We spent four nights with daughter Isabel at the Darwin Ranch, a 160 acre resort along the Gros Ventre River in the midst of the Bridger National Forest, between Pinedale and Jackson, Wyoming, not far from the Grand Tetons. “Grand Tetons” means “large breasts,” and “Gros Ventre” means “plump belly.” One thinks of lonely French explorers. We dropped off dog Rivers and hit the road.
The Darwin Ranch has some fairly simple log cabins and a lodge house where the twenty guests met for cocktail hour, meals, and after-dinner hanging out.
It’s located in a valley gouged out by the narrow and snaky Gros Ventre River—more of a creek than a river. Two sides of the valley are lined with sheer red bluffs. The upstream end of the valley slopes up into a forest with a waterfall.
A fabulous place—160 acres going up for auction at Hall and Hall realtors with a starting price of $4 million on September 13. In a way, it’s a modest sum, the price of a McMansion in California!
The ranch has about twenty horses for the guests to ride—it’s a dude ranch, but in a fairly mellow way. The place has a bit of a hippie feel, even though all of the guests (other than our daughter and her husband) looked to be in their fifties, sixties or even seventies. That’s the horse Alice that I rode one day up there.
As it happens the man who owns the Darwin Ranch is Loring Woodman, a cousin of my friend Howard Swann, a colorful and voluble mathematician with whom I worked at San Jose State. Howard and his wife Anita were at the ranch with us—it was good to have some comfortable old friends to chat with. Howard has an extravagant, playful style of speech. He goes for odd phrasings, recondite words, and unusual rhythms, sounding a bit like the W. C. Fields. That’s a picture of Howard and me. One of Howard’s proudest achievements is his cartoon-illustrated McSquared’s Calculus Primer.
Isabel actually worked as the winter caretakers at the Darwin Ranch some years ago, and they’ve stopped by for visits a number of times over the years. It was a treat for them to be actual guests. On the first day we four hiked along the top of Sportsman’s Ridge, a slanting red bluffs that bounds the north side of the valley.
We had an amazing view of the Gros Ventre River’s meanders across the valley, making a shape in every way like that of a rivulet of water you might see flowing down your car windshield. The second day I went on a four hour horse-riding expedition with Isabel, and our old friend Howard Swann. I’d never ridden a horse before, but the others coached me. My horse Alice was quite docile, and although not particularly interested in me as an individual. She carries riders several times a week.
Heading up the two-thousand-foot rise to the top of Bacon Ridge, I noticed a large raven in a tree. I remembered a particular fairy-tale scene I loved when I was growing up. A boy is the helper of a wizard. They’re travelling across the countryside, and the wizard manages to shoot a particular raven with his bow. The wizard tells the boy to build a fire and roast the raven’s heart for him, giving the boy particular instructions that he mustn’t taste the tiniest fragment of the heart until the wizard has had the first bite. The wizard lies down for a nap and the boy gets to work. The raven’s heart sizzles over the flame, and piece of hot fat lands on they boy’s finger, burning it.. The boy puts the finger to his mouth, licking it to soothe the pain. And in that instant he receives the magic power that lay in the raven’s heart: he can understand the speech of birds and animals.
Somehow this episode has always held a special meaning for me. When my son Rudy was young, I’d discuss this story with him, and when we’d bring a roast holiday turkey to the table, we’d compete to tear off and devour a scrap of the golden skin and say to the other, “Now I understand the speech of birds and animals.” Seeing the raven the Wyoming woods, I began thinking that I might use the old fairy-tale trope in a short story or in the start of a novel this fall.
We rode up through pines and aspens, up through the late-summer-yellow fields, up to the bare windy peak of Bacon’s Ridge. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to me. Over and over my horse Alice would grab bites of the trail-side vegetation—she was particularly fond of a certain enormous thistle plant that fills a human’s hand with prickers if touched. It wasn’t all that hard to stay on the horse, although I was definitely clutching the saddle-horn at times, and bracing my feet against the stirrups—particularly on the way back downhill. The whole process of riding a saddle on a large animal felt very ancient, very highly evolved.
The third day on the ranch, Sylvia, Isabel and I hiked through the forest along the base of the Sportsman’s Ridge bluffs. Eventually we three reached Ouzel Falls, which is a very steeply slanting rapids rather than a proper waterfall—it’s a bit like a hundred-yard water slide, seething with white foam. Some small diving birds called water ouzels frequent the pool at the falls’ base, thus the name.
Before we’d set out on our hike, Loring had urged us to make a loop of the hike by clambering to the top of Sportsman’s Ridge near Ouzel Falls and taking the high road home. Sylvia didn’t want to add on the extra climbing, so Isabel walked back to the Ranch with her while I pressed on alone.
I was quite tired by now, in part due to the thin air at the eight or nine thousand foot altitude. I was hot, and my water supply was fairly low—even though Isabel had kindly given me the rest of her own water. Starting up the steep path alone, I was a little anxious that my heart or my brain might suddenly malfunction, leaving me to die alone in the wilderness. But I was determined to press on.
In the old days, I’d very often taken long and risky hikes alone. But I hadn’t done a hike like that for something like five years—I think the last one was in August, 2006, in Glacier National Park.
I lost the trail twice in gullies, found it again both times, and after an hour I was up on the top of the bluff. The High Path. I felt wonderful. On top of the world. Just like old times.
It was a good feeling to have pushed past the fear and done something physically audacious once again. I felt more wholly well than I’d felt in quite some time. A wonderful day.
After Wyoming, I went on to Wisconsin to visit my other daughter Georgia.
In the mornings, I often read my grandson his favorite (that week) book, Hogwash, no words, just lots of pix of little pigs wallowing and romping in mud and paint—and then being herded and washed by slightly sinister pig-mothers. My grandson is a cuddly bundle. He reminds me very much of the childhood photos of myself. I’m exceedingly fond of him and my Wisconsin granddaughter.