My Cougar Encounter at Grand Teton National Park

I wasn’t supposed to hear that. This much I knew. A middle-aged woman leaned over to another and whispered, “I feel like such a cougar.” I was sitting next to her here in the Pioneer Grill in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. This was a 1950s style diner on the lower level of the Jackson Lake Lodge. According to the Grand Teton Lodge Company’s website, “The Pioneer Grill at Jackson Lake Lodge is one of the oldest and rumored to be the longest continual counters at 200 ft. One counter snakes through the room, creating a friendly atmosphere where guests interact with travelers.” Yep, most certainly. I was seated at one of the corners of the counter. Adjacent to me sat my fellow conversationalists for the evening, two middle-aged women. One of them had blondish grey hair and the other had black. It was the lady with the black hair closest to me who had spoken these words to the waitress: “I’m going to pay for that young man’s dinner.” I also wasn’t supposed to hear that. 

I hid behind my menu. This was mildly awkward. Was I supposed to react to what I overheard or pretend I didn’t hear it? I decided to play the latter.  When the waitress took my order she also took my menu, and there I was. The cougars, if you will, were looking right at me.

“So where are you visiting from?” the black-haired lady asked with a pleasant smile and inquisitive eyes.

“I’m from Kentucky,” I claimed. “What about you?”

“We are visiting from Washington. I’m Judy and this is my sister Cheryl. We are visiting on a sisters get-away for the weekend. What brings you here all the way from Kentucky?” First off, I was surprised her sister’s name was Cheryl as her appearance reminded me of my aunt Cheryl. 

“I’m on a National Park adventure. I flew into Phoenix, got a rental car, and have been camping and visiting National Parks all month,” I explained.

“Oh, you’re a teacher! What do you teach?”

“I teach Spanish in elementary school.”

“Well, good for you. Good for you,” she repeated.

“What do you do?” I inquired unaware of how much information this simple question would unpack.

 “I am a retired police officer. Worked thirty years.” She then proceeded to tell me all about her retirement benefits, how much money she was getting in retirement, how much money she was making before retirement, how she decided to retire. I was surprised. She was making nearly a six figure salary in retirement or so she claimed.

Given the fact I heard her say she felt like a “cougar,” and now she was talking about money, one could be suspicious of her intentions. But at the moment I thought nothing of this. I really thought she was just being friendly. She may have provided way too much information in her conversation, for talking so in depth about her retirement finances to a stranger is just rather odd. But I also sensed she may have had a few drinks at the bar before coming to the diner.

When she mentioned being a police officer I could definitely picture her in uniform. She was the type and had the demeanor to be an officer: forward and assertive in conversation, bold, not the least bit hesitant. I think she was speaking very honestly about her life and retirement and although she may have been trying to impress me, I’m just not impressed with how much money a person makes unless it’s out of sheer ingenuity. I think she was just excited about her retirement as it was all new to her. Not impressed with her money, I was appreciative of her many years of service as an officer, and showed her attentiveness as a good listener. 

The waitress came back and delivered my meal. The ladies had already finished theirs. I just got a chicken wrap, but now that I knew a rich lady in retirement was paying for my meal, I thought I’d order a cup of tea,  some Tazo Zen. I usually would be very economical if someone was buying my meal, but first off, I wasn’t supposed to know she was buying my meal, and she was bragging about her income. I thought about ordering tea earlier but was being somewhat stingy with my finances.

It did cross my mind more than once the thought that this lady really was singling me out and had other intentions as a “cougar,” but then she started engaging in conversation with the waitress. “So where are you from?” the retired officer turned to the waitress.

“I’m from Michigan,” the young lady said. “I’m in college. This is just a summer job.” She then proceeded to give some details about how she lives for the summer in the park in an employee village in dormitory style housing. She was very easy going and down to earth. I could tell she was genuine in conversation and had a good head on her shoulders. 

“How did you end up finding a job way out here?” Judy asked. 

