A Wintery Mix

The delicate snow gingerly descended upon the landscape. A family of deer paused in a clearing of cold green grass. They made eye contact and then trampled back into the aspen grove. I was climbing up the mountainside in my car under the blanket of white and grey sky above me, having left the arid canyons and valleys of Dinosaur National Monument and now moving into the rich wet forests approaching Grand Teton National Park.

The wind picked up, and the aspen rattled as the pines swayed side to side. I was thrilled by the sudden change in environment. I had partially expected this. I knew I’d be making my way into colder temperatures, but snow hadn’t crossed my mind. I had stopped days before in Grand Junction, Colorado to buy a pair of jeans, since I had no long pants and also another sleeping bag. This would make three sleeping bags to layer up and keep me warm. I had read the temperatures in this region, even in June, could still swoop down into the forties and even the thirties. For this trip in its entirety I had initially packed more for the desert, and couldn’t have imagined packing for snow, especially back in my sweltering apartment in Kentucky.

The snow picked up and the wind swirled it around. Here I was in a blizzard in June. This was novel, and I loved every minute of it. After my northward journey, and ascending about two thousand feet from where I started at Dinosaur National Monument. I arrived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a ski-resort town but also a tourist and outdoor adventure hub, and in that sense the Moab of the North. I didn’t know this place was such a destination but quickly learned it was the only remaining town before entering Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks from the south. Unsure of when or where my next meal might come from, I quickly slid out into the cold to run into a Mcdonalds for a chicken sandwich. Afterward I changed my attire in my car, from my shorts and tank top into my new jeans and flannel.

Cars started to line up on the roads through Jackson Hole. People were out and about on vacation, although given the weather it may have looked like people were out for last minute Christmas shopping. The crowded roadway added to the hype of reaching the park. This was not some place tucked away off the beaten path but this place was known. This was the place to be. You could feel the excitement in the air, wedged in between the falling snow.

I rolled into Coulter Bay Campground where I checked in and was assigned a campsite. The landscape was grey and green between the grey sky, the pavement and crushed rocks, and the grey of the tree limbs which stuck out skeletally among the forest of tightly packed conifers. This landscape was new to me. I’d never been to the northwest woods. The excitement of a new terrain beset me and the rich wet aroma of pines dampened any dry configuration for the desert I was affixed to. When I turned the car key and pulled it out from ignition, I had one goal in mind: to set up my tent as fast as possible getting the least wet possible. The snow had turned into a mixture of  sleet and rain, what one would call a “wintery mix,” but it seemed inappropriate to use the term in June. 

When I had purchased my additional sleeping bag and jeans, I had also purchased a new tent to replace True Blue which had been decimated in the monsoon at Guadalupe Mountain National Park. The good aspect of this was that all the components of the tent would be all neatly put together. The downside was that I was anticipating fumbling around, trying to learn to set up a new tent in this undesirable weather. However, it was a success. I set the tent up quickly despite my fingers growing slightly numb from the cold. Being so new, it was perfectly clean and had that new tent smell. I wasn’t sure how sleeping was going to be in the freezing cold, but I felt perhaps adequately prepared and realized only time would tell.  

I warmed back up in my car and made my way to the visitor center at Coulter Bay. Coulter Bay is the only named “village” of Grand Teton National Park. A National Park “village” is a location where services are congregated. Usually there is a campground, a general store, gas station, a restaurant, a visitor center, and lodging. Although Coulter Bay is the only one that formally bears “village” with its title, The Jenny Lake area of the park I would also classify as a village. Next door, Yellowstone National Park has many villages because of its immense size and popularity. 

Although I already had some trails planned. I wanted to consult a ranger to make sure I didn’t miss anything and also to inquire about what to do in the present state of rain, so I made my way up to the counter in the visitor center. A friendly gentleman handed me a park map and guide. “Here’s what you need to do. Go to the Jackson Lake Lodge, find yourself a nice seat in front of one of the big fireplaces, look through the guide I gave you, and plan some things for tomorrow.” I liked his friendly assertiveness and recognized his Chicago accent. He lifted the responsibility of having to plan my evening, and I liked the sound of what he was saying. I was thinking maybe the weather would clear. Maybe I could squeeze in a hike today, but taking some time to relax by a fire in a lodge while the weather did it’s wintery thing outside sounded very much appealing. I loaded up my backpack with my Chromebook, postcards, journal, and pens, and stepped into the most comforting of lodges. 

I’d seen Jackson Lake Lodge in pictures particularly its grand atrium perfectly framing the Tetons. At the cusp of Project 66, the largest construction program of the National Park Service in which many of the visitor centers and modern facilities were constructed, John D. Rockefeller had this lodge constructed in1955. It is modern, but tasteful. It’s most unpretentious on the outside and on the inside it’s sleek, warm, and dignified. In the corners on either side of the main room stood enormous fireplaces, big enough to walk into. They were blazing and crackling and it was the perfect comfort and contrast to the climate outside. I settled into a comfortable chair, a mound of chopped firewood stood against the wall to my left. At one point a lodge employee threw some more wood onto the fire and poked it with a stick. I began to write some postcards and tried to drown out the obnoxious clamor of the kids around me. Two ladies talked as their kids ran about the fireplace and furniture. One girl, probably around six years old or so approached me and asked what I was doing. I simply told her I was writing postcards.  They had ice cream in paper cups from somewhere. They spilled it across the coffee table and giggled. I decided to move. I found a seat further in the lobby where I could focus on writing my postcards. It then became a most peaceful and enjoyable experience. Given the weather, I really had no place to be, and here I was warm, in a beautiful lodge, with the welcoming glow of lamps and the fire contrasting the gloom outside. I could relax. It was astounding to consider how far my trip had taken me so far, from the sweltering heat of the West Texas desert  and straddling the U.S.-Mexico border to now in the wintery northern woods. 

I then opened up my park guide. I saw the listing of some ranger led hikes scheduled for the following day and I decided to scrap my plans. A ranger led hike seemed much more appealing. Also I was concerned about grizzly bears after reading all the warnings. This would pacify the concern. I’d read quite a bit about grizzly bears in preparation for this trip. This was my first visit in grizzly bear country. I learned that attacks, though rare, are nearly always on solo hikers. Hiking with others is exponentially safer. Usually I don’t learn about ranger led hikes enough in advance to participate, but here in this guide they were planned out for all summer at specific times.

Sitting here I also quickly hopped on the internet to check the weather, retrieve some addresses for postcards, and share this post:  “Here’s an update- Dinosaur National Monument in Utah was very colorful and beautiful. Today I traveled through a blizzard into Wyoming. I set up my new tent for the first time in Grand Teton National Park. It’s a new landscape and climate for me. The pine smell is amazing. It’s raining and there is a “winter” storm advisory- snow expected tonight, so right now I am at Jackson Lake Lodge sitting by a grand fireplace. I sort of feel like I am at a Disney Resort. Everything is perfect. I can’t see the Tetons because of the clouds and rain, but I spoke with a ranger, and tomorrow the weather will clear and I will do some hiking and see the Tetons in all their glory. I admit I do want to see a grizzly bear, but just at a safe distance.”

The rest of my evening would simply involve dinner in the lodge and returning to my camp for slumber, but first I would have my most memorable wildlife encounter in the park and would find myself in trouble once again with a park ranger.

Read the previous entry “Be Still. Be Calm. Be Quiet,” here: https://joshthehodge.com/2020/09/12/be-still-be-calm-be-quiet/

Check out my book Canyonlands: my adventures in the national parks and the beautiful wild here: https://www.amazon.com/Canyonlands-adventures-National-Parks-beautiful/dp/1711397873

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