The Mighty Tetons

“I’m going to need a venti latte with an extra shot and almond milk,” the lady spoke.

Where do you think you are? I’m asking quietly in my own mind with no anticipation of response. I knew exactly where I was, in Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming, a place where dramatic peaks of the Rocky Mountains strike up among pine forest and once cattle ranches are among mountain lakes, pristine rivers, and sprawling wild flowers. Specifically I was in the Coulter Bay Village in the general store. Apparently the lady had mistaken the canisters of drip coffee as a bonafide Starbucks establishment. She must not get out of the city very often, my thoughts proceeded. As they say in the South, “bless her heart.” After she resolved her order I got myself a nice cup of hot tea, perfect to thaw me out this cold morning. Although the temperature most likely dropped below freezing, layering up on clothes and burrowing under three layers of sleeping bags kept me warm and comfortable for the past two nights. I can’t think of a finer night’s sleep in my life than these nights in Grand Teton National Park. 

I was up rather early, eager to make my way to neighboring Yellowstone National Park. The previous morning I was also up early to make it to a ranger guided hike to Taggert Lake. I had given myself plenty of time to arrive, and I sat at the trailhead on a bench cold, wishing the sun would rise and warm up quickly. When the ranger arrived she led the small group of about twelve of us on a short 1.5 mile hike to the lake. Along the way she explained how one of the unique features of the Teton range is that there are no foothills, You can see the mountains begin at the valley floor and dramatically rise seven thousand feet. This is due to the sudden violent seismic activity that led to their creation. The Tetons are also unique in that they are believed to be the youngest mountains in the Rocky Mountain chain. Along with geology tidbits the ranger shared about plant life. She invited us to all rub our fingers on some sagebrush to smell its pleasant aroma. “This is what used to be called ‘cowboy cologne.’ Cowboys would spend long days, sweaty and dirty out on the range, sometimes without the resources to clean up, so if they were headed into town, maybe to a saloon, and wanted to smell nice for the ladies, they would rub sagebrush over their bodies, especially up around their necks.” 

A large section of the trail went through sagebrush and wildflower meadow, then swayed into the forest. We crossed the small rushing Taggert Creek on a bridge and ended at the small Taggert Lake. It looked rather dismal this morning, with a mostly cloudy sky up above, but surrounding it were narrow pines and the dramatic mountains with snow all up and down their sides adding quiet beauty. 

The ranger gave us the option of following her the same way back or continuing another 2.4 miles to complete the loop. I decided to complete the loop and took off solo. Although I really should have been enjoying the scenery around me and being present in the moment, I was troubled by the fact my camera was broken. It was a Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot camera. I had bought it brand new just before the trip. I did think it felt very light and cheap, and I came to find my questioning of its durability justified. This was my second Sony Cybershot. Prior I was using an older sturdier model. I thought for a small camera it really delivered and I became, if I do say, quite skilled at using the camera and all its features to their full potential, but dust, or some sort of particles, had gotten inside the camera and on the lens  casting dark spots over my pictures, so that’s when I bought the newer, more expensive, but overall cheaper model. 

Days prior after I arrived at Dinosaur National Monument, I took the advice of Gzeivieur, the frenchman I met at Curecanti, to check out Fantasy Canyon. The name alone was intriguing but the road to this site was not the most inviting. I drove at least an hour and on at least twenty miles of dirt road into very remote stretches of desolate and dry Utah desert. I passed by no signs of life except the occasional oil fields and related small industrial complexes. The sun was also setting. The farther I drove into nowhere, the darker it became, not very comforting. When I arrived I was surprised at how miniature the landscape was. Despite being small, I  will admit it is very unique. The Bureau of Land Management on it’s website claims it holds “some of the most unique geological features in the world.” It also warns of the features being very fragile and calls it “nature’s china shop.” They describe it as “the east shore of what was once Lake Uinta, where the sediments eroded from the surrounding high lands. Sediments were deposited and the once loose sands, silts, and clays were forged into sandstone and shale. Because of different rates of weathering, the more durable sandstone remained while the more easily weathered siltstone and shale washed away, yielding this spectacular scenery.” Today it’s a collection of drooping, haphazard, fungal-looking rock hoodoos and shelves. I think I would perhaps best describe it as sharing the variety and visual make up of a coral reef, but it looks all petrified and painted in a pale clay beige. 

Here I screwed my camera to my trekking pole. I tried to drive that trekking pole into the ground, but when I set the timer to scurry into the picture, the trekking pole fell, smacking the camera on the ground. Since that moment the lens would not open nor adjust. I would only be faced with an error message. I eventually resorted back to my older camera which I still had in hand, and I would purposely try to frame my pictures in such a way that the dark spots on the lens would not show up in plain sight in the pictures. 

Now in Grand Teton National Park, after fretting over my camera situation for much of the morning, I came to terms with it and realized this could be a wake up call to really take in the scenery in the present moment and not live my life behind the camera, preoccupied with capturing the best shots. I also resolved to write more and draw. I could capture the beautiful scenery through my own pen and it would be uniquely mine. I could share the beautiful scenery but share it through my own perception. I was inspired in part by my Uncle Joe who while traveling routinely takes time to make his own postcard sized sketches of notable places of interest on his travels. Although he does take photographs too, his pictures I would say are more valuable because they capture the way he sees things. 