“You know, there’s a website.” She then proceeded to tell us all about this website of listings of summer jobs in and around National Parks.” I asked her a few questions about it myself. “I’ll write it down for you. She grabbed a napkin and wrote the website address. “You’ll get a job and you’ll remember it was all because a girl in Grand Teton wrote a website down on a napkin in a diner for you,” she joked. She was absolutely right. This is a very pivotal moment, for it was because of this waitress I ultimately ended up finding my subsequent summers’ job in Montana along the border of Glacier National Park. These summers in Montana would greatly enrich my life. I kept that napkin, for the remainder of the trip. She planted the idea in my mind and that website was the key to make this a reality. 

I cusped the white ceramic mug in my hand. The hot tea on this cold wintry night in June was perfect. 

“So are you camping tonight?” Judy asked me. 

“Yes.” I gave a look of uncertainty. Uncertain of how the situation would play out. There was a winter storm warning for the night. I had already seen snow and the wintry mix. “I had three sleeping bags. I’m going to just really bundle up.” I purposely adjusted my tone in an attempt to draw out pity for my situation.  In my mind I was hoping the ladies would feel bad for me and offer to buy me a room in the lodge. That was an extravagant wish, I know, and rather unrealistic, but one can dream. Plus she had all that retirement money!  But as expected, neither offered. 

When I was done eating, and our conversations had come to a close, I acted so surprised when Judy paid for my dinner. I thanked her. It was a very nice thing to do, and I sincerely appreciated it. I told them to follow my adventures in the National Parks on my blog, and wrote down the web address in a little booklet Cheryl had fished from her purse. 

Leaving the lodge it was completely dark. The wintery sky had blocked out any sign of the moon. I left the heat of the tall fireplaces, the welcome of the warm glowing lamps in the lobby, and the assurance of the hot cup of tea in my hand into the cold small droplets of piercing rain in the foreboding darkness of the great outdoors. 

Driving back to my campground, a number of cars got really close behind me with their high beams on. I was obeying the speed limit and was being extra cautious. It was dark and the roads were wet. I didn’t want to hit a deer or an elk, or bison, or slide right off the road. Then the cars would rev up their engines and in a display of perceived superiority and frustration, zoom around me reaching speeds of seventy in this forty-five miles per hour zone. I did not like this one bit. I put on my flashing emergency lights. This is what I have learned to do in Kentucky. When you’re stuck behind a piece of farm equipment, or driving slow in the rain or snow, it seems to be customary in Kentucky to put your emergency lights on. It sends a signal that you can’t or won’t be going any faster. 

Then behind me red and blue lights started to flash. I was being pulled over. 

“Do you realize your emergency lights were on?” the male law enforcement ranger asked.

“Yes. There have been so many cars getting right up behind me and speeding around me, I put them on to let others know I’m not going any faster and will be following the speed limit.”

“You know it’s unlawful to have your emergency lights on if there is no emergency?”

“In Kentucky we put them on to let others know we aren’t going any faster.”

“I didn’t know that. I learned something new. May I see your license.” I obliged. Inside I was flustered. Out of all the people pulled over it was me when it should have been the careless drivers speeding in the park. He came back shortly to reiterate what he already told me about emergency lights. “Have a good night.” he concluded. “Stay safe.”

Phew! I had been nervous I would be getting some sort of ticket. I didn’t receive one, just the overwhelming feeling of an outlaw which beset me. 

Back at camp these events left my mind as I focused on the most important task at hand: surviving a night of camping in the freezing cold. I put on my full set of long underwear, followed by sweat pants, a long sleeve shirt, and two hoodies. I doubled up on socks and even put a pair over my hands. I shimmied my legs and the core of my body within two layers of sleeping bag. I unzipped the third sleeping bag and laid it over my head and upper body. I felt pretty good, decent, like I’d survive. When I woke up in the morning, I remember saying to myself, “ I think that’s the best I’ve ever slept.” I was ready to explore Grand Teton National Park.

Read the previous entry “A Wintery Mix” here:

Check out my book Canyonlands: my adventures in the national parks and the beautiful wild here:

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