Access Granted to Hog Heaven
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Certain things in life loom inevitably over our heads. One is age—nobody’s getting any younger, as they say—and another is the natural highlands, the ridges, crags and peaks we behold from the valley. Those of us whose athletic prime has come and gone on a scale measured in decades often take a pass on hardy physical adventures to these elevated places that, back in the day, would have been, well, child’s play. What, though, if you were horn swaggled into such an adventure, unaware of the steep climb involved until it was too late to beg off.
Yes, that’s what happened.
Few have heard of Hogback Ridge—sounds like a hill Army Rangers might storm, but it’s actua-lly a spiny geologic formation south of Livingston, a conservation easement recently made accessible by the gracious landowners, Roy and Sandy Rose. I had no idea what to expect on the drive there that day, and it was better that way, because for years I have taken a pass on hikes that require trudging up a mountain, having doing so in the deep cover of lodgepole pines, switchbacking 6 miles all day with no view of the world beyond until perhaps the very end, and then having to switchback as many miles back down, just to say I did it. I now prefer easily accessible scenic views, from my deck, or to hike as a flatlander.
As soon as we hit the trail though I saw what we were in for. It was straight up, and I said so, and it was at that moment that my friend Thomas, who knows the trail and orchestrated the outing, affirmed my observation by saying that indeed it was steep—and that it never lets up. Fine then, we’ll be Army Rangers.
The stark trail up the foothill and beneath the ridge strikes one immediately for its lack of switchbacks, which of course decrease a trail’s slope but extend its length. Straight up, that’s the way Marines, actually, take a hill. Yet we took off at a good pace, my trail partners having conditioned themselves this season and last on various day hikes repeatedly to the point that Thomas and his wife Charlene, both in their 60s (and rather fashionable trail hounds, I must say), took the steep uphill climb, well, in stride. Having sat on my hindquarters all summer pumping out amusement for the masses, while only in the last two weeks having begun short distance running (a mile or so every other day), I was not in as good of shape, but at least I was broken in, and the idea in such situations, for me, is to push yourself but not to excess, and that’s what the five of us did that day hiking up Hogback Ridge. And none of us are kids, except at heart.
Thomas was right, the ridge did not let up. It was a harsh desert like climb from the get go, where you literally lift your body weight vertically with each step at times. You keep doing this until you are out of breath, then stop, catch your breath, then do it some more. It was with some pride that I realized I could handle this, as long as I realized none of us had anything to prove, stopping as we pleased on that scenic ridge, our escaltor to paradise.
The terrain and views up there fascinate and inspire—with hard scrubby pines, drops into aspen groves where ground cover turns to rusty colors of autmum, and with ornate copper green and amber lichens carcinogenic on jutting fingers of rock reaching into space above the valley floor. With each drive upward, of course, and as one stops to breathe, the panorama takes quantum leaps—looking North toward the Wineglass and Paradise Valley’s green southern sprawl toward Emigrant—and infinity. We tried to discern which verdant cluster might have been Pine Creek, and one member of our party did the same regarding her ranch in the distance beneath the Absarokas. Below us the valley lay, a patchwork of hay fields, green and golden rectangles and circles with the serpentine Yellowstone winding its way through. Words aren’t all that useful here (though I’m too obviously trying). And it’s almost frustrating that such a place cannot be consumed like wine until one is intoxicated, and so one must instead enlarge one’s sense of Self nearly to infinity to feel the reality of it. That’s meditation, sitting up there, on rock, ignoring the flies and dissolving into the expanse while inhaling the aromas of pine and juniper berries, that, if you didn’t know, smell like dirty socks until your sense of smell discerns the difference between the two, like varieties of exquisite French cheese, and so you discover that the smell is actually sweetness and musky earth—and by the way the berries are the stuff Gin is made of.
A terrier cross named Napa led the way, a keen scrappy little girl with eyes frequently drilled into the distance of the valley below as she halted on a promintory, doing what dogs do, thinking whatever it is they think. She is coal black, and the amazing thing about her was that, tiny as she is, she ran circles around us all day (a shelter dog yet), not that she didn’t tire, and we wonder-ed if she were able to consciously appreciate the transformation in her life since those days at the shelter and her freedom as she explored every inch of Hogback Ridge.
One thing Napa did appreciate up there and for which we are in her debt was sudden danger. I had uncannily just seconds before been thinking about telling the others ahead that I came across rattlesnakes in prior weeks, when Napa sounded her alarm. She spotted the rattler at the trailside, inches from our foot path, coiled by a rock camoflaged by the scaly pattern of its skin. With no where we could easily step without treading on or near the snake, the ridge dropping off on either side, without Napa’s warning one of us would have stepped right on the damned thing, and then we’d have a snake bite victim, a long hard hike down the ridge, and an awful day.
We chanced upon Roy and Sandy up there, who live below within view of the ridge, and they told us they’d been hiking it daily, and once to Pine Creek Lake, one of those 7-miles-up-a-mountain deals. In that they had reached retirement age, summering in Arizona, we were impressed. They pointed out their digs, and told us they wanted others to enjoy the place they love, Hogback Ridge. And then a member of our party who is British but lives in the valley likened that high terrain to New Mexico. Sounds about right. Roy and Sandy, by the way, wore sidearms, both rather fashionably, as well they should given the rattlers and the potential for lions and their preference for high places—dozens inhabit the valley, perhaps 50, though rarely seen.
Hogback is actually a short hike in terms of distance, less than 4 miles round trip, closer to 3, and close to town. Given that it’s already October, we don’t expect publicity given here will lead to a swarm of people descending on the trailhead, and by next summer, most likely, this account will be largely forgot-ten (fascinating as it is). Hogback though is certainly memorable, yet it’s the usual bargain—no guts, no glory. And as with so many challenges that make life worth living, the trek upward is worth the effort, for those of any age.