The black cone of a petal-less flower smacked me in the face, again. I felt the sharp spikes of yet another little burr digging into my thigh, my pants seemingly velcro-ed tightly around my ankles. The two men stopped short in front of me. Our game trail had come to an abrupt dead-end. We scanned the hillsides, searching for signs of any other way through the thick vegetation. But we couldn’t make out any trails, human- or animal-created, because the damned flowers were so tall.
It was the seventh day of an eight-day backpacking trip through the remote Gros Ventre Wilderness area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It was August of 2017 and we had chosen this park because of the coming eclipse – we would be right under its path. Each day thus far had been difficult for me, no doubt about that.
I had struggled with plantar facilities for the two months preceding the trip which meant almost no training to prepare me for the grueling changes in elevation each day. The altitude, which always gives me trouble, had given me more trouble than usual and I had been suffering from high-altitude bronchitis (which scared away every possible animal we could have seen).
But the beauty surrounding us was more than enough to help me forget my woes. Wyoming is a land of extreme and rugged gorgeousness. The granite-clad, rugged peaks of the Tetons combine sublimely with the red-hued sedimentary mountains and plateaus and green meadows surrounding them. Water erupts from the land in springs the size of small rivers, causing waterfalls to spontaneously appear mid-way up otherwise dry mountain slopes.
The company was superb, too. I was backpacking with two brothers I had previously met and bonded with on the John Muir Trail in 2015. Dave and Steve have been backpacking together for 12 years and were kind enough to invite me on one of their annual trips. The trip was designed around the complete solar eclipse we were lucky enough to experience. In fact, we had watched the spectacle in awe from the shores of remote, hard-won Brewster Lake just a few days earlier.
Despite my coughing fits, a bout of diarrhea and the strenuousness of the trip, I had been completely thrilled, up to this point.
Today was not a good day. Like most backpacking days, it started out quite nicely. We had awoken at Turquoise Lake and had a quick, hot breakfast before packing up and heading out. Turquoise Lake had been a scenic place to watch the sun set the night before, and it was just as lovely in the morning sun.
But almost as soon as we headed out for our second-to-last day on the trail, it started to pour. We donned our rain gear and braced ourselves against the wind and driving rain as we headed up and over our next pass. The rain came and went, came and went, frustrating us as we struggled to don and doff our wet rain jackets, never sure if we should just leave them on or take them off for good and suffer the wetness.
Rain is always a part of backpacking, but I’ll never embrace it. I just suffer through it and try to smile anyways.
In relatively quick time, we made it to the start of the main feature for the next two days: a mainly trail-less traverse across miles and miles of wildflower-covered, steep mountainsides. There were few trees here, mainly due to constant avalanche activity in the winter. Instead the mountains were covered with glorious blankets of flowers of every kind imaginable. We were hiking at the tail end of summer, so many of the prime flowers had begun to wither, often times leaving just a tall, thick stem and a cone. There was still an impressive variety of blooming flowers on display, too. Picking our way across hillsides of flowers sounded sublime. Until we got into the thick of it.
These were Jurassic flowers that reached the height of my head! At 5’6” tall, I’m not a short woman. These flowers routinely smacked me in the face as we literally bushwhacked our way through them!
That was the first annoying thing – the face smacking. Dave and Steve are both tall men. They could see over the tops of the flowers. But as they pushed and forced their way forward, I would inevitably get smacked in the face by the thick, heavy cones from the middle of the flowers.
Both Dave and Steve wore shorts – smart and perhaps not smart. I wore pants. The second annoying thing was the never ending supply of burrs that liked to stick to my pant legs. Dave and Steve did not have the burr problem, per se. They did, however, experience some extreme leg “exfoliation” from them! My pant legs were so covered in burrs that the material folded and twisted over and stuck to itself, secured in place with nature’s velcro.
The first break we took, I spent 20 minutes picking burrs off my pants. That was stupid as I picked up a whole new batch as soon as we started walking again. From that point on, I left the burrs in place until we made camp, many hours later.
The third annoying thing was the lack of a trail. Our guide book told us to simply contour along the mountain sides at about the 9,000 ft mark. OK – easy enough, right? No. Not easy.
If you didn’t walk on a game path (and sometimes even when you did) the angle of the hillside was so steep as to quickly make walking uncomfortable. Your ankles are not meant to bend at an extreme angle for hours on end. A game path was a tiny bit better, if we could find one that lasted more than a few hundred feet. Once we lost a path, we tried to find another, headed both up and down the steep hillsides in search of something to help ease the level of difficulty.
On one such venture down to a possible path, another storm struck. This one complete with lightning. We took cover near a small stream and lonely section of trees, hoping the lighting didn’t decide to hit a tree we were sitting under. Dave and Steve consulted a topo map, seeking a path either above or below us. I filtered water and proceeded to pull burrs off my pants, well aware of the futility of my efforts. I hoped the day would be over soon, but knew there were still hours of trudging through the flower jungle ahead of us.
We decided to go up to seek a possible trail subtly shown on the map. Up, up, up we went. Straight up with no path cut ahead of us and no way to check the uneven ground hiding beneath the flowers. Stumbling was common and I was thankful for my trekking poles.
We found a trail! And it looked semi-legit. A quarter mile or so later, it was gone. Easy come, easy go. We came to a stream that had carved out a decent little trough through the fields of flowers. Without a trail, we had to push our way through tall brush to get to the bank and then pick our way across. As I stepped from the edge of the creek down to a large boulder, my foot slipped and down I went. First I fell sideways onto a rock, then rolled slowly, almost gracefully, right into the water, my heavy pack dictated my descent into the stream. As I lay momentarily stunned and embarrassed, I began to curse the day.
It was slow going, bushwhacking our way through mile after mile of tall flowers and burr-filled plants. As the end of the day neared, I knew there were only a couple of options on the steep hillside for flat camping. Our book made mention of them, but without trails or signs, they were hard to find. Every tree-filled spot we came to got my hopes up. Was this a camping spot amongst the trees? We couldn’t seem to find the first camping area the book mentioned.
Another concern was that one brother wanted to stop the first chance we got, the other want to push ahead and make more miles. I could have killed that brother (who shall remain nameless). I argued that it was our second-to-last day so and it didn’t matter if the next day consisted of 5 miles or 8 miles. Either way, tomorrow we would be back at the truck and headed to Jackson Hole for beers and dinner. Today, however, was tiring and miserable and I wanted to be done NOW. Not three miles from now.
We finally came upon a clearing in some trees. Clearly this was a camping area! A beautiful oasis from my point of view – it was perfect. Sure, the ground was soaking wet from recent rains and there was no stream or other water source nearby. But it was level, large and had gorgeous views. I dropped my heavy pack on the ground and got ready to setup camp. But then, shockingly, I was out-voted. Both Dave and Steve agreed that the campsite sucked and that we needed to press on. I was flabbergasted and nearly in tears, but respected our democratic process and hoisted my pack back onto my shoulders, resigning myself to another couple of miles of wildflower hell.
When we finally did find our true campsite, it was quite lovely. Underground springs welled up, creating streams out of nowhere. I was thrilled to finally setup camp and relax around a fire. It took over an hour, but I got all of the burrs off my pants (but had to do it all over again after venturing out to find a private bathroom spot across what I mistakenly thought was a burr-free meadow).
As I lay in my tent that night, slowly drifting off to sleep, I felt a moment of panic as I thought about another flower-filled day tomorrow. At least it was our last….
We awoke with the sun and make breakfast on the trail for the last time. I was saddened that our trip was ending, but thrilled that the wildflower forest would be behind us soon enough. A local Wyoming IPA was calling my name! We had about five miles left to hike, so I prepared myself for the distinct possibility that all five miles would be miserable.
I was pleasantly surprised when we quickly picked up a real trail! We were now close enough to the trailhead that day hikers were a more common occurrence and the trail was more distinct. We ran into our first two hikers within minutes of leaving camp and they assured us the trail would not disappear on us anymore. We felt compelled to warn them of what lie ahead for them.
Another blessing? The height of the wildflowers dropped drastically. Suddenly, they were knee-high instead of head-high. Suddenly, they were beautiful again. The burs magically disappeared, too. And the hikers were right – the trail was obvious and easy to follow all the way back to the trailhead and our truck. It was a blissful, gorgeous final day with no clouds, no rain, no burrs and very few flowers.
I finished my 85-mile trek through Wyoming in late August of 2017. I look back on almost all aspects of the trip fondly. For me, backpacking struggles, trials and tribulations always seem less painful after the fact and the beauty I witness on the trail each moment of each day drowns out any small amount of negativity I felt at the time.
Not so for this trip – that particular day will always be horrible in my memories. When I think back to that day of crazy traverses across, up and down the mountain sides, bushwhacking our way through a jungle of tall wildflowers over steep and uneven terrain, I don’t have any fond memories at all. I never thought any human could dislike wildflowers. But I do. I don’t like any wildflowers that are over knee-high. I don’t like them at all!
“Even the tiniest of flowers can have the toughest roots.“ – Shannon Mullen