Our events are time-limited, and our storytellers are chosen at random from a hat, so it's always a huge bummer when we get to the end of the night and there are still names that haven't been pulled. At our most recent Portland event, this was particularly true when we realized that one of those names was Gracetopher Kirk, who has been published as one of Oregon's Best Emerging Poets, and is leaving to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail literally as we speak (their flight from Portland to San Diego is today, around the same time that this post will be published)!
We reached out to Gracetopher after the event, and they were gracious enough to send on a piece they wrote that touches on a lot of themes that resonate with us - the relationship between life, death, family and the outdoors. It was also particularly timely as the story is set in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, and recently our podcast has included various storytellers from our Laramie events.
This is the first of what we hope will be several posts from Gracetopher, who is just the type of artist/outdoorsperson we love finding and partnering with. They have a real gift for outdoor storytelling, and are going to be chronicling their PCT hike through a Patreon page that will also help support them along the way. We're following and pledging, and we'd encourage anyone interested in supporting brilliant, unexpected and emerging voices in the outdoor community to do the same. Their Adventure Patreon is linked here.
We had a deal. Dad was concerned about my safety, but he was smart enough to see his own rebelliousness in me.
His own wanderlust. Mom was if anything more concerned about my safety than dad, but she was easily swayed.
Sometimes I wonder what it was that brought my dad to Wyoming in the first place. His nomadic tendencies? What did he see in that uninhabited high desert?
The first time dad took my brother, sister, and me up the Popo Agie River was the summer of 2008 when we were running from the rain. Normally we wouldn’t have gone so far west on a backpacking trip, but the weather changed our plans for us.
Mom had to stay home, but she called us every night.
“Neil, the basement’s flooding again!”
And didn’t stop.
“Neil, Keg Creek –“
“Neil the Missouri—“
“Grace – Mason Flora – boy scout camp – tornado”
My mom worried constantly about us, but we’d been waiting for dad’s month long sabbatical for years, so we are backpacking damnit!
We tried the Snowy Range, but it was snowier than we expected. Our favorite hot springs in Saratoga, Wyoming was flooded with rain water and not even hot. The anabranch of the Platte River called “Hobo Pool” was almost stronger than the main current normally is there, and definitely deeper than I’d seen it on some dry Augusts far downstream. I shouldn’t have crossed it, but my brother dared me, so I did.
We went west into the Red Desert. I climbed a butte in the middle of a rancher’s land, and my dad learned there were jobs in Wamsutter, but the rain caught us again, so we kept going.
One morning I woke up, and we were in the Sinks Canyon, just southwest of Lander, surrounded by brown rock walls and scraggly greenery.
I opened the car door quietly – everyone else was still asleep. My bare feet touched the dusty brown gravel and my lungs filled up with blessedly dry air that matched a blue above me that I hadn’t realized I could crave so much. A blue we’d driven hundreds of miles for.
We were running from water, so why was it the sound of water running that had me bruising my feet on the corners and edges of rock?
Maybe that’s what I do. Maybe that’s what I’m doing again – running towards something everyone else (even me in my saner moments) knows to run away from. But it’s 2011 now and I’m 18 - an adult with my own money and my own car, so why can’t I go backpacking alone?
I had a deal with dad, but mom was easily swayed, so when dad wasn’t there to sway her anymore she forgot about the deal. She forgot I was going to take my sister because her sister convinced her I was sure to break a leg or be eaten by a bear or buried in a landslide, so she insisted I take everybody.
Backpacking with my dad was great.
Backpacking with my family sucks.
When I was with my family I always did my best to lose them. As long as I stayed on the same trail, what would it hurt if I were out of sight of everyone else? What harm could I possibly cause by being a quarter of a mile ahead? A half mile?
We were several days into that 2008 trip up the Popo Agie when dad started to trail further behind my siblings and me. We’d been taking it easy, spent quite a lot of time by the Middle Fork Falls, explored bits of trail that led to nowhere, crossed streams by hopping on rocks and pretending fallen tree trunks were tight ropes, all the while keeping the river on our left. Eventually we were back to the main trail and, according to the sign-post, only seven miles from the trailhead where we’d parked. Seven miles? But it had been days!
The next day we made it to a glaciated valley in the Wind River Mountains. The forbidding peaks faded into the distance, and all around us the meadows grew green speckled with blue and purple flowers only occasionally interrupted by patches of forest or outcroppings of rock. It was beautiful and promised to only get better the farther we went, but that was when the storm clouds herded us out.
And, that’s when dad had to go and injure himself. He had been lagging, but of course now that he needed his feet the most, the right foot completely failed him. Dad sent my siblings and me ahead; told us to get back to the car and wait for him there. I knew they were scared, so I couldn’t be.
It was dark by the time the three of us made it to the car, but it wasn’t stormy anymore at least. I convinced them dad would be fine because the storm was gone now. I tried to convince myself that it was actually gone, that we hadn’t simply walked away and left dad in the heart of a tempest we couldn’t see from the lower end of the canyon.
I got to sit in the driver’s seat. So much power for a 15-year-old. We kept the car running for the heat, and I’m sure we slept some – them more than me.
Dad would be fine.
Dad was always fine.
Remember that time he climbed Mt. Shasta without any water? Or that time he got caught in a snowstorm? He said he ate an entire crock-pot full of beans when he got back from that one. What about those times when he would hike 30+ miles in a day? Dad knows everything about backpacking. No need to freak out like mom would.
