The Wind River Moan

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Diatribes, chickadee pox, curried lentils, small glaciers, pack llamas, song tao, Mount Sacagawea, Indian paintbrush, Nietzsche’s will to power, squadrons of mosquitos, talus, Trump, curried lentils, onomatopoeia
& the Wind Range.


By the time we top the hill, the packer has moved his llamas off the trail. The animals’ ears are pricked and their supple nostrils work the breeze. With big eyes half-lidded, they measure us like party crashers.

The packer—a tall, trim man in his sixties—stands on the slope above the trail looking down at us, his felt hat tipped back. The end of the lead rope is looped around his wrist, and he presses his fingertips together at his heart like he’s praying.

Dave’s arm is streaked with blood from a gash on his elbow, and he’s told me a few times over the last four miles that his head is killing him.

I’m not so bad off: a bit of a headache, a stiff neck and I’ve been stopping every so often to quell the dizzy spells that seem to come from watching my steps on rocky trails for three days. The open blisters on my heels have almost stopped hurting, probably because my nerve endings have given up. And this odd rash of purple dots that has made its way up my legs and onto my torso has been more a source of semi-detached speculation—marsh rash, marmot flu, chickadee pox—than a cause for alarm. It will be days before I can Google it.


Blood had run onto one of his hands, and thick veins were clearly visible on both, making it easy to picture him strangling someone. A raven rode a thermal up along the face of Fremont, ascending from shadow into sunlight.


Coming up this hill with my head down, I’d heard Dave say “yep” and assumed he was giving himself a pep talk. Now the packer glances at me sideways and winces.

Running over the dried blood on Dave’s left forearm is one bright, liquid streak. He flexes his fingers, opening and closing his fist. The pain registers on his face.

“You’re heading out tonight?” the packer asks.

“Oh God, no,” Dave says. “Not all the way.”

The packer would be right to be concerned. The trailhead where my car is parked is fifteen miles away; Dave is carrying just a light pack, and I have a gallon milk jug with a little water in it. At least we’ve stayed hydrated, but it might not be obvious that we know what we’re doing because maybe we’ve overdone it.

“We’re camped on the other side of Island Lake,” I tell the packer, and he nods tentatively. On the back of each of his llamas is a small, conspicuously empty saddle made of pine slats and nylon webbing, and maybe he’s worried that our limp bodies will be draped over two of them soon. The saddles strike me as something I’d like to build back home in my shop, and I’m thinking out loud when I say, “Neat saddles.”

One of the llamas blinks. The packer wishes us luck.

Compass Rose

Thirteen miles behind us and two to go on today’s stroll in the Bridger Wilderness, Wind River mountains, Wyoming. We have spent this sunny Wednesday, and ourselves, in Titcomb Basin, topping out on a small glacier below Tom’s Towers. Now, on our way back to camp, we pass for the second time beneath a wall of 13,000-foot peaks: Jackson, Fremont, Mount Sacagawea and Mount Helen. Looming over the east side of the U-shaped basin, these mountains shoulder gritty remnants of once-massive glaciers that are everywhere in evidence but nowhere to be found. Below sheer granite faces and talus slopes the narrow trail snakes through meadows, over moraines and past erratics, great boulders dumped here and there by glaciers thousands of years ago. Long after the retreat of the ice, there is just enough soil to hold a tent stake. But flowers and grass never asked for much, and limber pines push roots into cracks in bedrock.

Here in the third week of July, spongy meadows leak frigid water onto solar-heated bedrock and into pungent, boggy pockets that will suck on your boots if you try to cross them. There is a pond or lake on the other side of every rise. Time has been hammering away here forever and we are compelled to walk all day for several days to see what it has done and to shed the routines of our lives.

There have been views so long that distant mountain ranges turned to blue mist. In cool breezes, violet asters, buttercups, mountain bluebells and Indian paintbrush bob atop carpets of tundra grass. Robins and finches perch on dwarf pines; streams rush across our path. Clear notes rise and fall with our passing, as if to remind us that we are only temporary and that our sense of the immutability of these remote Winds is illusory. The wilderness will harbor a couple of hikers for a few days, but before the engines and appetites of consumerism even the sanctuary ultimately lies vulnerable. While our wandering here feels like walking in on the universe tinkering away on a masterpiece, elsewhere antagonists of preservation, diversity and evolution are as busy as ever plying puppet strings. We’ve tried to leave politics behind, but the mind’s eye still wants to babysit the tweeting ass of the retrograde agenda squatting on Pennsylvania Avenue. Our wisecracks and diatribes stain the atmosphere now and then.


