Our National Parks Odyssey: Into The Winds
This is the fifth of an ongoing series about Red River Pro Andrew Slaton and his wife Ellen who, along with two dogs, Islay and Skye and Colonel Bubba, the cat, left the comforts of Dallas to hit the road full time in a travel trailer, with the goal of photographing all 59 U. S. National Parks. This is a continuation of Part 4 which ran in the previous post.—
By Andrew Slaton–
We meandered down the Gulf Coast chasing blue water and warm days. Florida is a luxury because camping is expensive and there’s not much public land on which to boondock for free. We’ve learned to fully appreciate the financial reprieves a freelance lifestyle has to offer. It truly is feast or famine in this job and when we get a financial break, we take advantage of it.
So after soaking up the sun, we headed to North Carolina before spending a month in the Pacific Northwest. We explored the National Parks of Washington and Oregon for the whole month of June. Then we were drawn back to Wyoming where we planned our next adventure: Into the Winds.
Nearly 15 years ago on Valentines Day, I rolled into Pinedale, WY on frozen streets. Who knew I would fall head over heels for this area at the time? But I did. In spite of the minus 40 degree winter weather. It was my first “real” job after college, working for a small weekly newspaper at the foot of the Wind River Range. It didn’t take long before I met and interviewed a guy in town who had just come back from a pack trip spanning the entire 100-mile long trek. I became obsessed with the idea of doing it.
Fast forward 10 or so years, and Ellen and I began seriously discussing the project we were now calling “Into The Winds.” A journey through some of the lower 48’s most spectacular wilderness trails.
Life on the road has created opportunities for us that were before only obstacles. In this case, the fact that we tend to base ourselves at the foot of the Winds most summers buried one of our biggest obstacles right away– we knew the terrain. Likewise, we are in the best shape of our lives because of our healthy lifestyle of eating clean and hiking almost daily.
So in 2018, everything came together to make our Wind River traverse a reality. We set off on a bright, warm day from Big Sandy, a trailhead at the southern end of the range. It was late August. The night before brought freezing temps and snow to the mountains, so we were prepared for the worst.
Remarkably, the weather would hold steady for us the entire 12 days. However, on day two, I fell, landing face first on my camera, cutting my lip wide open, and worse, severely bruising my shin. So from then on, only 16 miles into our 96 mile trek, I was in pain every step of the way. Until day six, I was fearful I might have to bail out on the whole trip.
But the adventure was going wonderfully. We were averaging 8-10 miles a day and seeing incredible country. The girls (our two Aussie dogs) were having a blast, and Ellen was feeling her best ever. Colonel Bubba, our cat, wasn’t a hiker so friends looked after him while we were gone.
When we weren’t hiking, we spent our days at camp watching the clouds pass, listening to the wind through the trees, and playing fetch in the myriad of lakes with the dogs. It was idyllic.
Day six was resupply day. And just in case you were wondering, carrying 12 days worth of food and supplies is nearly impossible, unless you are an ultra-light hiker, which we are not. So we split up the supplies into manageable six-day rations.
The day before we set off, we drove to a trailhead that led to a midpoint in our trek and then made an 11 mile round trip hike from there to drop supplies at our proposed day-six camp. We hung our rations high in a lodge pole pine to keep critters away from it, before driving back to our starting point.
Doing a long trek like this gave us a window into the joy one feels on a resupply day. We were especially giddy as our best friends in Wyoming were planning to ride their horses in from that same trailhead to meet us. We were excited to see them and they brought along some fresh new pantry food to supplement our trail grub.
We gorged and laughed with our friends all afternoon, smelly as we were. It was a real treat. In the evening light, our friends saddled up and headed back to town. Happy and with full stomachs, Ellen and I repacked and hit the trail again. We were energized from all of the calories and conversation, but our packs were the heaviest they’d been that entire week. And we still had 50 miles to go.
I had resolved that we were going to finish this hike together come hell or high water. My shin would get to feeling a little better every morning, but by the end of a 10 mile day, it felt as bad as on day two. We rationed the Ibuprofen so I could sleep, and made the decision to keep pressing on. Thankfully, I had peppered in a few “day hike/ rest days” into the 12-day trek.
As we continued, we reached the high country. Towering spines of granite surrounded us, majestic and mighty. I spent my mornings and evenings wandering and photographing, not far from camp– just enough to change my perspective of the gray monoliths and reflective lakes. The clouds passed overhead without notice of us or our affairs. With each passing day, it was getting a little cooler. The mornings brought dew, and then ice to our tent and packs. The willows were fading from bright green to golden yellow.
One of the main things I took away from this trip is that I’m not getting any younger. With each passing day, it is of utmost importance that I take great care of myself. Gone are the days of eating junk and somehow still feeling great. Gone are the days of taking a fall, and simply brushing myself off as if it were nothing.
I’m certainly not old by most standards, but as I approach 40, I’m realizing that the lifestyle I love will take more and more work to maintain. As someone who is always up for a challenge, I welcome this new realization.
We arrived at the Green River Lakes trailhead, where our truck had been delivered by friends just days before. We were relieved to be done, but in a strange way, a little sad that it was over. A decade and a half of planning paid off, but it was suddenly cashed in. The reward was knowing we could do something this grand and exciting, and that made us both happy and proud.
We will be doing this again. And other treks like it. No matter how many years we have under our belts. Aches and pains will come and go, but there are few experiences like waking up to a fresh dawn in the backcountry of the mountains. And that’s worth all the struggle and work.
About Andrew Slaton
Andrew Slaton is an award-winning photographer who has done assignments for more than 50 clients and specializes in lifestyle and outdoor images.
You can help Andrew and Ellen achieve their goal by adding one or more of Andrew’s beautiful prints to your collection. You can also subscribe to a collector’s edition of prints from each of the 59 National Parks he plans to photograph.
Visit Andrew’s web site, view his work, learn about upcoming workshops (the next will be December 7-10 2018 at Big Bend National Park in Texas) and order prints here.
Catch Andrew and Ellen’s YouTube videos here.