Brandon Hernández 9:22 a.m., May 24
Vision Quest At Vedauwoo
I'll never forget the first time I laid eyes on Vedauwoo. My very first thought was: "THIS PLACE IS MAGICAL!!!" And it is, with its stunning scenery, its bizarre hoodoos and impressive outcrops, its shimmering aspen groves and scented evergreens... the place even feels sacred to those who wander this fantastic realm. Once frequented by Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux, Shoshone and Ute, as well as other tribes, this hallowed ground remains a natural wonderland of great physical beauty. Beneath an enormous sky, with humbling views in every direction, one feels a close spiritual bond with the earth itself... an affinity which encompasses all flora and fauna, embraces the ever-changing weather and quality of light, and acknowledges the powerful forces of nature at work in this sacrosanct environment. The place FEELS ALIVE, with energy radiating from the very rocks and soil... perhaps this is why so many Native Americans regarded it with such reverence.
Lying at an elevation of approximately 8000', Vedauwoo is situated between Laramie and Cheyenne in southeastern Wyoming. Easily accessible from I-80 (Exit 329), the crags and outcrops of Vedauwoo offer incredible vistas of Medicine Bow National Forest and environs, not to mention various distant peaks and ranges on the horizon, including some clear down in Colorado. But the real beauty of Vedauwoo lies within itself... it's no wonder Native American tribes sent their young men here to undertake vision quests, "coming of age" rituals in which aspiring warriors sought their individual identities while wandering alone through the wilderness. Many identified with flora or fauna, others associated themselves with elemental substances or natural events and processes... perhaps a few experienced stony visions and drew their identities from the surreal rocks which surrounded them, not such a far-fetched idea given the abundance of highly unusual hoodoo shapes and fanciful outcrops sculpted by erosion.
I'll never forget my first actual visit to Vedauwoo... I had already passed this hallowed ground many times while hauling freight either way on I-80, and each time I looked over with wonder at this mystical realm, taking in every possible detail for future reference. I knew that one day my chance would come, and I would have time to jump off and explore this area. This isn't always possible when trucking, due to tight delivery schedules, regulations governing the number of hours one can drive, and factors such as weather, traffic, road work, etc. Then one glorious day, while draggin' a loaded wagon west along I-80 well ahead of schedule, I realized that circumstances were ideal for my long-awaited visit to Vedauwoo. I could shut down early that afternoon, wander round for hours, spend the night in my truck, and pull one last recon prior to departure the following morning, with no adverse effect whatsoever upon my delivery schedule. Thrilled with the prospect of adventure, I jumped off in Cheyenne to bag beer and extra food for my Vedauwoo vacation. It wasn't long before I was thundering down the interstate toward my destination.
My spirit soared as I rolled within sight of Vedauwoo and its magnificent outcrops. At last, I would explore this enchanting wilderness area on my own terms! No worries with regard to time, no trucking-related hassles to botch my plans, just pure invigorating freedom in a natural Utopia, a true paradise for hikers, climbers, and other outdoorsmen! Peeling off the interstate and rolling down the ramp to Vedauwoo Road felt like an escape in itself, a calculated abandonment of "civilization" and everything for which it stood. Despite the fine weather, not another vehicle or human being was in sight... in serendipitous fashion, my arrival fell on a weekday in September, which suited me perfectly because that meant less visitors. Indeed, as I turned and slowly approached my destination, studying every aspect while rolling down the skinny little blacktop access road in sixth gear, I thought I might actually have the entire place to myself. Whenever things work out that way, I thank my lucky stars and take it for granted that such occurrences are cosmically preordained.
Examining the layout at the open entrance, I decided to swing wide and pre-position my truck, then back into the outermost parking lot, which was fairly small and entirely devoid of other vehicles. I figured that if any authority figure eventually appeared and gave me grief for taking too many spaces, I could simply pull out and park on the grassy shoulder of the access road, with my truck facing toward the interstate to make my ultimate departure even easier. This never happened, of course, as the place was practically deserted. In fact, I waited on one side of the outer lot with my truck motor idling down, just to see if someone would show and start bitching about the truck, but not a soul appeared. Within minutes I cut the motor, and silence rushed in with gratifying speed. My cab and sleeper windows were already wide open, and the afternoon was extremely pleasant, with a light cross breeze keeping me perfectly comfortable... so comfortable that I grabbed a beer and cracked it while assembling my usual field gear.
