This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
HIGH COUNTRY HIKERS "hikes are "led" affairs. As many as a half dozen people have taken the responsibility to do the homework required to properly lead a hike. This means consulting a trail guide or the Internet to research a particular area. Two guys are especially good at this, and one is Kevin Lehman. The other guy is usually a stick-to-the-trail type, while Kevin, well, likes to wander. For this reason, I came up with a nickname for him: Captain Pain.
I named him thus because not only does Kevin tend to lead us "off-trail," but it always seems to be up. He likes a hike that will give us a couple of thousand feet of vertical elevation (and great views) during the course of a day. As we "switch back" -- huffing and puffing -- up rocky, windswept ridges, we sometimes call out: "Kevin, when are we going to run out of up?" It should be noted that Captain Pain's wife and two teenaged sons mostly refuse to hike with him.
He once led a group of us to the Copper Lakes near Sunlight Basin, climbing some 1,800 hundred feet in just a couple of miles on a steep grind of a trail without switchbacks through a long hot summer morning. Another time -- without a trail most of the way -- we scaled 12,348-foot Carter Mountain to its summit.
But most of Captain Pain's hikes that turn into mountaineering expeditions start out in an improvisational way. He gazes longingly up at extremely high ridges as if wanting to be immediately there. These scenic journeys are certainly worth the effort, but after some of them I swear to myself that I will never hike with Kevin Lehman again. And there's sometimes a participation attrition rate after a Captain Pain hike. One woman put it to me succinctly: "Kevin's hikes are hard." That's an understatement.
When "high country hikers" hikes, we meet at 8 a.m. on the designated weekend morning in the parking lot of the Cody Recreation Center, and we carpool from there. I always walk over -- pack on my back -- because it's only a couple of blocks from my house. Many times when Kevin leads a hike (remember: "Kevin's hikes are hard") his car is the only one there. Soon, I see his genial, optimistic, bespectacled Midwestern (he's originally from Minnesota) countenance beaming through the windshield. I approach, smile, wave, and think: "What am I doing here?" Because when Kevin has me as his sole hiking companion (captive audience?), those are the hikes where I say: I'll never hike with Kevin Lehman again.
He seems to love "bushwhacking," as if it's worth the struggle to slug your way through brush and over-and-under deadfall (large downed trees) to get to an interesting place or to see a nice view. There are variations of this theme.
Once, while searching for an interesting route back to the trailhead (Kevin hates to go back the same way that he came in) at Painter Creek in Sunlight Basin, Captain Pain led me down the west fork of the creek (neither of us had ever taken this route and were ignorant of the terrain) through a large blowdown (in this case, dead, fire-scorched trees felled by wind).
For two hours we made our way downhill (Thank God for that) through the old burn, a charred forest that reminded me of a carelessly tossed pile of black stick matches leaning on each other. We climbed over some trees, and crawled under others. Dead branches tormented us as they poked at head and body and snagged our clothes and backpacks. A couple of hours of this torture gained us maybe a mile.
In the middle of this Green Beret training exercise, I found a small, two-foot-long elk antler lying on a log. How the elk got there to shed it the previous spring is beyond me. For Captain Pain, my souvenir was justification for the rigors of a nightmarish hike. I was happy to find that elk horn, but despite it I swore that I would never hike with Kevin Lehman again.
Another hike found us a couple of miles up Boulder Creek (which drains into the South Fork of the Shoshone River) following a fading trail that crossed the creek about a dozen times, making us hopscotch across on rocks, sometimes precariously. The creek was bordered by thick willow brush and short-but-steeply-eroded cutbanks that lent a feeling of entrapment and made for slow progress. Captain Pain looked up and studied the adjacent high ridges, and I knew what was coming. "We can climb that ridge and follow it back down to the trailhead," he said.
Oh, well, it sounded better than going back the way we came, and after sweating the 500 or so vertical feet to the crest of the ridge, I followed the Captain as we carefully treaded its wind-scoured spine with the boulder-strewn creek far below.
