D9: A Concert in the Wilderness

Trip Start Jul 07, 2012
Trip End Sep 27, 2012

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Flag of United States  , Wyoming
Friday, July 27, 2012

I usually regard waking up to the pitter patter of rain as a simple leisure. Where some hear a dreary day ready to smack them right in the face, I hear Life in the crashing droplets. It invigorates me. Usually. I felt differently hearing the rain on this morning. We were supposed to wake up at 7 and be ready by 9, but at 7 the rain was coming down in sheets, or so it sounded as it pounded against the rain-fly walls. My invigoration to leave the tent was lacking, and I was in a miserable mood, lost in one of those thoughts of someone or something back in "The Comfy Life" that I wouldn't be able to interact with for another 3 weeks. As beautiful and mesmerizing as a place is in terms of scenery, one can only appreciate it as much as his or her mind's capacity to do so. Being able to live in the moment and appreciate where you are, regardless of who may or may not be there, is a lesson that percolated in my mind throughout this entire trip. It's one that the wilderness inevitably brings with its solitude and serenity. This truth would reach its apex in my mind in a few days. I bring it up now because it's important to realize the type of soul searching you end up doing on a trip like this, how you can just lay in a tent just after dawn, staring at the top, hearing the rain drop, your mind wandering into the uncomfortable and sometimes uncharted waters of the true examination of your purpose, your soul. This kind of trip ends up being just as much about personal reflection as it is about obtaining expedition skills. Whether you want it to or not.

Blessedly, the voice of Annemarie broke me free of my inner dialogue, saying that because of the rain, we would not need to be ready until 10. This meant we could sleep till 8 and hope the rain went away. I smiled, I really needed that on this morning. After an hour of reading and writing, my mind calm, we arose from the tent to find the sun shining! Yes! Now I was ready to tackle the day.

We were 2 days from our re-ration, where horsepackers bring in more food for us. More on this in detail in a couple days. It's standard that in the one or two days before re-ration, food runs low and you have to make do with what you have. Which led to Tommy's yummy breakfast creation: Mashed potatoes and Cup-O-Soup. Tasted great. Filling too. Win for Tommy.

We started First Aid curriculum before our hike today, the goal of which was to allow us to go out on an Independent Small Group Expedition (ISGE) at the end of the course. Because no instructors would be present on this expedition, it was important for everyone to have a general idea of how to handle an injury. I was excited to learn as I'd never had any First Aid training whatsoever. Our first class entailed the general aspects for approaching a injured person: Establishing an airway, making sure they are breathing, checking circulation, and determining a possible cause through communication and observation. A fun first start.

At 11, Lily, Noah, Asante, Jason, and Jamie, and I embarked onto the trail as the first group. The hike started out a bit rainy, but the green foliage slightly dampened by the raindrops made for an awesome view. We kept going around tight curves on our trail. That combined with a steep drop down to a river on one side made it a little hair-raising, being that we couldn't actually see anything in front of us. I started doing bear calls on a very regular basis. Didn't have any desire to interrupt Mr. Bear while he was reading his daily update on the Chicago Cubs. And of course, because the Cubs are always losing, Mr. Bear is always in a bad mood and likes to be left alone. At least that's what I hear. If only the Cubs could win the World Series, maybe Grizzly Bears wouldn't be so, well, grizzly. Food for thought.

About 2/3 of the way through the hike, we entered the Thorofare, the beautiful river valley we saw yesterday from Yellowstone Point. We could look up and see exactly where we stood. Quite cool. Fun fact about the Thorofare: It is furthest away from a road than any place in the Lower 48 states. So we were in as remote of a place as you can possible get in America outside of Alaska. Crazy cool. The untouched scenery certainly coincided with that fun fact.

Our X was located at the Southernmost tip of Bridger Lake, north of the Yellowstone River in the middle of the valley. Immediately upon crossing a hand-built footbridge over the Yellowstone River, perhaps a mile from our X as the crow flies, we walked past a rustic cabin with land surrounded by a fence containing 7 or 8 horses. Looked neat. More on this later.

