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In the years since Katy’s death, I have grown to feel closer to her than I did during the weeks we spent together. I think of her regularly, whenever I am in the wilderness, of course, but also at random times—crossing the street, eating a meal, or watching a plane fly over. I think about all the years not lived. Katy would be 28 now. Her death clings to me, as if some aspect of her unfinished life equates to some unfinished business of my own.

That need for resolution brought me back to the Absarokas Range 12 years later.


I SET OFF FROM BROOKS LAKE, a glistening high alpine pond so typical of these mountains, and camp the first night under the shadow of Bear Cub Pass. The next morning I continue up Cub Creek. I’m not sure whether my mind’s playing tricks on me, but the backcountry takes on an intensity I’ve rarely experienced in the wilderness before. I crest a high, grassy pass and spot a large elk. Several drainages convene and the terrain becomes more extreme. I veer west—and then I see the South Buffalo Fork raging beneath me. After so many years I am suddenly very close. The trail drops precipitously through a densely wooded area and opens onto a large meadow. I walk beside the river, deadfall crowding its course in places just as it had years earlier. I had forgotten. The far bank is steeper than I remember. The entire area has a feeling of rawness, the way wilderness does in the early spring after a long winter—but it’s already full summer. I’ve seen no one since I left the trailhead, just as we saw no one during the month of the NOLS course. This is true backcountry, rarely visited outside of hunting season. The day is bright and the sun hard on my neck. I feel alert, expectant.

And then there it is.

The S-curve in the river and the cut bank leading to the small, rock-littered ledge, backed by a steep slope rising behind. I feel my shoulders drop under my pack, and my skin begins to tingle.

“That’s it,” I say softly, startled at the sound of my own voice. The map I have shows this site about a quarter mile farther on. I look at the running water again. “No. That’s it,” I say louder.

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