On the back of each of his llamas is a small, conspicuously empty saddle made of pine slats and nylon webbing, and maybe he’s worried that our limp bodies will be draped over two of them soon.


A couple of miles back on this trudge, shortly after Dave slipped on a wet boulder and would have cracked the back of his head open if not for landing on his elbow and backpack, we stopped to cool our feet in a lake. I was dabbing my blisters dry when Dave suddenly slammed his boot on the ground and said, “Dumbass.”

“Trump? Where?”

“No, I almost just put my boot on the wrong foot.”

“Does it really matter?”

Dave looked at me like I’d just declared it was the second Wednesday of the week. I said, “I meant at least you caught it before it was too late.”

He didn’t laugh. I watched him tie the new blue laces of the same leather boots he’s tied in the same brisk fashion for twenty years.

He cinched a double knot, winced and said, “Maybe he’ll be gone by the time we get back.”

Blood had run onto one of his hands, and thick veins were clearly visible on both, making it easy to picture him strangling someone. A raven rode a thermal up along the face of Fremont, ascending from shadow into sunlight.

Dave asked, “If Trump managed to get his ass up to somewhere like this, do you think it would make any difference? Would he even get it, or would this all be lost on such a degenerate?”

“Lost,” I said. “He has no soul.”

“Yet the Evangelicals are in love with him!”

“They’re in bed with a shyster. A marriage made in hell, but I doubt it’s love.”

“And his hypocrisy…it’s so blatant, they say he’s ‘refreshingly honest,’ for God’s sake! What the hell is happening to this country?”

“A hypocrisy in the making?”

“The world is too much with us, my friend.”

“We better get moving.”

Compass RoseOver the course of the next hour, in order take his mind off the headache, the “stupid” fall and goddam vulnerability in general, Dave kept asking me to guess how long it would take to get to the next landmark—twenty minutes to yonder stream crossing, half an hour to the beach at the head of the lake. Dave once told me that his motto in eighth grade was the Mark Twain quote, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” so when we began hiking together in our mid-twenties I wasn’t surprised when in lieu of trail talk he’d reference Nietzsche’s will to power. When Dave falls even a little short, he takes it hard.

We were roommates in college, and after graduating Dave taught English in Japan for a year and I landed in Chicago, where I got busy acquainting myself with coffee shops by day and bars by night. When Dave got back from Japan, he crashed on my couch for a couple of weeks while deciding between the Peace Corps and law school. Over a few beers one evening on a break wall on the shore of Lake Michigan, we hatched a plan that would take us on a Kerouacian adventure across the West. A few days before our departure, my dad asked me what the point of the trip was. I told him the point was to live while we were young and, maybe, write about it.


When we began hiking together in our mid-twenties I wasn’t surprised when in lieu of trail talk he’d reference Nietzsche’s will to power.


“I’m all for it,” he said. “But two dudes in a car and a tent for two months? You better meet some girls and get laid if you want anyone to read it.”

We didn’t get laid and we didn’t write about it, but during shorter trips we’ve since taken over the last twenty years, like this one into the Winds, our reminiscence of what we did and saw on that epic journey—along with how we felt and thought about life and its possibilities back then—has worn a clear path back to memories of ourselves when we were more on the verge of life than in the middle of it. Over a period of months after the trip, I recounted the days of it often enough that I can now still recall each of the fifty-six distinct places I unrolled my sleeping bag that summer, whether it was on a picnic table in a city park in Astoria, Washington, on Independence Day, on bare ground at the bottom of the Grand Canyon or at the foot of a glacier in the Olympic Mountains.

Compass Rose

W      e stagger into camp, which is situated on a level patch in a teal-green meadow full of flowers and granite boulders that slopes down to the western shore of Island Lake. It would be nice to collapse in the grass, but a squadron of mosquitoes has welcomed us home. I sit on a rock and flick my wrists near my head, half-assed defending myself.

