We headed up South Fork early on a Thursday morning, Aug. 24, 2017.
The three of us: Peter, my Pudelpointer; Jonelle, my best friend; and me, set out into the Thorofare to begin the first leg and initial 70 miles of a three-leg, 24-day, 200-mile trip across some of the wildest, steepest wilderness in Wyoming. Our route spanned from Cody to Jackson by Thorofare, then Jackson to Pinedale and Pinedale to Lander through the Wind Rivers.
I had posted on Facebook a week before our departure, sharing our ambitious trek plans to “Walk Wyoming.” I hoped to inspire more wilderness-loving Wyoming kids to go out and get to know the heart of our home — this vast, unpopulated (except by wolves and bear and elk and antelope, cranes and foxes and swans and marmot ...) expanse just waiting for us to go in and see it. To experience, firsthand, that such a place still exists, still lives and breathes and howls and blooms ...
But instead, an older man — a stranger to me — left a two-word comment on my post that knifed open the deepest fear in my heart. I never knew him. I still don’t. Yet I carried his words with me every step of our journey — especially that first week — like a heavy, jagged-edged stone in my heart: “Bear Bait.”
Who would wish that upon two girls seeking adventure in the place that raised them? His words were not a friendly reminder, a care-heavy warning to be safe; his words were an edict, an expectation. His crass cruelty astonished me, but what I feared — despite the bear spray slipped through the right waist strap of my pack and my father’s .357 Magnum dangling at my hip on the left strap — was that he was right.
The scariest part of the whole journey was that first Thursday. We started on Ishawooa Mesa Trail, ambling along through rolling open prairie, singing and humming and expecting to see a grizzly at any moment ... until we came to a gate. A big green cattle gate that leaves no doubt: You are entering the Thorofare. Be bone sure of it. You are leaving the domain of man and entering the reign of the grizzly. Open this gate, if you dare. And don’t you dare ever say there wasn’t a gate barring you, warning you to stay back where man belongs.
But we were women, two women and a dog. So we went on ahead. We opened that green gate, and we walked into the Thorofare with nothing but our bodies and what they could carry.
On the trail, I played my mother’s bright orange bear whistle like a shrill, out-of-tune flute. I knew Jonelle hated me for it. I even saw Peter flinch every time I put my lips to it for another good, full-lunged trumpet. Those whistles don’t have any tone but ear-bleed falsetto. But maybe it was that whistle whistling so high and loud, or our four bear bells jingling so jolly and keen, or our bellowed-out epic fables (featuring us, of course, as heroines) ringing so brave and baritone, or our belly belted, can’t-get-this-chorus-out-of-my-head pop songs rising and falling so shrill and off-key — maybe any one or every one of those were the reason we never saw a grizzly in the Thorofare.
So, yes, spoiler alert: We didn’t turn into Bear Bait.
But we were born into the land of the bear, alright: the grizzly bear. For the first three days, we never saw another human nor a single man-made track. For seven days, the tracks we followed in the Thorofare were of horse and bear and wolf. In a way, it felt like sacrilege to place our narrow, patterned prints where only animals big enough to stand a chance in a place that big and wild had trod before.
We learned to hang a bear bag. It’s a steep learning curve, especially that first night when it’s getting dark and the bag is heavy as hell with food for six more days and Peter’s dog food pack carabiner-ed on to boot. We jet-boiled our couscous and coffee and oatmeal a good enough distance away from where the three of us curled in our little two-person tent. I slept with my pistol loaded, oiled and awake every night under my pillow of clothes-stuffed drybag.
We did everything we could to keep from becoming Bear Bait — covered all our bases and stayed hyper-alert, painstakingly diligent. But no matter what we did, it was hard to keep our heartbeats calm every time we stuck our hiking poles into another massive pile of scat to ask: How fresh is that? (Eventually, we stopped even asking out loud and just noted it in our heads.)
You do everything you can, prepare for every dark possibility, and it’s still not enough to convince yourself you’re safe. Because you’re not. Because if it was safe, it wouldn’t be wild. But you go anyway. You go because the wilderness calls you. You go because you want to know Wyoming — the real Wyoming.
I can’t promise you’ll be safe. I can’t promise that people won’t figure you’re good as Bear Bait. But I can promise you the Thorofare hides one of the last great wildernesses on the face of this earth. I can promise you it’s worth it. I can promise you that once you get past that first day — shaking and shivering and sure your next holler is going to bounce off the coarse, hackled hide of a snarling, surprised mama griz — that you’re not so scared anymore.
You learn to don the kind of respect only the wild can crown you with, and you earn a feeling that you’re a part of whatever existence unfolds back in the corners of the mountains and the refuge of the pines — the kingdom of the griz. You don’t have to be scared anymore because you’re not watching the story of the wild anymore — you’re part of it. You begin to know that big, sure difference between fear and respect.
I also can’t promise you that you won’t be Bear Bait. But I can promise you I want my daughter to feel the wild the way I felt her walking through the Thorofare this summer. I can promise you any two girls with a dream (and a big puppy-turned-dog) deserve to go on and live it out without folks telling them they’ll die doing it, or that it’s too dangerous.
After all, who can say what’s more dangerous? Being hobbled by fear, or walking so far into it that you get to know it, become it and walk out with it like an old friend you suddenly find yourself sad to leave behind.
(Virginia Schmidt is a Cody native whose writing has been published in a variety of local and national publications and platforms. She writes every day, believes storytelling can save the world and explores outdoors whenever she can. This is her first column for the Tribune.)