After completing the loop at Taggert Lake I went back to the Coulter Bay Village and went on another short ranger led hike which ended at the marshy Swan Lake with wispy grass and lily pads sticking up out of the water and the mountains towering in the back between and above the opening of pines. This looked like prime moose habitat but none were spotted during this visit. I recognized immediately the ranger leading this hike. He was the friendly guy from Chicago in the visitor center from the day before, the first person I met here in the park, the one who instructed me to sit in front of a fireplace in Jackson Lake Lodge, look at the park materials, and plan my visit from there. He had served me well. 

“I may not look like a park ranger,” he began his talk. “I am new here and am still waiting on my hat and uniform.” I give him points for effort. He had a green shirt and pants, trying to imitate the classic ranger look. He also remembered me. I am always impressed when people remember me. It happens quite frequently. After short, casual interactions, people are often able to recall me. I feel honored. 

This ranger conducted himself in a manner which made him very approachable, so in between his moments of interpretation I walked alongside him and asked some questions. I wanted to know the difference between a National Park and National Monument. Both are entities in the National Park Service and although Monuments get less publicity than the Parks, some Monuments, like Dinosaur National Monument for example are quite spectacular. He explained how Monuments are declared by presidents. A National Park is established by an act of Congress. He explained that many Monuments eventually become National Parks. Even Grand Teton National Park originated as Jackson Hole National Monument.

“Do National Parks get more federal funding? I asked. 

“No. It doesn’t have to do with funding. It mostly has to do with the name.”

“Well, why change the name to a National Park if there is already a National Monument.”

“Tourism,” he replied. “A National Park status brings in more tourists. Take Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado for example. In recent years it transitioned from a monument to a park, as a result it increased visitation and tourism. It’s great for the local economy.”

I’d later see the reason why Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore acquired name change and status to National Parks. 

This ranger also spoke a lot about John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of the Standard Oil founder and one of the richest men in America at his time. He fell in love with the area after being escorted around by Horace Albright, the first director of the National Park Service. Albright persuaded Rockefeller to purchase the land and donate it to the federal government as Roosevelt would put it, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” To acquire this land at fair price, Rockefeller created the Snake River Co. and used this name to purchase 33,000 acres to donate to the federal government, When news broke out that Rockefeller was behind the purchasing of all this land, there was such an uproar that the government wouldn’t accept the donation for fear of scandal. When president Theodore Roosevelt eventually accepted the donation and created Jackson Hole National Monument he was compared to Hitler annexing Austria. Name calling and scandal aside, I am grateful that Rockefeller used his wealth built up from capitalism to give this incredible area to the people of the United States and the world. I am glad that Horace Albright and Theodore Roosevelt shared the same vision. Without Rockefeller’s wealth and without his charity, the Tetons may have been leveled and mined to dust, the forest completely lumbered, and the valley may have become an industrial cattle farm. This is not to demean the value of these industries, but the beauty of Grand Teton National Park is truly a treasure worth preserving and sharing. 

In the evening I made my way over to the Snake River and then to Morman Row Historic District. This part of the park preserves a late Morman settlement and features perhaps the most iconic view in the park and in Wyoming, the view of the Reed Mouton Barn on the open grassland and the Tetons rising up in the distance. 

I stood here initially with the desire to capture the perfect photo, but then I paused. No, let me just take it in. I gazed at the beauty of the mountains. What does this mean? I asked, for beauty is never wasted. My mind began to race. But then I stopped. Be still. Be Calm. Be quiet. As always, I was in the presence of the almighty God, and the beauty reminded me of that. I thought back to what God taught me out in the desert of Dinosaur National Monument. This was the first time apart from then, I really put this learning to practice.  I felt relief knowing there was nothing I needed to do with this beauty, and there was nothing that needed to be said. All I was called to in this moment was to enjoy it and be present and mindful in the moment with God. He again was calling on me to be still, calm, and quiet, and it was quite refreshing for the soul. I became aware that ultimately it’s not my actions that bring about healing and restoration, it’s God in these moments of stillness and quietude.

After pausing, breathing, and mindfully resting in God’s presence I sat down. I did open my journal and created a sketch of the mountains before me. I also accompanied it with a poem. I did not overthink my writing. I did not overanalyze it for meaning or plan it precisely. I looked at the mountains and was taken away by the strength and might they reflected, and I let it flow free and meander from me, just like the waters of the Snake River.

Jagged diagonals form peaks stretching to touch the clouds

Boldly rising, unreserved, coated in blue and fostered with snow, mimicking the sky above 

Sprawling across the canvas among wandering streams, pristine lakes, log pines, and wilderness

The voraciousness of the bear and the chase of the wolf below is only child’s play to your grandeur

You are old and display generations lined together for a family portrait, dominating the view with Grandfather in the center. 

Quiet, not a sound from you, but your stance tells everything and in you I see the reflection of strength and Might. 

Read the previous entry “My Cougar Encounter At Grand Teton National park” here:

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

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