Chew Frost, Outfitter and Wyoming State Historian, combined quiet strength with a determination to leave at least part of the Wyoming he knew and loved for future generations. His story appeared in AHEAD OF THEIR TIME: WYOMING VOICES FOR WILDERNESS, 2004, White Willow Press, sponsored by the Wyoming Wilderness Assn.
A MODERN DAY
|A moon silvered Bridger Lake, outlined the massive bulk of the Absaroka’s Trident Plateau, and lit a grassy promontory where four canvas tents shared space with the coals of an evening cook fire. One man sat reflecting. “And it came to me,” he wrote later, “that here I reclined in one of this world’s exceptional places … a spot … spared the blare of highways, the discord of motors, the flashing neon signs, the empty beer cans and the streaming paper tissues…”
A voice interrupted his thoughts. “Kereful friend,” he heard.
Two figures dressed in “fringed buckskins, moccasin booted, and capped by broad, brimmed felt” stepped from the shadows.
Nedward Mahlon “Chew” Frost stood, the moon revealing a long face, leathered below his hat line, baby soft above. His eyes sagged in a squint, but glinted with intelligence and a natural wry humor, his look turning to surprise as he recognized the strangers the legendary explorers Jim Bridger and Tom Fitzpatrick.
The mandatory courtesies gave him time to recover. But what do you say to a pair of ghosts?
“You boys making much of a scout?” he asked finally.
“Jest makin’ a little sashay’ and reconnoitern’ a few of the old trails,” Tom answered.
Jim said, “There aint much wilderness left and that’s our interest. Yore sittin’ right square center of about the biggest piece to be found anywhere …” He was talking about the Washakie Wilderness, the theme of Chew’s allegorical tale, Three Mountain Men Discourse on Wilderness.
When Chew included himself in the “mountain man” category, he did so without hubris. He was raised by mountain men and made his living much as they had. He was also a rancher, a wildlife botanist, a historian, a World War II veteran, a writer, and an advocate of limiting use of Wyoming’s remaining wilderness to recreation. Recreation for Chew meant his business, outfitting.
Chew followed a lifestyle set by his grandfather, a Civil War veteran, a man who trekked into Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin in a wagon and made a living by ranching and hunting. Mahlon L. Frost’s idea of a vacation was to take the family to Yellowstone, roping a wagon down parts of Dead Indian pass and cutting a way up to the Cooke City trail, hauling along a milk cow, an early traveler’s go cup.
But Wyoming had changed. Thanks to the homogenizing effects of progress and the seemingly innocuous concept of “multiple use,” most of Wyoming was just another place.
Roads were to blame. “There’s no stopping them once a road’s there,” Chew said. But other encroachments were destroying the wilderness, too. Small things, soul-eroding things. Chew had a story to illustrate the point. In the mid-1950’s a couple asked him to take them “someplace where there’s no sign of people.” Since Chew normally made his own trails, he figured he could deliver.
They headed toward the high, rough Absaroka Divide in the now Washakie Wilderness. “Years earlier,” he wrote, “in the 20’s and early 30’s, my father had done a lot of hunting along this jagged, 12,000 foot divide and, as a youngster, I had been in on one or two of his operations there. But his camp sites were old, tent poles rotted where they leaned into trees, and grass had grown even to the center of their camp fire spots …But wonder of wonder, here in the civilized and pressurized Wyoming of the mid-1950’s, a country as good as virgin, a country free of pilgrims…”
Chew's party scrambled up a high ridge, horses struggling, loads swaying dangerously on a thousand-foot slope. The big Belgian that carried the camp stoves went up in huge lunges, his head swinging from side to side, a unique technique for getting through trees without hanging up his load, the arc of the swing being the space he needed.
The riders dismounted and fought for their own footing. When they came over the crest at last, breathless and flushed, lungs heaving in the thin air, they were on top of the world, summits close enough to touch, and just ahead lay a bowl of land lush with grass. Ram Pasture.
The name came from the thirty to forty bighorn rams that had once gathered there. Once. This was the mid-1950’s, and only a handful of animals were in evidence.
They set up camp. The horse jingler, Anson Eddy, renailed a loose horseshoe. Frankie Lassiter put a bell on the alpha mare and hobbles on his riding horse. Jim Moots, the camp cook, began the serious business of fixing dinner. Gradually, everyone gathered around Jim’s fire, shrugging into jackets against the evening cold.
A breeze blew up, sloughing off pine tops, rippling over grasses, creating a sound like the wash of a quiet surf. A hawk winged overhead. Flames crackled and hissed on green wood, the sound an accompaniment to the munching of grazing horses. The summits turned to black silhouettes, stark against a sky blazing with a palette of scarlets, oranges, and purples.
The scream of a two-stroke engine shattered the peace, reverberated against the mountains, brought Chew to his feet. Out in the meadow the shadowy shapes of the bighorns disappeared. The horses, after an initial alarm, resumed eating, their figures blurring as a blue vapor oozed into the meadow carrying the acrid, nose-twisting smell of burning oil.
Chew knew then that there was no place where a man could go to experience what previous generations had enjoyed, a wilderness unaffected by human presence. He would write, “Often enough it is man himself who man does not want in his wilderness.” Read the rest in Ahead of Their Time
© 2004 by Patricia A. Stuart
|Photos are of a pack trip into the Washakie Wilderness and are from the collection of Greg and Kay Frost. They are used with their permission.|