somewhere in the middle of montana… err… wyoming


i’m tired of this dirty old city.
entirely too much work and never enough play.
and i’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks.
think i’ll walk off my steady job today.

turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of montana.
and gimme all i got comin’ to me,
and keep your retirement and your so called social security.
big city turn me loose and set me free.

been working everyday since i was twenty.
haven’t got a thing to show for anything i’ve done.
there’s folks who never work and they’ve got plenty.
think it’s time some guys like me had some fun.

turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of montana.
and gimme all i got comin’ to me,
and keep your retirement and your so called social security.
big city turn me loose and set me free.

music © merle haggard

on special occasions, when my ipod decides to look kindly on me and bring me a gift by way of shuffle, this abrupt chorus of fiddle will perk my ears and lift my spirit.  merle haggard’s “big city” always brings vivid images to mind.  images with which i am quite familiar.

like i’ve said before, i go to wyoming at least twice every year.  and this year’s no different.  well, okay, so it’s a little different this time; to accompany me, i have a friend (who also happens to be a girl, and more, my sweetheart).

last fall i shared wyoming for the first time… with my brother (see “like brothers on a hotel bed”).

and this past winter, elle started traveling with me (see “january fan, july flame”).

and so it was… a perfect storm of relationship and forward progress.  it was time for elle and me to see wyoming together…

elle works a regular job, so time is of the essence.  as a consequence, she had to fly, whereas i drove.  no matter.  it may be too early to ride 24 straight hours in the car together.  maybe not, but i was okay with not finding that out just yet.

i love my time alone in the car on the open road.  lots of time to think.  time to allow shuffle on my ipod to make me laugh, cry, contemplate, remember.

i arrived at the jackson hole airport on time, unlike for my brother only a year ago.  i came up from the south, and avoided the painful crawl of yellowstone.

elle couldn’t believe she was finally here.

poor girl.

she’s had to listen to me “sell” the mystical land of wyoming to her for the past four years, with no way of judging for herself.

“so what’d’ya think!?” i asked when i first saw her.

“ohhh aaaannnndddrrruuuuu!!” she exclaimed, as she so often does.

“it’s wuuuunnderfullll!”

so we left the “bustle” of jackson and the parks, and headed straight for green river lakes.

the upper green is one of the most beautiful places in the world, by my calculations, so i figured it was worth a quick look.

it did not disappoint.  elle was floored.  but we were heading into the heart of the wind river mountains the next day from a different point of entry, so we had move on.

we awoke at soda lake, near pinedale, like i’ve done so many times before… alone.

for breakfast, we watched a bald eagle soar across the surface of soda lake.

we quickly made our way up skyline drive to elkhart park, where we were to meet mike and ellen.

ellen brought her horses, jazz, comanche, and pistol pete.  this was to be a genuine pack trip, though elle and i would be on foot.

quick backstory on my friend mike… although a very compelling novel could be written on this guy.

when i first moved to pinedale, wyoming, my publisher, rob, was giving me a run down of the newspaper, the town, and it’s people.  he made a very specific command for me not, under any circumstances, to take any info or quotes from a guy in town named mike ramsey.  he said it was because mike was always full of, you know what.  but i knew there had to be more to it.

big mistake, rob.

not more than a week later, i was enjoying a cold beer at the brew pub, and who do i get introduced to?  none other than the “infamous” mike ramsey.

if you haven’t gathered yet, i’m the type that immediately becomes intrigued when someone makes a point to tell me not to do something without a very good explanation.  now this can be good and bad.  luckily, this time it turned out to be good… i think.

we hit it off, and over the next few months we would spend hours in the car together looking for bears and telling stories from the backcountry.  whiskey was often involved.  it took a while, but in spite of me being a texan and a dumb kid, i think mike started to enjoy my company.

and now, over five years later, i still see him every time i’m in his neck of the woods.  for some reason he still puts up with me.

something else about mike you should know; he spent over twenty five years guiding hunters and fighting fires in the maze that is the wyoming wilderness.  the wind river mountains, teton wilderness, the gros ventre, yellowstone… he’s the guy you want with you if you want to make it out alive.

so months ago, when we talked about planning a pack trip for this summer for us and the two ellens, i knew it would be unique and memorable for all.

off we went.  into the wilderness.  from elkhart, we took the pole creek trailhead.

it was july 4th weekend, but there were still plenty of snowbanks.  elle was very excited to see snow in july…

the scenery was breathtaking.

and then we made it to photographer’s point.  easy to see why it’s called that.

freemont peak towered in the background as ellen and mike enjoyed the view.

then, possibly the highlight of the trip for elle, a ride in the mountains on pistol pete.

just five or six miles in, we made it to our first camp at eklund lake.  we went up to mary’s lakes, but there were no suitable corrals for the horses, so eklund it would be.

