or Nicole’s bachelorette party, she wanted to go on a four-day backpacking trip through the Bighorn Mountains. I was her maid of honor, so Dad and I, along with her half-brother Patrick and my two friends, Chris and Ant, planned to start on the south side of the Bighorns, hike north, go over the top of the mountain range, and finish on the other side. Jesse, my soon-to-be-brother-in-law and his two brothers would start on the north side of the Bighorns and hike south. Theoretically, we would pass each other at some point on the trail. The plan was to meet in the middle, right at a ridge between the two faces of the mountain range, on around day two of the trip. We could spend the day together there before our parties continued on their respective journeys. It sounded like an awesome plan and Dad was all about it. The whole event was dubbed “The Cross-Mojination Tour.” According to the Urban Dictionary, the definition of cross-mojination is: “The synergistic augmentation of Mojo that occurs when two or more people of high Mojo are near each other.” It made sense. We all had high mojo and the hike was going to bring us all together.
Chris, Ant and I had driven out from California the day before the trip was set to start. We had just graduated from high school that summer, so we were especially excited that this would be one of our first “adult” trips. For some reason, I got it mixed up in my head and thought we were only doing a day trip instead of a four-day trek, so I told them they didn’t need to pack any hiking shoes or heavy clothing. Chris ended up hiking that whole trip wearing Converse All Stars. Not ideal, and I sort of felt bad about that later. We arrived at the cabin in the late afternoon and got settled in. Dad and Nicole were already there awaiting our arrival. The sun hadn’t set yet so there was still time to get in a quick game of Frisbee golf. That was usually the first thing Dad and I did whenever I arrived at the cabin. We went to bed early that night to get some good rest before the trip the next day. At 7 a.m. the next morning, we packed into the back of Pop’s (my grandfather) old pickup truck and set out on the road toward the trailhead.
The first day of the hike was the easiest going of the whole trip. It was about six miles to our first camp spot. The trail weaved through the pine forest and followed the north fork of the clear creek, which bubbled alongside us. The largest mountain in the Bighorn range, Cloud Peak, loomed ahead. The saddle where we were supposed to meet Jesse and company was just to the left of Cloud Peak. Dad led our group up the trail, pointing out landmarks and some interesting sights. He showed us Bomber Peak, far to the left on the mountain range, where our grandpa and uncles almost found the wreckage of an old WWII bomber plane. The plane had crashed into the side of the mountain sometime in the 1940s and had never been found. They had been hiking around the peak, and were about 500 yards from the long-lost wreckage when they decided to turn around and head home. Years later, another party found the plane right where they had been.
We hiked at a good pace for the morning, and at noon stopped for lunch on the side of the trail. For lunch, Dad had packed his signature hiking meal, canned oysters and Triscuit crackers with Louisiana hot sauce. Disgusting. One time when we were kids, Dad took us down into Billy Creek Cave, just outside of Buffalo. The cave is a network of rooms large enough to stand in, which are filled with stalactites and stalagmites sprouting like teeth from the floors and ceilings. We were down there exploring all day, so of course Dad brought oysters and Triscuits with Louisiana hot sauce. As soon as he cracked the first can of oysters, the room was filled with the smell. The thing about caves is, not great ventilation. We went to explore some other rooms and came back to the main room an hour later and it still smelled like a fish market. They’ve since closed off access to Billy Creek Cave, and I wonder if Dad’s oysters and hot sauce played a part in that.
As we sat by the edge of the trail eating our meager lunches, a moose trotted out from behind some trees and started munching on some grass in a meadow about a hundred yards from us. Chris and Ant were both shocked; I think that might have been the first time they’d ever seen a moose. We used to have a moose that lived behind the cabin who would come down to the pond and eat a few times a week, but we hadn’t seen him in a long time. Probably because Dad had two unruly dogs. We sat watching the moose in silence so as not to startle it. Moose are deceptively dangerous out in the wild and have been known to stomp people to death. Suddenly, two hikers emerged on the trail, right in front of the moose. The hikers had hiking poles, short shorts and piles of gear strapped haphazardly to their backs. It looked like this might have been their first time hiking. Although, with Chris in his Converse All Stars, you could probably say the same about us. The two hikers pulled out a digital camera and started taking selfies and pictures of each other, oblivious to the moose. Luckily the moose didn’t seem to care about them for the moment. We started waving and pointing at the hikers, trying not to yell. They were dangerously close to the moose at this point, which was just on the other side of a tree. The hikers saw us and scowled, then continued to take pictures of each other. Finally, they finished their photo op and started walking up towards us. They hadn’t taken more than ten steps when one of them noticed the moose and shrieked. Luckily, the moose wasn’t feeling particularly threatened by these two dorks and sauntered off in the other direction. The hikers approached us. Dad said, “We were trying to warn you guys!”
