We last left off at an incredible sunset below Titcomb Basin in the Wind Rivers, concluding the first half of my journey and starting in on the second half where we shall pick up.
It was another very cold night, in the single digits, but an amazingly clear one. With a nearly full moon drifting slowly across the sky, there weren’t quite as many stars to be had as there otherwise might have been. Regardless, it was still brilliant to stand there in the crisp air and simply look up. I’ve long since kept a closeted love affair with Astronomy. I’m no whiz at science or math but just the mere concept of it is fascinating. Every time I see the starry night sky, most especially while I’m alone in the wilderness, I can’t help but feel so incredibly insignificant because, in many ways, I am.
More than that, what a trip it is to realize you are looking at a vision of the past from so many different timelines! Light takes such a long time to reach us, those little, flickering dots that we see today might not even be there anymore. The sky in present time likely looks completely different, with stars and galaxies having moved, others dying off, new ones being born … it’s just mind-boggling to think about. I could look at the night sky for hours, conjuring up limitless stories for each celestial object. Alas, I was tired from the day’s adventure into the Basin and spared only a few minutes for such thoughts before crawling back into the warmth of my sleeping bag.
Morning came quickly and thus would ensue the longest day of my trip, as well as one of the more adventurous. It was another blue bird day and, as I packed up camp, my sturdy 60-year-old friend from the previous day, Keith, came packing through on his way to bushwhack around to some distant goal. What a character! I was so glad to see him once more to hear of his adventures to Indian Pass and to give him a more formal farewell before I went on my merry way in the opposite direction. Back up and over the little pass I went, turning back every once and again to see the views fading behind the trees and hilltops I crossed. I felt fortunate to have experienced the Basin when I did, as hordes of people were now coming in, almost every one of them stopping me to ask how it was with the storm, was I really here all alone through that, and where I was off to next. Getting out of there was time-consuming but not for a lack of speed.
Once I made it to the junction below, I left behind the brunt of the crowds and continued my way up the trail towards Lester Pass. The path cut through the middle of two lakes, right before it started to climb, where I stopped on a flat boulder above the water’s edge to enjoy my lunch in the sun. A mule pack and group accompanying hikers passed by at a distance as I ate my steak and veggie wrap. Such a simple, re-hydrated combination for a meal but it tastes like a five-star, gourmet dish after a few days and it hit all the right spots!
The climb up Lester Pass was slow-going in the midday sun and the views were remarkable in all directions. I could see the peaks of Titcomb Basin popping up from behind various mountains and it seemed crazy that I had already covered so much distance. Hiking a short ways to the other side of the pass, I could see my destination set out before me. Mount Baldy, the lone, pointy mountain to the right. It seemed equally as crazy that I would be hiking all the way to the other side of it the latter half of the day. The landscape was dotted with ponds and lakes, the majority of them with no trails, and I knew in that moment that I needed to come back at some point in the future to do some more exploring.
I passed by some of the most inviting lakes, spotted several freshly-made, large cat tracks on the trail, and – best of all – saw not a soul. It wasn’t until my first river crossing that I ran into someone and I’m quite thankful that I did. The waters were higher than normal and there were human tracks all over the place with no distinct rhyme or reason for where was best to follow. The only trail I saw was directly across the widest section of river, likely easily reachable during more normal, lower water levels, and I had no idea how best to get there, safely, on my own. I decided to turn around and make my way to a different section of trail, though that would set me back a few miles and who knew if it was any better? I wasn’t too keen on it. A group of four came upon me at that point and we decided to all cross together after doing a little more scouting. Barefoot, we all made it across safely and stayed in for a little while to cool off and enjoy the cleansing water on our dirt-covered legs.
wind rivers: part two
We were all heading in the same direction, though to different destinations, and hiked along the trail together for a way before splitting up when I stopped to make some photographs and have a snack. It was mid-to-late afternoon by this point and I needed a bit of a break before going up and over the third and final pass. The scenery here was every bit as striking and much more remote feeling. Towering, sheer cliffs across the way with numerous passes to tempt you to them, a smattering of lakes, and a golden glow with the hazy, late sun.
