Flight: CO to MT to NC: Day 1: Yampa River, CO to Grand Teton National Park, WY

The headwaters of any particular river are usually anticlimactic. While a river of some significant namesake may begin there, and while the waters are usually clean and unadulterated, that is about it. Sometimes the name is all that matters. In this case, the Yampa starts at the confluence of three other small rivers. In essence, it is the first place that the Yampa takes on a discernible characteristic as it winds toward the Green River and eventually the Colorado.

Headwaters of the Yampa River
Headwaters of the Yampa River

I elected to photograph the Yampa as I am working on a book on the Upper Colorado River and its main stem tributaries. The rule for the book was that I would photo the Colorado inside the state of Colorado and any tributaries that started and finished inside the state. I completed that in prior months and developed some bit of debate on the Yampa. It starts and finishes in Colorado, yet ends in the Green River, not the Colorado. I opted to include it as I would be going over that direction anyway.

The Yampa winds north for a while, through two lakes, into the town of Steamboat Springs and then on through Craig and a host of other ramshackle settlements with little in the way of population. Twenty miles west of Steamboat and it turns into a burnt desert. Following this path, I eyed up my fuel and it was marginal to make it to Rock Spring, WY. I was intent on getting to Dinosaur National Monument and then north – and past Craig, there is nothing in the way of fuel. I could go past Dinosaur into Vernal, UT, though that would accomplish little as I would have to retrace east to meet up the Wind River Range. So I decided to proactively land at Craig, CO. Nobody was there. Fuel was not automated. No signs or instructions, except for posters advertising economic development. Morons – if you want growth, having fuel might help. Thoroughly annoyed, I took off and went back east to Steamboat’s main airport. With airline service, it is bound to be expensive.

Yampa River with Steamboat Springs
Yampa River with Steamboat Springs in the Background

Sure enough, it was. Fuel was $7.10 per gallon instead of $5.40, with a $15 “security fee” to pay for TSA services I do not use. $96 for half a tank instead of $48. So I spent double the cash and 40 minutes of extra time due to this whole stupidity. Markedly cantankerous, I decided that my plan sucked and I am not going to Dinosaur National Monument. The Yampa sucks anyway; its dry and it will be all the same all the way out there. I took a direct line to I-80 N/NW of Steamboat, with the intent to go N/NE to the Wind River Range.

I went over some ridiculously desolate areas, with such wide expanses between housing that I was concerned about dehydration having to walk 10 miles if the engine quit. I had 3 gallons of water, though I would have to carry it in the sun, hiking up and down over terrain, wondering if I was heading in the right direction. Not my idea of fun. It becomes an almost subconscious exercise, tracking the nearest dwelling in the event of engine failure. It’s not a lot of work to do as I am flying, though it emotionally gets tiring after a number of hours.

Colorado Desolation
Colorado Desolation

After about 80 miles of this desolation exercise, I crossed into Wyoming in an area 100% devoid of human life. I saw a bull or two as I passed over. As I was getting within a reasonable range of a road on the map, and within 30 miles of I-80, I noticed some activity down below and dust clouds. I encountered herds of wild mustang horses. I circled down, camera in hand, and I will say that the sight was stunning. Horses galloping wild and free, manes in the wind, dust kicked up by their hooves, just running. I had never seen anything like it – horses running in a steady gallop, going where they wanted to, with not a human for 20 or more miles. It was everything you can imagine it to be and yet more powerful, if not spiritual. These horses have a raw, unrestrained beauty when we take the rider off of them, running as they are meant to be. It’s a sight few in this world will see as I did, in real life and from above, seeing the herds coverage on their long gallop through the countryside.

Wyoming Desolation
Wyoming Desolation

Wyoming Desolation (1)
More Wyoming Desolation

There were a few baby horses running with them. Interestingly, they mostly run single file, and if there is a laggard, I saw one horse turn around, run back to the slow one, and run with his ailing compatriot. As they ran, horses were converging from a distance and the herd was growing. Right then, the entire experience was worth it – cost, time, and effort, even if the trip ended there. I thought of the naturalists who note that the horse wasn’t native here, were escapees from settlers, and don’t pass the scientific sniff test warranting preservation, yet Americans want them preserved anyway. This is why – those horses running wild and free on the range represent an ideal that we do not want to let die – something we may never personally get, yet it is that freedom that we all want. No wonder the public wants to keep them the way they are, and I can fully support it after what I saw. Even if it forever remains a symbol of what we cannot have, those horses need to continue to be running as a reminder of what we strive for.

Wild Horses

After circling a number of times and checking them out, I continued north content, with a big smile, and a warmed heart. My travels then took me over unimaginable desolation, dryness so barren that it begins to expose rock and textures and colors not possible where grass and trees grow. Crossing I-80 was uneventful except for some interesting rock quarries, which soon gave way to range again. Much like the entire west, this section of Wyoming changes quickly: from complete desolation to some basic greenness and sagebrush due to changes in soil, rock, and weather from elevation.

Wyoming Texture

Texture (2)
More Wyoming Texture

Texture (1)
And More Wyoming Texture

Sand Dunes

Sand Dunes – The Ultimate Sign of No Water and Death Lurking Below

It was back to the familiar routine of tracking how I would live if the engine quit. Housing disappeared except for some ranching roads, 20 plus miles from the nearest anything. Cell service is nonexistent. I have no airplane radio, so its me, my gear, and a long walk home if anything happens. Conversely, if the engine quits, the airplane will be fine as will I, because 95% of the terrain is safe to land on, it just might kill me once I get there. Its ironic how life works.

