by Pamela Domash, ’05
In the foothills of Wyoming, the mountains are low lying and rugged and the rocky terrain bears little resemblance to the lush vegetation, vast forests and snowcapped peaks of the Teton Range further west.
But a short side trip, at least by Wyoming standards, will take you off the main thoroughfare to the Tetons and Yellowstone and instead lead to the big gray lump they call Independence Rock State Historic Site. A major landmark for wagon trains heading down the Oregon Trail, it is, like many stopping points on the long journey from the east side of the Mississippi to the Rockies, of more historical interest than scenic beauty. There are names and dates over one hundred and fifty years old that will interest any history buff, and for kicks, you can still climb the thing. Climbing might not really be the right word for something that doesn’t require gear or even permission to scramble up, but even the easiest tasks can be difficult for some of us.
I was previously at Independence Rock in August and now it’s December. There’s half a foot of snow on the ground and when the temperature is in the teens and the New Year is around the corner, everyone is sending out emails with surveys reflecting on the last year, and people are pulling out dusty New Year’s Resolutions of goals they’ve forgotten. Lose thirty pounds, write a novel, climb a mountain, run a marathon, bicycle across the continental United States, prove that the dodo isn’t extinct! Things that I’m not sure anyone ever really follows through upon. Resolutions aren’t plans, just vague goals for the future, usually lofty and nearing impossible for most. I don’t really make resolutions though, just general ideas of things I want to do at some point. Getting up to the top of Independence Rock has been one of them for a while.
The first time I went to Independence Rock I was in high school and I wanted to climb it. We were short on time, however, so I trotted up about fifteen feet and said the next time would work. Of course, with age comes wisdom, at least as I see it, and I rapidly grew wise as to the dangers that lay in heights… err, falling. Sometimes, no matter how many times you rationally tell yourself that if you slipped on Independence Rock you would simply roll to the bottom uninjured, it doesn’t help. My shoes were slipping as I started to go up and I really had no desire to slide the entire way down. It might not kill me but I was fairly certain it would hurt just the same. But abandoning my ‘summit attempt’ was a frustrating experience, one that left me with renewed vigor to try again. It made me understand why people who lose all their limbs in a shark attack keep surfing or those who fall off climbs and puncture lungs and break their backs go back and try again. No one likes to lose.
I’m not saying I haven’t done harder things, because I’m sure I have. I’ve hiked dozens of miles in a day, crawled for miles through caves, and even climbed my share… indoors. Years ago. Unfortunately, what amounts to walking up a big, not exceptionally steep rock isn’t something you can really practice for. You have to just go and… go up. This year, I followed my brother up it with determination to finish, but to afraid to just, well, walk up like he was doing because traction still seemed non-existent, at least for me.
Once we got halfway up and paused to ponder the easiest way of getting to the top, I suddenly felt better about everything. My mother was a small figure at the bottom of the rock, and the ground was pretty far away, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t going anywhere. It got tricky crossing one narrow and fairly steep region, but tricky doesn’t mean hard or dangerous and I got across carefully and didn’t stop to think about what I was doing until I got on the top.
And once I was there the world was everywhere. Mountains seeming no taller than I, with endless valleys, the narrow gray ribbon of highway curving into the horizon, and the huge expanse of grey stone stretching everywhere. No wonder people climb. We walked around, seeing what the highest bump was. Somehow I forgot to look for the pioneer names that were supposed to still be there. Maybe next time. We headed back down too soon, and I had plenty of time to think as I slowly made my way down. For a lack of better words, I won, although I think my brother would see it more as a shameful display of wussiness. Sometimes you can’t do things until you try, and sometimes you can’t plan when they’ll happen. Climbing Independence Rock wasn’t one of my resolutions, (maybe climbing Everest was, though I don’t quite remember), but sometimes the best achievements are the most unexpected.
Perhaps next year, then, it’s time to tackle the next step in something I have been previously unable to do. I think I’ll save El Capitan for another decade, though…