buster was a perfect camp dog.  and i swear he ate better that weekend than i typically do on a good week back home.

that’s definitely one of the joys of packing in your food and gear on horses…  usually i only carry what i can on my back, so as you might imagine, i eat a lot of peanut butter and ramen.

elle and i posed with our “bear spray”.  large caliber pistols and shotguns are better deterrents in my opinion than traditional pepper spray when you’re in grizzly country…

we took the horses to feed in a nearby pasture, and i think elle made a real connection with them.

it was a beautiful sunny afternoon in the mountains, so we relaxed, and enjoyed the quiet.

the next day, due to an ankle injury suffered the night before, elle and i decided to only hike up to mary’s to fish.  we would also stay at eklund as our base camp for the next few days.  no need to push ourselves to hard.  we were on vacation after all!

our time in the winds was over.  elle and i had to start making our way north to jackson, closer to the airport.  sadly, she would have to leave the next day.

we decided to spend the day in the tetons.  so we hiked jenny lake.

…elle’s favorite spot…  the view and the fact the she had to leave soon made her cry.  i wished i could make it all better for her, but i couldn’t.  i wished i could just make the world right, but i can’t.  so we decided to just enjoy what we could, while we could.  that seemed to help…

i no longer identify with certain parts of mr. haggard’s tune, like i have in the past.  i mean, i’m pretty blessed with what i do for a living.  i often get to go to the mountains, and it’s hard for me to say that i feel like what i do is “hard work” with a straight face.  don’t get me wrong; work is work.  but i’m fortunate to love what i do.

however i kept getting the feeling that elle could really identify with parts of the song.  you know, parts about too much work and not enough play, or dirty cities, or working every day since age 20, etc.  it made me sad for her… but it also made me really excited.  see, she has such a unique appreciation for this place that i love so much.  i’m excited that i got to be there to see it light her eyes, to watch it grow in her, and ultimately to see it make her cry.

it reminded me of my first experience in wyoming one magical summer almost ten years ago.  i’m happy to be with her as the magic of the memories start in her now.  and i was starting to enjoy the fact that i now could again identify with a song, through her eyes.

our time together was over… it was so hard.  normally i’d be happy to push someone off onto their plane… anxious to have wyoming all to myself once again.  but those days have passed for me.

after i saw elle off, i drove up through yellowstone to cooke city, montana.

yellowstone lake was surprisingly calm.

with no cell reception and a heavy heart, i made it all the way up to cooke city and lulu pass.

i climbed as high as the snowbanks would allow in my new car.  this forester had to be tested, and i’m happy to say it passed.

when the car wouldn’t go any farther, i got out and went on foot to the highest point around to get a better view of where i was…

i remembered my last experience in this place.

and it occurred to me that it was time to move on.

in more ways than one.

so i left montana as quickly as i came.

on the way back i watched a mother grizzly with two cubs lumber across the hillsides.

they started to get a little too close, so i moved on…

on a whim, i decided to take union pass back to green river lakes.  it’s a relatively deserted 4×4 road through beautiful and rough country.  a place that i’ve found myself stuck many times before.  where you may not see anyone for days.

when i finally arrived at the lakes, the area was shut down for camping due to a menacing male grizzly.

so i camped near pinedale.  and i forgot all about the big city that night.

i went back out to green river lakes the next day.  squaretop mountain greeted and seemed to call to me.

so i decided to leave the comfort of my car and hike deep in to the base of squaretop…

it was a dramatic journey.  the clouds began to form out of nowhere, as is their mood in the mountains.  a sow grizzly with two cubs had been seen recently near the trail, so i kept my .45 loaded and my hand near it’s grip.

only five or six miles in, i reached the park that sits at the very foot of squaretop.

the mood grew eerie.  and i grew increasingly lonely.

i felt dark days from my past crowd in on me.  i knew it was time to lay them to rest.

on my way back, far off in the distance, i noticed something large bobbing in the upper lake.

as i approached, i began to see that it was a moose swimming across the lake…. what a sight…

it started to rain as i neared the trailhead.  melancholy crept in with the changing weather.

but i had a feeling this too would pass.

there was a lot going on in my heart and head on this trip.  different than any other time i’ve been up there.

but it was good.

i know it was good… all of those thoughts to wrestle and subdue…

as i approached my car, i turned back for one last look.  and i noticed a man fly fishing by himself.

i took a picture of him because it was beautiful.

but also, because it made me sad.  the solitary life – that life that i’ve known so well, and that i loved.

and i thought to myself that all things must pass.  all things must move on and grow.

and i let go of it.

and i was happy.

happy that i had a wonderful woman, my best friend waiting back home for me.

all images © andrew r. slaton | photographer 2010