I can’t believe you would do this again,” Jess heaves during a rest stop, five seconds after our last rest stop.
I can’t, either.
“I must’ve blocked it out,” I tell her.
My head rests on my wobbling hiking pole as I try to ignore a hot dizziness threatening to make me hurl.
Jess and I planned to cross 60 miles of the Thorofare wilderness in six days, along with our pack-totin’ pups, Peter and Penny. We began at Ishawooa trailhead on July 22 and were on our way to come out on July 27 at Pacific Creek Campground — the same route my friend Jonelle and I backpacked last summer, but in two fewer days.
Here, at the point where Jess questions my sanity in repeating this trip, we’re almost to the top of Ishawooa Pass on Ishawooa Pack Trail, about 13 miles back into the utterly untamed wilds between Cody and Jackson. We’re nearing the edge of Washakie Wilderness, which soon turns into Teton Wilderness. Sixty miles — or the 47 we have left — seem impossible.
It’s Day 2, nearly 4 p.m. We started at 9 a.m. and have gone only 3.9 miles. We’ve gone up all day — the dizzying upward tilt of the trail neverending. We’re damn close to 10,000 feet.
Last night, Night 1, we decided to quit. We almost went home — promising ourselves we’d head back down to the trailhead first thing next morning.
I fell into our first camping spot near Lapali Creek in a heap, a useless puddle of nauseous exhaustion, which, more specifically, turned out to be heat exhaustion. Not exactly a shocker after around 5,000 feet of elevation gain (lots of ups and downs) lugging a behemoth 50-plus-pound pack and grunting up dusty switchbacks wholly exposed to the sizzling high altitude sun.
As Jess tried to boil bouillon broth to quell my heaving reflux, our brand-new camp stove blew out, never to turn on again. We put the camp stove pot right into the coals of our fire — cringing at the sizzling of its plastic liner — and realized, should we choose to go forward with no working camp stove, we’d have to make fires for coffee and food morning and night; we would have to pray for dry weather. (Upon taking the stove into Sunlight Sports post-trip, Krystina magically made the camp stove work, so Jess and I might have become very intimate and effective with campfires less out of necessity and more of our own accord …)
But the next morning, Morning 2, sipping gritty coffee around our fire, we decided to go on. I felt better, and after all, making twice-daily campfires surely will only add to the authentic backcountry aesthetic of our trip. We’re only 5 miles from the top of Ishawooa Pass. And yet, as I already hinted, it takes us all day to get there. When we finally do reach the pinnacle of Ishawooa at the end of Day 2, though, we remember why we came to the Thorofare.
The top of Ishawooa overlooks snowfields we figure for glaciers — blue and red and blindingly white in the high, milky, full-summer sun. We find strength to manage the last ascent of the trail from its stunning decoration, framed by every wildflower Wyoming can grow: Indian Paintbrush, lupine, daisies, sunflowers, asters, fireweed, columbines and lots of other flowers whose names we don’t know. Looking out from our campfire perch at the crown of Ishawooa, we take in the rocky, craggy bodies of the dirt-colored mountains on the Cody side of the Thorofare — the desert side — and I assure Jess that tomorrow, as we drop down into the Teton Wilderness, everything turns green and wet and lush.
The rest of our trek was a wild series of malfunctioning water filters, heart-stopping vistas, omnipresent piles of griz scat, failed but valiant fly fishing attempts, very sweaty and smelly armpits, happily crackling campfires, deeply honest conversations, cozy headlamp reading hours and an education in tracking (horse, grizzly, wolf, elk and deer).
There is no trail signage in the Thorofare. We mistakenly took hunting trails or lost the trail altogether, frequently, resulting in very unwise and unsafe plunges into and through bogs, rivers and willow jungles, and up and across harrowingly high, cliff-hanging game trails.
Most of the trip was what we outdoor enthusiasts like to call, “Type 2 Fun” — the kind of endeavor where you’re not exactly having fun doing it, but you can convince yourself it’s worth it for the fun and reward that will come from reminiscing on it later.
Once in Jackson, I told my boyfriend about our trip, and he noted the human tendency to focus on the dramatic, oftentimes bad aspects of a situation rather than the simple, good or easy. This made me feel a bit guilty about our overall trip experience I must have relayed to him, because in truth, I loved it. Somehow, in spite of everything, it was more good than bad. I never would trade the strength, discovery, confidence, curiosity and respect it gave me. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Or maybe, rather, one of the best stories.
We met a new friend, Rich Landers, a former editor for Field and Stream and former Outdoors Editor for the Spokesman-Review — crossing the bridge out of Hawk’s Rest. After we told his crew our woes involving fatigue, camp stoves, water filters, dog backpacks, lost trails, impossible terrain and overall disheartenment, Rich smiled and said it like it is: “When things go wrong, that’s what makes for a really good story.”
It is when things go wrong, when all the challenges you never suspected come up and shake you, try to break you, that you get the chance to live through it all and tell a really good story on the other side.
It might sound like we experienced a lot of hardships crossing through the Thorofare — so daunting you wouldn’t possibly believe me if I told you I would do it again.
But you know, looking back … and maybe even looking forward …
I do believe I would do it again.