Randy Udall (center), his cousin Tom, and the author, age eight, in the Wind River Range; right, exploring the Range
Chris Landry; Weston Boyles
Randy Udall (center), his cousin Tom, and the author, age eight, in the Wind River Range; right, exploring the Range
Randy Udall (center), his cousin Tom, and the author, age eight, in the Wind River Range; right, exploring the Range (Photos: Chris Landry; Weston Boyles)

A Daughter Finds Unexpected Discoveries on Her Father’s Favorite Trail

Randy Udall was most at peace in the wilderness. After he died on a solo backpacking trip, his daughter took up his tradition of hiking to a secret place in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, where she was surprised by what she found.

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In September 2012, when I was 26 years old, my father, Randy, sent me an email with a subject line that read, “Go to this rock.” He wrote: “Someday, I want you to go to this rock. It’s in a stunning place. I call it the Universe Clock. It needs to be ‘wound’ or rocked once a year to keep things in harmony.”

The Universe Clock is in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Perched on a narrow rib of the Continental Divide, the Clock is a large slab of granite—approximately nine by eleven feet—balanced on a stone fulcrum like a seesaw. My dad described it as his favorite place in the entire mountain range.

He stumbled on the Clock during an off-trail hike, near what would be the end of his lifelong love affair with the Winds. In 1978, he traversed the range on skis, from South Pass to Dubois—a distance of some 200 miles—over three weeks with his brother and a friend. After that trip, he spent countless weeks in the Winds, occasionally with companions but often alone, learning how each basin knit together. In later years, he obsessively pursued elusive golden trout there with a fly rod.

Nine months after emailing me about the Clock, my dad died at 61 while on a solo backpacking trip in the Winds—and only 20 miles from the Clock. He had a massive heart attack and crumpled to the ground with his hiking poles still in hand. When he didn’t return on time, a search began, and it would be almost a week before his body was spotted from a helicopter. I had just finished my first year of law school. I don’t believe in God, but to have your father die in his favorite place in the world rather than in the checkout line at Safeway does give you some faith.

My dad was a rangy six foot four, with, as his friends described it, a permanent sly grin. Bushy eyebrows framed his blue eyes, which were usually creased in concentration or a smirk. He was known for setting such a relentless pace on foot or skis that his partners rarely saw him again after leaving the trailhead. Only once did I summit a mountain before him; when he arrived at the top, he quipped that he was having “an off day.”

Randy Udall fly fishing
Randy was an avid outdoorsman (Weston Boyles)
The author and her father fishing on a backpacking trip in the Winds
The author and her father fishing on a backpacking trip in the Winds (Chris Landry)

Randy came from a family of outdoorspeople and conservationists. His father was Morris “Mo” Udall, a congressman from Arizona for three decades and a Democratic presidential candidate in 1976; his crowning achievement was passage of a monumental bill that protected more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska. Randy’s uncle Stewart served as secretary of the interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, during which time he helped expand the national park system and championed major environmental legislation. Randy’s brother Mark and cousin Tom served Colorado and New Mexico, respectively, in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

Tom and my dad took me on my first backpacking trip in the Winds when I was eight. I caught a fish on a fly rod and was mercilessly attacked by biting blackflies that burrowed under my blond braids. Tom often spent part of his August congressional recess in the Winds with my dad and friends.

Randy’s professional life was nontraditional in comparison. A college dropout, he was a fierce and largely self-taught intellectual who dedicated his career to energy sustainability and climate action. He cofounded the nonprofit Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, and served for more than a decade as its director. Under his leadership, CORE developed innovative programs to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. Randy later continued this work through freelance writing and advocacy.

After he came upon the Clock, my dad began the practice of recruiting the next person to make the pilgrimage—to fulfill the annual “winding” duty. He would identify a disciple and describe the route and task. In one of the early years, he tapped an ex-boyfriend of mine, who journeyed to the Clock in June, when the high valleys were still choked with snow. My dad once dispatched a total stranger, a woman he’d met hiking in the Winds, and she traveled to the Clock accompanied by her dog. Before his death, he squeezed in a few more Clock visits himself, including trips with my mom and some close friends.

