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Destination Nowhere

The most remote spot in the Lower 48 is inside Yellowstone National Park. It's also the goal of our correspondent. What he encounters–and what it says about the solitude backpackers treasure–will surprise you. PLUS: See more of his photos and read a Q&A.

I wanted to believe that this deep in the wilderness, practically as far away from civilization as one can get in the Lower 48, the trail would have vanished. I imagined hiking through pristine conifer forests across Wyoming’s majestic Absaroka Mountains on an indistinct game path, the paw prints of a wolf or mountain lion faintly visible in the pine-needle duff. Instead, we’re wallowing in a muddy horse trail a foot deep and sometimes 10 feet wide. In the pockets of grassland between stands of timber, the track immediately fans out, furrowing the meadow with a dozen side-by-side troughs.

David Gaillard, my companion, is balancing on the rim of the trail with his towering pack when he suddenly slips knee-deep into the bog.
“It takes hundreds of horses to trash a trail like this,” Gaillard groans, grabbing tree limbs and pulling himself out of the mud. “This isn’t a trail, it’s a thoroughfare.”

True enough. We’re moving through northwestern Wyoming’s Thorofare Valley, once an intermountain pathway for the hunting parties of the Absaroka, or Crow, Indians, a tribe known for their flamboyant horsemanship.

Of course, the Crow are now gone–they were forced onto the Crow Indian Reservation in south-central Montana in the early 20th century. But the Thorofare is still a Holy Grail for hunters and outfitters, who charge sportsmen up to $10,000 each for the opportunity to hunt by horseback in this bountiful land of Boone-and-Crockett elk. It’s October, hunting season, and we’ve seen numerous pack trains since starting our hike two days ago. Here comes one now.

On the lead horse, with his leather scabbard just behind his saddle, a guide winds his group down the trail, his cowboy boots, spurs and chaps, Stetson, and de rigueur scarlet neckerchief signaling that he’s a roper or rancher in the off-season. Three overweight men and a red-cheeked woman, each in new pearl-button shirts and stiff Wranglers, trail behind. The guide and the dudes all have celebratory beers in one hand and hold the reins in the other. Behind them, a string of pack horses lumbers along, loaded with elk antlers so large that, flipped over on the pack saddles, their white tips practically drag on the ground.

We step away from the trail to let the hunting party pass, but the cowboy tells us we’re waiting in the wrong place.

“Stand over there,” he says, swapping a plum-size wad of chew from
one cheek to the other and pointing to a spot on the opposite bank. We’re
considerably older than he is, but, like schoolboys, we trudge through the mud
to where he wants us to wait.

The dudes, riding five feet above the mud, are shocked to see people traveling this far into the wilderness, afoot and unarmed. “You walk here?” asks one of them.

Gaillard and I nod.

“Why, you’re in the middle of nowhere!” spouts another, raising his beer in a toast.
When they’ve passed, Gaillard quietly responds.

“Not yet. But we’re getting there.”

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