I selected my trusty old Gregory Mountaineering pack this time, with climbing shoes, chalkbag, extra socks and shirt, lightweight windbreaker, two quart canteens of (freshly-squeezed) lemon water, some fruit and "pogy bait" (snacks), all the standard bullsh!t I take with me when I enter the field. I was already wearing thick baggy shorts, tank top, bulletproof Vibram-soled hiking boots, and sunglasses on a goon cord, so it wasn't long before I was ready. The first beer went down pretty fast, and I briefly considered having another, but I rejected the idea for safety reasons... when I solo anything from a boulder to a towering cliff, I want to be level-headed, not impaired, as one small error can potentially lead to personal injury or death. I go into the wilderness to find freedom and have fun, not to F-----G DIE. The remaining beer could wait until afterward, when the only unroped fall I might take would be from my bunk to the deck of my sleeper, or from the cab of my truck to the parking lot. One beer, no big deal... I figured I'd walk that off while hiking into Vedauwoo, and that's exactly what I did.
On my way in, I noticed a small camper situated not far from the entrance. This belonged to the campground host, a mellow retiree who kept loose tabs on the place and made sure that no drunken fools or clueless city dwellers got out of hand. I briefly spoke to him, mentioning my truck in the outer lot; since there was no crowd, truck parking wasn't an issue. Before moving on, I told this guy he was lucky to hang out in such a beautiful spot, and he wholeheartedly agreed. Bidding him farewell, I headed for the nearest outcrop, passing two visitors standing near their car in a day use parking area. These were the only other visitors I saw that afternoon, and they were soon out of sight and mind as I stepped onto the nearest outcrop and laid my hands on the rock for the first time... an important moment to a climber, as that initial contact allows one to gauge the solidity and quality of the rock. To my mind, the rock was a bit grainy, but otherwise solid, and I stopped to swap boots for fresh socks and climbing shoes. Out came my chalkbag with the little John Deere farm tractors all over it, and with a quick adjustment to my Gregory pack I was off on my grand adventure...
Thus began my spell of enchantment in this fascinating and fantastic realm. Wandering from outcrop to outcrop, parking my pack and soloing various climbs on sight, I was in climber's heaven... I had no guidebook, so I chose my climbs in the usual manner, using my own knowledge and field experience to assess my chances of pulling off a route. Subsequent Internet searches revealed that there are over 900 documented routes in Vedauwoo, but I had no clue at the time. No big deal, winging it without a guide: I'm always very careful when soloing, and I lean more toward moderate routes, although I will tackle harder problems or harder moves if I like the look of 'em, especially if they "feel right." I have no qualms telling you that I will back off whenever I get a bad vibe, or whenever I can't tell if a route "gets thin" on high. There's nothing worse (or more dangerous) than pulling a move at the limit of your ability, only to discover that you'll now have to reverse the sequence and downclimb that same difficult move. Many would-be soloists die every year after finding themselves in such situations... they get gripped, they panic, the "sewing machine" action begins, and they ultimately peel off the rock.
I've said this before and I'll say it again: by no stretch of the imagination am I an expert soloist. In fact, I'm really not that great of a climber... there are countless others far superior in skill and technique. I'm a much better small craft sailor than I am a climber, but I've stayed alive over all these years because I exercise judgement and caution in the field. Like Clint Eastwood said in his role as Dirty Harry---"A good man always knows his limitations." Sound advice for those who enter the vertical world, since gravity WILL come into play and may even bring you crashing down. Of course, it's not the fall that kills you... it's the sudden stop. Regardless of venue or rock quality, climbing beyond one's ability is a surefire recipe for disaster. I can't stress this enough to the younger generation, particularly those who are venturing onto the crags for the first time. In addition, just being roped up is no guarantee of security---there are no substitutes for knowledge and experience in the vertical world, and the price for ignoring this little pearl of wisdom is heller pain, possible paralysis, or death.
