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Once, finding a wilderness trailhead was like looking for the entrance to a secret passageway. You got there by following a homemade map that resembled a child's crayon drawing of barns, churches, and hay fields until you got to the end of a dirt track with weeds growing down the middle. You peered into a green wall of forest, searching for the spot where the trees parted and a wisp of a trail took off. For those of us who get slightly giddy at the idea of a weeklong trip into the wilderness, a proper trailhead can hold all of the pent-up excitement of New York Harbor or Grand Central Station in the grand old days of ocean crossings and transcontinental rail trips. Poised at the edge of the world, you waited for the snap of the conductor's watch and the lurch of the locomotive to bear you off to the exquisite unknown.
I'm looking for Turpin Meadows, a flat spot along the Buffalo River, in the upper left corner of Wyoming about eight miles southwest of the Continental Divide. Turpin Meadows is a popular trailhead and the gateway to the largest contiguous spread of wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. Drive into the parking lot, I was told, and search out a red Dodge pickup pulling a trailer full of mules, driven by an old coot wearing red suspenders. Those were my instructions for finding Dick Inberg, from Inberg himself.
I had not intended to start my journey on the Mexican border only to hopscotch 2,000 miles to northern Wyoming. But fate had intervened in the form of drought and forest fire, temporarily closing off a chunk of countryside in between, and so I was forced to go where nature permitted. The pattern would repeat itself. I'd go where I could: from New Mexico to Wyoming and back, then north to Colorado and Montana before doubling back again. I'd get used to it. I have always had a nomad's indifference to a well-planned future. I like waking up in unfamiliar places. I am a city dweller, a "dude" in the old-fashioned sense of the word. But as Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling, among other famous dudes, discovered a long time ago when they toured the American West, city dwellers often have more in common with country folk than they realize. They are not risk averse. They thrive on the unexpected.
Bruce ward of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance told me about Dick Inberg. He said he had been roaming around the mountains of northwest Wyoming for a long time, and no one knew the territory better. For the past two summers, Inberg had been volunteering for the Alliance, working to complete a section of the Continental Divide Trail through the Teton Wilderness. He invited me to join him in exploring one of the few stretches of this country he had not seenthe lower reach of Two Ocean Plateau, a long barrier ridge that rises above timberline to just over 10,000 feet. He planned to go in from the south, just below Yellowstone Park. He suspected that the only trail that went up the plateau petered out on top amid glacial rubble and shallow tarns. "I want to go and find out just how lost you can get up there," he chuckled over the phone. "Sound like a good plan to you?"
Turpin Meadows is a large campground perched at the head of a narrow valley that leads into the Teton Wilderness. The afternoon I get there it is as busy as a truck stop on an interstate highway. I drive in circles, dizzied by the crush of vehicles and horse trailers and the steady drone of diesels and the thump-thump of generators. There are at least 100 people milling about. Some are camped here, as close to the wilderness as they can get and still live out of a motor home. Others are clients of commercial outfitters preparing to ride into the mountains. They stand by their horses, fiddling with unfamiliar trail garb, chaps, and spurs, applying sunscreen to children's faces, waiting for a signal to mount up. Some of the larger ones require assistance. The horses bear up stoically. They are already heavily laden, camera bags tied to saddle horns, folding chairs and fishing rods strapped to their flanks, and water bottles and sack lunches bulging out of saddlebags.
Eventually, I spot a large man wearing red suspenders. He is standing in one of the camping alcoves, having a furious argument with another, much smaller man. The two are standing toe to toe, snarling at each other like a pair of lunging dogs. Inberg, 6-foot, 4-inches, with a wide slab of a torso, towers over his pudgy antagonist, but the little fellow doesn't back off. He calls Inberg a scofflaw. Inberg calls him a puffed up little Hitler. They are arguing over a $5 admission fee, which Inberg doesn't think he should have to pay. The other man is the campground "host."
All the while, Inberg's wife, Judy, is pulling gently at her husband's sleeve and attempting to point out that the golden age card he thinks entitles him to free admission is not valid here.
"Dick, Dick, your card is only good at Department of Interior campgrounds. This camp is run by the Department of Agriculture."
There is a pause as Inberg looks at his wife and fingers his golden age card.
