Few places give the stranger the sense of vast disclosure, the abrupt realization of a completely different world, that he finds at the end of a day’s ride up the Deer Creek Trail, from Valley, Wyoming. The trail is easy going for anyone capable of eight or ten miles on a horse or afoot — now a forest path and again a series of switchbacks over jutting rock slopes, at times touching the edge of a precipice, with the creek far below. There are small streams and waterfalls on the way and meadows where, at a pinch, one could picket horses and camp overnight.
The terrain is so rough and the way so tortuous that the vistas are all at fairly close quarters. By midafternoon the trail is in deep shadow as it rises to timberline and confronts the final bastion of the Deer Creek Pass — a notch between two gigantic crags, occasionally in view at the top of what seems, in the blue shadow, an impassable wall. But the path keeps opening up, a few yards at a time. It curves around the last great rocky knob of the barrier and loses itself suddenly in turf, green grass, a platform of earth about the size of a putting green. This is the top.
No one going up Deer Creek for the first time can prepare his mind or eye for what awaits him at the pass. He has left a ranch country that morning, a valley of grazing land, bald benches, sagebrush, telephone poles, barbed wire, and automobiles. He doesn’t realize how high he has gone, although the summer afternoon may have flicked him with hail or a flurry of snow. Least of all can he comprehend, at this threshold, how truly it is a threshold to a wilderness.
Wilderness is a bad word, I suppose, and in some parts of the world it would mean a bitter struggle against nature — hardship, hunger, thirst, parasites, disease, bad drinking water, and such. West of the Deer Creek Pass, the wilderness is more benign in its three or four months of mild weather, a land of wild flowers and game, where one can drink from any stream. A horse grazing the bright yellow meadows is fat and slick within a week. The firewood is always at hand. There are no plagues or pests. The climate is spectacular: freezing every night, with snow on the north slopes all summer, and a hot sun by day. A case of butter, stored in the shade, will keep fresh and hard indefinitely, while the camper may be sun-bathing on the other side of his tent.
That is the kind of wilderness which lies so suddenly before the newcomer as he passes the last tumbled rock barrier and stands in the grassy notch of the pass. Millions and millions of acres, range on range of mountains, the brown valleys, frosted peaks, green forests, spread before him in panorama almost without limit. There is a limit — dim, blue-gray, immense and mysterious — far to the west: the Tetons and Mount Moran. In all the intervening miles, on this summer afternoon, are probably not fifty people. There are no roads, no settlements, and the game trails which lead to nowhere are more heavily traveled than the main trail ahead, on which several days of riding would bring you to Jackson’s Hole.
Erle Stanley Gardner (page 90) shows us what the airplane can do to the wilderness. One charter party means more to come. But the very things that draw them to the wilds — the hunting and fishing, the quiet that comes from remoteness — are thereby destroyed.
The West is already laid out at the disposal of every taste, age, and purse. Its de luxe hotels would interchange with Park Avenue. It offers dude ranches, trailer camps, “motels,” furnished rooms, amid mountain scenes unsurpassed anywhere in the world. But it also offers to modern man a chance to live on his own in a wilderness.
The Indians took pride in touching an enemy. They called it “counting coup.” That is what Mr. Gardner’s pair of plane passengers were doing. They flew in, killed their buck, and flew out.
They had counted coup on the wilderness.
C. W. M.