I slow down, as if I expect the missing truck to be ahead of me suddenly. I am delighted when I do approach a Jeep and an off-road vehicle, two tents, and the fading remnants of a campfire. I turn off my headlights, but leave the parking lights on to illuminate the area and the truck not pointed directly into the campsite. I turn off the engine, but before I can exit Daniel’s truck, a young man steps out from the closer tent.
He puts his hand up near his eyes as if the yellow glow is too much light for him to see. I expect he is just trying to make out my shape.
“Can I help you, sir?” he asks before he can possibly recognize the uniform. Of course, being in a private vehicle may be a bit deceptive.
“Perhaps you can,” I answer and he moves a step closer.
“Oh, sorry, ma’am.”
“No worries. But yes, I could use some help.” I approach the fire, so he knows I’m not interested in him at all, and to avoid an interaction like the one this summer. There’s not really anywhere to sit except one stump on which he rests his foot, and so I just hunker down opposite it.
“I’m looking for a vehicle that was supposed to be up this way over the weekend. How long have you been up here?”
“We’ve been back and forth from the Ranger Campground for about four days now. Haven’t been up here all the time, but we did camp here Saturday night. We’re leaving at sun up so we can break our other camp and get home tomorrow.”
“Any chance you saw a black Ford pick-up with Montana plates?”
“Yeah, we might have.”
“Is your friend awake?” About that time the other tent unzips and I see a second man buttoning the top button on his jeans. “Oh, hey there.”
“Ma’am.” While I appreciate the courtesy, I really would rather not be ma’amed. Why can’t people just address me as ‘ranger?’
“I was just telling your friend here that I’m looking for a black Ford with Montana plates. A father and son that would have been out here this weekend.”
“Oh, yeah, we saw them.”
My insides stir excitedly. “You did?”
“Yeah, they camped here Saturday night and left yesterday.”
“They left? Headed back up the road here?”
“No, they crossed Shell Creek, drove along the reservoir and headed farther into the mountains.”
“Did they say where they were going?”
“Not really, just that they were going to take a drive on their way out of the mountains. I mean, I presume they didn’t arrive from that direction, but like I said, we were up and back from our main camp, so I just assumed they turned around at some point and headed back out of the mountains while we were gone.”
I can’t believe I stumbled upon someone with an actual sighting. I wasn’t sure if I should radio Aaron and let him know or drive a little farther and see if I see anything.
The roads were dry, which made my drive a hell of a lot easier, but it also wouldn’t allow me many clues if the truck were somewhere up ahead and turned off the road. I would need to cross Shell Creek, which this time of year, was a fairly simple task, as long as I keep moving across and avoid any muddy spots. The time was still early enough that I could explore a little farther.
“Thank you, both. I appreciate your help.”
“Do you need us to join you?” The fact that the first man offers this reminds me that there are plenty of good people in my mountains.
“No, I don’t think there’s much you can do tonight, but can I ask one favor of you?”
“Sure,” he offers.
“Don’t crawl back into those tents until your campfire is fully extinguished.” I could probably site them, but the night was calm, and the fire nearly out. They may have even thought they extinguished it. I notice how chilly the night has gotten from not only last week, but earlier today, and I certainly can’t blame them for retreating to their tents rather than sitting here hoping for a bit of warmth from a single flicker from their campfire.
“Yes, ma’am,” he smiles, and I suspect they aren’t going to make sure the fire is out before calling it a night.
“Glad you guys were here tonight. Thanks for your help.” Despite the fire, they deserve my appreciation.
I return and restart the truck and once the engine turns over, I roll up the windows half way to help keep the heat inside, but still see out into the darkness. I turn the truck slightly, and dip into the creek before crossing the straightaway holding back the water. I’ve never gone farther than this when not on foot, so I am almost surprised when I am suddenly on a downward slope towards another body of water. It occurs to me this must be Adelaide Lake, and despite the lovely evening, I stop abruptly and opt not to take a swim, truck and all.
I back up slowly, realizing there’s a cabin hiding in the dark, and I use its approach to turn around and head back towards the fork in the road that I passed. This appears to be the dominant route, and given the structure I see, probably the more frequently used, but I retrace my drive and make a hard left at the previous junction.
Just a few feet down the road I see the dark openness of the lake, thankful that I am driving next to it, rather than into it. I continue to parallel a far longer straight stretch, curving a little, but guessing I’ve arrived at an alpine meadow give the lack of trees in the vicinity. Suddenly the road takes a sharp left of at least ninety degrees, and I remind myself to take it a little slower, skidding a bit as I turn. More curves follow and quite frankly, I’ve not certain even which direction I am headed now. I expect it wouldn’t be surprising to get turned around up here and not know from which direction the journey originated.
In places the road widens significantly, and I expect I might be headed towards a former logging camp. I’m always amazed at the operations and equipment that reaches these tight crevices. I even sometimes cringe as I pass between narrow trees or over questionably large rocks in the road. When faced with a choice similar to the last Y in the road, I usually take the natural curve, and yet those big trucks find their way into these nooks of the forest.
Another small lake to my left, one that I don’t know, and can’t see other than more darkness, leads me to believe I’ve driven around Adelaide Lake, until I see a few trees on its opposite side. The road becomes so rocky through this stretch, I am driving only a few miles per hour and realize another nearby road appears wider, but just pointing my lights towards it, I can see far more boulders than I am willing to tackle. I stay as close to the center of the road as possible, knowing it’s really more of a broad path given its condition, until I reach a cluster of rocks that I just don’t want to traverse.
Perhaps this is my stopping point. I leave the engine running and lights on, but grab a flash light and shine it to see if there are any alternatives that could be less rocky.
As I walk around the side of the trail, I suddenly lose my footing, fall onto my palms, pressing against one of the larger rocks and a sharp pain grabs at my ankle.
“No, fuck!” I yell into the dark abyss of the Wyoming night.
“Is someone there?” A voice calls towards me, soft and distant, but the sounds carry a bit further in this still, dry night.