“Oh!” one of them said, “We thought you were just making fun of us!”
The hikers continued up the trail. When they were out of earshot, Dad turned to the rest of us and said, “Well, we were. But still.”
After a bit, we packed up our gear and continued on our way. We made it to our first camp spot by about sunset that day. We set up the tent and made a fire pit. For dinner, Dad had packed us top ramen and canned tuna. Par for the course with him. We cracked open a few beers and played some cards around the fire. My friends and I were only 18 at the time, so the beers out in the forest made us feel especially rugged. We played a few games of cribbage, which was our family’s go to card game, then Dad started to regale us with some stories. This was always the best part of any of our camping trips. In fact, I would often get a little giddy once the fire was going and a few beers had been drunk, because I knew that Dad was about to do some reminiscing.
He told us a story about a time in college at Montana State University when he and his roommate, Dwayne, kidnapped his dormitory resident advisor, Sean, and drove two hours to Basin, Wyoming so they could party down there for the weekend. Apparently, they pounded on Sean’s door in the middle of the night, and Sean answered wrapped in just a sheet. They knew he liked to sleep in the nude. As soon as he answered the door, Dad and Dwayne grabbed him, wrapped the sheet tightly around him and dragged him out to the car. When they arrived in Basin, Sean had to borrow some clothes, otherwise he would have just been partying in a sheet all night. From what I gather, Sean got the short end of the stick in a lot of Dad’s old stories.
After a bunch more beers around the fire, we called it a night. Day one of the trip was in the books. So far, so good.
The next morning we were set to hike another three miles or so up to the saddle, where we would be meeting up with Jesse and his crew. We woke early, only mildly hung over, had a quick breakfast and packed up camp. As we were about to hit the trail, Dad told us that there were two really cool lakes that were off the path a bit, and said we should check them out before we got on the trail. They were called Powell Lakes. He said we could do some fishing up there for a bit and still be back on the trail and up to the saddle before sunset. Sounded like a good plan to us, so we veered off to the right of the main trail and started climbing up a steep grade to get to the Powell Lakes. It ended up taking us about two hours to reach them. They were surrounded by glaciers, so we had to climb up some large snowfields to get there, but Dad had been right, it was worth it; the lakes were absolutely pristine. They were surrounded by large boulder fields and fed by larger glaciers on the north shore. The water was so calm that it looked like the lakes were frozen solid. We walked down to the water's edge and sat down to take in the scenery. Dad pulled out his fishing pole and started rigging it up. He caught a trout on his first cast, so the rest of us joined him, casting lines into the glassy water.
We all caught a nice haul of fish and Dad started a fire and cooked them up for lunch. He served them using flat rocks for plates, which seems like something a trendy restaurant today might do to create a ’more natural’ dining experience. We lay around digesting by the water. Ant wondered aloud how cold the water was. Dad saw this as an opportunity.
“Why don’t you jump in and find out?” he asked Ant.
Ant responded with a definitive “No way.”
“Fine, then I’ll do it,” said Dad.
Before we even had a chance to call him on his bluff, Dad had climbed to the top of a large rock that overlooked the lake by about 15 feet. He stripped down to his tighty-whiteys and teetered on the edge of the rock. The rest of us were in shock. This guy is really going in! Dad let out a huge “WAHOOOO!” and jumped. He splashed through the water and resurfaced moments later, gasping for air. He doggie-paddled to the edge of that lake and sprawled out on a sunny rock. We all cheered for him.
“All right,” he said, “You guys next!”