It was a little before 5 am and the canyon around us had just begun to take shape as blackness against an almost-blue backdrop of sky when suddenly I was jarred from my half-sleep-half-reading by a rapping at the passenger door.
Burglers! Murderers! Rapists! Police!
Nope, just dad. The storm hadn’t stopped, and flecks of snow had caught in his hair and beard, so for once he even looked his age.
“The wind was blowing so hard I was darn-near blown off the mountain at a couple of points” he told us. He’d hiked all night long in a snowstorm. Goddamn but my dad was a badass. Nothing’ll get him.
He’d pulled a muscle, so backpacking was over for the summer. But even worse, his feet had blistered and the blisters got infected and when he went to Dr. Fryzek about that original infection, he picked up MRSA from the carpet in the office. My cousin had just died because of MRSA and its interaction with blood sugar in insulin-dependent diabetics. It was a struggle for my dad too, but he got through it. Went to Wamsutter, Wyoming to work for a while, and then came back to his office job.
Snowstorms can’t get him. MRSA tried its darndest. There had been the diabetes and the kidneys and the neuropathy, not to mention his early 20s with all the motorcycles and drugs and the alcohol.
I’ve been getting angrier and angrier at that stupid snow-storm over the years. I wanted that meadow. I wanted to see what was beyond it, and by 2011 I irrationally half-hope that if I could just get back maybe it would be 2008 again. But this time there won’t be a snowstorm. This time dad won’t injure himself.
This time I am an adult. I can stay in the Wind River Range as long as I want, see as much of the backcountry as there is to see.
I look for that meadow and for that outcropping of rock I’d raced my sister up, for that tiny bridge over a creek where my brother and I had played pooh-sticks.
All I find is an empty forest. I’d run ahead on every backpacking trip before, but I’d always wait like an expectant puppy if I got lonely. I’m an adult now. Why does that have to mean I’ll never go backpacking with my dad again?
I had a deal with dad. Mom broke it. Or did he break it? He’s the one who didn’t stick around to make sure mom kept to it. That’s fine, I’ve got my own methods.
I packed my car in secret, and then one day I put on my work uniform.
“Bye mom!” I called as I left my house for the last time. “I’m closing tonight then opening tomorrow, so I’m going to stay at Brooke’s tonight.” Brooke lived closer to Hy-Vee. Plausible enough.
“Oh ok. Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Don’t worry, her mom works in the morning too. She won’t let us stay up super late.”
“Alright, see you tomorrow then.”
But she didn’t. Because I’d already worked my last day at Hy-Vee. Because I wasn’t even stopping at Brooke’s. By the time I was supposed to be home the next day, I had already crossed two state lines. I’m an adult, and I own this car. So who says I can’t do that?
Ok so that’s a lie. I didn’t end up sneaking off like that, but it was the plan. Luckily for my worry-wart of a mother, my father’s younger brother convinced her to let me go backpacking alone an entire week before I set my plan into motion.
Maybe I’m not as much of a bad-ass as my dad because I got permission before I ran away to Oregon. When he went places at my age nobody knew if he was dead or alive half the time. Did dad go to Lander, Wyoming as a truck-driver the first time? A road construction worker or mechanic? Did he hitch-hike there? Nobody can answer that for me anymore.
And why was it only at dad’s funeral that I heard about the preacher he met in Wyoming when he was 25?
Wyoming was where dad had his last beer, and it’s where I had my first.
I went back to the Sinks Canyon, made friends who introduced me to bouldering. I went to the middle-fork falls and to the Presbyterian Church that we went to one Sunday in 2008. I made more friends; three old lady fishermen who shared their hotdogs and beer with me even though I was only 18. I brought a notebook and filled it with the fantastical adventures of elves and pixies and fairies. I climbed a small mountain in a thunderstorm just to see what the world around me looked like. Found the piece of trail dad must have been referring to when he’d talked about the wind and being blown off the mountain-side.
He’d defied nature itself and a storm’s fury, but pneumonia caught him and a misdiagnosed shot of rosephrin held him down for a good old punch in the kidneys. It was 2011. I was only 17. Still just a kid. I was the one who found him the morning his kidneys finally gave up on him.
I never went back to that meadow I was looking for. I veered off and crossed the river before I got there, left the trail and ran through the woods, broke my water-bottle and ripped the bag my tent was in – it’s a wonder I didn’t turn an ankle honestly – and the only sounds I heard were the thuds of backpack against back and eventually my own sobs. It’s dad’s fault I have this silly wanderlust. The least he could do would be to stick around and keep me company on my adventures.
Dad wouldn’t have had the time to come backpacking with me anyways. Not the summer of 2011. That’s why we’d made the deal.
It was still the loneliest backpacking trip I’ve ever been on.
We usually conclude with a pitch to support us on Patreon to keep this thing moving, which you can totally still do. But this week we'd also like to encourage you to get to know, and support, Gracetopher. From their bio:
Gracetopher Kirk, the Brokeback Backpacker
A broken back could hinder following through on PCT plans, but a near death experience inspires the pursuit of what’s miraculously still possible. Gracetopher fell off a roof and broke their back January 1, 2017, and has used this incident to rebuild their life around what brings them the most joy: hiking and storytelling. Gracetopher celebrates surviving to see 25 by beginning the PCT on their birthday, April 15. You can read more and help the story take shape by becoming a patron at Patreon.com/Gracetopher.
And as an appendix for folks who might be wondering about the they/them language we've been using in this post, Gracetopher also writes helpfully about gender, biology and non-binary identity.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.