Voices from the river

Voices from the River: The drive

By Chris Hunt

There’s a stretch of the drive between my home in Idaho Falls and my former home in Colorado that often lulls me into a state of semi-consciousness—a state of being where driving becomes the innate foundation of my psyche while the rest of my mind wanders off into the mountains.

Starting just south of Boulder, Wyo., U.S. Highway 191 slices through sagebrush sea for about a 100 miles to Rock Springs. For much of the drive, the Wind River Range seductively bursts from the desert floor off to the east, and, now and then, you can see the tops of the less-dramatic (but no less wild) Wyoming Range off to the west. These are trouty mountains, home to wild fish with wild hearts that might see only a handful of flies a summer, if that.

These hidden creeks are where my mind retreats when bigger challenges spur drives south and again, when the urge to truly be “home” requires a hasty retreat north from the Front Range. In all honestly, it’s not a horrible drive, save for one 200-mile stretch across the wind-whipped prairie of southern Wyoming. Interstate 80—any time of year—ought to be declared a disaster zone. I’m convinced that more signs warning motorists of likely 70-mile-per-hour wind gusts were once erected along this asphalt ribbon of doom, only to be callously blown away and hidden by the pinkish-orange dirt of the Red Desert.

This is the stretch that requires two cups of coffee and nerves of steel. Being boxed in among three semis hauling doubles at a solid 75 during a January ground blizzard can turn anyone’s guts to soup. So my mind doesn’t wander much here, other than to wonder why the big refinery at Sinclair wasn’t configured to harness the gas it burns off in the winter night sky.

But once I clear this stretch heading north, or before I hit Rock Springs going south, my mind is no longer my own. The troubles of the day—like a little brother ravaged by ALS lying in a Denver hospital bed on a breathing machine—disappear for a bit. I wonder where roads marked by BLM signs pointing the way to public lands access points really go in this parched landscape where wind and precious water are stubbornly resisted by pronghorns and hard-scrabble cattle.

Looking west, I vow to one day poke into lonely canyons in the Winds with nothing but a box of dry flies and a 3-weight. To the east, the mountains are more familiar—this is the Wyoming Range that I had a small hand in protecting a decade ago from future oil and gas incursions. It’s the headwaters of three great rivers—the Columbia, the Colorado and the Bear, and I know what fishy treasures lie in wait. I can’t wait to go back.

Years ago, when prices for oil and gas were higher, the night-time landscape was riddled with drilling rig dereks. There are still a few drillers out there now, fracking and speculating and stockpiling for the next boom, should it come. There are lonely two-tracks, cut from the dusty earth, that lead God-knows-where. Maybe one day, I’ll find out. Maybe a couple lead off into the mountains and put me close to trout water, where troubles truly do cease to exist.

Sometimes, I’ll pull off at the roadside table near Eden and stretch my legs. But most times, I just drive, as if that’s what this road is best suited for. Just keeping the rig between the lines is a simple skill acquired after decades spent driving. Letting go of the troubles that weigh down the mind and finding respite in the company of imaginary trout streams … that takes more practice.

And then, despite the press to get where I’m eventually headed, this stretch comes to a regrettable end. Heading south, I can see I-80 and its highway trains from miles away. Heading north, speed-limit signs slow me down as I approach Boulder and, eventually Pinedale, and it’s time to focus. In the evenings, mule deer graze right next to white stripe on the highway, and they’ll inexplicably step in front vehicles driven by unsuspecting drivers as if they’re playing a real-life game of Frogger… and playing it poorly.

Troubles return. I need to winterize the camper and blow out the sprinklers before a really hard freeze. Did the milk in the fridge turn while I was gone this past week? Did I make that credit card payment, or was I just imagining it? How was school last week for my son? I wonder how my brother’s doing? Boy, the Broncos sure laid an egg Monday night—their offensive line is just that.

I can’t let my mind drift among cold water all the time. But sometimes, for sanity’s sake, this lonely stretch of highway lies in wait.

Chris Hunt is the national digital director for Trout Media. He lives and works in Idaho Falls.

By Chris Hunt.