Yesterday's drizzle turned to snow overnight. The landscape grows whiter by the minute, but the sticky mud on the trail is the color of tar and as slippery as ice. The dark outline of the path snakes its way up the ridge and into the clouds before it disappears out of view. I shoulder my pack and start across the field, taking a minute to look up at the walk ahead and the weather I'm headed towards. Winter typically comes early in this country, and this year is no exception.
A slight dip in the path and the old weathered sign signal the boundary of the national forest. It's a mile from the trailhead, but with the wind and rough trail the distance seems much longer - and I'm not even a fifth of the way there. The scarred and worn wood post marks familiar territory, though. The trail leads to a place that I've hiked, or been carried, since before I can remember - leading to a small gravel bar alongside the stream where the basalt valley momentarily widens before it pushes into the Yellowstone backcountry. Memories of family and sun playing through my mind seem more distant as I'm pushing through the mud and snow, but bring a tangible warmth nonetheless.
With a strong gust the ceiling drops and the snow intensifies. The pines, spruce, willows, aspens, and rock cliffs cause the wind to funnel and swirl, and each flake flutters and dives wildly as they fall from the sky. The snow that hits my face stings, but melts instantly as if it was never there. As the snow continues it accumulates on my shoulders, the top of my head, and on my pack - I'm damp and cold, but swift pace uphill is keeping me warm. The trail emerges from the tunnel of the woods onto a volcanic plateau; for a brief moment there's a view. It's indescribably beautiful - and I stop for a moment to take it in. But as the wind rips across the exposed causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand up and my body to shudder, I decide not to linger for long.
Each step brings me higher in altitude, deeper into the mountains, and into colder, heavier air - but ever closer to where I'm going. Before long the trail bends to the left and dives down a scree slope where the stream draws close and I'm there. My pants are wet and caked with mud from the trail, but I slide on my waders anyway - lacing my boots and stringing my rod with a sense of urgency. Days are short this time of year in the mountains, and the clouds and snow are an ominous warning that there's even less time until night falls on this day. It's a long hike back to the car, and there's no time to waste.
Even with the water temperature plummeting, I tie on the tried and true, hoping to persuade a trout to come to the surface despite the blizzard. On the first cast a fish rises off the bottom; with a swift tail kick the trout accelerates - mouth open - and engulfs the fly in a display of naive wildness that can only happen in places like this. It's September in Wyoming, and the best things haven't changed.