"OK, Adolph, I guess you win. Satisfied?"
"Not until I get your money," the little man says, but he is retreating now. "And not until I get his," he says, waving disdainfully in my direction.
Inberg, who appears invigorated by the fracas, extends a big paw in my direction and grins. He has a broad, coarse-featured face with liquid eyes, arching brows, and creases that make him seem like he is smiling, even when he isn't. He introduces his wife and suggests we go over to the corral and meet his mules.
"I want you to meet Stuart. You'll be riding Stuart. The two of you will be spending some time together, and it's a good idea for you to get to know each other. A mule needs to be talked to, see. Ya, he does."
At the corral I meet Trouble, Inberg's mule; Apollo and Hay Boy, two magnificently muscled pack animals; and Stuart, who looks morose and potbellied and reminds me of Eeyore, the dyspeptic donkey in Winnie-the-Pooh.
"The thing about a mule," Inberg says, "you can count on him for life. If he likes you. But if he don't, God help you."
"Hello, Stuart. How you doing? Looking forward to the trip?" I give his fat, sleek rump a friendly pat. He moves away.
At sixty-three Inberg has been riding his mules around the mountains for forty years. The son of a Finnish farmer, he grew up in a little town in northern Wisconsin where hunting and trapping were the normal pursuits of rural kids trying to earn pocket money. He came west in the 1950s, lured by a uranium boom, to prospect in the Gas Hills in central Wyoming. After a few years and not a whole lot of luck, he went into the land-surveying business. He married Judy and built a house in the irrigated farm country outside Riverton. In the early 1960s, he began exploring the Absaroka Mountains that fold around the southeast corner of Yellowstone Park. Over the years, these humpbacked massifs became Inberg's second home. At first, it was just a summer playground where he took his kids to hunt and fish. But in time the Absaroka formed the geography of his life.
He nearly died in an accident a few years ago on the Trident Plateau just east of Yellowstone Park. He still limps from the massive injuries. In his head, he carries around the map of a four-year-long search for his son Kirk, a wildlife biologist whose plane went down in the Absaroka in 1991.
Inberg has another life. He runs his own surveying company and is president of the Riverton Lions Club. But he says he is most comfortable in the mountains. He travels by himself most of the time, though he admits he has become cautious, maybe even a bit superstitious. He wears a belt and suspenders. He coddles his mules, slathering them with liniment at the slightest sign of abraded skin. When he packs them, he uses customized pack straps he made out of trampoline cloth that won't pinch the delicate flesh behind their forelegs. On steep descents, he dismounts and leads his animals. It's easier on them and safer. He rarely travels more than fifteen miles a day. There are places he won't return to. The Trident Plateau is one.
By firelight that evening in Turpin Meadows, he unfolds an oilskin map and goes over the route we will take.
"From right here, we'll go up the north fork of the Buffalo, past Soda Fork, up North Fork Meadows to Trail Creek." He pronounces it "crick." "Probably, we'll spend tomorrow night at Trail Creek, ya. There's good grass for the mules and we won't have to push all that hard to get there. Then we'll follow Pacific Creek to Two Ocean Pass and try to make our way up over the plateau."
If there's snow on the trail or a storm is threatening, we'll have to skirt the plateau's high, exposed crown and settle for a longer, less adventurous course around the southern flank. We wouldn't be the first travelers foiled by Two Ocean Plateau. Jim Bridger, the famous mountain man and scout, was leading a U.S. Army surveying party to the park in the early summer of 1860, when deep snow forced him to detour around it. A "bird wouldn't fly over there without taking a supply of grub along," Bridger told the party's commanding officer, Captain W. F. Raynolds. The setback delayed the first official survey of Yellowstone Park for ten years.
Inberg believes we will have better luck. Besides, if we were to get stuck up there, we have a pannier full of grubsteaks, chops, sausages, beef stewand a stove to cook it on.
"If we don't get lost, I figure we'll come off the plateau at Phelps Pass and camp over on Mink Creek," he says. "There's a good spot on Mink Creek where I stashed some firewood a couple of years ago. Then the next day we'll drop down into Fox Park. It's a real pretty place, and we might just have it to ourselves. The fishing isn't so hot, and the outfitters don't tend to take many tourists in there. We'll lay over in Fox Park a day or two, and maybe do some day riding into Yellowstone. After that, hell, I don't know. Maybe, come back down around Enos Lake to Clear Creek. We'll figure it out when the time comes."