I spent several hours roaming through Vedauwoo, often pausing just to take in the magnificent scenery, or to check out some fantastically-shaped hoodoo. There are many hoodoos in this area due to erosion, not to mention radical and highly-changeable weather. Sure, my first visit occurred under ideal conditions, with pleasant weather throughout my stay, but I've also seen Vedauwoo under howling storm conditions, with wind and rain lashing the rocks and lightning crashing all around. I even drove past in a blizzard late one afternoon... that morning, under sunny skies hundreds of miles to the east, I planned and looked forward to spending the night at Vedauwoo, but when I arrived the storm was raging and my ambient thermometer read 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Not exactly ideal climbing weather... needless to say, I drove on to Laramie and shut down for the night. Visitors to Vedauwoo (and especially climbers) need to be aware of weather-related hazards: lightning is no joke if you're roped up to a partner high on an exposed outcrop when a storm rapidly approaches... winds pick up with amazing velocity at Vedauwoo and may lead to hypothermia for those not suitably attired. Changeable weather is an integral factor of the Vedauwoo experience, part of what makes the place feel so alive... be prepared for it if you go, particularly if you plan on tackling any of the longer routes and larger outcrops.
I wound up my afternoon with a very pleasant hike through an aspen grove... the shimmering trees whispered in the light breeze, and I felt a powerful spiritual presence, as if the earth itself were communing with me and revealing its innermost secrets. Again, I understood why Native Americans were drawn to this place, with its spectacular physical geography, its complex ecosystem, its dynamic weather, and its invisible aura of natural energy... sometimes, in everyday life, and especially under adverse circumstances, I'll jokingly ridicule New Age philosophy, but there's no such feeling of condescension in Vedauwoo. Quite the opposite, in fact: if ever there was a place to believe in New Age philosophy, Vedauwoo would be it. I've been to many beautiful and spiritual places in my time, some emitting powerful auras crackling with energy, and Vedauwoo ranks high on the list, I assure you. Maybe it's different with others present... when you're alone in Vedauwoo, it's paradise on earth. In itself, an aspen grove is a thing of beauty, and I spent some time just wandering through this one late that afternoon, tripping on the ever-changing interplay of light and shadow among the trees and boulders.
Making my way out of the grove and returning to my truck, I pounded a cold beer and had a bite to eat. Although it was now dusk, the ambient temperature was still pleasant, and I sat in the driver's seat listening to music while drinking more beer and checking out the trucks driving past on the interstate. A veritable parade of "chicken lights" with some trucks dressed to the nines, fully illuminated and looking like galactic starships as they flew over the terrain... by "chicken lights", I mean any and all lights above and beyond those which meet minimum D.O.T. requirements. In some parts of the country, truck drivers are rightfully appreciated, and they accordingly take pride in their trucks. Some drivers will go to great expense, not only in terms of money but also in terms of time, in order to install heller lights on their rigs and make a collective statement. Whenever a friend rides with me in the truck on a cross-country jaunt, I make a point of parking near the fuel island in every truck stop where we spend the night, just so that hand can see the beautifully-illuminated trucks rolling off the fuel island. A separate reality, indeed, but beautiful nevertheless.
It gradually grew dark as I hung out, chillin' like a villain with beer in hand, listening to a wide variety of tunes as I simply enjoyed living in the moment. Sitting there, kicking back after a good outdoor hiking and climbing session, was like PARADISE to me... I LIVE for experiences such as these. Suddenly, I noticed the headlights of a vehicle approaching along the access road from the interstate. I watched a pickup truck pull into a dirt parking area outside the lot and cut its lights, then I saw two younger hands exit the vehicle, lower the tailgate, and start racking what looked suspiciously like climbing gear... my curiosity got the better of me, and I resolved to politely ask these hands what they were doing when they got around to passing my truck. Their pickup was parked in such a location that they would be required to pass nearby en route to the entrance to Vedauwoo. Sure enough, minutes later they secured their vehicle, shouldered their packs, and headed my way... as they drew alongside, I leaned out of my open window and asked a simple question:
"Hey, are you guys climbers?"
"Yeah", one replied.
I introduced myself, not by name but as a climber, which is perfectly understood in outdoor circles, and I told them that I hailed from San Diego, CA. There was no need for me to explain the 18-wheeler, of course. However, I was curious with regard to the timing of their arrival.
"What are you guys doing, going in to bivouac and start early tomorrow?", I inquired.
"Hell, no!!! We're going NIGHT CLIMBING!!!"
