I started thinking about writing this final Wind River High Route entry into my blog on our very first day of hiking the route - in fact, I started thinking about it within the very first mile of setting foot on the trail. Honestly, it tormented me a little bit - there were so many unknowns to this trip, and yet, already, I knew that it would be difficult for me to take such a physical, tangible and emotional experience and translate it into mere words. Now, sitting here actually writing about the last day of our trip on the high route, it feels bittersweet. The trip itself was the adventure of a lifetime, but writing about it has been equally as rewarding for me - it has given me the chance to digest the experience and turn those memories into something that I can see and look at, and most importantly, share with others.
At the start of day 9, just under 14 miles separated us from my vehicle in the parking lot. We started out early in the morning - our first task of the day was to finish the final off-trail section of the entire route - Goat Flats. On a map, Goat Flats looks like somebody took a stick of butter and smeared it through the middle of the mountains - precarious slopes abound on either side of it, but the flats themselves seem to be melting through the landscape. As Skurka eludes in his guide, the novelty of this massive expanse of land wears off rather quickly, as the walking is highly tedious. Once again, rocks are littered across the landscape, making the travel anything but consistent and easy. He writes, "navigation is not obvious, and the tundra/talus mix demands attention. Plus, you'll probably want out."
To say that walking on Goat Flats was annoying is somewhat of an understatement. For a moment, imagine that you are exhausted because you have been hiking non-stop for nearly 9 full days through some of the most difficult terrain of your entire hiking life. Now imagine that you are not that far from your car, which really means that you aren't that far from having a burger and a beer. Look at the landscape around you - it LOOKS flat, and in fact, it's called Goat Flats - by all accounts, it should be easy to walk across. And yet, imagine that it is covered with wobbly rocks of all sizes, scattered precariously in every spot that you want to place your feet. Needless to say, Goat Rocks was tedious. I had to laugh at our annotated map, which specifically indicated in one spot, "a few OK stretches". When the map actually points out the mediocre sections of hiking, you know it has to be pretty bad.
I don't "complain" about the hiking in the sense that I wasn't enjoying it - but rather, to give a realistic idea of the mental fortitude that is truly needed to successfully accomplish this route. I consider myself an experienced hiker, and there were so many things on this trip that wore me down. If you are expecting a leisurely stroll through the wilderness, you will be in for a rude awakening. This route was anything but leisurely - most obviously demonstrated by the fact that even the "flat" parts of the route were incredibly challenging.
As the morning progressed, we walked for miles across the barren landscape of the Goat Flats - with each step, progressing towards the Glacier Trail at Goat Flats saddle. We last crossed the Glacier Trail at the bottom of Blaurock Pass - it was our one and only option to "bail" on the Continental Crux portion of the route. Now, two days and over 23 miles later, we had navigated the Continental Divide, climbed one 13k mountain and crossed millions of rocks to find our way back to it.
By the time we found our way to the Glacier Trail, we hadn't officially hiked on a trail in over 30 miles. Thinking back on that now, I have to let it sink in a little bit - thirty miles. Thirty miles of off-trail navigation, where we found our way. Thirty miles where we ascended, descended, tripped and stumbled, commiserated and celebrated. Thirty miles that we walked together through the wilderness. I thought back to the first day, when I was having a complete panic attack about whether or not I we were properly prepared for this trip. I couldn't help but laugh at the memory. And so, when we successfully reached the Glacier Trail, I literally hugged the trail marker.
Within minutes of hiking down the trail, I experienced a strange, unfamiliar sensation - familiarity and relaxation. Every ounce of stress and hypervigilance that I had been holding onto for the last 9 days literally drained out of my body as I walked down this simple, easy trail. There was no more wondering about the route - no more uncertainty - no more incredibly difficult rock-hopping. This is the closest I have ever been to having the sensation of, "turning my brain off". Even sleeping while on the high route was not this relaxing. My body went into pure auto-pilot mode as we plodded down the trail - mindlessly walking closer and closer to the end of our journey. We had originally planned for one additional night on the route, but since we had made good progress, and since it was close to 80 degrees at the "low altitude" of 9000', we opted to skip camping in a mediocre spot (honestly, we were spoiled at this point), and make it out to car in one push.
I had been dreaming about this moment for over a year. When I first decided to do the high route, I immediately started wondering what it would be like to finish it. I imagined myself having an almost out-of-body experience and feeling waves of euphoria at our accomplishment. From the moment I started planning this trip, there were so many uncertainties about the route, and whether or not we would be able to complete it - with any wilderness adventures there are so many unpredictable variables that can affect the outcome of the trip at any point. And yet, I now found myself moments away from arriving back at my car - it seemed so surreal that we had been here only 9 days earlier, because the 9 days felt like an eternity - so much had happened in the hours, days and miles that had passed between those two moments in time.
Aaron was leading the way when a reflection of glass glimmered in the distance - cars in the parking lot! I saw my Honda Fit nestled into the pack of vehicles - this was really it - we had made it! I expected to feel emotional - I expected to weep and become incredibly choked up and dramatic, but none of those things happened. There was no fanfare, no welcoming parade of overly-enthusiastic fans holding up "congratulations" banners while cheering for us. We simply walked off the trail and into the parking lot, and that was it. We took our packs off for the very last time of our journey and set them down with a hard "thud" in the gravel beside my car. We had completed the Wind River High Route. We were done.
