Despite planning our trip for a month, we still had no idea where we were going. One option involved speeding west to Salt Lake City, Utah to see Bon Iver in two days, and then heading up the coast to Oregon. Our issues with this plan were that we’d have to make the drive in two days, and the Bon Iver show was a free Saturday performance at a down town park. Free park shows always stink because anyone shows up, regardless of who is playing. A few years back I watched Public Enemy at a park in Austin surrounded by hippies and baby strollers.
Our second option would be to stay in Colorado five days and seeing Bon Iver in Boulder. This option was weak because we’d already planned to meet our college friend Tony Nath in Denver for the last week of our trip. Although it is a state where mountains and breweries are bountiful, I didn’t want to spend 50% of our trip there when Oregon called our names.
Our final option would be to miss Bon Iver altogether, heading North through Wyoming, stopping in Montana, swinging down through Idaho, and finally reaching the promise land: Oregon. It would be our own version of Oregon trail, minus all the snowstorms and cholera. The weakness with this choice would be the lack of live shows until reaching Oregon, almost a week and a half away. Plus, my anticipation for Portland brews and ocean air would be placed on the back-burner.
Before making a decision, one thing was clear – we needed supplies: hiking gear, packs, and a tent. As we ventured across Wyoming, we spotted an Outdoor Expo Outlet along the highway and decided to stop and take care of the Rivendell portion of our trip in one fell swoop.
Unfortunately, the outlet store stunk. They only sold Hobbit sized packs, and their tents were over-priced. As we walked out of the store, murky skies greeted us once again. More storms were ahead. Without a tent, where would we stay for the night?
Not a problem. A year earlier we stayed in a cave outside of Laramie, so we decided we would stay there again for the night. The only complication would be finding the cave within Vedavoo State Park, and to make matters worse, the storm clouds were quickly attacking the remaining sunlight.
After a quick stop at a grocery store for hot dogs and soup, Paul drove us up a gravel road that led us up to the park. Once out of the car and roaming through the rocky terrain, we were somewhat lost, uncertain where we camped the year earlier.
“Maybe we can just stay in a separate inlet,” Paul suggested. But as we ventured further into the park, my memory of the area popped in my head like a flash bulb.
“I know where we stayed,” I said with confidence, walking ahead.
“Lead the way,” Paul responded. I knew he doubted me, and why wouldn’t he? My sense of direction is despicable. It’s so bad that while working as a sports writer at my hometown newspaper, I once got lost driving back from Armstrong, a small town less then 20 miles west of where I lived for 20 years of my life. When I reached the Minnesota border I realized I’d made a wrong turn.
Then it hit me. “It’s over here,” I announced, turning left and heading straight into a patch of tall grass surrounded by tall rock walls.
As I headed up the corridor of rock, Paul called after me, “Are you sure?” Ignoring his question, I ventured on, climbing a familiar incline. At its peak I looked down to see a stack of fire wood sitting upon a rock. Instantly I knew it was our wood pile, created only a year earlier during our first stay in the cave.
“Paul, this is it!” I shouted, my voice echoing out toward Paul and the rest of the Wyoming countryside. When he finally arrived, he couldn’t believe that I’d found our one time humble abode.
Although we had left a bundle of sticks the year before, Paul decided we needed more wood to cook up our hotdogs and keep us warm for the night. After a quick jaunt around the area, our pile had doubled. Soon after Paul had our first fire of the trip stoked. We cooked up a couple dogs, chowed down, enjoying our uniquely familiar surroundings.
Eventually, with the fire dying down and the cold settling in, we bundled up in our sleeping bags and went to bed. Despite my drowsiness, I couldn’t get to sleep with a chill in the air and a rugged rock floor beneath me. Yes, I was back in the wild.
The next morning I awoke to find Paul already up, standing on a giant blouder, rolling up his sleeping bag. “Hey Ocean Man, let’s get going,” he said looking down. I threw him my sleeping bag, then struggled to stand, cramped and sore from my bed of stone. Knees creaking, muscles aching, I felt older than ever. Maybe 30 year olds aren’t supposed to sleep in caves.
By the time I got my weary bones moving, Paul arrived with a breakfast comprised of homemade power bars. I forced mine down with a smile, cringing at the thought that I was eating a mixture of oats, nuts, and mouse droppings.
Once packed up, we headed to Cheyenne in hopes of having better luck with gear shopping. We would decide our trip plans from there. Once in Cheyenne, we drove around lost for a bit in search of a Sports Authority or Scheels. As we drove, Paul noticed a pattern. Every bar (and I mean EVERY bar) had a Crown Royal banner hanging out front. We even spotted a couple Crown Royal billboards, something I’ve never even seen in the alcoholic city of San Antonio. We contemplated why Crown Royal was so popular in this mountain town. Did they make Crown in Cheyenne? Was it the whiskey drinking cowboy population? And if so, wouldn’t you think they’d prefer a more rustic whisky like Jack Daniels or Jim Beam?
Continuing up Crown Royal Boulevard, Paul spotted an army surplus store and suggested we get supplies there. We pulled in only to discover it didn’t open for another hour. Comforted that we had a back-up plan, we headed on up the road, eventually finding the mall, prominently featuring a Sports Authority. Inside we were once again disappointed by a lack of man-sized packs and a weak tent selection. The store was empty, with the two of us being the only patrons. The clerks followed us around suspiciously, while we scowled at their over-priced products.