Randy defied social norms. He rarely wore socks, even in the winter, and had no table manners or patience for niceties. He eschewed material luxury and was stubbornly pragmatic, building our childhood home and doing all the mechanical work himself on his fleet of beater cars. But he savored whimsy—like conjuring up a tale about a clock made
of stone.

Nine months after emailing me about the Clock, my dad died at 61 while on a solo backpacking trip in the Winds. He had a massive heart attack and crumpled to the ground with his hiking poles still in hand.

My dad was known for his irreverence and mercurial presence. One moment he’d be totally focused on you, oozing charisma and interest; the next he’d disappear into his thoughts or the hills. My mom quickly learned that the domestic confines of parenthood were in tension with my dad’s desire to live on his own terms and explore wild places. Her crash course in this reality came when my older sister was just four weeks old and my dad left for a three-week Grand Canyon rafting trip, saying as he walked out the door, “You’ve got this under control, right?”

My dad struggled with intimacy and connection. He tended to keep people at arm’s length. He rarely returned a verbal expression of love, even to me and my siblings.

Yearning for more attention and consistency, I always agreed to tag along on his adventures. My dad loved sharing the exuberance of a challenge, and he was obsessed with movement and found rapture in exploration. To be invited on a hike made you feel knighted, placed on an honor roll. Starting with that first trip to the Winds when I was eight, we shared many expeditions on skis and foot.

One time, when I was nursing a wounded heart from a college breakup, we met in central Colorado to climb a peak called Ice Mountain. Our summit day was rainy, and on the descent we encountered a half dozen mountain goats. Seeing those shaggy beasts shrouded in ephemeral mist became an anchor for our relationship as I entered adulthood. I later learned that my dad emailed a girlfriend of mine and asked her to do the following: “Someday, when I am gone, please remind Tarn that I loved her more than all of the goats on Ice Mountain.”

It was in the outdoors where I most clearly felt my father’s love. We laughed a lot and reveled in the glory of a big day or an incredible view. He could be an unreliable trip mate, and often got antsy to start off before the rest of the group was ready or even awake. But he wouldn’t leave camp without first shoving
a piece of buttered toast and a mug of Lapsang souchong tea under the tent vestibule and mumbling about where I could find him up the trail.

In my early twenties, we went backpacking in the Grand Gulch area of southeastern Utah. Our relationship had been strained for a few months, and the trip was an opportunity for repair. We mostly walked in silence, but at night, our faces illuminated by moonlight, he recounted the origins of his pursuit of solitude. His parents divorced when he was 12. He recalled standing atop a rocky pinnacle in the Catalina Mountains, above his hometown of Tucson, Arizona, and turning away from the city below to observe the craggy lands to the north. In that moment, as a sad preteen, he linked people and intimacy with loss and hurt. He saw the mountains as an escape from deep pain.

Part of the tragedy of my father’s death was that it came shortly after he began reckoning with his past trauma. In the last few years of his life, he started to nurture his relationships with a novel intention and vulnerability. He admitted that he finally realized he needed others more than he had ever allowed himself to acknowledge.

Friends of the author winding the Universe Clock in 2021
Friends of the author winding the Universe Clock in 2021 (Steve Creech)

I went to the Clock for the first time a few months after my father’s death with a group of eight close friends. Planning that trip—a wilderness eulogy—was the only thing that made sense in those sad days. As soon as I reached the base, I understood the Clock’s allure. It sits almost 12,000 feet above sea level, at the apex of two cirques crowned by jagged, glaciated peaks. It hovers directly above a lone lake on the west side of the Continental Divide, with more lakes glimmering in the valley to the east.

This story marks the first time the existence of the Clock has been made public beyond my dad’s inner circle. Getting there is an achievement—my dad was a master of navigation who used quadrangle maps and a compass, scorning the shift toward reliance on GPS. But I’m purposefully not disclosing the Clock’s location, as a way to honor the mystery and the memory of my father, who came upon it unguided by beta or a pin on a navigational device.

