By: Randy Tucker
I once walked five miles in the wrong direction looking for a body of water that supposedly contained grayling. The place was aptly named Lost Lake, and to us, it was. My college roommate had the map upside down, and we were 10 miles from our objective when we finally realized the mistake.
The walk back was a little tense, but the friction broke when I found an old bison horn lying under a small shrub. Just how long ago did bison roam the Wind Rivers? I’ve read of mountain buffalo, but the odds against finding a remnant of their existence grows more extreme each year.
The horn sits on a shelf in my office, next to a set of French-made binoculars taken off a Civil War battlefield.
History surrounds us along the river bottoms, foothills, and high plateaus in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. It permeates, envelopes, and walks beside us largely unnoticed.
Wyoming and most of the Rocky Mountain West is unique in that respect. The area is so isolated that you often find yourself wondering if you are the first human to ever walk in some of the more remote locations. A closer look usually reveals the telltale signs of human habitation. Ideally, it’s a broken arrowhead or spear point, maybe some beads excavated from an old grave by a badger or prairie dog but usually, it’s a broken beer bottle, plastic sack, or aluminum can.
In spite of the preponderance of trash, there is that slim chance that you are indeed the first to stand on some out-of-the-way hillside. Natives, prospectors, and sheepherders once traversed most of the state but there is a lot of hot, dry land north of U.S. 26, in the Shirley Basin, across Beaver Rim, in the Thunder Basin, and all along the I-80 corridor.
You can’t even discuss an idea like this in much of America. A gravel road is rarer than a low property tax in California. Land is sold by the square foot in areas of New England and primitive areas are rare east of the Mississippi.
There are more landmarks and historical sites in the east, but these are maintained and managed by agencies, private groups, and civic organizations. Finding a shard of history on your own is expressly forbidden. It seems that you’ve got to have an antiquities license to even think such thoughts in most of our over-regulated country.
You don’t have to do that in the Dunoir Valley, the Copper Mountains, or on Union Pass.
My grandfather rode the ties down the Wind River from above Dubois in the 1930s. I first noticed the flooms used to carry the logs off the mountain above Warm Springs on Union Pass in the late ’70s. After half a century there were still hundreds of feet of these wooden ditches clinging to the vertical cliffs above the stream. The check dams and blockhouses used to back up the creek were still there and were havens for brook trout.
I made it a point to show my son this decaying engineering when I first took him to the mountain when he was five years old. It’s part of our family history, a part that needs to be sent down to future generations.
We found someone’s home in a hollowed-out bank above the Sweetwater River last fall while chasing whitetails. The weathered planks holding up the roof had collapsed but the mortared rock wall still held fast in the tiny 8×12 cabin. Hard to believe, but this was once somebody’s dream.
You wouldn’t expect to find an artifact in the middle of a fast-moving stream but my son stepped on a gas iron in the middle of the Wind River back in July. A strange place to iron clothes but there it was on a sand bar in two feet of fast-moving water. Who could have used it and how long ago did someone iron a shirt with it? An enigma at best.
That’s the magic of living where we do. The kids claim there isn’t anything to do but if you go beyond what the television tells you is popular. You’ll find a myriad of fascinating things right under your feet if you make the effort to look.
People rarely stop to pay attention to the little details that make our area unique. They go about doing the mundane, day-to-day activities that fill our lives, rarely if ever considering the wonder of the world around us.
It’s not just time that passes us by, it’s opportunity, both physical and spiritual that we deny.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at [email protected].