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wanted: women, aged 20-30

BG, one of Bob’s female friends, thought I was crazy to go. A six-day trip, in the backcountry, with three 40+ men I barely knew? I’ll admit I had my doubts.

Lou, the trip organizer, is a local antiques dealer with whom I’ve become acquainted over the summer. The other two, Joe and Tom, are friends of his from way back. The trip is an annual one for them. For the last twelve years running, they (and sometimes other friends) spend the last week in August tramping, fishing, or otherwise enjoying the great, Wyoming outdoors. My invitation was rather more spontaneous. I was standing in line at the grocery store in front of Lou and Tom as they bought a few last minute supplies.
“How’s it going, Lou? What are you up to this week?”
“Hey, Susan, not too bad. Getting ready to head up into the mountains for a few days, up into the Winds, maybe up to the divide. Want to come?”

Experience has taught me to jump with both feet forward; that “yes” is almost always the right answer; that “why not?” can be a way of life. Still, I had to pause before responding to Lou’s invitation. Trust has been a much harder thing to cultivate since I’ve returned to the States. Ours is a culture of suspicion, and it took less than two weeks at home before I was reeled back in. That night, I considered the invitation, worst-case scenarios flitting through my mind. Little, bright red warning flags waved frantically, but I wanted to go. I recalled having similar qualms back in May when I was packing to move in with Bob for the summer: can I trust this man? At the time, a good friend asked me to consider the situation in terms of my experiences in NZ. If I was in NZ, would I be worried? No. So why am I concerned now? Is an American somehow more likely to be dishonest and out to take advantage of me? No. I took her advice, took a deep breath, and I’ve had a great summer. I decided to apply the same thinking to this hiking trip. I packed an extra knife, put on my best “Not a Victim” face, and on Saturday evening strolled into Lou’s house with my shoulders squared and the hopeful conviction that all would be well. Trust inspires trustworthy behavior, I thought. I shook hands with Joe and Tom as we were introduced, firmly, and with confidence. You do not intend me harm, I told them silently.

Sunday morning. We drove an hour east of Dubois, entered the Wind River Indian Reservation, and then rattled along for another hour on a narrow, steep, dirt road that was studded with rocks that seemed intent on gouging out the bottom of Lou’s van. Ruby the yellow Labrador stood with her forelegs on the console between the front seats, trying to keep her balance and watch the road at the same time. At the trailhead, Lou distributed bags of food, carefully doling out equal weights. Except for me, that is. I got the dried bags of pasta and the granola bars: the lightweight stuff. I frowned, but quietly packed away my share. How are they to know that I carried forty-five pounds for ten days through the Fiordland wilderness? The men swing their packs onto their backs, and I begin to do the same, but suddenly Lou is there behind me, lifting my pack off the ground for me. He’s trying to be helpful, but it’s far more awkward this way.

We have an easy afternoon to start. It’s three and a half miles to Twin Lakes, where we set up camp on a wide, rock ledge overlooking the two lakes. There’s a deep rift in the rocks between the lakes where water flows from one lake down to the next, and the sound of the rushing cataract is an excellent soundtrack to our first night. Marinated pork tenderloin and pasta cook slowly on the open fire while Joe plies the water of the calm lower lake with his fly rod. I wander about with my camera and Tom and Lou bathe discretely behind a piney outcrop. Later, we eat, and watch the sun go down. The guys tell me that they’re pleased to have me along: “12 years, and we finally get a woman to come!” It takes a while for the group dynamic to gel, however. I can see my uncertainties reflected in their eyes. Where I worry about harrassment, they worry about having to carry my pack or having to listen to complaints about dirt, blisters, and food. They say it’s not specifically a “boy’s trip”, but I see them wondering if this means they won’t be able to swear and burp and tell dirty jokes. Their instincts tend toward gallantry; mine keep me distrustful. As we bed down for the night, the sky threatens rain, and Lou tells me that I’m welcome to “platonically” share his tent if it starts to pour. I thank him politely, thinking privately that it will take something close to a hurricane to make me feel comfortable about crawling in next to him.

Day two and three pass without incident. The terrain of the Wind River range is stunning. With each foot of elevation gained, the views become progressively more spectacular. Lofty peaks, crashing streams, and pristine pools. There’s even a beach at the end of one lake! Tom and I can’t resist climbing down the rough, cliffy drop to walk barefoot on the coarse, yellow sand. This is heaven. We reach our base camp destination, Lake Solitude, elevation 10,800 feet. It is a breathtaking spot, as far west as a person can walk before coming up against the wall of the continental divide. The weather has been fantastic. We can’t believe our luck: nothing but sunshine, blue skies, and warm nights. I’ve slept outside every night, within shouting distance, but out of sight of the men. On the 27th, I lay in my sleeping bag and stared at the sky as the shadow of the earth slowly eclipsed the moon and turned it dark orange. The men have warmed to me, and I to them, and every night we cook together, drink camp margaritas (powdered lemon Gatorade, tequila, and sliced limes), share stories, and argue over who has to get water to wash dishes. We tease and harass each other with careless impunity, and I laugh like I haven’t in a while.

