July 22nd, 2016: Golden, CO to Green River, WY

We spent the first night of our trip along a tributary of the Green River called Black’s Fork in the southwestern reaches of Wyoming, just short of the Utah border.

We pulled off Scenic Byway 530 onto a dirt track worn by oil exploration and drove in a half-mile to a pullout looking toward the river over a dried mud flat. There we got out and stretched, and considered walking to the river against the cliffs nearby.

After a few steps across the cracked surface, we realized, with sideways hopping and whooping, that the hard crust was only a superficial layer over several feet of spongey grey mud. We were in no state to prevail in the dark through possible quicksand.

So we gave up and wobbled back to solid land, which we found to be impenetrably so when we tried to sink tent stakes into the table-hard ground. Knocking on it produced satisfying noises, but otherwise it was a useless effort. Dana found a rock and managed an ineffectual couple of inches. It is always wise to stake a tent in Wyoming, which is the windiest state I know of. If you cannot, you must at least try, so as to assuage the wind gods of that place, who are boisterous and easily offended.

Yet the night was warm and only a gentle breeze stirred the sagebrush and other impoverished members of the vegetal community. We gave a bit of lip service to our 3.2 beers, but soon settled on our backs to watch the stars come out.

Scorpio was emblematically stretched across the sky to the southwest, the dipper poured upside-down in the north. Our tent sat unoccupied as we lay side beside beneath a silent, splendid sky.

We drifted off to sleep. Then the waning gibbous moon rose so bright and yellow that Dana muttered, “What’s that?” in his sleep as it broke a cloud bank. “The moon,” I answered, and it was striking after the darkness of the star fields.

Alas, the tranquility was for the early night in the desert, much as dawn is the quiet time in a town. First, it was a lone killdeer calling repeatedly on the mud flats, perhaps to keep some predator from her nest. Then a pack of coyotes started up in the distance, their voices echoed by the cliffs. I could only pick out three or four individual voices. In arid country, everything has small families except the cattle.

After a while, a hoot owl took up a soft but steady conversation with the darkness, and the killdeer joined in from time to time. This continued regularly for a maddening while. Just as I was getting accustomed to the noise and slipping back into sleep, a spastic exclamation woke both of us.

Dana raised his head like a seal—he was sleeping on his belly—and I half-rose on my elbows.

“That’s close,” he said. It was a coyote making a distinctive bark that gave way to a whining howl at the end. She couldn’t have been more than twenty feet away.

I started speculating aloud about the purpose of her barks, which were uniform and urgent. I have lived in coyote country all my life, and I know that this is unusual for a coyote. They usually make noise in packs, and they keep the pattern scattered and random to sound like a larger pack. Was she announcing herself to us, determined to intimidate us away from her den? Was she calling for a pup? Or both? Dana seemed either unconscious or disinterested in my theories.

By this time, the sky was lightening behind the riparian cliffs, and I gave up on falling asleep, which promptly happened.

The next morning, we braved the thick, gooey mud to get to the river, and enjoyed the sun cresting the cliffs and sparkling on the water. Then we went for a run in the already-blazing nine-AM run, with a stop to view the meanders of the river from a cliff top.

On our drive out, we stopped in town at a place called Expedition Island. Dana grew excited at the reason for this name: a sign announced this as the official “put-in” for the Powell Expedition that travelled and mapped the Green River and the Colorado River in 1869. Some years ago, when he was preparing to kayak the same waters, Dana read his account of the journey. He has relayed it to me many times, in bits and pieces, and I will do my best here, with occasional help from Wikipedia, because Dana is busy.

John Wesley Powell was a Mississippi waterman and a professor of geology in Illinois. Like most men of the time, he was swept up into the Civil War, and fought as a major for the Union. At the Battle of Shiloh, he was hit by a miné ball in the arm, and (inevitably) his forearm had to be amputated. So bear in mind that he did everything else I am about to relay with one hand.

After the war, he poured west with many of the still-enlisted soldiers. Instead of getting into disastrous confrontations with Native Americans, like most of the military, Powell led ten men on an expedition to explore the Grand Canyon.

The expedition started off rather badly, losing a boat called No Name (although it surely is more accurate to call it an unnamed cargo boat!) with their supplies and barometers. They recovered some of the barometers, which were very important for determining altitude. One cannot explore the rivers of the mountain west without carefully noting the altitude in one’s oilskin-covered journals!

The expedition went along mapping and notating, keeping themselves on flour, coffee, and dried apples and whatever they could reel in. Dana chose to mimic this on one of his journeys, demonstrating a sensibility that I love in him. On his night to cook, he provided coffee, biscuits, and a the fish he had caught.

The Powell expedition lost a few men. Three abandoned the trip in fear, but died mysteriously trying to find their way out. Another went to live with the Paiutes and then the Mormons. Five or six, depending on which account you read (or how many hands you have) made it to the official conclusion of the expedition.

We found the waters near the pull-of site sparkling clean and fresh, the perfect depth for swimming without any worry of becoming a permanent resident of the river. To my delight, we spotted two white and grey feral kittens, but they refused my advances and disappeared into a thicket. We stretched while watching the residence of the town prepare for a bouncy-castle festival, the lush green of the riparian park a relief after the hard-packed desert.

Now we are off to Idaho, literally to greener pastures.

 

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