A rock from a mountaintop

Aug 2, 2013 By Steven R. Peck

I know better, but it helps me remember a nice day.

It's confession time.

I took a rock from a national forest.

It's about the size and shape of a half-size brick, but white and almost flaky.

I picked it up and brought it home. It helps me remember a nice day.

We drove home from hundreds of miles away on a route less traveled, one of those "I've-always-meant-to-take-that-turnoff" roads you see curling away from the big highway.

On this day we took it, for once not having to hurry home to a waiting desk, for once not having to speed away because there was always one more thing to get done before setting out.

We laid down the miles from Laramie over the Snowy Range Highway, the huge valley dropping off the bench to the south, still tinted green in July. At Centennial, two regulars sat on a wooden bench outside the local eatery. My wife's greeting coaxed a nod out of them, but they were having none of me. If I were in their place, I'd choose her too.

"Dining room's closed," said a man inside with a thick, graying braid. "But there's food and music out back."

We followed our noses to burgers on the grill, with a seen-it-all woman handling both the spatula and the cash box. Styrofoam cups of wine -- "cab or sin," she said.

There isn't much flat ground in Centennial. We sat on the green slope and listened to the band. The leader had a Fender electric with an amp on a long orange cord. The old rock 'n roller was an autumn chicken at best, but he could play.

Backing him were a rhythm guitarist with an instrument covered in duct tape, a smiling old hippie with three teeth missing, banging on a pair of huge congas, and an earnest, long-haired woman with a flute.

Not your typical rock 'n roll combo, but they pounded out a heck of a "Run Around Sue."

A slobbery dog wagged around with a note around its neck reading "Kisses, 1 dollar." No takers. A couple of unwashed, sunburned young guys were strutting their scruff to a girl in cutoffs with stringy blonde hair. She wasn't too interested, but the day was still young.

Some frat boys from the 1970s were having a reunion, and there was a vacationing family with a couple of bored tweeners with a football. I remember their feeling well, but a lifetime later I was happy enough to be there on the grass with lunch and some music playing.

Back in the car we began the climb to Snowy Range Pass, bending through the trees on a warm afternoon. Some motorcycles growled past, hugging turns and leaning into centerlines on the way up. The car thermometer showed 83 at Centennial, but it dropped a degree per minute as we climbed. When we stepped out at the Medicine Bow Peak Overlook, it was 63.

Our car was the only one at the overlook when we arrived. The highway pass is just short of 11,000 feet, with big Medicine Bow Peak in spectacular view close by, elevation 12,012.

A memorial marker told the barest details of the airplane crash on the mountain in 1955, and our eyes couldn't help scanning the glaciered face for a sign of something, more than 57 years later.

I've read that the Air Force bombed the mountainside to try to destroy, dislodge or bury the remains of the DC-4 that angled into the peak just after sunrise on an October day, killing all 66 aboard. At the time it was the deadliest plane crash in American history.

There's a mile-long foot trail in the other direction, and we spent about half an hour covering it. Bark beetles have turned the forest up the mountain into a heartbreaking scene of red and gray, but at the top the Engleman spruce are more or less thriving, twisted and knotted a bit , courtesy of their windy, cold clime.

July is wildflower season in Wyoming's mountains, and we were treated to the full show. And it's not grass, it's sedge. We read the sign.

The trail wound down and then back up. I picked up my rock near the bottom. The rocks are everywhere in all conceivable traits. As I held it, I remembered by mother's admonition from nearly 50 years earlier at some similar place as I picked up a granite prize: "What if everybody took one?" she said. "Put it back."

I did a 270-degree scan of my surroundings and engaged in a quick bit of rationalizing. What if everybody took one? Then everyone would have a rock from Snowy Range Pass, and there still would be 10 million rocks there.

Near the end of the path is a broken down cabin, once the home to some gold miners. It was pretty well sheltered, built of thick logs cut a century before a bark beetle was ever seen in Wyoming.

We felt the altitude as we climbed the half mile to our parking place, back to the asphalt and the engine. I slipped the rock into the back seat. It helps adorn a spot in my yard. If anyone wants to prosecute my crime, here's a deal: Identify the stolen rock, and we'll talk.

Home after dark, I stretched out to sleep and relived the hike in my drowse.

Near the old cabin sang a small stream, fed by the glacier of the big mountain.

I dipped in my fingers and felt, on a July day, the next-closest thing to ice.

That tiny brook must have meant everything to the men who lived in that single, woody room on a mountainside -- a drink, a diversion, a wash, a vision.

And, as it was for me hours later, a lullaby.

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