I always wanted to go camping for real. In the mountains. In the wilderness. With a fat backpack that makes me look like a female version of Sir Edmund Hillery on Everest. With a small gas stove cooking under the stars, listening to an owl hooting eerily in the nearby forest.
The only thing I've managed to do so far, though, is to sit stupidly with beer and loud music in a cheap tent at an outdoor rock festival. And even that was eons ago.
So, this fall, my boyfriend and I decided it was time to stock up on some good quality camping gear and head out into the Wyoming wilderness. On foot. With a fat backpack that makes me look like Sir Edmund himself.
With that introduction, we are now standing in front of the small wooden box at the beginning of the trail, where you must register before you head out into the wilderness. So that the rangers later know where exactly we went and will have an easier time to find our lifeless, bear-eaten bodies. Backpacking in the wild north of the Rocky Mountains is no picnic trip to the City Park.
I have this revelation the moment we walk the first few feet into the National Forest, with our backpacks weighing over 25 pounds, and a squirrel jumps out from behind a dead tree trunk with a throaty chitter. Ahead of us are seven and a half miles of pathway, an elevation change of 2,000 feet, and a cold night by a lake. With moose, food in a tree, and lightning on the mountain.
We have an extra-light sleeping pad, an extra-light tent, and an extra-light down sleeping bag. Even an extra-light and super-fast gas stove. I have no idea how all this extra-light shit adds up so much that it feels like I'm lugging around a container load of construction debris in my backpack.
My legs suddenly seem made of lead because of the weight. Because my boyfriend is already eight miles ahead of me again, I quickly begin to hum Schubert’s "Hiking is the Miller's Delight" in my head and enthusiastically try to catch up with my lead feet and not look like I'm the last loser in the line.
We hike down into a valley with a dark blue river that ripples almost noiselessly over round, gray rocks and flows like an unraveled gift ribbon through the light-green meadows. Then we head up a dusty slope that has me puffing like The Little Engine That Could—or couldn’t. Damn mountain. Can't we just hike on a flat beach by the ocean? Unfortunately, the nearest sea is 1,000 miles away. But there is always the other side to a mountain. With a view. And so, over the next few hours, we admire not only rugged plains, but a narrow canyon, picturesque reflections in quiet river arms, and colorful rock fragments in magical animal shapes that lie as if diced and abandoned between dark green fir trees.
As we near the day's destination and our camping spot for the evening—Lost Twin Lakes in the Bighorn Mountains—a giant, dark shape looms out against the shimmering bluish bushes ahead. I stop suddenly. A bear? Then the shape begins to move, and massive antlers rise above the thicket ahead. A moose! Not quite as dangerous as, but clearly larger than, a bear. Significantly bigger than it appeared in my somewhat limited seventh grade biology book. My heart begins to pump five gallons of blood into my head with every beat. About 200 times every minute. Standing just behind the moose are his moose-wife and moose-child. All three of them stare at us.
"What are we going to do now?" I whisper, sounding more like a Casper Milquetoast than a Sir Edmund. I mean, there's no car here, no house, no fence to hide behind. This isn't a zoo. This is real.
"We signal to them that we're not a danger and walk by them slowly," says my boyfriend, who has a few decades of hiking and wilderness experience under his belt.
Then he makes hand signals and talks to the animals. The song “Born to be Wild” dances in my head and I go widely around the entire scenery, almost falling into a small stream as I do so. No one in Steppenwolf has probably ever seen a moose from a mere hundred yards away.
Somehow, we manage not to get impaled by antlers or roasted by the moose as he calmly eats marshmallows along with our human flesh. We reach our final plateau with no further incidents.
Wow! Directly in front of us the evening light shimmers on one of the Lost Twin Lakes in the valley before us. Behind the lake lies a mountain that looks like it has been hollowed out in front and on one side of us. There are bushes and grassland with scattered fir trees, some solo, some in small bunches. Between these scenic visions, a small waterfall splashes and gurgles. This is paradise!
