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62 years in, Lummis sees the wild

August 16, 2017 GMT

HAWKS REST — Former U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis knelt by the shore of the Teton Wilderness’ Bridger Lake late Sunday morning, unhooking a modest cutthroat that she fooled by slow retrieving a Li’l Jake.

It was an unlikely scene for the 62-year-old, four-term Republican congresswoman, who had never before spent a night in the backcountry or even wandered into a wilderness area — let alone horse-packed to Hawks Rest, the most remote point in the Lower 48. But stepping foot in the Thorofare country was a longtime desire, and one she acted on when state senator and friend Leland Christensen extended an invite.

“I’ve always had a fascination with this place,” Lummis said, “and now that I’m out of politics I can actually disappear.”

Lummis, who grew up on a Cheyenne ranch, decided not to run for re-election for her U.S. House seat in 2016. That year, in the primary election to take her place, Liz Cheney knocked out Christensen. Annaliese Wiederspahn, Lummis’ daughter who chaired Christensen’s campaign, also tagged along for the Thorofare trip.

But strategizing politics was far down on the agenda for the four-day excursion. Instead the priorities were fishing, napping, unwinding and taking in the views of the vast Upper Yellowstone River valley. Riding into Hawks Rest on horseback, Lummis marveled at wildflowers that were still impressively blooming in the remote high country just south of Yellowstone National Park.

“That fireweed, those little lilies that were tremendously dainty,” she said. “You name it, it was just so beautiful.”

The spectacular landscape was a welcome distraction to the inevitable pain that set in after straddling a horse for eight straight hours. Twenty-eight miles in, at the destination, her legs were completely numb.

“I had to sit there and wiggle a little bit in the saddle until I could feel my legs,” Lummis said. “That was hard. It was hard to dismount.”

Turning 60, Lummis shot an alligator with a friend in a Gulf Coast bayou. She realized that opportunities for adventure are bound to become fewer and fewer as the years pass.

After leaving office in January, Lummis literally turned her back on Washington, D.C. In eight months a return trip hasn’t materialized. She has traded a chock-full schedule with something on the docket every 15 minutes for more of a freewheeling existence, spent mostly bouncing between properties in Star Valley, Wheatland and her childhood ranch.

“I’m at peace,” she said. “I know that sounds kind of corny, but I’m happy as the dickens to be in Wyoming full time.”

A pet project she has taken on is helping with a Platte County cheatgrass restoration project. The “nasty” nonnative grass, she said, is dry, brittle, noxious and particularly pervasive after wildfires in her area.

“The next lightning strike, there it goes again,” Lummis said. “It’s burn, infest and repeat.”

Helping to rid the Wyoming prairie of it, she said, has her happily rubbing shoulders with neighbors and learning about land stewardship.

During her four days in the Teton Wilderness, Lummis was led by Christensen, who has almost never missed a Hawks Rest pack trip since his inaugural voyage in 1986. Watching the Alta resident and his sons at work was impressive, she said.

The party’s time in the Teton Wilderness had Lummis recreating in a class of protected land that she had some reservations about while in office. Wyoming’s many wilderness areas are a “good thing,” she told the News&Guide in 2014, but at the time she also expressed doubt about the wisdom of future wilderness designations in places like the Snake River and Gros Ventre mountain ranges.

“There’s definitely a place for wilderness, and this is the perfect place for wilderness,” Lummis said at Bridger Lake. “There’s no place I’d rather be today than right where I’m standing.”