Editor’s Note: The author lives and writes from the current and ancestral lands of the Eastern Shoshone, Northern Arapaho, Apsaalooké, and Cheyenne. His direct ancestors landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and were early contributors to the “Big Lie.” This piece was originally written for a writing class taught by Kati Standefer in the spring of 2020.
Boulder, Wyoming–If there is one thing I know about this land, it is this: this land feeds my soul. This land inspires me; it informs who I am and what I do. This land has built me up. This land has given me freedom. This land has let me be competent. This land has changed my life. This land has taught me countless and endless lessons. This land is rough, unforgiving, and harder than nails. This land is objective and uncompromising. And this land, is stolen. Genocide, reservations, oppression, in the name of manifest destiny, has given me all this.
A crackle-y hot day in late August of two thousand found me in Lander, Wyoming for the first time. Hitchhiking from Jackson after a summer of wilderness education, it was to be another bullet point on the resume and just another place to leave quickly, avoiding attachment, loss, and heartbreak, all things ignited by my father’s death years prior. Enrolled on an Instructor Course for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) we were dropped off by a school bus near the Wind River’s southern terminus and began picking our way through forest and meadow, valley and pass, and over glacier and stone to its northern end. We climbed everything we could, we listened to the objectivity of the howling wind and bugling elk. We were spit from the mountains, unceremoniously, and scattered to the wind, another itch gone from its back. Some would return, some would not, and the ancient mountains couldn’t have cared less.
As European settler colonialists pushed westward, numerous Indigenous groups occupied the foothills, steppes, and mountains of Wind River country. The year eighteen hundred and sixty three saw the first Fort Bridger Treaty with confined the Eastern Shoshone to 44 million acres stretching across the Wind Rivers and the Continental Divide. Cessations and redactions to and by the United States government of the Wind River Range and parts of its western flank by the Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock occurred after the signing. By eighteen hundred and sixty eight, a second Fort Bridger Treaty left the Eastern Shoshone with a paltry 3.2 million acres centered around the east side’s Wind River Valley, which over the ensuing years has dwindled to about 2.3 Although these lands were also traditional lands of the Cheyenne and the Apsaalooké, they signed no such treaty.
Time runs deep in this land. Southeast of here by 20 miles spear points and scrapers have been found dating over 7,000 years old. Born of the Laramide Orogeny’s thrust faulting, these mountains are relatively new, but their rock is ancient, mostly having crystallized below the surface some 2.5 billion years ago. Fifteen miles northeast of where I now stand, its balding dome rising steeply above Lake Prue, Medina Mountain is home to some of the oldest exposed rock in the world. Medina’s hulk of archaic basement rock formed more than 3.8 billion years prior, more than half the earth’s existence. Time runs deeper in the mountains.
Stretching from near Bozeman, Montana in the north to South Pass at the southern tip of the Wind River Range in the south, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the largest mostly intact temperate ecosystems (if inclined, a grizzly could amble from South Pass to I-90–as the crow flies about 230 miles–crossing only two or three major roads–but why would one want to do that?) in the world. Down here on its southern end, wolves slink down from the hills and lunch on prey in the steppe. The grizzlies follow suit. Sagebrush Steppe, that is the official ecoregion for the western side where I have taken up residence in this pandemic. Not far north of us, the steppe melds with the Foothill Shrublands which roll upward toward the Great Divide before giving way to the Granitic Sub-Alpine and into the Alpine. Mexico’s share of the Colorado that never makes it to them is born here, high in trickles of snowmelt that feed glaciated cirques and plateaus. These mountains slake the thirst of Phoenix, Las Vegas, and numerous other two-bit towns and wanna-be cities where cities weren’t meant to be.
The land has been here long before people. It will be here long after. It has strong bones*. It wears its storms well, if not with beauty, than with at least grace and dignity. It is replete with simplicity. For the able, most summits are walkable. The off trail travel isn’t thick. The high flats that spread for miles at 12,000 feet offer cruiser terrain for the errant hiker, herds of elk, and big horn sheep; the rosie finch builds its nests in the haphazardly angled frost shattered blocks. At fifty miles by a hundred, even its math is simple. The names, those bestowed by the settler/colonialist of the Sacajawea and Westward Genocide era, lacked imagination but not simplicity: the New Fork, the East Fork, the Green, the Middle Fork, the North Fork, the East Fork again, the North Fork again. There were no fancy names (thankfully) and not much to honor and acknowledge they weren’t the first†
These mountains have provided me with the means to create a life and a living. They fueled my passion for wilderness education, for life in the vertical world, and have given me hope for the next generation. Steep, icy couloirs, pinnacled summits, stormy retreats, harrowing river crossings, high alpine meadows: their meanings are magnified tenfold when shared. These mountains have provided the backdrop to life changing experiences, new ways of being, for hundreds of my students and tens of thousands of NOLS students.
This land: wide, open, and expansive; these mountains and these places, have been a breeding ground for the strongest relationships of my life, the ones that have stood the test of time, the ones that, like the land, let me feel competent, have changed my life, have challenged me, have built me up, have given me freedom, and have inspired me. And it has come at the hands of violence, oppression, and death.
This land is rough, unforgiving, and harder than nails and that, helps hold me accountable.
* with respect to Matt Hartman, from whom I borrowed these words
† the Popo Agie is a notable exception, a Crow Indian word meaning gurgling river
Featured Image: the wind river range from south pass (12/30/17)