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.
* * *
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
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
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 nobody on Earth knew
where I was or even what state I was in. I was a good day's walk to
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. …