The Nation's Pulse

High Country Hikers

Let's get away from it all -- over and over.

By 2.6.07

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I joined "High Country Hikers" two years ago, in fact was very nearly a charter member. The club was started as a way for people with a shared interest to "get out there" on the roughly 18 million acres of public land adjacent to Cody, Wyoming, namely "Greater Yellowstone": the Park itself, along with a half dozen surrounding national forests. We hike on most weekends from April through October, though a few diehards -- like me -- hike the year round. Being a compulsive scribbler, I keep a personal hike log, and mine number fifty-five so far.

The last time I looked there were about a hundred people on the e-mail list, though I doubt I've met half of them. Some have hiked once or twice, and then we've never seen them again. Some have hiked regularly and then moved away, one woman to Denver, and that's too bad because she was one of the diehards, of which there are only about a half dozen. We usually average eight or ten people per hike.

We all live in or around Cody. The demographics here have changed in the last few years. Where once the local buckaroo zeitgeist sat tall in the saddle, it now slouches and slowly rides into the sunset. It is being replaced by folks who favor hiking boots over cowboy boots, and is yet another aspect of the continued "purpling" of the contemporary red states West.

Like across the rest of the Rockies, Cody's population is growing and graying as the Baby Boomers have started retiring, and are coming here in search of "recreational amenities." No bingo or shuffleboard for this crowd. And while Cody has a golf course, the sport in Wyoming is something of an elitist cliche. Most of my fellow hikers are in their forties and fifties, even sixties. No kids, as a rule, though they are welcome.

Well, Greater Yellowstone is a good place to own a pair of hiking boots. Depending on the season, we hike in terrain as varied as sagebrush prairie to above-timberline alpine tundra, and at elevations from 5,000 to 12,000 feet in hot sun to driving snow. We're privy to a dazzling wild menagerie -- modern-day megafauna, if you will -- from grizzly bears to elk, moose, bighorn sheep and white fleecy mountain goats. Skies full of eagles and hawks. We've seen wolves in Yellowstone

We have rituals of trail and trailhead, such as changing from sneakers to hiking boots, a last minute inventory of a backpack, and an adjustment of its shoulder and waist straps. Checking a GPS unit (I don't have one) or a cellphone (I do, though many hikes find us out of cell range). These high tech gizmos are controversial, of course. There are purists who wouldn't be caught dead with them in the mountains, though dead they may be, because in a dangerous situation these gadgets can save your life.

Everybody has particular needs, but we all basically carry the same things: One or two quarts of water, depending on the season; lunch, of course; extra clothes such as knit caps, gloves, insulated vests and windbreakers, again, depending on seasonal weather conditions; first aid kits (it's always a good idea for one or two people to carry them); and pepper bear spray (though we haven't had to use any yet). Aluminum walking sticks limit fatigue on long hikes. And let's not forget toilet paper, i.e. "mountain money."

In my own pack (though often it seems heavy) I have all of the above sans bear spray. I also pack binoculars, a compass, a small flashlight, a lightweight solar blanket, a generic (that is, cheaper) Swiss Army knife, and two cigarette lighters (I don't smoke, but they are much better than stick matches in the rain or snow), each one wrapped around with a couple of feet of duct tape, great in a pinch to cover minor lacerations, foot blisters and "hot spots" (pre-blisters indicative of ill-fitting socks or boots, or boots not properly broken in).

You would think that the 900 miles of trails contained in the two and a half million acres of the Shoshone National Forest would be enough to keep "High Country Hikers" occupied, yet while managing to trek only a small percentage of that, we still range farther afield. There are another 800 miles of trails in Yellowstone, for instance, and we only rarely probe the Park's true backcountry, which normally would demand days of backpacking. And just north of Cody in Montana are the Beartooth Mountains (in the Custer and Gallatin National Forests) with another 300 miles of trails, not to mention over 900 lakes, some large with names like Granite and Glacier, but most unnamed and as small as a house lot, and most above timberline.

The rivers. We've marched along both forks of the Shoshone near Cody. Along the Yellowstone, the Firehole, the Gardner and the Lamar in the Park. The Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone and the Greybull. Chattering creeks with names like Clocktower, Sweetwater, Mormon and Kitty and Jack and Grinnell. Sunlight and Soda Butte. Rock Creek in Montana. Ishawoo Creek near Buffalo Bill's old T.E. Ranch.

The mountains. Dead Indian Peak (its moniker the result of the 1877 Nez Perce' running battle with the U.S. Cavalry), Pat O'Hara Peak (named after a misogynist 19th century trapper, who once moved ten miles deeper into the mountains to better stay clear of a "schoolmarm" newly employed to teach the children of the cowboys working on a remote ranch), Sleeping Giant (a long ridge that resembles a reclining man), Trout Peak, the Beartooth, Clay Butte, Windy Mountain, Heart Mountain and Wapiti Ridge.

We've hiked these mountains in all kinds of "sudden" weather. A fast-moving, but scary snowstorm raked us atop the ten thousand feet of Wapiti Ridge. A thunderstorm on Carter Mountain hurled lightning bolts so close to us that they sounded like the reports of a high-powered rifle when they struck. Stinging sleet even in summer during another storm in the Beartooths. Yet other days so clear, blue and hot that two quarts of water were barely enough, and we plastered on the sunscreen while we took in hundred mile views from the Beartooths to the Big Horns.

We have a joke in the club that says -- based on that TV commercial promoting Las Vegas -- that whatever is said on the trail, stays on the trail. Myself, I have a rule about conversation with my fellow hikers, and it's basically the advice we've all heard concerning the manners and etiquette of the dinner table: No discussions of sex, religion or politics. I've come close to breaking this rule a few times (election years are always tough), but held back when I realized that amidst the divine majesty of the natural world, all other human affairs are banal anyway.

And I hope I keep it that way.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.