Thunder echoes off the cliffs above as I scan the trail for any fresh boot prints that might lead me to my brother Mike. Just minutes ago, we were together, resting at a key intersection along the Highline Trail above Green River Lakes, on our way into Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. Then Mike took off before me, and I haven’t seen him since.
Suddenly the lightning crescendos and the sky pours forth rain, hail, and chilling cold. I halt the search, stash my lightning rod of a pack, and cower beneath illusory shelter, watching as hailstones tear boughs off of the pines. Ironically, this trip is supposed to be a reunion for my brother and me. We’re twins, though far from identical, a fact that gives us both great relief. Brown-haired and 6 feet tall, Mike is a professor of mathematical physics at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. I’m a Utah redhead who has trouble balancing checkbooks and can claim 5 1/2 feet only in the right boots.
Despite our stylistic divergences, Mike and I grew up together getting lost in the wilderness, learning about survival in the outdoors through a string of epics while pursuing backcountry adventures equal to those we read in books. Somehow we survived all our contra-Darwinian efforts. Now, in the bloom of our adulthood, nostalgia pushes us to reunite on the trail every few years to revisit these formative adolescent themes. It seems we’re succeeding already.
The more I search, the more I suspect it was me, not Mike, who wandered up the wrong path. When the lightning abates, I backtrack down to meet up with him and his inevitable recriminations. As my sibling now points out all too joyfully, he’s the absent-minded math professor and I’m the big, bad outdoors expert. I hike off at a goodly tempo until he’s puffing enough to shut up, and together we climb on through driving rain to a soggy camp near Peak Lakes.
The Wind River Range embodies the quintessential alpine mountains, but they’re much more than geologic features. Mike and I first visited the Winds when we were barely 14. They captivated us so that we’ve returned, both together and separately, many times over our 30 years of travel. Among these peaks and valleys, I’ve felt the thrill of success, numbed exhaustion, and the queasy tension of fear. They’ve gazed down in supreme indifference as I made new friends and evacuated unlucky ones. Sublime or disastrous, every visit here has left a mark on me like no other place I’ve ever been.
So when Mike and I heard rumors that the Winds were being overcrowded, we felt it was our duty to check up on this old family friend, so to speak. We were concerned, but skeptical. For one, the Winds have always been popular, and crowding is a relative term in a place this big. Beyond the dozen major trailheads lie nearly 1,000 miles of trail, 1,300 lakes, 39 peaks above 13,000 feet, and 7 of the 10 largest glaciers in the Lower 48. With nearly a million acres split between six public lands and an Indian Reservation, the Wind River roadless areas form a reserve vast and wild enough that grizzlies roaming south from Greater Yellowstone have begun to homestead here, and wolves will probably follow soon. Still, we wanted to check it out firsthand by hiking from Green River Lakes in the north to Big Sandy trailhead in the south over 12 days.