Total Miles: 1684.3
The massive expanse we’ve been walking through these past three days since Atlantic City is an unusual one. Neither forested wilderness nor arable farmland, but an arid and windswept region that pries apart the Continental Divide from nearly the border of Colorado to the foot of the Wind River Range. In that expanse, something unusual happens—what little water flows here does so neither to the Atlantic nor the Pacific Ocean. It remains here, locked in a prison of sagebrush, rolling hills, free ranging cattle and a maze of criss-crossing roads.
You might be wondering: what’s it like to walk through such a place? Like Carmella had said upon leaving Atlantic City, there is beauty here—you just have to look for it. For miles on end, you look out and might see nothing at all save for an endless sea of clouds sailing above an endless sea of sand and sagebrush, the latter occasionally filling the air with its almost sweet fragrance.
The wind is a nearly constant presence here though today’s felt tame by comparison to the ceaseless whipping we received the past two days. With little to no place to hide from the wind and weather, it has a certain inhospitable character to it, but the seemingly limitless land is matched by an equally limitless sky, making for incredible sunrises, sunsets, and cloudscapes.
Underneath that giant sky, dual track dirt roads intersect one another at random intervals, most appearing to see little to no use on any regular basis and the trail has followed from one to another throughout the entirety of the Basin thus far. Following a buried gas pipeline and then veering away later in the afternoon, the trail/road seemed like it led straight off into eternity, pointing to a horizon that we would never reach. It can make progress feel like an illusion, an idea that exists only in your mind.
Alternating from firm to sandy to occasionally rocky, the walking is almost exclusively easy with elevation being gained and lost without hardly noticing. Black angus cattle appear scattered like dark little specks and the movement of antelope and mule deer gives away their position that would otherwise be nearly impossible to discern given their incredibly effective camouflage.
Off the road, the walking can be surprisingly frustrating what with weaving between the sagebrush and avoiding tiny cacti with long needles that grow in bunches and occasionally intertwine and conceal themselves among the sage and other plants. Given the directness of the trail, sticking to roads as it does, there’s little need to venture off of it.
Water, or perhaps more accurately the absence of it, seems to define the Basin more than anything else. On the heels of such plentiful water in the Winds, the contrast is stark, not to mention the contrast in quality. There is actually more water here than you might expect—we even had some briefly falling from the sky in the form of snow this morning—though you’ll be sharing most of it with the free ranging cattle. Let’s just say that it behooves you to divorce yourself from the notion that you’ll be collecting water from crystal clear mountain streams. Think: cloudy green ponds ringed by mud and cow poop. Yum. That’s what filters are for.
Fortunately, many of the reliable springs are excellent sources of clear, cold water and if you don’t mind carrying water for 20 miles at a stretch it’s quite easy to rely solely on those more enticing sources. Traversing the basin in September as we are, as opposed to the heat of August, makes this even easier given the cooler temperatures and reduced water needs.
Most of all, crossing this great, unbound space—a patchwork of public and private land that has given it the nickname “The Checkerboard”—leaves one unmistakable impression: that the land itself is massive and we are merely two tiny objects passing through it. With the ability to see so far in any direction for 12 hours a day—10 of them spent actually walking—and not see another soul, it’s hard not to feel in awe of the scale of both this place and of your own place within the world. That’s what it’s like to walk through the Basin.