Altogether, we plan to cover a 100-plus leisurely miles. We'll be following a network of trails blazed by Shoshone Indians who came north on hunting trips into the Yellowstone region. Crossing over Two Ocean Pass, we'll intersect the trail many historians believe John Colter took in 1808 when he became, in all likelihood, the first white man to lay eyes on Yellowstone's fuming wonders. He returned with stories of smoking pits, noxious streams, brimstone odors, and a fifty-foot-long petrified fish. Some people wondered if Colter's account wasn't all one big fish story. Real or imagined, it sounded like a fearful place, and the Yellowstone country came to be known as "Colter's Hell." It wasn't designated a national park for another sixty-four years.
In the morning Inberg and I saddle up after a hot breakfast fixed by Judy.
"Aren't you going to kiss me goodbye?" she asks her husband.
But Inberg, mounted on Trouble, has already developed a case of the 100-mile stare. His mind's eye is fixed way out there on an aspen grove near the juncture of Trail Creek and Pacific Creek where he hopes to find a two-year-old cache of firewood and tepee poles, if he can only recall the hiding place.
"Goodbye." Judy Inberg waves. "Be careful."
The best thing about Turpin Meadows is how fast it disappears once you're on the trail. You round a bend, and a curtain parts on a world not unlike the one Colter and Bridger saw. You are on a sliver of trail grooved into a steep, forested mountainside that falls away to the North Fork of the Buffalo, a shining ribbon of water 500 feet below.
"Come on, you lazy bugger," Inberg says.
He is talking not to me but to Trouble, the mule he raised from a rubber-legged colt. Trouble's pace is set by his own internal metronome, and some mornings the beat is barely perceptible. But no amount of cursing or flogging will change it. Nor is Trouble always in a traveling mood. He may stop at the first stream, turn around, and head for home. But he ran the race of his life once, saving Inberg's life in the process, and the two of them are bonded now like bickering brothers.
"That way is Soda Fork," Inberg says, pointing to a trail that splits off to the east. "That's where they found Kirk's plane."
For most of the morning, we travel in silence, listening to the clink and groan of tack, to muffled hoofbeats on soft earth, the screech of jays, and the tattoo of woodpeckers on hollow trees. The sounds aren't unique to wild places. We aren't hearing howler monkeys or jaguars. You can hear jays and woodpeckers in your backyard, but the sounds usually aren't as true. Wilderness is the great clarifier.
After an hour, the forest gradually gives way to North Fork Meadows, a ten-mile-long dogleg of open country. It is the main access route for fishermen and hunters into the game-rich Thorofare region thirty miles northeast of here. Thousands of people, horses, and mules come through every year, and the trail they have cut, actually a dozen parallel ruts, is twenty-five feet across. In wet weather it becomes a muddy slough. Grooved like a giant storm drain, the trail captures moisture that might otherwise feed trees and grass and sluices it away to creeks and rivers. Much of the native vegetation has been lost, replaced by hardier invader plants that offer little nourishment to wildlife.
Yet, it remains a lovely scene. Nature has a way of camouflaging its wounds. In the perverse way that graffiti can masquerade as art, a scarred landscape can seem as arresting as an unblemished one. To an ecologist, the spare, geometrical contours of a steeply down-cut river channel slicing through bald earth are the classic signs of desertification. Yet, such a damaged place is often startlingly beautiful. Erosion created the Grand Canyon. Travel magazines refer to the close cropped meadows of Yellowstone Park as America's Serengeti, neglecting to point out that the veldlike beauty is the result of overgrazing by wildlife. The Trail Creek campsite where Inberg and I stop for the night has a welcoming spaciousness that belies its sorry condition. The ground where we pitch our tents has been cleared of bushes, rocks, and nettles. The trees have been stripped of low-hanging branches, their trunks burled, and their delicate roots exposed. For years, people have been tying their mounts to the trees. The horses have eaten all the grass and pawed away at the earth, damaging the roots and girdling the tree trunks as they pulled against their halter ropes. Now the ground is barren and the trees are dying.