The last thing I wanted to do was jump into water that I knew was going to be freezing cold. But Dad, at the time, was about 50 years old, and 18-year-old me could not be shown up like that by my own dad. Ant was the only other taker on Dad’s dare. Nicole and Patrick opted to spectate from the rocks where they were sitting, and Chris was off chasing butterflies in a small grassy patch. Soon enough, both Ant and I were in our underwear standing on the same rock Dad had leapt from moments earlier. We looked at each other and shook our heads, unable to believe we had been suckered into jumping into a freezing cold glacier-fed mountain lake sitting at about 9,000 feet above sea level, but here we were. We both let out a howl of our own and catapulted into the ice cold water. The air was immediately pushed from my lungs on impact. My body completely tensed up. It was like being punched on every inch of my skin at once. My head resurfaced, gasping for air and I convinced my limbs to frantically paddle me back to shore. I saw Ant next to me looking equally panicked. We scrambled up to the rock and Dad helped us out of the water. The warm air brought life back to our skin. We laid there for a good while, reheating.
“What’d ya think?” asked Dad with a wry smile.
He probably knew from the moment we’d detoured to Powell Lakes that he was going to get at least one of us to jump in.
“Feels good, right?” He responded for us, since we were still getting reacquainted with our motor skills.
He was right, it did feel pretty good after all. I felt like my body had hit a reset button. I hated to say it, but I was happy we had jumped in.
Once we all dried off, we made our way back to the main trail so we could get up to the saddle before it got too dark to hike. We slid off the glaciers surrounding the lake and touched down onto the boulders below, then we were back on the path down to the trail. By the time we had gotten to the main trail it was already close to sunset, and we still had three miles to go to get up to the saddle. We started hauling ass to try to get as far as we could while it was still daylight. The portion of the hike leading up to the saddle was absolutely beautiful. The mountains were closing in on us from the left and right, with Cloud Peak towering above us. It felt to me like we were walking through a forested slot canyon. We were halfway to our camp spot when the sun started to set over the mountains, dipping below the far side of the ridge. We passed a few other backpackers who were already tented up for the night. I was surprised to see anybody else out there, to be honest. We kept climbing, closer and closer to the saddle, which was now visible just up ahead of us. It was now too dark to see the trail without flashlights, so we put on our headlamps and fired them up. We continued on in the dark for another quarter mile or so until we finally reached the meeting point, right at the base of the ridge where you’d descend back down the north face of the mountain range. We looked around. Jesse and his crew were nowhere to be seen.
We pitched our tents and got a small fire going. We were high enough up in elevation that no trees could grow around us, so wood for the fire was scarce. Dad had another round of tuna ramen ready to go. We scarfed that down and then realized that we were out of dinner supplies. We still had two more days on the trip. Dad assured us it would be fine; we’d just have to catch fish for our dinner for the rest of the trip. Nicole and I exchanged skeptical glances; this sounded like a classic Dad mishap in the making. That’s when we noticed that Patrick had packed his own dinners. He had fancy dehydrated meals that included pasta, chili, pot roast, you name it. Patrick was not related to Dad’s side of the family, which explains why he came prepared for the hike. We started eyeing his dinner like a tribe of hungry cannibals assessing a fat American who had somehow wound up in Papua, New Guinea. We asked for a couple bites just to see if it was good or not, which he cautiously allowed. But, seeing our delight when we realized that the food was, in fact, delicious, Patrick scarfed down the rest before any of us had time to ask for more. Smart man. Once again, to combat the terrible tuna and noodle dinner, we drank, this time Jack Daniels. Once our pathetic fire had died out, we called it a night.
On day three of the hike, we awoke to another hangover. Fitting for Nicole, since this was her bachelorette party, after all. At 18, I was able to brush it off pretty easily. There was still no sign of Jesse, so we thought maybe the fishing was so good on the other side of the mountain that they had decided to stay over there an extra day. We decided to cross the saddle and start descending down the north face, figuring we’d probably meet them somewhere on the trail. We had about eight miles to our next camp spot, and another eight miles to go the following day, which would get us back to the truck that Jesse and company had left for us at the start of the north side trail. Once we had cleared the saddle, it was nice to be hiking downhill for a while. We were making good pace, and the new scenery on the north side was stunning. For some reason, though, there were more mosquitoes on this side. We had dealt with a few on the way up, but Dad had packed a big can of 100% DEET mosquito repellent, which did a good job of repelling bugs, but we had to endure borderline chemical burns on our skin as a trade off. We fired up the DEET on the north face and started making our way to Lake Solitude. It was a lake I’d heard Dad talk about a lot but had never been to myself.
