Where still some grand peaks mark the way
touched by the light of parting day
and memory’s sun.
Backward amid the twilight glow
some lingering spots yet brightly show
on roads hard won.
—John C. Fremont, from a scrap of paper found with the man after his death, in The Expeditions of John Charles Fremont

June 26, 2015

I tighten the load straps on my pack. The slope does the same to my calf muscles.

I know now why they call this Jackass Pass. A donkey—or a pack mule, or an elevator, or anything at all to take a load off my back, really—would be great right about now.

On the trail below, a woman vomits into the bushes. Her hiking partner is far ahead, and he approaches me now.

“How much farther to the cirque?” he asks me.

“Another few thousand feet,” I tell him.

“Up? A few thousand feet up?” He curses to himself.

“That’s right.”

He hurries back to his girlfriend, who is doubled over with altitude sickness. I don’t see the two of them again after that. I don’t really see anyone at all for the next few days.

Jackass Pass is just the beginning.

Jackass Pass is just the beginning.

Everybody that ever stops in Wyoming for more than a bathroom break abandons I-80 at Rock Springs or, if coming from the north, I-90 east of Bozemann, Montana, and drives as fast as possible to Jackson Hole or the Tetons or Yellowstone, all just to cause a traffic jam on the road to Old Faithful to get a good photo of a chipmunk. (Yes, it really happened. I was there. And, I should add, I was not the photographer.)

But one of nature’s many shrines that people pass right on by—the Wind River Range—is less than an hour and a half from Jackson.

The Winds are a lonely, one-hundred-mile-long wedge of the Rocky Mountains that, from space, look like an island of green meadows and blue lakes floating in the middle of Wyoming’s high-and-dry sagebrush sea.

Lizard Head Meadows lie in a wide, U-shaped valley to the east of the cirque.

Lizard Head Meadows lie in a wide, U-shaped valley to the east of the Cirque of the Towers.

And, like all landscapes, the Winds aren’t just scenery. They tell a story.

The shoving of oceanic crust beneath a continent is one surefire recipe for mountain building, but such mountains usually rise up along a tectonically active coast, as in the Andes or the Cascades. But the Rockies are located one-thousand miles inland. Obviously, North America circa seventy-million years ago didn’t read its geology textbooks. (No, science hasn’t quite figured out the why the Rockies are where they are; see flat-slab subduction vs. subduction of an oceanic plateau).

Coverage in popular media of this time in Earth’s history is somewhat overshadowed by, well, the impending annihilation of all dinosaurs everywhere, but the Laramide Orogeny was still a big deal. Gannet Peak, the tallest in Wyoming, rises a mere 13,809 feet above sea level, but the structural relief of the Winds—basically, how high the mountains would be if erosion took an eon off work—is about 50,000 feet, or almost ten miles. That’s about twice the height of Everest.

And the rocks these mountains are made of are almost fifty times older than the mountains themselves. The oldest zircon crystals in the Winds are pushing 3.8 billion years old; our single-celled ancestors hadn’t even thrown Earth her billionth birthday party yet.

Geologists often refer to such ancient, deep-rooted rock as basement rock, meaning it’s part of the original, crystalline core of a continent, most of which is now buried by sediment. In mountain ranges like the Winds, the basement has been pushed toward the surface and the sedimentary cover ripped away by erosion. In this way, basement rock is sort of like that old card table at the flea market—sure, it might be the missing link in the evolution of modern IKEA furniture, but it’s so removed from the present day that appraisers don’t quite know what to make of it.

In some places the geology of the Winds is a such a hodgepodge of ancient, messed-up rock that geologic maps have described the exact same rocks as entirely different things. Gneiss? Granite? (Maybe it’s born with it. Maybe it’s migmatite.)

The glacially carved U-shaped valleys are obvious east of the cirque, below Mitchell Peak.

The glacially carved U-shaped valleys are obvious east of the cirque, below Mitchell Peak.

Erosion or no erosion, I’m glad Jackass Pass tops out at only at 10,760 feet. After a few hours of wishing my backpack had more padding, I cross the Continental Divide and start my descent into the Cirque of the Towers, where vertical walls of glacially carved granite shield Lonesome Lake from the car-camping public.

As I take in the view, for a moment I feel a certain disappointment at how easy it is to ignore this wonderful landscape. Maybe its the twenty-six mile dirt road to the trailhead. One can’t exactly blame those motorists who just speed on through the humble towns of Pinedale and Lander, having missed those tiny brown signs that, lacking the magical phrase “National Park,” don’t exactly scream “turn here!”

In this way, the mountains I hike through now aren’t all that different from the wilderness John C. Fremont—that mostly forgotten but controversial-when-remembered explorer, presidential candidate, and hothead—ventured into over 150 years ago.

The approach to the Big Sandy Trailhead from Pinedale is a long one. The Winds don't look all that big from a the distance.

The approach to the Big Sandy Trailhead from Pinedale is a long one. The Winds seem small from so far away.

But my disappointment might be misplaced. As imposing as these granite fortifications are, perhaps even they aren’t tall enough to protect the cirque. Lonesome Lake, right here in shadow of every climber’s favorite, Pingora Peak, was the first water in the Winds deemed unfit for drinking. Why? Contamination by human waste.  And a backpacker can’t  wander off into the trees here without stumbling across an old campfire ring or bits of charred aluminium.

As I come down into the valley, I notice a few tents at the base of another popular climbing route to the north. I don’t see the climbers. Mosquitoes buzz in my ears. The sun reflects off the snow in the saddles across the way. It all looks pretty steep from here. One of the notches in the ridge is Texas Pass, which I’ll be headed over soon enough.

When I reach the top of Texas Pass, I look back toward the cirque before heading down to camp near Shadow Lake.

At the top of Texas Pass, I look back toward the cirque. Some lingering spots yet brightly show.

The wind shifts, bringing with it the smell of smoke from a distant campfire. I inhale deeply, thinking of Jessie Benton Fremont and the words she wrote about her late husband, who, despite his sensitivity to altitude sickness, was at one time a household name, the renowned explorer of the Rocky Mountain west: “Cities,” she wrote, “have risen on the ashes of his lonely campfires.”

I glance again at the cluster of tents and chuckle to myself.  She wasn’t wrong. In my initial research I came across more quotes for car insurance in Fremont, California than actual writings by the man himself. But as I set up camp, I recall another fragment from that same passage: “A nation followed his maps to their resting place.”

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