“So near to heaven” responded my friend, to the pictures I sent her. In the middle of western Wyoming’s open, rolling range, my proper and fitting place seemed more like a mite. The great beyond seemed more immediate and close.
With a group of avid hikers, I followed a hiking leader and animal tracker on several hikes in the largely empty country between the Absaroka and Wind River mountains. He knew every fold and rise of this range like I knew street corners in Washington DC. At 6,000 feet of altitude, I bumbled behind with the heavy legs of a flatlander. Walking with this man who took no clues from map and compass drew me into the natural world more compellingly.
The range, empty of people, seemed to empty my mind. With each step, my breath and body seemed to fall in pace with a sensual rhythm that came underfoot, from the distant sightlines, smells of sage, and immense sky. Perhaps I caught a fleeting impression of ancient cousins wandering the African Savannah.
Physically challenged and quickened simultaneously, my modern life’s unnatural dissociation fell into relief. My own edges began to blur as the wind pushed and whipped clouds around. Was the wind actually inside—my own spirit? Wind in the midst of the range was more visceral and energizing than any wan, scientific description. It barely befit the wind I felt to call it “an atmospheric flow from a zone of high to low pressure”. The sensual seemed more vital than the physics.
Devoid of prominent features, yet each swell and fold of the range offered infinite variation and intricate complexity. The sagebrush leaves were fluffier here. Dwarf purple lupine had just bloomed there. Foxtail grass fanned gently in the breeze. We stumbled across a pine cones in the brush that some brisk wind had flung quite a distance from a dwarf pine. Our guide knew plants by name, specific sightings of animals, their paths, how far to the aspen groves for shelter, and the mood of the approaching storm. I felt like a child in need of schooling.
The cattle and the horses were muscular and impressive. They communicated loudly, protesting at us, trampling through their hillside. Their language was unmistakable. Being close to them was sensual also. They snorted, turned, went back to chewing, pee-ed, and shat.
But it was the elusive animals who elevated this place, and inspired reverence. Grizzlies were about, cubs actually sighted. Myself, I saw a mountain lion lumbering across a wide plain with exquisite purpose and elegance. As I watched, it clamoured lithely up a rise, into the distance….near to heaven.