"Well, that was fun", I anticlimactically stated upon sitting down in the front seat of my car. Aaron casually replied, "You know, if I had known all along that we were going to hike 80 miles just to end up at a Honda Fit in a dirt parking lot, I probably wouldn't have done it." Together, finally relaxed after 9 days of hiking, we threw our heads back and laughed.
The burger at Café Nostalgia was perfect and the pie at the Cowboy Cafe was mouth-wateringly good. More than anything, however, we were excited to sleep in a real bed again. And yet, as I lay awake and restless that night - I couldn't sleep at all. The mattress didn't feel comfortable, the air was thick and hot - I missed the sound of the wind and the cold, mountain air. Too noisy. Too many pillows. Not enough jackets. As excited as I was to have completed the high route, I was feeling a bit sad that it was over. When you've planned something for over a year, and then suddenly "that thing" is finished - it leaves a certain longing and an emptiness in your heart. I tossed and turned for hours before finally, and mercifully, falling asleep.
At our hotel in Dubois, Wyoming we met another guest named Jack who was on vacation with his family. Jack was 80 years old, and was very interested in hearing about our adventure. After my restless night of sleep, I ran into Jack at breakfast where he told me that his daughter was arriving today. He shook his head, "That's the one thing about aging that I can't stand - time. I'm here talking with you right now, and I want to be here in this moment, but I know that I'll blink and the next thing I know, my daughter will be here, and all this time will have passed without me even realizing it. Everything just seems like a dream sometimes." I hid it well, but I could feel my suppressed emotions starting to surface. I hadn't cried when we finished the high route, even though it was an intensely emotional experience for me, but at this moment, speaking to Jack, I knew exactly what he meant. I had spent a year planning and dreaming about this trip. I had envisioned every single detail. I had planned everything from each morsel of food, to the amount of toilet paper we needed, to the day-to-day itinerary and navigation. I had lovingly coddled this trip for so long, that letting go of it was like saying goodbye to a dear friend. It's a complicated feeling - on one hand, completing it is what I wanted, but it also isn't what I wanted, because I didn't want it to end. I wanted to hold onto it forever. Now, immersed back in the throws of reality, I wish I had savored the experience more. I wish I had paused more to breathe in and slow down. I had visualized hiking back to the car - but then what? What came after that moment? What was supposed to fill the void that was left in the place where I had given every ounce of my heart to planning this adventure and making sure that we were successful?
I thought again about what Jack had said - that the passage of time makes certain events in our lives seem like a dream. The days on the high route were long and tiring, but the time passed rapidly. While the 9 days seemed like an eternity as we were living them, as soon as we hiked out, the whole trip seemed completely surreal. There we were, back at my car, wondering if any of it had actually happened. I didn't want it to be like that, I wanted it to feel real all of the time. I wanted it back. But of course (baring the invention of a flux capacitor), that can't happen. And so, the experience transforms itself into a story.
As soon as we made it home, I did the only thing that I knew how to do to make our adventure come to life- I started writing. Gradually, the billions of memories that Aaron and I shared together during our 9 days on the high route started to breathe again - the experience was real. The indescribable beauty that we witnessed, the obstacles we overcame and the miles that we walked have forever left an intangible imprint on my heart. I've thought a lot about what Jack told me that morning in Dubois, Wyoming, and what I've realized is that I'm not afraid of time passing quickly, because time really only passes quickly when you are doing something you love - when you are with people that you love, in a place where you feel at home, doing exactly what you want to be doing and completely immersed in the moment. In fact, in those moments, time really doesn't matter at all - what matters is that there is absolutely no place in the world you would rather be. I like to imagine Aaron and I on the high route during our best moments - climbing Europe Peak, fishing at Golden Lakes, ascending Downs Mountain, sleeping on the grass below Blaurock Pass - time and space spinning wildly around us, but we're too happy to notice the chaos. Instead, it's just us - sharing an adventure together and moving forward, inch by inch.
The thing that worried me the most about writing this series was the task of turning this adventure into a "story". I knew I wanted to write about each day individually, but how on earth could I possibly come up with 9 completely separate stories? And how on earth could I make it remotely interesting enough that anybody (other than me) would want to read it? Realistically, we did the same thing every day, so it hardly seemed like a feasible plan. Writing these posts, I never had a plan for what the theme of each day would be, I just started writing. As my fingers wildly jumped across the keyboard, the stories and ideas would literally flow from a place deep within my heart - I often remarked to Aaron that I didn't even know where my ideas came from. The stories came so naturally and easily to me - the joy that they brought me in the retelling of this trip has been almost as significant as the joy I felt while actually taking the same steps that I write about. The further I immersed myself into the adventure, I finally realized that I never needed to worry about whether or not I had a story to tell. The mountains write those stories for us. They cradle them in their peaks, their lakes, their expansive skies and their rivers. They keep them in their trails, their unpredictable weather and their glowing sunsets. The stories have been there for millions of years, and will be there for millions of years more. They are there waiting for you right now - all you really have to do is walk, and listen.