I’d wanted to return to the Grand Tetons for nearly two years.
I first saw the mountains while driving west on my way out to Reno. They struck me almost like a blow, I’d never seen mountains so sharp or tall. We had crossed the Rockies, but this was different – these were like the fingers of God.
July was my first time seeing them again. In 2012 we’d driven past the mountains at sunset, passing herds of bison and taking pictures of the mountains until the light failed. The next day we were driving as far as Reno, so there was no time to do more than learn the name of the mountain range and give our own secret names to the peaks that had most unsettled us.
I expected to feel frightened and disturbed like I had when I first saw the mountains, but I’ve grown since last time, and they didn’t affect me the same way. I must have taken a hundred photos, trying to catch the range from every angle as the light changed. I hiked into some of the canyons, exploring the hidden places of the mountain range. After all the exploring, though, I left feeling like the mountains still had something to tell me, something I hadn’t quite heard while I was there. Maybe to really understand this mountain range I need to summit one of the peaks – something I wasn’t prepared for on this visit.
I’d left Reno for the last time (in the foreseeable future) on Tuesday midmorning, car packed to the brim with the remaining possessions I couldn’t part with. I followed a route that took me through northeastern Nevada, northwestern Utah, and a corner of Idaho where I eventually camped for the night. My roads were two-lane highways and I generally avoided interstates, so cell phone reception was spotty and my musical selection limited. I kept things interesting by sampling the ancient CD collection that has lived in my car since high school; for the misty, ethereal morning sunrise over the Idaho farmlands, I picked Radiohead’s Amnesiac.
I was just beginning the second listen-through when I entered Jackson from the south – gas stations and supermarkets crowded each other and broke the mesmerizing atmosphere just as the sun rose high enough to burn through the last of the morning mist.
It was a different experience seeing the mountains after driving through crowded, superficial Jackson as opposed to coming on them suddenly after miles of empty mountain roads. I felt more like a tourist, less like I was discovering the mountains unexpectedly. I was in luck, though – the road was busy but not congested (apparently this is rare), and I was lucky to snag a campsite for the following two nights.
I set up camp, but the morning air was clinging to the inside of my head and making me feel aimless. I hadn’t planned any major activities for the day – a mistake I still sometimes make as I’m getting the hang of solo travel – so to keep myself from feeling like I was wasting time, I packed food and hopped on my bike to explore the park and get some exercise.
The drama of this range can’t be conveyed through photographs – it must be experienced in person. These mountains were formed along a fault – no, they are the fault: the top of the ridge is one edge of the fault, the other edge far below at their roots. There are no foothills, no gradual rise in elevation. They burst from the landscape. Standing by these mountains, you can almost feel the surrounding area still trembling from the violence of their rising.
Near sunset I swapped my bike out for the car so I could take in the length of the scenic drive that parallels the Teton range.
The next morning I was sick from something I’d eaten the night before, but I’m an old hand at weathering exciting digestive incidents, so I decided to drive into Jackson for espresso (and the coffee shop’s flush toilets). By midmorning, after I felt well enough to go through with my plan for the day – volunteering for trail maintenance with a cleanup crew.
It was a day of hard work brushing out a trail above one of the park’s alpine lakes. Working alongside me were a very young ranger on her summer break from college and an old retired woman who had more energy than me and the ranger combined. By the end of the day I was exhausted and happy to have spent the day getting plenty of exercise and fresh air, and making a contribution (however small) to the health of the park. As I begin this long season of traveling, I don’t want to experience the places I go as a typical tourist. It was good to participate more deeply in the growth of this park – not as a consumer, but as a participant in its maintenance.
That evening, feeling deeply worn out and satisfied from my hard day, I put on a flowy dress and drove into Jackson. I walked slowly along the busy streets of the tourist district, window shopping at the upscale outdoor outfitters and jewelry stores, people-watching. As the sun set, I drove back into camp, stopping for a couple of unexpected wildlife sightings – a bull moose and a bull elk!
At this point in the story, I suspect a normal exhausted person would have taken a day to recover from the hard work, possibly sleeping in, but I tend to push myself when I’m traveling. I don’t want to spend my time sleeping when there are mountains to climb! So, I hauled my tired butt out of my sleeping bag at 6:00, broke camp, and headed out to a trail for a 10-mile hike.
The morning light gave me a new look at the mountains – their shape and character changes subtly throughout the day as the light moves over new faces and into canyons.
Tired as I was, getting up really early turned out to be a great decision. All the hiking information in the park contains strict admonitions not to hike alone due to the presence of bears. I didn’t have a traveling or hiking partner, so after consulting with a ranger I’d planned to go up the trail armed with bear spray and plan to stick close to other hikers on the popular trail. However, I was in luck – I met another solo hiker at the trailhead and we agreed to hike together.
It only took about an hour of conversation for us to discover that we were both Couchsurfers and on road trips in opposite directions – I was going east, he was headed West. It was a serendipitous meeting that wouldn’t have happened if I’d slept in the way I wanted to!
The views at the top – Surprise lake and Amphitheater lake – were lovely. As we rested at Amphitheater lake, a gentle rain crossed the ridge and made its way east, gently dimpling the surface of the lake with perfect rings that gradually spread out and crossed each other over and over.
I wish I’d had the energy to follow the spur trail up to the peak pictured above – an additional 2,000 feet of climbing, with the top of the mountain just brushing the clouds. Starting a hike like that with uncertain weather is not the best idea, either, so I passed on the opportunity this time.
I didn’t find the trail particularly exotic, but we were treated to beautiful scenery. The park has had a late spring this year, and wildflowers blanket the trail corridors at various elevations. I also happened upon a beautiful leather belt that someone had abandoned on the hike. Good strong leather, it must have been made for a woman, because it was the right length for me, and tooled with ducks and wetland scenery.
After 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain, I was seriously worn out. Couchsurfer and I decided on a drink in Jackson, then headed to a campground by a developed hot spring, where I’d originally planned on staying on my way into the park.
I’ve been spoiled by many visits to beautiful undeveloped and remote springs, so I was a little unimpressed by the large concrete swimming pool “hot spring” that required a $6 entry fee. However, even the grumpy hot spring snob in me had to admit that the warm water felt amazing after two days of hard work. We soaked and floated in the water for about an hour, and enjoyed a hilarious conversation with a very drunk group of middle-aged ladies who had snuck vodka into the pool in their water bottles and were having a fantastic time splashing around in the spring and making snarky comments about the fat tourists.
The next day we headed north to Yellowstone, separately – planning to meet again in the next park, both of us a little lonely from our days spent traveling solo. I left the mountains for the time being, still not entirely understanding them, and promising to come back.