not red-tails, like at home, but hawks they were, white-shouldered, whatever, and as always, I greeted them as medicine.
I needed medicine. This is the first get-away-from-the-familiar I’ve had in a long time. My home, Earthsprings, is magical, and I dearly love my own remote, healing, forest habitat in East Texas, so it is hard for me to separate myself from it, but the work there, human and logistical, has lately been intensely engaging. It was past time for me to set free my wandering soul.
So before I got to Wyoming, I had been a woman on a mission, to get out of the cities and into the by-ways, and nothing could have fit the bill like the Medicine Bow country. Honestly, in all three days, I only saw a double handful of people and even fewer cars.
I did pass through a few towns, but they were so small I almost stopped to photograph their population signs. One informed me that a total of 25 people lived somewhere nearby the sign, another boasted of 75, and the biggest advertised 340 inhabitants. And mind you, I didn’t see any of them!
Most of the time I was so alone in the wind-swept high meadows or the tree-studded mountains that I felt as though whatever I came upon I was the first human in creation to set eyes on it. But then I would be called back into awareness that pioneers in their covered wagons had passed this way on the Overland Trail that went right through here, years ago, ahead of me, and that before that nomadic natives from various tribes, who no doubt knew every track and gully of the place, probably stood many times in the very spot I was standing. It buoyed me to think of them all, each in turn, drinking in such untamed beauty as I was doing now.
On the second day, I came down from the continental divide into a broad valley with a little town calling itself Encampment, because it was in this valley that first the natives and then the mountain men had come together in their grand encampments. I got out of the truck just to stand for awhile. The wind whipped the present away from me and set before my imagined view a grand sweep of tepees spread out across the great valley with the river running through it. My bit of red blood went out to them, wild and free, smelling the smoke rising from hundreds of campfires, feeling the excitement as children and dogs ran everywhere underfoot, soft-stepping women cooked succulent feasts, tested hunters compared stories, and young bucks eyed the long-haired beauties from other bands that they might meet and perhaps mate. And then the wind whipped again, and now it was the wagons and scrappy tents and rattling paraphernalia of the rugged trappers and bearded explorers who later came together at this place. It wasn’t hard, really, to leave my world behind, and drift down into the valley and hear their hearty talk of winters with snow so deep they were trapped in ice-covered burrows for weeks, or of bears so big or moose so plentiful or elk so loud.
When, at last, I got back in the truck, I was not really back in the present, and truth be told, I’ve stayed that way. Later in the day, I hiked along a rock-strewn streambed, clear sparkling waters tumbling downhill, drawing me and drawing me, until, finally, I heard from somewhere way off, the voices of the “bears” in my own human tribe, warning me that there were bears in that forest and that I had better head back up to the safety of the truck.
I did so, but on the way, I was rewarded by the beneficence of a bird, type unknown to me, gray all over, the size of a small hawk, straight beaked, and sweet voiced. It flew right down to me, hovered right in front of me, and sang to me, straight to me, there being no doubt about it. After I stopped and listened and murmured back to it for many minutes, it settled on a tree-limb about three feet from my face, and continued to inform me of majesty, while I simply took root and meant to stand there forever. But it was having none of it; it flew a few feet ahead of me, showing me the way I needed to go, and when I didn’t move, it flew back, circled me, insisting, and so I moved slowly, following it back toward the top of the trail where I had begun. Only then did this messenger bird give one last sweet cry and fly away. I knew suddenly that I had stumbled into an ancient time, that blessed time when humans and other creatures spoke a common language, when the heart was the medium of expression .
One day I saw a herd of pronghorns, grazing quietly and peacefully. And then a marmot, waddling across the road. The black deerflies didn’t even daunt me, as I meandered from one dirt track to another, letting my least inclination be my guide.
I did see human signs, markers, that moved me. Not just the usual historical markers with dates of battles and information about altitude and all that. Strange ones. Like these: “Edison camped near this spot, fishing, and the filament of his fishing line caused him to think of how to create the filament in the light bulb…” and “Please do not put the remains of deer or elk into the trash cans…” and “In case of lightning storm, make yourself a one-point ground by crouching down and putting hands on your pressed-together knees; the fact that any of us has survived so far is merely grace…” and “Camp at least 100 feet from your campfire and put your food at least ten feet up in the air so you won’t be mauled by bears…” and “These wild-flowers, however lovely, are deadly poison for livestock…”
One might think that these warnings of the harshness of the possibilities of an untamed wilderness, even in summer (winter being altogether unendurable for low landers like me), might daunt me. On the contrary, my tamed and civilized self let go gladly into such wildness. Only the promises I had made to my offspring and to my loving friends that I would “be careful, be mindful that I am, after all, 65 years old,” kept me from just heading out for good into the brush or the thick aspen groves or across the tundra like a mad woman in search of sanity.
Most of the few people I encountered looked like they understood.. The spitting image of what we think of as frontier types, straight out of the past and still here in the present, they didn’t even blink an eye when I came silently, smiling shyly, into their battered, weather-beaten, idiosyncratically tossed-together trading posts, putting my few purchases on the counter along with a few dollar bills, and then backing away, murmuring my thanks, coming and going without explanation into and out of their isolated existence. You’d think they’d be so lonely they’d open a conversation, even about the weather, or ask for news of the wide world or something.
But I guess they’ve been here long enough to recognize the glazed eye of one who has once again come home to herself, who has become as wide-open as this extraordinary land, as swept clean by wind and rain as the prairie, as encapsulated in her own beingness as were the mountain peaks caught up in the misty fog of damp snow-clouds this afternoon at Battle Pass, when I stood with my face up-turned to receive the wet, gently drifting snow flakes on my utterly peaceful and satisfied self.
Glenda Taylor. A gypsy hawk. Late August, 2004.