The site can be accessed from numerous trailheads, but no route is straightforward or shorter than 30 miles round trip. At a minimum, a proper trek requires three days and two nights in the backcountry, and that’s if you’re fit and traveling light. Part of the fun is designing a backpacking itinerary that combines a stop at the Clock along with scenic day hikes and superb fishing. The final push is off-trail, and you have to thrash through willows or ascend steep scree. Winding the Clock is a stout task. (And, despite what we call it, the physical action is not so much a circular winding as a gentle teeter-tottering of the massive slab.) For one thing, the gales are almost always howling on the Divide. Ideally, you need at least two people for the job, one standing at each end, as it takes some athleticism to get the rock moving. Slowly, slowly, the motion intensifies, until it achieves a terrifying lilt. Your stomach jumps, and you wonder if you can maintain your balance as you continue to rock it as far you dare go, lest you careen off your end of this seesaw and down the talus slope.

After we rocked it back and forth, I sat alone and sobbed, the wind gulping my wails.

Since my first visit, I’ve taken up the mantle of enlisting Clock crusaders. Every August I start wondering if we will get it wound before winter arrives. When friends ask for ideas on where to go backpacking, I often say: “Hey, actually, this is kind of weird, but could you do me a big favor? The universe depends on it.”

The club has grown larger and includes childhood friends, my brother, uncle, and husband, and our toddler son, who has been twice—once in utero and again when we hauled him there at six months old. Some of these people knew my dad and understood the draw. Others just got on board.

After a successful winding, an email goes out to the expanding circle of believers: “Brandon and I were lucky enough to get to the Clock yesterday. It was warm and calm and as beautiful as ever.” And a reply: “Thanks for keeping the world in time.” “Good news. The Universe Clock was wound and is in working order. Maybe one of you will get there next year!” “I wanted to let you know I wound the Universe Clock a few weeks ago. The wind was the strongest I think I have ever experienced. I know I was rocking but due to the force of the wind I’m not certain the giant slab was moving.”

To be invited on a hike made you feel knighted, placed on an honor roll. Starting with that first trip to the Winds when I was eight, we shared many expeditions on skis and foot.

I now have several close friends who have lost parents. At times I’ve envied those whose mother or father died slowly, given a prognosis of a few months, maybe a year if they were lucky. I yearn for what I imagine to be extended goodbyes, salve applied to past wounds, words of wisdom for a future wedding day or the birth of a child.

But there are no winners in the Dead Dads Club. No easy way to lose someone. Though I experienced a blunt, sudden trauma, I have no memories of my dad in a hospital bed, hooked up to monitors and tubes, a terminal disease sapping his strength. My only image of him in death and decay is the photograph the search and rescue team showed me to identify his body while I was in Wyoming helping coordinate the search. “Yep, that’s him,” I said. My remaining snapshots are of his long, unrivaled stride, which was the cadence of all our time in the mountains together, and the glimmer of his eyes squinting toward the sun-smeared horizon.

And I have his email dispatches—the directive to go to the Clock and others. He wrote to me three years before his death: “I’ve been thinking about mortality lately, with my aging.… And I just want you to know that I have really enjoyed all our trips outdoors together. I’ll be with you outside always when I’m gone. Know that.”

My relationship with the passage of time has been fraught since my dad’s death. Time heals, they say. But as the years creep on, my connection with him recedes, blurring around the edges. It becomes harder to recall his voice or smell, and he appears less frequently in my dreams.

There have been many days when I’ve felt uncertain and shaky in my grief. But to stand on the Clock is to be completely unsteady—knees quaking atop a tremor of granite—and yet in total equilibrium. My dad’s decision to see a hunk of stone and dub it a timepiece is a gift. His invitation to go to the Clock delivered a healing ritual and forged a lasting link to him.

A trip to the Clock also offers the chance to grapple with the mystical qualities of time, space, and scale. It evokes inaudible melodies and unknown dimensions. The winding marks another year’s passage, the relentless pulse of the metronome. But after it is wound, the rock slowly regains stillness—arresting the modern obsession with certainty, shrinking the gulf between dead and living, memory and experience.

From March/April 2023 Lead Photos: Chris Landry; Weston Boyles