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  • Saturday, July 28, 2012

    Backpacking in the Grand Tetons

    The Tetons have been… well, what word can I use to describe such a place when I’ve already used words like “breathtaking” to describe places that didn’t elicit that feeling-- you know the one-- when you can barely hold in that “eeeeeeee!” sound. A sound I quickly turned into a manlier laugh and wide grin, of course.

    That’s the problem with exaggerated hyperbole. Where do you go from breathtaking? To keep the metaphors consistent, I’m left having to tell you that by the time I finished backpacking in the Tetons, I needed a tracheotomy.

    - - -

    After leaving Devil’s Tower, I first drove into Yellowstone National Park, but I wasn’t ready for it yet. Yellowstone is one of the most incredible places on the planet, and well worth the drive, but it’s also packed with tourists seeking that windshield experience. You get out of your car and see a magnificent and unique wonder of nature, but then get back in line on the highway to see the next. 
    I needed to go where the hiss and rumble in the distance was from a river cascading over boulders and not traffic, a place where I can encounter wildlife that isn't surrounded by paparazzi and clicking camera shutters... you know, other than mine. 

    I went to Yellowstone's neighbor to the south, Grand Teton National Park and it quickly became one of my favorite places. And the south and western sides of the park gave me all the solitude I wanted.

    - - -

    So you just drove all that way without any kind of plan?” the ranger at the backcountry registration desk said. The park limits the number of people they allow into the backcountry. 

    “Well I didn't really know I was coming here when I left home. And I figured if it was full, I’d just go somewhere else and wait.” I said. “I don’t really have anywhere else to be.”

    She found me a route, a fifty-mile loop of the park that would take me through Granite Canyon to Marion Lake, and then onto the Teton Crest Trail along the Death Canyon Shelf and into the Alaska Basin. On day two, I'd pass Lake Solitude and climb to 10,700 feet before descending into Paintbrush Canyon to camp with a distant view of Jackson Lake. And then I would meander down the mountain and hike along the shores of String Lake, Jenny Lake, and climb back up to nearly 10,000 feet to camp near Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes. Finally, I would hike back down to the valley skirting Bradley and Taggart Lakes and arrive at my final campsite beside Phelps Lake.

    “Phelps Lake?” a park ranger checked my itinerary on my first morning while packing up. “There's been some trouble with a bear down there,” he said. “He chewed through a guy’s water bottle.”

    “Oh. Good.” I said and he looked up at me. “No, it's just that, I thought you were going to say leg.”

    “You have a big trip, and a big day,” he said. “If you want to get to Alaska Basin, you better get moving.” It was nine in the morning and Alaska Basin was only fourteen miles away. The Appalachian Trail has redefined what I consider a big day.

    It sprinkled a little on the first day out. A cold rain, which oddly enough, did nothing to dampen my mood. Perhaps because the scattered showers also whipped up the smell of ozone and dirt. Maybe it was the way the lakes reflected those little bits of electric blue sky hiding between the advancing silver storm clouds, or how the rings of water droplets distorted that image. Maybe it was because I was surrounded by thousands of vibrant wildflowers that, even under diffused sun light, brightened the landscape.

    I'm sure it was a combination of things. And also, because when I spun around to see the whole panorama, there were mountains in the distance, jagged and majestic. Mountains that continue so far into the horizon that it seemed a drifter like me could walk forever. Or at least long enough to finally learn to stop suppressing that “eeeeeeee!” feeling.

    And that was just day one.