Thinking like a Mountain

The Snowy Mountain Range in Medicine Bow National Forest (Wyoming)

Narrative by Shelli Rottschafer/Photography by Daniel J Combs

Saturday morning October 6, 2018 we cruised in our rented neon-blue Mitsubishi Outlander.  Highway I-80 West was completely fogged in.  Ahead, the glowing red taillights of tractor trailers directed me.  I drove, singing off key with the plugged in Sturgill Simpson Pandora Radio station.  The music kept my mind off the tight grip I had on the stirring wheel.  Meanwhile, Daniel, my navigator commented on our progress.

“We just passed Happy Jack Road.”

Several days earlier, we paralleled I-80 on Happy Jack which accesses Vedauwoo, (pronounced Ved-ah-voo by the locals).  This hiking and camping area is populated by an outcropping of Sherman granite slabs, that make it a rock climbing and bouldering heaven. Like the Arapaho word Bito’o’wuit is named after, the formations are “earth born” and tower above the trails leading to hidden crags.

While we were there, the sun shone through the yellowed Aspen groves and the wind blew wafts of white sage.  Daniel hoped to capture some of these textured images.  As a freelance outdoor photographer, his work often contrasts between lights and shadows, the fragility of quaking leaves and the poised balance of gargoyle-like boulders.

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Beyond us, three climbers also enjoyed the backside of Vedauwoo. Sheltered from the wind, one belayed from the ground as a mid-liner anchored holds into the crag, and a third person spidered up the granite wall.  Daniel and I watched from below in awe of the climber’s dance, toe tapping footholds, and outstretched arms.

Unlike the rock climber’s graceful movements, the fellow I-80 West vehicles passed and dodged between the tractor trailers like a Virginia Wheel Square Dance.  Instead of imitating their competitive need to pass every other car, weaving in and out of traffic, I chose to stay in the right lane as we descended from the mesa down onto the flatlands.

The weather conditions drastically changed, as if it were a completely different day. Miraculously the sun burned off the fog, and the approach to Laramie cleared. We could see for miles on the plains speckled with antelope and barricaded by wind barriers.

Our destination lay approximately thirty miles West of Laramie in Carbon County. Our goal to hike the circumference of glacier fed Lake Marie.  In order to arrive, we rose in elevation along WY Highway 130 a Scenic Byway into the Snowy Mountain Range.  First, we passed through grass-covered prairies lined in Cottonwood yellows fed by trickling arroyo streams and Aspen dotted country roads gated by cattle guards. The vistas took our breath away, and without realizing it while we were in the town of Laramie, I looked down to the gauges and noticed our tank was on fumes. Vocalizing my worry, Dan calmed me.

“Your friend Greg on FaceBook let you know there is a town just East of the lakes.  It is supposed to have a good spot to grab a bite” and as Dan said this, the salvation sign of nine miles to Centennial appeared.

Like its name, Centennial doesn’t seem to have changed much in over a hundred years.  It is a small mountain village. Remnants of what must have been a ranching and mining town line the main street and ‘For Sale’ signs decorate front porches of dilapidated homes.

Yet, pulling into town on the left-hand side of the road, The Friendly Store and Motel was a beacon to our E-lined vehicle.  Ready to greet us, was one of the local Centennial characters. ‘Grandpa’ stepped out of his trailer permanently parked along the gas station building wall. He was bedecked in an oatmeal colored Stetson hat.  He donned ironed to a crease weathered Wranglers, as well as worn but polished cowboy boots.  The Old-Timer holstered a ‘Six Shooter’ at his waist that dangled along his right-handed thigh. With a nod of recognition, Daniel filled up.  Thankful to overspend on the $60.00 tank; we would make Lake Marie after all.

From Centennial, the road wound upward through pine forests and eventually valleyed to the Lake Marie parking area provided by the National Forest Service.  A short paved path led from Lake Marie (10,847 feet in elevation) to the day use picnic spots at Mirror Lake (9,632 feet).  A six and a half trail also looped to backcountry camping areas.  Instead, as a new dusting of snow whited the landscape, Daniel and I chose to scramble over scree, and round the peat soaked lake-side trails.

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Two and a half hours later we culminated our day-hike at a roadside overlook of the Snowy Mountain Range’s two highest peaks; Sugarloaf stands at 11,378 feet while Medicine Bow Peak towers at 12,013.  At the turn-off, we learned more of this area’s history.  A marker explained that the Medicine Bow name honors the Arapaho and other tribes who summered in this area in order to harvest tree saplings that they would craft into bows.  Also from this standpoint, voyagers observe an abandoned homestead whose fur trapper or miner resident decided to vacate.

Another informational plaque that took us by surprise. Literally sixty-three years earlier, Medicine Bow Peak was the crash site of United Airlines Flight 409. October 6, 1955 was the deadliest airplane crash at the time, killing 63 passengers and 3 crew. They departed from Denver and never made it to the Salt Lake City leg of their trip.  From that vantage point, road tripping tourists viewed the mountain range but not the fuselage or the other debris; the present beauty muted the six-decade tragedy below.

As I stood looking toward the ridgeline, I was reminded of Aldo Leopold’s observation in A Sand County Almanac.  Leopold inspired humanity to “think like a mountain.”  He claimed, eventually we all will pay the call to which the deeper meaning is only known by the mountain, and those that perceive that wildness is the salvation of the world (137-141). The beauty of the wild will outlast the present and thrive for generations to come.

BIOS: 

Daniel J Combs hails from Waterford, New York. He attended Hope College in Holland, Michigan; earning a B.A. in English and Communication. His passion, which has developed over the years, is photography. However, it is Daniel’s career as a sommelier that has enabled him to travel throughout the United States and Europe. After several years living in Vermont; Seattle, Washington; and New York City, he is back in western Michigan. Daniel’s photography observes human-made and nature-made landscapes. These pieces, represent the fusions that make us. Similar to Combs’ Mohawk-Seneca heritage and personal beliefs regarding our connection to a sense of place; it is our responsibility to consider the impact we have not only upon ourselves but also the next seven generations to come.

Shelli Rottschafer completed her doctorate from the University of New Mexico in Latin American Contemporary Literature (2005).  Since 2006, Rottschafer has taught at Aquinas College. She is an Associate Professor of Spanish within the Department of World Languages and an Instructor in the Inquiry and Expression Program. She teaches Spanish Language, Latinx Literature, Film and Gender Studies, and First-Year Student Eco-composition at the College level. Rottschafer has published across genres. She writes Poetry, Creative Nonfiction, and Fictional Narrative. She is an outdoor enthusiast and can be found running with her black Labrador-mix along the Lake Michigan beaches. Or, during the colder months, the San Juan Mountains beckon her winters.