Fearing our trip would be stalled another day due to a lack of shelter, I sucked it up and purchased a two man tent that advertised that it only weighed five pounds. After hiking the year before with all the heavy gear, I couldn’t argue with the five pound feature of the tent. Leaving the Sports Authority, I quoted “Swingers” saying, “This place is dead anyways.”
Paul dryly remarked, “Yeah, people in Wyoming hate authority.”
Back on the whiskey lined streets, we headed back toward the army suplus store. With Paul driving, I looked through his I-Pod filled with black metal, lo-fi noise, and obscure 70s folk propaganda. Tucked amidst these albums, I discovered an album with a “Lord of Rings” themed cover. “What’s this ‘Lord of the Rings’ album?” I asked.
“Oh, I downloaded that for you to listen to while you read ‘Fellowship’, which we still need to get you. It’s by some dude from the 70s named Bo Hansson.”
“Bo Hansson it is,” I said chuckling and playing the strange music, layered with organs and strange renaissance instrumentation. With Tolkien’s Middle Earth on the brain, I mentioned, “Do they ever talk about Gandalf having a home in ‘Lord of the Rings’? In ‘The Hobbit’ he’s basically a nomad.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Paul responded.
“He’s like a hobo dude.”
“Yeah,” Paul responded. “That’s why Gandalf rules. If I don’t get a job this summer, I might do the same thing.” Although the idea of living the hobo life sounds exciting, I think it has been romanticized a bit. I didn’t like the idea of my friend becoming a drifter, possibly losing contact with him altogether.
Back at the now open surplus store, we made our way into the entrance. A tall man in his 50s stood at the register, suited up in a camouflage uniform from head to toe, topped off with a crew-cut hair cut and black rimmed army spectacles. He glanced up at us as we passed saying, “Hello gentleman and lady.” We walked on with me holding in my laughter, knowing he’d mistaken Paul as a girl from behind. I wasn’t sure if it was on accident or on purpose. I wondered if he was one of those hippie hating Vietnam veterans, still taking jab at long haired tree huggers.
Right away Paul located some nice army packs and handed one for me to check out. As we tried them on with excitement, the stoic army clerk approached us. “Those are good packs, but if you want the best, you want this version,” he said reaching up and pulling down a pack that looked familiar to what we were trying on. “This is the most versatile pack you will ever find.” He said with purpose. For the next 10 minutes he methodically showed us how this one pack with a plastic back frame could be modified to have a travel pack, a vest for ammo, a butt pack, side packs, etc, etc, etc. There was no doubt, this serious sergeant knew his shit.
He ended his presentation saying, “If you can think of it, you can do it with this pack.” Paul and I were sold.
“Did you use this pack when you served?” Paul asked.
“No, I used an earlier version,” he replied.
“Well, you seem to know a lot about your gear,” I added.
He looked up at me from the floor, where he had performed his demonstration. Finally, he spoke. “I served as a mountain ranger for 20 years, but still like to keep up on the latest gear. ” He paused and looked at the two of us with a steely glare. “”When you’ve learned everything you ever needed to know from someone, you keep up with your Army.”
There was a moment of silence as he finished setting up the pack for optimal mountain hiking, then spoke again. “So, do you both want to get one?”
“Yes!” we responded in unison.
“I’ll be right back. I have another one in storage.” He left us alone. Paul and I shared a look of “Holy shit this dude rules!” We then began looking around the store for other gear. I found a mat that would come in handy if I slept on a cave floor again. Paul began scouring the nearby boxes for more gear. The first box featured used brown army shirts which Paul insisted we buy.
I agreed. “Yeah, these are pretty sweet.” Then Paul moved to another box, filled with brown used Army underwear. Once again, he tossed one in my direction. “No thanks.” He continued to insist upon purchasing second hand underwear, but I refused. Despite my disgust, Paul would end up purchasing three used, brown, undies.
The Army master returned with a large pack announcing, “This is for the big guy.” I took pride in the sergeant calling me ‘The Big Guy’. “Come here and watch this,” he said to me. I stood over him as he once again walked me through how to set up the pack. It seemed the soldier who originally received my pack didn’t know what he was doing. The Sarge complained while fixing former mistakes, “This must have been owned by an Air Force guy. Done all wrong. They get these guys new equipment they don’t understand for the one week they are in the barracks. Never use it. The field? the air forces idea of the field is sitting in the barracks waiting to deploy. they don’t know the field.” Although I didn’t like the idea of government money going into unused packs, I was happy to know mine had barely been touched.
As he moved along fixing my messed up pack, he realized it was missing an important strap. “I have another one of these straps at home. Come back tomorrow and I’ll adjust your pack with it.” This guy has straps at home? How dedicated can one be to the Army?
We told him we’d be back the next day, which meant our idea of heading to Utah for Bon Iver was probably out of the question. When we paid with our credit card, the sarge took the time to read our names and say after payment, “Thank you for your purchase Andrew Schroeder,” and, “Thank you for your purchase Paul Peterson.” Basically, what I’m saying, is this guy might be the biggest bad-ass/most respectful fella EVER.
Outside by the car, Paul tried on his pack once again, giddy with excitement. He commented, “That guy ruled. I’ve thought about joining the military if the whole job search doesn’t work out.” Once again, Paul’s worries about finding a job resurfaced, with another option arising. Looking at my friend with his new Army pack upon his back, I selfishly preferred the idea of him using it to survive the streets of America over the streets of Iraq.