As luck (or serendipity) would have it, they stood between my truck and the eastern horizon... I lifted my eyes and saw a glorious full moon rising above the treetops, a rich yellow orb undercut by jagged evergreens. It was F----G BAD-@$$. To those readers who don't climb, the stated intention of these younger hands will probably sound rash or foolhardy... to me it made perfect sense, and I commended them for their intrepid natures and adventurous souls. I've often climbed under a full moon, particularly in J. Tree (Joshua Tree National Park---formerly Joshua Tree National Monument), and I know how COOL it can be, wandering around and pulling bitchin' moves on primo moonlit outcrops. After hearing this hand, I wanted to JOIN him and his partner, but another part of my soul told me these guys would be better off on their own, just as I was better off on my own earlier. Some kind of unspoken "climber's etiquette" kept me from willfully grabbing my gear and leaping out of my truck to join these local hands. I DID offer each of them a cold beer, but like true climbers they politely declined. While doing some climb you've done roped countless times in daylight hours, there's no future in pushing your luck in a moonlit venue such as Vedauwoo.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I crashed and spent the night there in the outer lot with my cab and sleeper windows raised and perfectly adjusted to offset the nocturnal dip of the thermometer. I woke early the next morning, pulled the submariner's bath and macked a light breakfast, then headed into the wilderness again as dawn broke... I didn't go far this time, just far enough to immerse myself once more in the sublime beauty of Vedauwoo. The place is SURREAL, and I'll never forget my first visit to this EARTHLY PARADISE. When I fired up my truck to leave, I knew EXACTLY how those Native Americans felt back in the day, when they rode or walked away from this hallowed ground to resume their everyday lives... perhaps those young aspiring warriors who found their identities in Vedauwoo had nothing on me, in light of the fact that the poor sods had no bulletproof Vibram-soled hiking boots, bad-@$$ climbing shoes with sticky rubber, chalkbags adorned with little John Deere tractors, Gregory Mountaineering packs full of gear and supplies, and all that modern bullsh!t...
On the other hand, they had heller tradition, a treasured wealth of Native American tribal lore concerning this primo and highly spiritual area, a legacy of "coming of age" rituals already performed, the whole nine yards... they didn't give a sh!t about field equipment beyond what they could manufacture themselves, and my first visit was only one in a long unimpressive chain of unrecorded visits. Sure, nowadays there are summit logs and guidebooks full of documented climbs, but these are NOT the way or style of the true Native American, who has no understanding of the greedy concept of "real estate", or the desire to permanently attach one's name to any particular piece of land, be it horizontal or vertical. Only after Native American tribes were decimated by intruders did the truth come out with regard to sacred lands such as Vedauwoo... only then did the spiritual suffering and heartfelt loss of these tribes come to light. I'm not talking about "Casino Indians" either, I mean REAL tribes who would never demean themselves in light of their bad-@$$ Native American heritage. Wounded Knee had NOTHING on Vedauwoo, I reckon.
Whenever I visit Vedauwoo, I think of how it must have been back in the day when powerful tribes such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux roamed the land, and sent their living pride to this sacred and mystical realm to come of age... despite their trials and tribulations, how those young aspiring warriors must have thoroughly enjoyed their time in this fantastic and enchanted wonderland! Personally, I could wander through this pristine natural environment in a completely starved and dehydrated state, yet still trip on the magnificent scenery, the bizarre and surreal hoodoos, the shimmering aspens and scented evergreens... so much natural energy and life, so much concentrated power!!! Long ago, the prehistoric people of southern England built a megalithic temple on the Salisbury Plain, and this temple ultimately became known as Stonehenge. In days of yore, Native Americans living within riding or walking range of what is now southeastern Wyoming had no reason to build such a temple, for one already existed in all its natural and spiritual glory... a splendid, dynamic, glorious and ever-changing earthly paradise which came to be known as Vedauwoo.
Note: I will try to post more shots of Vedauwoo here at this site, although some can already be seen at TRUCKFORUM.ORG in the thread entitled "Got Chrome??? How about Armor???" Climbers interested in Vedauwoo will find heaps of information on the Internet, including topos, route beta, campground info, the whole nine yards. If you go, do generations of true Native Americans a big ol' favor and leave your chosen campsite in better shape than you found it, yeah??? Ain't no spirituality in a discarded plastic wrapper, I assure you... otherwise, enjoy the wild scenery and powerful natural energy associated with this little bit of earthly paradise! There's a reason why so many before you have come of age in this fantastic realm... not only in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense as well.