That night, I found myself in the mountains outside of Laramie on a lonely little lake under Browns Peak.
The dorm parking lot was already empty by the time I’d packed my backpack and fly rod and made it out to the car. Weekends at the University of Wyoming were lonely affairs—most of the people in the “non-traditional student” dorm, grad students and older students like me, went home on the weekends. I found myself wandering the halls or the streets of town without much to do. It was easier to be alone outside than in my room. There was only so much I could read and write.
I wanted to disappear but didn’t feel the need to go far. In that stretch of mountains west of town, I was unlikely to see anyone if I got more than a quarter mile from the road. Besides, tourist season had ended and there were few people up there anyway.
So, I lit out for the Snowies, a place where I knew I could find space and where I could fill my time trying to pull skinny trout out of knuckly little creeks. The drive was almost always impressive. The two-lane took me through the grasslands and foothills and mesas until the road rose into the foot of the peaks.
The road roamed up through the tiny settlement of Centennial and over a hump of a ridge and into the steep and narrow defiles of the Snowy Mountains. Toward the top of the pass, I turned on the Brooklyn Lake road and drove through the pines and between little pot lakes that usually dried up in the summer. This year, though, the rain had been plentiful enough to keep those depressions in water.
I parked at Brooklyn Lake, a large glacial lake. In the campground, only two sites were taken and no one was around but one guy in a belly boat on the lake. He was having a hell of a time. Trout were hitting the top of the water and jumping for mosquitoes. The guy was pulling in lake trout one after the other.
The wind sighed in the trees but other than that there was no sound. I stood in the quiet a moment, thinking about my options. I could hike the two miles up to the Twin Lakes, where I had overnighted before. But the week had worn me out. I had been to those lakes several times and was in for a change of scenery. A friend of mine at the University told me of a trail just on the other side of the lake that led up to the Telephone Lakes on the other side of Browns Peak.
The day was cloudy but it didn’t threaten rain. Donning my pack, I hiked about a half mile around the lake and found a trail the followed a little creek. It busted down through the little bit of woods growing there between boulder fields left from the retreat of the glacier. I followed the creek and came out of the woods on a flat that looked like the surface of the moon. Gray-white rocks and boulders tumbled down from the glacier run below the peak.
It was about as lonely a site as I would find, I thought. No one’s coming up here.
I found a grassy hummock in the boulder field next to a little lake. On the other side was a cliff with a crease in it from which drained water off the snow fields above. Pitching the tent and settling my pack, I took the fly rod and tried to lure some fish out of that lake. I knew there had to be fish in there. The Forest Service stocked Brooklyn Lake, which was one of the feeders for the Laramie River. The creek I had followed was big enough to let the rainbows and brookies to pass.
Sure enough, almost as soon as I cast, the surface of the lake erupted in rings and splashes. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t land one and after an hour gave it up. I turned my attention to the evening.
There was just enough scrub up there to leave some deadwood. I gathered enough to fuel a small fire until after the sun went down. Splintering some old sagebrush with my knife, I made enough kindling to get the bigger loblolly pine boughs and branches to catch. The fire smelled of pine resin.
The day had begun to cool now that sunset was near and a wind brushed down Browns Peak that was cold and had the smell of winter in it. I pulled on my sweater and parka and sat down next to the fire with my notebook. I soon got used to the sound of the water falling down the cliff and hardly noticed it. I figured I’d write a little and get dinner together. In the morning, I would try my luck a while in the little lake and then fish the creek back down to Brooklyn Lake.
When I took up my pen, I thought about my situation. I was 29 and in grad school. My baby girl was hardly six months old and back with her unmarried mother in Kansas City. Was it right for me to be off at school? How was this going to work? I might have a history degree at the end of this experiment, but even I knew that historians weren’t in great demand. How would I provide for my daughter? Her mom and I weren’t married and even at that moment I sensed that we never would be. I was only a year sober and still experiencing life and emotions as a child. How was I going to lead, be a role model, and be a father?
As I wrote, night fell around me. The moon was coming up over the pines below me. I fed the fire and walked down to the lake to wash my pan and fork and draw water for the rest of the night. The lake was mirror smooth except for where the water falling down the cliff ruffled it. It was purple and orange in the dusk.
I sat by the fire and smoked a while before the fatigue of the week settled on me. Crawling into my tent, I pulled the sleeping bag around me and fell into a deep sleep.
Sometime during the night, the water stopped falling into the lake and the absence of that sound woke me up. At first I was puzzled but when I went to have a swallow from my bottle, I had to break ice from the lid. The snow had stopped melting, cutting off the falls.
I tossed a while, feelings of guilt and shame beating me up. I decided I’d get out and see the night.
I stood shivering outside the tent. The wind had died. The moon was out full and set the gray-white rocks and rubble alight. I pulled on my boots but didn’t lace them. I climbed down to the edge of the lake. It looked lit from within.
I didn’t move. I listened, and hearing nothing, stayed to listen some more. I bent over and put my hands in the lake where ice had formed a thin skein near the rocky shore.
If I could do this—school, dad, work, hike, fish, plumb my insides—I could do just about anything. For the first time since I’d come to Laramie, I felt just all right.