Chivalry is still looms large. Lou, in particular, seems incapable of believing that I am competent enough to take care of myself. We have to cross a river, and I actually have to argue with him to be allowed to carry my own pack across. I endure a number of instructional sessions on fire building, trail finding, and pack adjusting. It’s not that I think I know it all, or that I can’t appreciate a helping hand, but I resent the unspoken assumption that because I am young and female, I need someone to take care of me. I get along more easily with Joe and Tom. I earned their admiration on day three when they caught sight of the quarter-sized blister I’d been nursing without complaint since day one. After that, they treated me with easy-going respect, as an equal. I’m pleased to be able to upset their stereotypes of women in the backcountry, and even more pleased to see my own concerns made ridiculous. These are good guys. There is, however, a distinct element of pursuit in our trip, a subtle wooing, an unmistakable flirtation. I am young, healthy, and single. They are older, divorced, and incapable of hiding their interest. It’s a scenario I’ve experienced and witnessed on countless occasions throughout my travels: the attraction of older men to younger women. Between Tom, Joe, Lou, and me, the immediate attraction is sexual; as the days progress, their interest changes. “I envy you, what you’re doing with your twenties,” Lou tells me. “It’s taken me to my forties, and now I’m ready to start over again and do like you.” Tom says my stories of backpacking and living out of a car remind him of his own youth: “I love your spirit, how adventurous you are.”

Summit day! From Lake Solitude we climb 1,000 feet to the continental divide, then haul ourselves through the thin air, up another 500 feet to the top of Mt. Kavageah (which may or may not be the correct name). I lag behind, constantly stopping to gawk at the view. Mountains! I am in awe, in my element. Following the men, I range in and out of hearing distance. All morning, they’ve been talking about potential business opportunities. Cash flow, real estate, interest rates, and locations. I can’t relate. Even as we reach the peak, they’re still weighing the pros and cons. I smile. This is hiking with 40-year-old men: not lewd suggestions, not salacious winks or outright aggression. Instead they discuss remodeling plans for houses, disputes with neighbors, and investment strategies, topics considered from the perspective of three men on the brink of middle age, looking for something to lend a little bit of spice to their lives. It occurs to me that this has been the theme of my summer: older men. An entire summer of feeling young, inexperienced, naïve and slightly off-balance. Constantly negotiating the questionable waters of male-female interactions, from staving off (or simply fearing) sexual advances, to fighting to prove my physical and mental capabilities, to trying to be a good listener for a recent divorcee. How wonderful it will be to spend time with women. To seriously discuss the mid-twenties growing pains with friends who understand rather than to nod politely at the concerns of men undergoing a mid-forties crisis.

After achieving the peak of Mt. Kavageah, and spending a second night on the shore of Lake Solitude, the four of us make our way back to our camp of the first night. Twin Lakes, the return. It is a hot, dusty afternoon when we arrive, and I announce that I’m going to swim to the island. “It’s just begging to be swum to,” I declare, dropping my pack and moving toward the shore before I can cool down or change my mind. “Better you than me!” Joe calls. I can hear them behind me having their doubts. It’s about thirty yards away, and the water is chilly. Still, I try to breathe rhythmically and keep my body moving, keep the blood pumping. Halfway there, I wonder if this is a mistake. Even when I reach the island, I will have to swim back. Have I, in my determination to step foot on that island, made a bad call? I’ve survived for two years on instincts and stubborn determination. I’ve willfully ignored the dangerous undercurrents of human interaction like I’ve chosen to disregard the substantial distance from the shore to the island. I keep swimming. Too late to turn around now. Five minutes later, I pull myself onto the rocks of the island, and hear the men cheering distantly. I grin to myself and wave victoriously in their direction. I’m winded, and cold, but I made it, with energy to spare for the return. Sheer guts and luck, I’m sure, have a limited capacity. But not today. This trip, these six days, has hit the recharge button on my trust. And when I make back to the main shore, I’m going to sit in the sun and drink the cup of hot tea that Lou has promised to have waiting, and enjoy the easy camaraderie of four hiking companions around the campfire next to a lake in Wyoming.

Trip photos here!

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