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A Big Sandy Wilderness Adventure


Late in my teenage years my life changed in some very significant ways. My exceptional high school grades had morphed into average college grades, and my interest in engineering was quickly waning. Life as I had known it began bouncing off the "variable-calculus aptitude ceiling", or VAC as I call it, within my own brain.

By the end of my 20th year I had all but abandoned my childhood goal of going into space, in favor of finding a place on solid ground. An unexpected series of life events and a college professor and mentor offered me the guidance and support I needed to make a serious change of course in my life.

The Big Sandy River

The River in the Bridger Wilderness

The River in the Bridger Wilderness

The Trail

In the mountains of western Wyoming flows a river called the Big Sandy. I saw it as a young man in my early twenties working as a volunteer ranger, inexperienced and unpracticed in wilderness philosophy and ethics. I was fresh from a drastic college major and school change and still searching for a future apart from my failed hopes for an astronaut career, and apart from the self-focused life that held me hostage to my own perfectionism.

With a few days of introductory ranger instruction, light-hearted encouragement at the USFS office in Pinedale, and with a load of equipment and supplies, I struck out on a set of trails through some of the most beautiful land in the country, on a summer-long mission to "protect the wilderness and its recreational users". Or maybe my mission was just to find something... possibly to find a clear path from one life to another. I'm not sure. I do know I had a head full of new experience and advice from a new mentor. "Just go", he said, "Some of the most valuable experience doesn't pay". This from the guy who regularly provided student labor to the local Southern California branches of the U.S. Forest Service. I'd spent many days scratching fire breaks and rehabilitating camp sites without a pay check. But as I'd come to understand that summer on the trails in Wyoming, life wasn't about a paycheck.

My previous mountain trail experience had consisted of a day hike with my step-father along Bishop Creek carrying a fishing rod and and bait... but without drinking water. A somewhat less than brilliant move into my teen years. I'll tell that story when I can do the fading memory justice, but even now I hold onto only a few sharp-edged shadows of that trip. Any sharp memories of that day hike had already been diffused by the time I reached the Big Sandy, which is quickly gaining "shadow status" in its own right. The simple exercise of journaling would have kept all of those early years bright and sharp, but what’s done is done. And penning them to paper now, some decades later, gives all of those experiences a certain "legendary" feel, which comforts me like a warm fire.

Read About Another Big Sandy Visit:

The Man

I cleaned the campground at the Big Sandy trail-head which included a "rustic" toilet, spoke to a few people about my life in California and their lives, penned my name in the visitors’ log, and quickly looked for oddities among the "check-ins and check-outs". No one seemed to be missing, so I gave the trail-head and campground my first look from the "backside", and turned toward the high country. My sierra cup dangled from my pack, and rang like a dull bell against the pack frame and the wooden handle of the shovel I carried in my right hand. I was confident it would alert the bears of my presence, and that I wouldn't have to use the "play dead" technique on my first solo trip.

There were no cellular phones in those days, and I'm sure there isn't a signal in the back country even now, but the big "Handy-talkie" radio I carried on my belt was a link to civilization, and also a weight that soon began to drag my uniform pants down. I tightened my belt several times that day (I wouldn't be able to buckle that same belt around my waist today). After a few hundred yards, I passed the horses and mules corralled by the early-season trail maintenance team. I imagined myself apart from, "well-educated" and somehow "above", that group of trail workers; and so I passed on by with a brief "courtesy salute" to the fellow tending to the animals' needs. I didn't bother to even let him know my plans, or the route I was taking. It probably would have been wise to have shaken his hand, asked him about his crew's work, and briefed him on a few of the details of my week ahead. But I wasn't wise... I was just a fool on the trip of his life.

Passing a few obvious backcountry camp sights later that day, and then into the next, I scattered rock fire rings, buried ashes, and stuffed litter into one of the plastic trash bags hanging from my belt.

As I Remember It

Though the trail followed the river for only a short distance, I was entranced by its smooth surface, and controlled descent through the open meadows. Its voice seemed hushed out of respect for creation and the blue sky.

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The ages-old river quietly carried trout young and old to the lakes below, its waters marked ultimately for joining the Colorado. I was in awe of God's greatness for the first time in my life; and I adopted the Big Sandy as my brother that day.

Home Range of the Big Sandy

The High Country

The High Country

The Ancient Wilderness

In the days that followed I would experience the most amazing sights- streams no more than two feet wide filled with cutthroat trout; mountain peaks scalable only by trails with so many "switch-backs" that a person could get dizzy if the elevation hadn't already made him so; and icy high-mountain lakes that blended so well into the blue sky that I wasn't sure which I was looking at. Sounds I couldn't identify the source of, but which carried clear and unmistakable stories of the ancient wilderness. It was somewhere midway in that hike, and before the maze of switch-backs going up the trail to "Jackass Pass", that I found the Big Sandy River.

It was a flat and gentle portion of the stream surrounded by open fields of waving yellow and blue wildflowers. I snapped a picture of the sunny spot with a KodakInstamatic 126, and made myself at home for the night. I camped above the Big Sandy that night, and ate my fill of canned fruit, crackers and jerky. One of the "full-time" rangers had told me that the best thing to drink on the cold nights was hot Tang. So with my single-burner stove, I boiled some of the Big Sandy's finest in my sierra cup, sprinkled some of NASA's preferred beverage into it, and sat down on a rock by the river. The shadows were long but I could still see the rocks in the river bed.

It was the first time in years that I had actually felt like I was alone. It was just me alone with my thoughts. I skipped stones across the river that evening. Each one of them carried a bit of the baggage I had been toting around in my youth and young adult life. I gave up the failures that had burdened me like heavy weights. I was able to "clean house" of a lot of personal issues as the sun set. Then I spent the balance of the night in my government-issue pup tent, boots warming by a small fire, dreaming about the relative "comforts" of the rustic guard station down the mountain.

Pictures I Sent Home

Pictures I Sent Home


I passed the trail maintenance crew on my return trip to the campground, and stopped this time to talk. I helped shovel a little sand cover on the water bars they were building. I'm sure they noticed a difference in my attitude. I felt it as we talked and laughed. Moving on, I once again came to the river. I skipped a few stones, picked up the plastic trash bags I had stashed between some boulders, and continued on to the campground. Though I haven't seen it since, I haven't forgotten the details of the time I spent skipping stones along the Big Sandy.

I haven't been the same man since that day, and probably wasn't a man at all before that. But my story is not so much about the trail, and the fish and the flowers. It isn't about the mountain lakes or even the Big Sandy River. It's more about the change in me, what I was able to leave behind; and what I was able to move on to.

In my quiet times alone, I skip those stones. In fact I skip more now than I ever did in my youth. Each stone carries something, though-- something from love, from work, from family or society--a scar... a scale... a burn... a resentment or even a moment of doubt or unbelief. In my mind I sit on my rock by the Big Sandy and throw my cares into the river, never to be raised to the warm sun again.

It's so easy to throw away the daily troubles, resentments and heartaches once you've seen the truly miraculous world beyond the man-made city walls. A God who can create this wilderness, can tame any man-made troubles.

© 2010 Mr. Smith

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