One of Dad’s stories from Lake Solitude that had always stuck with me was the time they had accidentally lined their campsite with bear food. One August weekend, Dad, Uncle Larry, and some friends had packed in a camp to Lake Solitude to spend the weekend fishing and hiking around Cloud Peak. On the first night, they were cooking up some dinner and someone put a can of chili on the grill pan to cook over the fire. But they forgot to first cut a vent hole in the top of the can. They were sitting around the fire talking, waiting for the food to be ready when there was a huge explosion. The chili can had burst from the pressure and the heat of the contents inside, and they had now lined the trees around their camp with meat and beans. Delicious bear food. They all went to bed paranoid that a bear would come snooping around their camp, find the chili, realize that it was only an appetizer, and move on to the main course. Dad said he was fast asleep in his tent when he was awoken by the sound of tree branches breaking outside; the very sound that a bear makes when it’s climbing the trees. He grabbed a pistol and went outside, where he saw that it was no bear at all, but in fact it had started snowing so hard in the night that the weight of the snow was breaking branches off of the trees. In the middle of August. They ended up breaking camp the next day and hiking out in two feet of snow.
It was not snowing when we arrived at Lake Solitude, though it was late July, which apparently is a time when snow would have been possible. We took a break by the side of the lake and enjoyed the scenery on the new side of the mountain. The lake was beautiful; I could see why Dad and so many others enjoyed coming out to this lake in particular. Cloud Peak cast a shadow over the serene water. A small waterfall feeding into the lake on the north shore provided some soothing white noise while we lounged in the shade of the pine trees surrounding the lake. The only annoyance in this picturesque setting were the mosquitoes, which seemed slightly more aggressive on this side of the mountain. Dad pulled out more of his radioactive DEET and we all put on a new coat. I’m not sure if the mosquitoes were actually repelled by the spray, or if they all just died on contact from the fumes. Either way, it worked and we were able to enjoy the tranquility of Lake Solitude, distraction-free for the time being.
Eventually we packed up and continued along our path. Going downhill the whole time was great, we were making good pace. By afternoon, we’d made it about halfway to that night’s camp spot, where it would then be only another eight miles to the truck. We stopped on the trail to have a quick snack and reapply our DEET, since the mosquitoes were getting worse. Dad reached into his pack and pulled out the spray. As he began to apply some to his legs, the can suddenly sputtered out. Uh, oh. Empty. We’d managed to completely deplete our supply of DEET. Of course, that was our only can of repellant. We sat for a moment wondering what we could do, as the mosquitoes started to form a cloud around us. The only sound was the rhythmic slapping we made as we killed mosquitoes attempting to enjoy a meal. With no chemicals to protect us, our only option was to hike as fast as we could to try and outpace the mosquitoes. We started moving fast. We hauled ass down the trail, and it seemed to be working. I could see Dad ahead of me, borderline jogging down the trail. Behind him, a swarm of mosquitoes eagerly tailed him, trying to catch up to their lunch. I looked back and saw Nicole a few paces behind me with a raincloud of the bugs over her head. At this point, we were no longer stopping for landmarks or stories about the area, we had one goal: Get to the camp spot as fast as possible, or end up being sucked dry.
We made it to the camp spot in record time. We threw our pack down and tried to rest for a bit, but the constant high-pitched buzzing of mosquitoes in our ears kept us on edge. We went to bust out some snacks, but as it turned out, we were out of snacks, too. And we were going to have to catch dinner out of the lake that night. We weren’t thrilled. Plus we’d all have to cram into a tent until evening, since the mosquitoes made it impossible to stay outside. We had another eight miles to go before reaching the truck and it was still only mid-day. It didn’t take long for us to make the call. We were going to hike the rest of the way out, get to the truck, and drive back to the cabin. We asked Nicole if she was alright with ending her trip a day early, and she was fully onboard with the idea. Nothing sounded better than sleeping at the cabin that night. It had been all downhill hiking that day so we weren’t fully exhausted, but doubling our journey for the day was still going to take it out of us. We did some mental cheerleading, then repacked camp and started moving again. Once back on the trail, we flew down the path. Everyone was silent now, just focused on going forward and day-dreaming about a real meal that night, preferably with no canned tuna involved.