Map skills were put to the test today, as we found ourselves on a trail heading west towards a big mountain when we clearly needed to head North to get to the lake, keeping the mountain to our west. We discussed for a few minutes and decided to leave the trail and bushwhack. Not 2 minutes later, we found the lake! Not gonna lie, it felt great to be able to look at a map, decipher our position, say "Bye Bye Trail", and find out that our reading was correct. Pretty awesome.

We continued to bushwhack our way east for another half hour or so until reaching our X. We got there about an hour before everyone else, leading us to question whether or not we actually made it. However, when everyone else got there, we found out why they were so late. There was a man and his wife living at the cabin we passed earlier in the hike, and he came out to chat with the other groups after hearing our bear calls. He comically chided our consistent use of bear calls, insisting that there was no bear within miles of the Thorofare. From everyone's description of the man, he was about as Cowboy as they come. So much so that he invited the whole group of us back to the cabin later that night for some songs. The instructors were very clear that this was unplanned, that they had no idea someone would be out in the Thorofare, and that a sing-along with a random guy in the wilderness is pretty unprecedented in any NOLS course. Perfect.

When we got to his cabin, after walking about a mile from camp and another 1/4 mile from his fence gate, we were ushered in by the cowboy himself, Val. He wore a ten gallon hat, flannel shirt, and jeans, just as you would expect a cowboy in the wilderness to look like. The cabin was small, with just two rooms as far as I could tell: a kitchen and a bedroom. The kitchen was just big enough for the 18 of us to line the walls as we waited for Val to grab his guitar.

As he started playing, continuing with song after song, interrupting the flow of the music only to entertain us with a story from his troubadour entertainment past or with a life lesson, the whole group of us stood shellshocked. To listen to this man play old country songs with such precision and spunk, especially after hearing no music whatsoever for over a week, out here in the absolute middle of nowhere, brought a tear to my eye. It was so plainly beautiful. In between songs,Val said that he came from a family of Stanford and Harvard graduates, but he always wanted to be a cowboy. So he did. And that if we all wanted something, we should go after it. Wise words from a wise man.

Towards the end of our time with Val, he started involving us in his songs. During one of them, "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys", I was really getting into the chorus and singing along, so he said "Come on up here!" And then he put his ten gallon hat on my head and we sang the song together as he played. (P.S. I am still looking for the picture of me and Val. If you have it, please drop me a line!) Amazing. Later on, he called on me again when he started an intro into a song about a "Snus Queen".

Val: Well Bennie was sitting in a bar one night having a few drinks. You like to have a few drinks at a bar?

Ben: Sure, on occasion :)

Val: Well then you see, Bennie was drooling over this one that walked in...

Ben: Yup, that's sounds about right!

Then Val proceeded to sing about how Bennie was drooling over a Snus Queen, or a woman who dearly loves her chewing tobacco. Priceless.

He called up another 4 or 5 people too, all for various funny acts. Noah even got to play "Wagon Wheel" using Val's guitar, which was really a treat. It's the song that really got me wondering about all this travel stuff, so it was poignant to hear it in that place.

Val clearly had entertainment in his blood. He even said that he was very close to recording an album with Emmy Lou Harris, but that he decided to leave the industry before the recording happened. He didn't say why, but I've no doubt that it's a testament to living and loving what you do.

After about 2 hours of music, we finally had to get back to camp for an early rise the next day. But not before Val said "You'll stay for one or two more songs" in his soothing cowboy voice. So we did, of course.

The day was surreal. It was full of zest, full of life. A constant reminder to live free, daily. It is so hard to do, but even if you can only do it for a minute a day it's worth it: To realize that you're living right *now*, you're breathing right *now*, and that you have the power to make a decision to change your life right *now*. Tis a powerful thought.


As the clouds swept in around the naked valley view
A cool breeze touched the ball of my cheek
And a faint drop of rain splashed on my eyelash
The dual simplicity and complexity of such acts
Runs around my brain as a contradiction
But maybe that's the point: Maybe you shouldn't figure it all out
Just live for the day. For the hint of the wind
For the splatter of rain from the sky

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