My legs, to say the least, were not pleased to be going over yet another pass and they protested almost every step of the way. I imagined them asking, “Why? … Why? … Why?” with every step I took. Going up and over landed me in a rocky canyon and, further down, a lush meadow with a narrow strip of single track; a clear sign that this side of the wilderness was not accessed nearly as heavily as the other. The junction lay just ahead and my eyes finally, finally beheld my destination: Baldy Lakes. I had to fight my way through tall and over grown bushes to get there and finding a spot to camp was difficult. Anything that looked level was too near the water (illegal) or straight up rocky. Everything else was either on a hillside or too close to the trail (also illegal). I eventually found a cozy little nook atop some sheered-off rocks where I could easily walk to the water’s edge. A primitive fire ring told me I was not the first to deem this a worthy location.
From there, I had a lovely view of Mount Baldy and the lake below with not another person around. It was the first time I felt truly alone and it was wonderful. I ate my dinner and crawled into bed a bit earlier than usual, thoroughly worn out from my long day of traveling on foot with a heavy pack. The wind gusted and howled overhead most of the night, though never touching my tucked away hidey hole. It was a restless night for sleep, despite my state of exhaustion. The morning came early and I begrudgingly got myself up. I knew I wouldn’t fall back asleep; the nights were warming up considerably and my winter bag, which was desperately needed the first few nights of my trip, was now almost stifling by daybreak. I gave myself another slow start to ease myself into it.
I sat on a rock by the water’s edge for several minutes. I refilled water and made breakfast. I refilled water again. I studied the map. And then I just sat there for a half hour, enjoying the sound of the wind and the slow heat of the sun on my back. When I finally packed up camp and continued onward, my legs were like lead weights from the day before. It took them about a mile to loosen up and feel at home again on the trail and that’s when I got a nagging feeling that I was going the wrong way. The terrain before me was not meeting my expectations based on what I had studied on the topo map. Thankful for my map and compass skills, I was able to discern very quickly that I was, indeed, on the wrong trail and that I had completely missed my junction. Luckily, this was only a quarter-mile mistake and the wrong was righted in short order.
Most of this day was passed in utter silence, save for the angrily chirping squirrels when I passed by their trees. The scenery was nothing to write home about, mostly densely wooded forest with no mountains in the distance. I was on the edge of the Wind Rivers so the peaks were well behind me. I had decided the night before that I would stop somewhere along the way if any one lake struck my fancy but that never happened. That’s not to say that I did not appreciate the beauty of where I was, rather that I think my mind was set on going home. I plodded along, narrowly escaping an afternoon storm, all the way to Eklund Lake where a lovely couple (also in their 50s and 60s, like Keith) accompanied me the last half mile and showed me an excellent campsite.
BACK TO JOURNAL
I cannot, for the life of me, remember either of their names but they felt like life-long friends. They had that west coast charm and southern hospitality all mixed into one, the type of people you could sit and talk with on your back porch for hours on end. In a way, that’s very much what we did, though in the wilderness. We exchanged all sorts of stories, questioned each other on our gear, and laughed together. Happenstance trail acquaintances made fast-friends, even if only fleetingly.
That is honestly one of the things I cherish the most about backpacking; you meet some positively amazing people and you can simply leave it at that. There is no need to continue your interactions outside of this one moment in time and you forever remember them in such an immensely joyful manner. I remember feeling so incredibly at home that evening, as though I was sitting by the campfire, having a conversation with my late father about his adventures of yester-year. Sure, I had cut my trip short by an entire day but I knew I had made the right choice when my path crossed with theirs for one afternoon.
My hike back out the next morning was anything but eventful, with several people asking many of the same questions I had heard from day one. With the start of the weekend, more people were coming in and I was happy to be leaving at the same time. Retracing my same steps from six days prior, I mostly reflected on my time in those mountains and how amazing I felt in that moment. I was proud of myself for finally having done a solo trip that was more than one night. I was beyond proud of myself for doing that in completely unknown territory. I was proud that I successfully planned an itinerary that was doable yet challenging. I was proud of the gear choices I made, all of which were used and kept me dry, warm, and safe. But I was also a little wistful, as I always am when I leave the mountains. They steal a piece of my heart and a small part of my soul is left behind, making me ever more homesick for places like this. I take that as a good excuse to come back.
As with every trip, my heart grows a little bigger and my mind begins to dream up what I can do next, something inevitably “more” than the last that will push me outside of my comfort zone. Nothing grows there, anyways.