Dave cleans the blood off his forearm and I examine the wound, which is shaped like a cardinal’s beak. The elbow is swollen, but the bleeding has stopped. I apply a Band-Aid. We both take three Aleve. The wind shifts and delivers the sound of the cascade barreling down from the basin into Island Lake on the opposite shore. Farther to the east a dark storm is piling up behind Fremont and Jackson. Stratus clouds hang like giant yeti arms over a shoulder of Sacagawea. Around to the southwest, thunderheads billow behind Mount Lester. Bad weather wants in.


Long after the retreat of the ice, there is just enough soil to hold a tent stake. But flowers and grass never asked for much, and limber pines push roots into cracks in bedrock.


I forgot to pack my rain jacket, and the cheap poncho I bought at a gas station on the road to the trailhead came packaged in a plastic sleeve the size of a CD case. Yesterday we hiked ten miles to get to Island Lake, and after setting up camp we spent an hour exploring a stretch of shoreline and an outlet stream before hurrying back to camp in an unsuccessful attempt to beat the rain. While Dave fired up the stove, I’d begun unfolding my new poncho, which was like trying to salvage a wad of used cling wrap, a delicate procedure. Each layer revealed a new level of flimsy.

“Dude, what the hell is this?” I’d said while carefully shaking out the creases. It was a sandwich wrapper with a hood. After I put it on, a breeze lifted it like Marilyn Monroe’s white dress. Dave looked up from the stove and laughed at me. Waiting for the curried lentils and couscous to cook, I’d soon grow antsy in my crappy poncho because the temperature was dropping and there would be work to do after dinner, such as cleaning the dishes and then hanging the food from the top of a nearby cliff since there were no trees around that were stout enough to hold our rations out of the reach of bears. I ate standing up, going from little tree to little tree to find the one that best shed rain. Somehow I’d managed to keep from shredding the poncho.

Compass Rose

Tonight it’s my turn to cook, but I don’t want to. Getting dinner going would be a matter of walking up the shoulder of the cliff, hauling up the sacks and untying a couple of knots. Being lashed by wind and rain on that precipice last night turned out to be kind of fun: I’d felt like a sea dog scurrying to secure the deck. But right now I’m not up for a reenactment. The storm is closing in, and if I bring down the food, I’ll be committed to at least an hour of cooking, cleaning up and hanging everything solo.

Dave groans as he works his bad arm through the sleeve of a clean shirt. He lurches toward the edge of camp, bends over and looks like he’s going to puke. I press my hands against the rock as if to get up and help, but…what? Hold back his hair? Rub his shoulder? The granite is coarse and warm on my palms. Dave walks over to the tent and crawls inside. A sudden breeze, a few drops of rain and the mosquitoes are grounded. The air immediately smells like pine, warm rocks and wet grass. I don’t feel like moving. I ask Dave how he’s doing.

“Dude. I am fucked up.”

“Do you want to eat?”

“I don’t think I can.”

This from a guy with the appetite of a marauding horde. Maybe the altitude and sun have just slapped him around a little, but I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something else wrong with him. I’m not ready to track down the llamas and have Dave hauled out to the ER in Pinedale, but this is not the place to take incapacitation lightly.


The wilderness will harbor a couple of hikers for a few days, but before the engines and appetites of consumerism even the sanctuary ultimately lies vulnerable.


“You don’t think you can eat? Now I’m concerned.”

“Maybe later. Cook if you want.”

I linger, not even bothering with the five-dollar poncho. Our time here is short and the rain doesn’t dampen the beauty of this place; low clouds suit granite and green just fine.

Eventually I stash the lunch leftovers (some trail mix and bottle of whiskey) under the rain fly in the vestibule of the tent and silently dare any bear out there to mess with our sorry asses. Dave has wrapped a sock and T-shirt around his elbow and settled into his sleeping bag. He moans and whispers a few more cusses before falling asleep. I hope he isn’t having a stroke.

“Dude?” I say.

“Yeah?”

“Does your head hurt in one spot or all over?”

“All over. Starts in the back of the neck, then…all over.”

“OK,” I say.

“Yeah, I’m sure it’s just the altitude and sun. Fuckin’ elbow ain’t helping either.”