Over a butte south of Wyoming Route 28, I saw some more motion. This time it was a herd of wild elk, on top of a large plateau. While the horses engage in a majestic gallop, the elk first awaken from their slumber and sit up vigilant. As I got closer, they realized they were going to have to run (I don’t know why) and they wait until the last second to get going, running only because they feel they must. Mind you, I am not close to them. I doubt they see many aircraft.

Elk – Did I have to tell you that?

After the elk, it was more horses and then, to my surprise pronghorn antelope. These guys don’t wait around to get moving. When they saw my approach, they tore off at full speed, running in a quasi zigzag pattern, with the entire herd close together. It was amazing, in such a short distance, to see so many wild herds of animals of differing types, and to see their varying reactions to over flight of an aircraft. For the inevitable animal zealots looking for a victim to skewer, I have a very powerful zoom lens. While I did consider buzzing the hell out of them, I decided it was not nice, may or may not be legal, and would terrorize them anytime they heard an airplane cruise by and that simply is cruel. Despite my overarching kindness to wild beasts, there probably were hunters with guns hiding in the bushes intent on picking off these roaming pieces of steak. Ah, the joy of ethics debates.

Wide open Range
Range the Elk Were Grazing On – Oregon Buttes in View

After the wild herds, the Wind River Range came into view. For some reason, I have had a desire to see these mountains for a while. They jut southeast out of Yellowstone and rise abruptly and to dizzying heights. While not overall as tall as the Colorado mountains, they have a valley-to-summit elevation change exceeding most of what one can find in Colorado, are made of granite, and have evidence of heavy ancient glaciation. In fact, there are quite a few glaciers on them to this day, even though I did not get to see them.

As I traversed the dullness of the open range with Wind River coming into view, I later learned I crossed the Oregon Trail, somewhere near WY highway 28. Flying over these forlorn regions is hard enough on my mental tolerance, yet to think of crossing them in a wagon caravan, where death was common puts my inconveniences in another perspective. I wonder as I traverse these expanses what made them leave where they came from. Research has shown that many got duped as to the viability of the land they inhabited, that it was drier than they thought. Yet still, they were going into wilderness with roving bands of unhappy Native Americans and absolutely nothing when it came to modern conveniences. It was not as though there were just a handful of these folks; the entire west was settled with them. The irony is, I feel a sense of deep isolation even though the West has been won. It is now defined by empty expanses of desert where no one wants to live, even though we have modern access, national forests and parks where tons would live and cannot by law and yet would be filled with McMansions owned by the wealthy, and then the many cities and towns that are inhabited. Distance is strange to us because we pack ourselves into cities and suburbs like sardines, and create the visual and emotional connection that modernism can only come from such extreme density whereas the highest quality of life is in semi-remote counties near epic natural beauty coupled with ostentatious housing. Nothing is there other than what these people need, and they have the most modern of accouterments possible. Instead of such density providing such conveniences, its how we pay for them and ultimately, how we put up with each other in the process.

Oregon Trail went here somewhere
Oregon Trail Went Here Somewhere – It Makes Me Want to Go on a Wagon Caravan

Wind River was as amazing as I thought. The range obviously gets lots of snow, so it is well watered. Soil is hard to come by, so sheer granite is exposed, with a texture far different than its cousins to the south. It is more of a mountain range that I personally hoped for when I moved to Colorado – something raw, defiant, uninviting, and a symbol of individualism. Yet to the individualist that makes his or her way into the range, there are wonderful alpine lakes, glaciers, trees, and abundant water waiting for them. There is evidence of seasonal dwellings built by the Native Americans, for summer hunting escapades. The Range to me is a symbol of a place being off limits to all except the adventurous, and I feel a strange sense of home, even though the place would be remarkably difficult to live in, were it not for conservation laws prohibiting it altogether.

Wind River Range
Approaching Wind River Range

Wind River Range (1)
Wind River Range Awesomeness

Wind River Range (2)
Wimps not Welcome – Wind River Range

Wind River gave way to a fuel stop in Pinedale, WY. I learned there that the Bureau of Land Management uses airplanes to move the horse herds around to prevent overgrazing. Hence, they likely thought they were about to be moved and therefore converged to stay together as I overflew. I also learned that this section of Wyoming, an hour from Jackson suffers from Texans (as does Breckenridge) and Californians wishing to play with their toys in the wilderness. It makes for an interesting brew when these kinds of people come out for limited periods, purchase property, and wonder why Wyoming is nothing like California.

Pinedale to Jackson was relatively uneventful. A continuation of the extended Wind River Range converged with other mountains around the tight entrance to Jackson. We had once fantasized about living there, thinking it would provide what Colorado did not, and a quick over flight told me it did not. Maybe back in the day when tourists are not measured by the millions, invading small villages that cannot expand due to national parks and forests, would I have loved such a place. Now? It is another Colorado, a retail wilderness burdened by expense and high visitor counts, offering a taste of the mental freedom I am looking for while drowning it in visitor count. It was eye opening to see that the demographic of hyper tourist towns is largely unsustainable, and I wonder what the future will hold for the idea of balancing nature with sophisticated society. Has our conserved lands policy backfired in a strange kind of way by bringing too many people to nature? Time will tell what specific management mistake we have made.

Mountains near Jackson WY
Mountains South of Jackson, WY