It was dark when we reached the truck. We were a haggard bunch as we limped into the parking lot, covered in mosquito bites and three days worth of dirt. Though Dad, Ant and I had jumped into the glacier water, so I guess that counted as a bath. Chris’s shoes looked like a pair of old rags taped to his feet. Converse All Stars, as it turns out, are not meant for 22-mile rugged mountain excursions. Nicole had so many bites, a passerby might have thought she had chicken pox. Everyone was sore. Dad searched around the truck and found the keys hidden under a tire. He started it up and we all climbed in. Except Chris and Ant. The truck only had four seats, so Dad, Nicole, Patrick and I sat in front while they rode in the bed with the packs for the two hour drive back to the cabin. We got onto the highway, with Dad driving, and began reminiscing about the last three days. Dad and Nicole were already planning our next trip to Powell Lakes. We would eventually make another trip with the same group the following summer to attempt to revisit Powell Lakes. That trip would be ill-fated, though, because both Chris and I got lost from the group, so we never actually made it back to the lakes. They found Chris, but I had to head back to the truck myself and wait for everyone to return. According to Nicole, it was the only time she had ever seen Dad actually nervous out in those mountains.
As we were driving back to the cabin, we realized that nobody would be waiting for us because we weren’t expected to return until the next day. The best part about going on long hikes around the cabin was that Gram would always have some kind of delicious dinner waiting for us when we returned. Realizing that wouldn’t happen after the longest day of hiking ever was gut-wrenching. We changed our plans and instead drove straight to town. Buffalo is pretty sparse when it comes to dining options, especially after 8 p.m. on a Sunday. We decided on Pizza Hut. After we’d spent the extra 30 minutes of the drive to town getting hyped about copious amounts of pizza, we pulled up to the building with some serious gusto. Our disheveled crew flung the doors of the restaurant open and a nervous hostess showed us to our seat. We ordered five pizzas. The hunger was in all our eyes. We looked like a pack of wolves waiting to dive into a fresh kill. Even though Pizza Hut is fast food, it still felt like the meal took forever to come out. So much so that Chris got up from the table, walked to the Hardee’s next door and ordered a double cheeseburger. He ate the whole thing in probably two bites while he walked back to the Pizza Hut. As soon as he got back, the pizzas came out and we devoured them all. It was a bloodbath. Toppings were flying across the table, cheese was hanging from the chandelier, the hostess was silently crying as she watched us. Even today, I look back at that as one of the best meals I have ever had in my life. The simple fact that we weren’t eating tuna and ramen was incredible. Once the feeding frenzy had ended and the pizzas were no more, we all slumped back in our chairs, ready to fall asleep right then and there.
After dinner we went to Gram’s house, where most of our family, who were in town for the wedding, was hanging out. Everyone was surprised we were back a day early, though not too surprised. They knew that with Dad leading the crew, we were bound to go off script. The next day at the cabin, Jesse and his party returned. It turned out that they had passed us on the main trail while we were up at Powell Lakes. Jesse and Nicole’s wedding was in two days, so we started preparing for that. The fact that she had planned a four-day backpacking trip that was supposed to end two days before her wedding is pretty wild. It shows just how much she loves being out in those mountains, just like Dad. Chris and Ant were now baptized to the Bighorn Mountains as well. I think, despite the ups and downs on the hike, they could see how much we still just enjoyed being out there. That all stemmed from Dad, of course. He always made sure to take any adventure we were on and try to bring it to the next level. That usually meant someone was jumping into some near-frozen glacier water somewhere. Because he did things like that, the memories of our trips are even more vivid in my mind. It feels easier to relive them, because it means I get to relive being with him too.