Before long it smells like sweat, bug spray and mouth breathing in the tent. The wind rustles the walls but does not freshen the air inside. It feels good to stretch out under shelter, but it is early, the beginning of a long night. I’m grateful for the company of the storm, distant lightning flickering like silent bombs, the rumble of thunder just outside the basin. It seems only the wind and rain have breached the surrounding peaks, and I can’t decide whether this place is a haven or a trap. If a blood vessel in Dave’s head bursts and I have to get him out of here, what would I do? Wait until first light to climb into Titcomb and look for the llama packer or make my way through the dark and rain? If I showed up in my crappy poncho, it would confirm the packer’s doubts about our fitness for wilderness travel and he might feel obligated to just let nature take its course. So how would I persuade him to haul Dave fifteen miles to the parking lot if persuasion became necessary? For some reason I have the impression that llamas are extremely loyal to their tenders, so I can’t imagine the strain that would be involved in stealing one or two of them all the way back to the trailhead. Or would the pain in Dave’s head make Dave do something crazy while I was gone?


It seems only the wind and rain have breached the surrounding peaks, and I can’t decide whether this place is a haven or a trap.


At some point during every trip you start to think about the stories you’ll later tell friends and family, and, especially if you’re a writer, there’s a part of you that welcomes an outbreak of tension, a sudden spark in the plot. As much as I’d like to avoid leaving the tent—and as much as I hate to admit this—I am fully aware that there would be a story out there. So far this backpacking trip has been all I hoped it would be—quality time with Dave and immersion in wilderness—but a couple of headaches, a bloody elbow and going to bed without supper doesn’t exactly hold gloss on newsstands. Then I recall the sense of relief I felt when Dave’s condition got me out of kitchen duty and decide to think about something else.

For centuries Chinese poets have used the phrase song tao to describe the sound a pine forest makes when the wind blows through it. It means “waves of pines,” and if you keep it to a whisper while repeating song tao, elongating the vowels from the back of your throat, an onomatopoeia happens. I imagine a monk sitting at the mouth of his cave on a breezy afternoon long ago, listening and mimicking, turning wind into word.

Playing with the phrase, I attempt to harmonize with the wind and make a mental note to look up the Chinese characters to see how the ancients depicted waves of pines. There isn’t much of a forest up here—only small stands of admirable evergreens that must withstand long, deep winters. But if the Chinese had a phrase for “waves of granite,” it could be homonymous with song tao: At first the wind sounds the same blowing across the bare brow of Mount Lester as it does blowing through the nearby trees, but after a while I can track its course from there to here, like a river of wind.


I imagine a monk sitting at the mouth of his cave on a breezy afternoon long ago, listening and mimicking, turning wind into word.


The storm presses down, wind pushing around rain like sheets on a clothesline. When I close my eyes I see it airbrushing a map of the neighborhood, working its way in from the edges. In the center is Island Lake. Below the surface of the lake, a timeless current slips past patient boulders, linking old glaciers to a distant, rising sea.

Long after dark, I notice that my ankles feel weird inside my sleeping bag and realize that they are swollen and numb. I remember the purple dots, but my mind prefers to drift. I make a second mental note to research other elemental words to bridge this ghost brain back to its generative home. I wonder what the planet meant to do with these things inside our skulls. I’m almost asleep when the wind suddenly falls off, releasing its hold on the burly throat of the cascade across the lake. I picture plumes of whitewater tumbling with the stream and I count them like sheep. I get distracted and contemplate perpetual motion because that’s something people do in the presence of streams and because streams don’t contemplate themselves. Mind is the mirror in which nature sees itself. Which explains why there have been times in places like this when I’ve been tempted to believe that they are happy to have us, outrageous mammals bearing gifts of consciousness and joy. If we’re all gone in five hundred years, what then? If our species wipes itself off the face of the planet, will there be no more loneliness or more of it? For hours now the tent has kept the rain out while the storm and I have had ourselves a time. A burst of thunder shakes the ground and quivers my bones. I doubt I’ll ever be the same.

The sun will be out in the morning and, with it, the mosquitoes. What can you do but head for higher ground and the relief of a breeze? The plan is to hike to Indian Pass and back, another fourteen miles. Dave rolls onto his elbow and gasps. My heart races, but my friend does not bolt upright grasping his cranium in agony. He doesn’t even wake up.

Yep. Tomorrow our boots will be on the trail again.


Chris Waltz writes about adventures with friends and family. Misadventure is a major subcategory. He also works in fiction and wood. He lives in Missoula, Montana.

Lead image: Ali Inay

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting story and well-painted pictures. But the author might have looked up where Astoria is rather than relying on his memory. Astoria is in Oregon, not Washington.

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