Thursday, September 8, 2011

That Lonely Road

Photo borrowed from here.

NOTE: Until the Uncharted story uploader is working again, I'll be posting stories here, then directing my readers to Uncharted for photos. Hopefully, this will be a short-lived solution.

The world is our Mandelbrot set; infinitely revealing, yet always concealing the wonders that lie within unless we’re willing to follow our noses and plunge into whatever seahorse valley we may find.

Seahorse Valley is a popular destination for those who explore the mathematical Mandelbrot. I don’t pretend to understand the mathematics, but I do understand the set’s beauty: Hidden within this graphical representation of numbers plugged into a simple mathematical formula lie endless swirls and whorls of detail that never stop no matter how close you get to them.

I felt the same as we drove US Highway 14 and 14A through Wyoming’s lonely Big Horn Mountains where, at any time, I could have stopped the car, left kith and kin behind, and wandered off into those mountains peppered with rock and pine, never to emerge again until I had explored it to the sand grain and pine needle.

There is simplicity in sand grain and pine needle. There is simplicity, too, in what’s called the Laramide orogeny, a period of time 70 to 80 million years in the past, when great plates of the earth’s crust slipping beneath the North American plate caused layer upon layer of sedimentary rock to uplift, forcing what is now the Rocky Mountains to rise. As those layers rose, they tilted, then broke, with their more jagged edges thrusting ever further into the sky if the rock were hard enough (think the granite of the Teton range) or tumbling to the earth in great landslides as the softer rock, exposed to weather, time, and gravity, succumbed.

That part of the Rocky Mountain Mandelbrot is the Big Horn Range, where jagged rocks tumble from the tops, where layers of rock lie exposed where man and nature have cut, and where bold outcroppings of rock thrust through the greenery, taking on the fantastical shapes of layered cakes and Muppets.

The Big Horns are a spur branch of the Rockies, broken off from the main thrust of mountains by the Big Horn basin. We drove through the mountains from east to west, climbing a spaghetti noodle road as our in-car GPS went through general distress as the road has been realigned since it was last programmed. The mountains thrust thousands of feet up from the surrounding basin, so the road necessarily curves and bends as we climb. Our passage, from one side of the mountains to the other, took three hours. Ideally, we should have spent a day there, exploring. Well, next time. We know where the mountains are now.

It’s a lonely road. In full summer, we saw a total of two other vehicles. There are easier ways around the mountains to Yellowstone National Park on the one side, the plains of Wyoming and the distant Black Hills of South Dakota on the other. You can take the interstate north into Montana, or state and US highways south in Wyoming. But something about that red squiggle on the map – and the small writing next to it (“Closed in Winter”) called out to us in the July heat. So climb we did. And it’s no gradual climb. From valley floor to tallest peak is over 8,000 feet, and we drove about half of that, swiftly – in less than twenty miles. So once in the mountains, you are in the mountains, following glacial valleys to the north and west as you go.

Glacier activity is evident everywhere, from the erratic boulders tumbled down the hillside to the scars scraped on the sides of the range’s many U-shaped valleys. What mountain bones lie exposed here not in the road cut are exposed by ice and water.

Fresh water. About halfway through the mountains, right to the side of the road, is a mountain spring someone has fitted with a pipe. The water is clear, cold, and mineral refreshing. We stopped at the spring for a few moments, drinking the water and reveling in the quiet of the surroundings. Not a car roared. A few birds whispered from the distant trees. Cool breezes blew off the still-present snow banks further up the mountains. Even our kids, normally a rowdy bunch, noted the quiet and added to it, whispering as they scampered around the spring.

We’ll come hiking here, when the kids are older. They love to hike, once they know what lies at the end of the trail. And I like the solitude of that lonely road, where the mountain man that lies deep within can fantasize about heading off into the wild to carve a life, until the softy without reminds him that winter isn’t all that far off. My inner mountain man doesn’t much like snow either.

Descending the other side of the mountain toward Lowell is as close to automobile rappelling as I want to be. The road hugs the mountainside, occasionally hiding in the folds so the distant basin floor below is invisible. But the road is long and near the cliffs and steep mountain slopes, urging caution. Belay is on as I drive cautiously down. Seahorse Valley lies somewhere below, waiting for me to come examine every gully, every break, every grain, every atom.

 More photos at here.

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