I forget about the moose, throw away the ultra-light construction-debris-laden backpack, and charge up to the top of the rocks. Then I spread my arms and shout "Woohooo!"
Gripped by a wave of energy—about this nature, this solitude, and this vastness, the animals, and the freedom, and that we have made the whole seven-plus miles—we pitch our tent for the night on a hill overlooking the lake.
Then we sit on the rocks, and with the extra-light and super-fast gas stove, we boil hot chocolate and watch a fiery sunset settling behind the now black fir trees and over the golden mountain peaks. This is exactly how it's supposed to be. Exactly like this.
Suddenly my boyfriend looks at our food—Tupperware and bags with freeze-dried stuff. You can't leave that lying around carelessly out here because of the possibility of attracting bears, nor can you take it into the tent. Bears smell the food and then they go straight to the main course—us.
That's why in the Wyoming wilderness you must drag your food and any other articles with a scent, like deodorants or creams, up a tree, 15-20 feet in the air on a rope.
“It can take a while to work out,” encouragingly stated the outdoor article we were still studying that morning.
So a little while later we are standing in front of a fir tree trying to throw our food onto one of the thicker, tall branches. Oops—fail. Of course, the bag with the food first flies full force past the tree. Then way too low, then it slips at the last moment and then the rope gets tangled. I feel totally crazy as I begin to imagine an alien is watching me as I freeze in the cold semi-darkness, wearing a pair of snowflake-patterned thermo leggings, trying to hurl a Tupperware box with noodle salad into a tree. Eventually, though, it works out. The food appears safe. And retrievable. Although hopefully not by a bear.
Just as we crawl into the tent, the rain, which was not in the forecast, begins to fall.
"What a coincidence!" says my boyfriend, and we snuggle up in the surprisingly warm and cozy double sleeping bag.
Unfortunately, the raindrops are also quite loud. I'm listening. Then there is wind. One of the flaps on the rain fly is blowing against itself somewhere. That's got to be wind, right? Or is it a bear paw trying to get inside? I stare into the darkness. My breath quickens. My boyfriend is asleep. As usual. Not even a thunderstorm could wake him up. Then it thunders.
I crawl deeper into the sleeping bag. Just like the old days when I was a child, where you would pull your foot away from the side of the bed so the monster wouldn't bite it off. Then there's lightning. Oh God, what if the lightning strikes the metal piece in the tent structure?
After spending a few hours imagining the various gruesome ways I will meet my demise in the wilderness, I finally fall asleep.
Then it gets light.
In the morning, I open the tent flaps and the cool morning air flows over me. I am invigorated! The rocks along the lake are already covered with the first rays of the sun and across the valley is the almost full moon hanging silently in the sky. Total inspiration.
I grab my camera and rush out of the tent barefoot. Down in the valley lies the lake, reflecting the scene like a mirror. Without a single wave. Doubling the beauty of the world in water. A rock falls and the illusion breaks. I start walking toward the lake.
Then I see him: Mr. Moose is back. Down in the valley, by the lake. Just standing there. He looks at me, antlers held high in the air.
I turn around and plod back to the tent.
"I thought you were taking pictures down by the lake," my boyfriend marvels.
"I…um...I think I'd better put some shoes on," I say, glancing back over my shoulder. "And...um...there's the moose again."
My boyfriend laughs and gives me a hug. "I knew something was up!" he says.
After breakfast we set out to find the second Lost Twin Lake. We climb a hill to a viewpoint from which you can see both lakes at the same time.
Now it's another seven miles back. Through canyons and meadows, rivers and pines. To the parking lot. Where we can tell the wooden box at the start of the trail that we didn't get chewed up.
I feel the sun on my cold face and my boyfriend's warm hand in mine. And I know: I was so right to go camping. In the mountains. In the wilderness. Like Sir Edmund. A little bit. Ha!