The Great Disconnect
Yoda Bear is a Norwegian elkhound. They are friendly, independent working dogs that I’m told were bred for stamina. Yoda had recently accompanied the Grants on a 110-mile traverse of the Wind River Range in Wyoming, so clearly it is not an exaggeration. While we fish Kamas Lake, Yoda takes off on his own on a circumnavigation of the lake. I watch as Yoda becomes a tiny dot on the opposite shoreline, equally at home in the backcountry as his humans.
When we reassemble at camp, Zach calls once for Yoda, and a few minutes later he wanders in. Yoda lives up to his breed, but come bedtime, he is more than ready to call it a day, and is confused when the videographer wants to light up the tent to stand out against the deepening sky.
That second night, I welcome the opportunity to climb back into my sleeping bag. I had occupied nearly all daylight hours hiking between Kamas, Lofty and Cutthroat lakes and fishing the shores of Kamas. Call it like it is: I was dog tired.
At the trailhead the first day, I had turned the data off my phone so the battery stayed strong through the second night, at which time I decided I had best charge it back up. I dug out my battery charger, but soon realized I had gotten away without the adaptor for this phone. I felt momentary alarm and disappointment, but also realized it was near the last thing I needed to worry about forgetting out here. I shut down my phone and went about settling in for the night. I would go to sleep knowing I would have to wake up on my own terms tomorrow morning. What I didn’t anticipate was how different the hiking would be without giving into the compulsory need to stop and take pictures of everything along the way. I barely ever knew what time it was.
What do we mean when we say “backcountry,” anyway? Given our increasing connectivity, how far do we have to travel to get there?
After only two miles, we’ve hiked twice as far as Henry David Thoreau when he went to Walden Pond in pursuit of solitude. We’ve gone deliberately. By some measure, it’s not precisely “wild,” up here, at least not in the sense of “uncharted territory.” But wilderness is all around us. It is touchable. A profound disconnect can be achieved. We don’t take being here lightly nor set foot casually. A reverence for wild spaces pervades. The thought of wilderness creates a feeling of expectation, gives definition to where you’ve come from while teaching you the vocabulary of where you are going.
Up here in the High Uintas it is a quieter place, at times a lonesome wilderness, but we do not feel alone. Wilderness areas are a gift from our predecessors, passed down like an heirloom. Like an heirloom, these areas are to be treasured, for a story permeates them. Sometimes heirlooms are better left untouched, appreciated for what they hold intrinsically rather than for any interactional or transactional value. Once you’re old enough or mature enough, it will be yours. This is not to say that wilderness must only sit high on a shelf out of reach, but how and how often we use it is worth the meditation. Sometimes a change in mindset or worldview is required before we can understand what we have inherited.
Working as a team, Zach dresses the lone, but surprisingly hefty, cutthroat pulled from Kamas Lake and holds it open while Cindi sprinkles in their house seasoning salt (lemon pepper, garlic, powdered butter) and loads it with dried rosemary, which along with the garlic, Zach painstakingly cultivates from their home garden at 8,500 feet above sea level. They then sprinkle the outside of the fish with the seasoning and wrap it tightly in two layers of foil, which Cindi had carefully unfolded for the job. Foil is light, packs small, and makes backcountry cooking a snap. It’s my go-to method as well.
Many camping trips, car camping and backpacking alike, culminate in those moments when the sun sets and the fire is burning hot. How you use this time is up to you. Families break out the marshmallows and the adults, perhaps, something stronger: if it’s warm, beer kept cold in the lake; if it’s colder outside, whiskey. It’s time for the ghost stories or remembrances of times past. Flames lapping the horizon spur emotions ranging from anticipation to reflection.
The parking lot is full when we return to the trailhead — overflowing. I had hiked the Lofty Loop Trail and the Cutthroat spur at least twice during our visit. As we descended the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway, I could see that the aspens were starting to change as patches of yellow popped on the hillside at around 8,000 feet. One mile up from the Cobblerest Campground, the valley warmth began creeping into the rolled-down windows of our SUV.
It’s Sunday, and the byway is heavily populated with escapees from the nearby metropolitan area of Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front. These roadside lakes and more developed campgrounds are a different experience from primitive camping. Even Lofty Lake, barely backcountry by the Grants’ standards, permits long stretches of solitude — and presents options for well-prepared hikers to push even further afield. But it doesn’t really matter in the end. The key is being here.
During a somewhat “busy” stretch of the late morning on a Saturday, I was fishing the bank of Kamas Lake looking for new points to cast. As a couple passed along the trail a few feet up from the water’s edge, I overheard a woman say, “For heaven’s sake I never camped until I came to Utah. Never camped in California. What’s the point of camping if you can’t even see the stars?”
I do think seeing the stars is important. But I keep thinking about the fourth side of the mountain, too. Zach and Cindi have learned to travel light and efficiently and have a certain knack in the backcountry that comes from experience. But as we talked about some of the projects they have tackled and what they draw from them, something remained constant: “You still experience all the emotions climbing something unknown — awe, wonderment — but you absolutely have to push off your comfort zone to get there. And there’s a lot of happiness and fulfillment out of doing that,” Zach says.
Cindi is nodding in agreement and I ask what she gets out of it. She picks her word: