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Navigating the Wild Places

By Sam Walker / June 2, 1993



IF you ask me what comes to mind when I think of wilderness, I'll say it's the Green River Canyon in southwestern Wyoming. I'll tell you about camping there for a night - the beauty and the isolation. If you've ever been camping, you'll probably nod in recognition. Then I'll tell you that it may sound odd, but I found wilderness again just two days later on a park bench off Broadway in the heart of New York City. At that, you might ask me to explain. * * *

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The Green River Canyon stretches through the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area for 40 miles, north to south. The murky, mineral-rich river skirts towering canyon walls layered with vivid color.

Searching for a remote place to camp, I turned off the park's paved road and onto a dirt road marked only by a worn wooden sign painted with white letters. It read: "4x4 only." Shifting my truck into gear, I bounced and rattled down the dry, rutted path over hills and down to the river flood plain 10 miles off.

The tracks disappeared at a bend in the river where circles of fire stones and skeletons of trout marked the remnants of a campsite. I wondered how old it was. Weeks? Years? Centuries? I imagined a circle of Ute Indians at the site, scaling fish with hand-hewn tools and reciting old legends by the crackling fire. I hammered in my tent stakes around a level patch near the river's shore.

Clouds rolled in from the west, and a cool wind swept over the canyon walls, snuffing out the flame of my tiny butane stove. As I forced down the last lukewarm mouthfuls of bean soup, flashes from the west grabbed my attention. Low-flying thunderheads had appeared in a matter of minutes. I dashed to the truck, rolled up the windows, and unpacked the rainfly for the tent.

Half an hour later the sun had disappeared, and the time between the lightning and its accompanying thunder had shortened, by my count, to three seconds. I sat on the damp vinyl floor of my tent and peered out through a hole in the seams. Unwelcome thoughts circled in my mind like the gnats and mosquitoes around my lantern. I realized that rain would render the road impassable and cause the river to rise. I wondered if the metal tips of my tent poles might offer a beacon to restless thunderbolts. And nob ody on Earth knew where I was or even what state I was in. I was a good day's walk to a telephone.

I thought of folding up the tent and fleeing, but I stayed put. Perhaps it was cowardice, perhaps recklessness, or maybe I just remembered how excited I'd been to discover the road and the flood plain. I also probably figured that spending the night in my tent beat sleeping in the crowded cabin of my truck. In any event, I hoped for the best.

Throughout the night, as soon as I managed a promising series of yawns or a full minute with closed eyelids, lightning illuminated the sky and reminded me of the tiny size and thin, permeable fabric of my tent. Later, I awoke startled by noises in the brush. Just the patter of tiny mice, just rustling grass, I assured myself.

Shortly after dawn, my tent warmed up beyond my level of comfort. I crawled out, cursed the pitiable amount of sleep I'd been allotted, and caught sight of the canyon wall. The storm had passed without shedding a single raindrop. The red-pink morning sun lit up the sandstone and glinted off the water through a drifting veil of mist.

I laid my towel on the bank and waded into the water, shivering. As I soaped away the night's sweaty panic, a trout jumped high out of the water near my left knee. I caught a glimpse of its scales, shimmering and rainbow-colored in the sunlight. As the ripples trailed away and the silence returned, I realized that I'd persevered. I bathed in the Green River, miles from anybody, encircled by stillness, color, serenity, and supernal light. * * *

Two days later, I flew from Denver to attend a wedding in New York City. At the airport, I called my friend Claudia, with whom I was planning to stay. She told me she had to work late, but she would meet me at the corner of Fifth and Broadway at 9 p.m.

"9 p.m.? What do I do until then?"

"You're in New York," she said. "Soak up the atmosphere or something."

While I'd visited New York before, I'd never faced it without an experienced guide. I studied the menu in the airport cafe for entrees that might quell my hunger but found none. I considered passing the time there, watching planes lift off and sipping a $4 Coke. Then I thought of the bustling city, the heat, and the mad, swirling Friday-evening traffic. I imagined wandering around, absorbing the scenery, pondering the people, and watching my back. I hailed a cab.