For an hour or so we negotiated the ridge, frequently triggering talus (unstable rock fragments on a steep slope beneath a solid rock outcropping, and akin to walking ankle-deep in marbles on a steep incline) slides that threatened to carry us down too. Using my binoculars, I spotted a pair of gray bighorn sheep -- a ram and a ewe -- on the opposite ridge across the creek. They chewed their cud and seemed to be watching us as if they thought us to be complete idiots. The views were good from this lofty height, but after this difficult trek back I swore that I would never hike with Kevin Lehman again.
ONE SUNDAY LAST AUGUST, Kevin led eight of us up the Grinnell Creek Trail (named for author and ethnologist George Bird Grinnell, an outdoors crony of Theodore Roosevelt) from the North Fork of the Shoshone River. It was our typical middle-aged crowd of both sexes, with a few newcomers. The goal was a purported garden spot called Grinnell Meadows, but we weren't exactly sure how far it was because none of us had ever been there. According to the trail guide, the best guess was five or six miles.
The first four miles or so were quite steep, as the trail climbed steadily up the drainage through thick timber above the creek, and there was some grumbling back in the ranks. And the mosquitoes were troublesome, which is common in summer when hiking amongst the trees and sheltered from a breeze.
Later, when we stopped for lunch by the creek, a few of our number decided to turn back, having lost patience at not reaching Grinnell Meadows. One firm hiking club rule is that no one who turns back does so alone, but the consensus was fine with Kevin, as a group planned to return.
After further discussion, it was soon apparent that everybody but Kevin and I were turning back, and after lunch we bid our companions goodbye. Out of earshot I ribbed him: "Well, Captain Pain, you don't have to worry about those guys ever hiking with you again."
It wasn't long -- maybe a half mile through the pines as the trail hugged the creek -- before we came out of the trees and into Grinnell Meadows. There hadn't been much more of an elevation gain from our lunch spot, so the grumblers had almost got there anyway. Kevin and I had a good laugh about this.
We were immediately in awe of the place, and that's saying something, because both of us have lived in the Northern Rockies for years. Grinnell Meadows is the sort of location that the 19th-century fur trade era mountain men called a "Park" (as in North, Middle, and South Park in the Colorado Rockies) or a "Hole" (as in Jackson Hole and Pierre's Hole, both in the Yellowstone region). A place of ease and plenty: well watered, with abundant grass for horses, and wild game for the cookpot. A mountain man's summertime paradise.
It WAS HARD FOR US to estimate the size of Grinnell Meadows (100-200 acres?); it was just plain big, hundreds of yards by hundreds of yards. And it was a three-sided box, the sides being the towering mountains, stony and gashed with the remnants of the previous winter's snow. The waving grassland was spotted with clumps of trees, both hardwood and soft: cottonwood, willow, chalky white aspen, and pointy lodgepole pine. Grinnell Creek, here near its headwaters, threads the meadow with two separate channels that were easily forded across shiny, wet gravel bars.
August means the windblown grass was brown and the early summer wildflowers were gone, but Kevin and I still spent a couple of hours exploring the meadow and the timber lining its edges. We didn't see any elk (the middle of the day is a poor time to view wildlife), but small piles of brown "scat" were present here and there, the pellet droppings rather large, the size of acorns, as compared to deer scat, which is smaller. We also didn't see any moose, though the habitat was perfect for one or two to be hanging around. No sign of grizzlies either, though they're known to frequent the meadows earlier in the summer.
Afternoon thunderhead shadows drifted across the peaks and the meadows. There was always that sultry breeze, and the gurgling of the creek. Kevin and I continued to joke about out friends who gave up before the great payoff. No pain, no gain.
We sat on a smooth old gray cottonwood log by the creek, and I could imagine Jim Bridger himself sitting with us as his horse grazed contentedly nearby; his Hawken rifle leaning on the log next to him. Old Gabe smoked his pipe and watched the breeze-drifted clouds shadow the mountains. "I've always thought it as fair a place as any," he said.
And I swore to myself that I would hike with Kevin Lehman again.