The great and open, uninhabited expanse of wilderness calls to people – tugging at their soul… beckoning, whispering. In the winter, the mountainous peaks are shrouded in a quiet, muffling snow. Clouds obscure the highest peaks; hibernating beasts slumber in the dark stone caves deep in the hills. In the wilderness of Wyoming, only the wind stirs in the trees, shaking the snow from the boughs of the firs, pines, and spruce trees. Or is that the only noise?
Wildlife is abundant in the uninhabited expanses of the wilds. The Shoshone National Forest in central Wyoming covers nearly 2.4 million acres of virtually undisturbed land. Outside of Lander, Wyoming – where my husband I live – is a 10 minute drive to the trail head of the Little Popo Agie (po-PO-gee-uh) Falls, and the trail that extends beyond and into the wilderness. We hiked there this afternoon – six miles round trip – and for more than four miles, were the only humans to set foot on the snow. The trail to the falls is well traveled by tourists and locals, alike, and with the temperatures climbing into the upper 40’s, much of the well-used trail was a slushy, vertical puddle in the hours after noon. At the fork to the falls, we donned our snow shoes and traversed the untouched and untainted snow, following the impression of the trail to over 8,000 feet of elevation. Something amazing happens in the absence of humans: life thrives. As we ascended the trail, the first signs of wildlife began to appear: elk tracks on the trail. A solitary elk – possibly a bull – meandering across the snow, and finally following the contours of the trail as it ascended up and up, toward the unscalable rock formations above. Switchbacks in the trail were trimmed by aspen trees – naked of their summer foliage under the snow – who’s bark extruded a powdery substance historically used by Native American’s as sunscreen. Limestone rock formations, blanked in a heavy, melting snow, crowded the trail as we made our way to the peaks of the ridge. Abundant wildlife tracks criss-crossed the trail, unaware of the humans just a few miles below. The snow had begun its slow spring melt and settled around the base of trees and rocks, like a heavy, wet blanket – obscuring pre-existing tracks and settling between the bushes and under the limbs of trees. Mice and chipmunks scampered here and there – leaving nothing behind but their tell-tale tracks as evidence they were ever there. A snowshoe hare – with it’s large hind feet tracks extending well in front of it’s terse, abrupt front tracks – exploded across the trail, leaving nothing but it’s impression in the snow for us to find. A mountain lion – possibly stalking a meal – had also been there. We saw the slow, methodical impression of it’s stalking walk – the pads of it’s feet surrounded by the dense fur which protruded between it’s toes; we imagined the explosive chase as it pursued it’s prey – the clustered, leaping tracks through the snow the only sign of the chase. Finally, the lightest tracks – so delicate as to not even sink through the crust of hardened snow – of a small mammal with feet like a miniature dog. Toenails present in the tracks, barely an inch across – possibly a pine marten or a short-tailed weasel. We will never know. The sun shone on our lunch stop as we gazed out across the miles separating us from the nearest alpine peaks, beckoning for a summer backpacking trip.
Two weeks ago, we burned slash piles on our five acres. A snowstorm had dropped close to 14 inches the week before and one afternoon we lit off 11 piles of thinned juniper trees on the steep slopes around our house. By 6:30 pm they had burned down to coals, but the wind had picked up and the decision was to stay outside with them until the snow started to fall. My husband disappeared into the house, emerging minutes later with a grocery sack full of bratwurst, BBQ sauce, marshmallows, Hershey bars, graham crackers, and cans of Coors Light. As the snow storm blew in, we, and cooked bratwurst and roasted marshmallows into s’mores over the lingering coals of the burn piles. Surrounded by 10 inches of snow, and watching the glorious sunset behind the mountains, the sky turned a deep, rosy gold as the snow began to fall. We watched the swirling flakes turn gold in front of the black sky to the East as they pummeled the side of the house, cloaking our car and truck in a three-dimensional sculpture of snowflakes. Within minutes, several inches of snow shrouded the protruding tips of sagebrush and the storm closed in around us, obscuring the hills to the North as the sun made a brilliant final attempt to illuminate the landscape. As we huddled close to the dying embers of the burn piles, the wind died down, leaving us in silence with no sound but the crackling of the coals and hiss and pop of the snowflakes hitting the fire. That evening, after a hot shower and cozy pajamas, we watched the snow settle on the deck, piling high on the railing, and that night, we dreamed of spring.