Adventures in the Tetons
I am beginning to learn the importance of carrying a journal.
And using it.
The last few years have been whispering this idea to me, so much so that friends have bought me journals, which I keep in pride on my bookshelf, completely empty of course. As one who travels often, I mean to write out thoughts and stories that I come across, however, even the best intentions haven’t kept me regular at such an undertaking.
This current inspiration sings to me from reading John Muir’s journaling and works. Amidst the great Sierra peaks, he would take nothing more than his journal and bread ration for the day on his person as he hiked and climbed and explored.
Driving for endless hours over Nebraska allows one time to think. And finds thoughts to put in your head.
So the hope of journaling has been revived.
Some people are called to a city. Some to a neighborhood. Others to the sea. My callings come from the ragged and majestic spires of the Tetons. Western Wyoming’s sublime vibrant mountain wonderland. Sometimes, I wonder if our pullings and inspirations are thought out years before our knowing. I would know nothing of this wilderness if my aunt hadn’t moved there 30-some years ago. It is doubtful that my travels would have sent me to an out-of-the-way small town in Wyoming. Sure, I would have stopped briefly in Yellowstone and drove through the Tetons en route to some other western city.
But would I have had the time to explore? The ability to return? One never knows. Whatever the intension, I am quite happy with the end results.
The last few winters I have adventured to this rough and wild spot, originally to see if I could find the beauty in a winter that had up to then, only depressed me.
After hours in snow fields, among great pines ornamented in their Christmas best, it was hard not to see the beauty in such truly awesome surroundings. My whole view of winter has been altered since.
This year I looked upon my voyage with particular interest. Being the winter solstice of 2012, I was interested in feeling the energies of such a magical place, on such a magical date. A place full of granite would sing in marvelous ways on such spiritually intense events.
My road-weary van crossed the snowy pass, pulling into Jackson in the afternoon of the 18th, one day delayed due to a white-out snowstorm that suddenly happened upon me crossing from Utah into Wyoming. The clouds remained low in the sky, but the snow had permitted me a free day to drive through the vast pastures, farm roads, alongside the growing mountains, and finally into their arms.
Jackson is a joyful town in the winter. Lights adorn much of the town. Snow clings to all the buildings in thick layers. The roads are sheets of snow and ice. If one cannot find the Christmas spirit here, one has no capacity for such spirit.
It is also home to the National Elk Refuge, a vast mostly low-lying area traditionally a wintering ground for elk, bison, wolves, bighorn sheep, and many other peoples of the surrounding mountains. Tens of thousands of elk can, depending on the severity of the winter, seek this land and stay the worst of the winter.
Frequently the large bulls with their enormous racks will forage and sit near the road. I do not know if it’s the salt, some enjoyment of the celebrity, or some other reason that they are drawn to the area most populated by humans.
When I arrived, there were few elk down. The previous days snowstorm was one of the first of the season. A select few hundred peppered the vast landscape and were so overwhelmed by it, these 500 pound creatures seemed as though tiny housecats in its midst.
The clouds and mist continued throughout the next few days. The great Tetons were not visible until nearly the third day, though they abruptly soar 6,000 feet above the valley floor.
Snow cover was light in many of the sage fields, making snow shoeing a difficult prospect. However, one can waltz along the inner park road which is closed to vehicles during the winter. This option is frequented by cross-country skiers and snow shoers.
This wilderness calls deeply to me. It hums a lullabye at night; its messages of love are forwarded by the magpies and jays. And I cannot wait to be in it. Temperatures are slow to rise and had no intentions of topping 10 degrees much of my stay. This makes the early morning rise so easy during the summertime unwise. But no feat of cold or chill would keep me inside.
My first hike was along the road, sort of. A gentle trail breaches away from the road along Cottonwood Creek. It was well tracked by skiers, but that day, I was alone , a near-miracle, as it was right at the head of the road where a parking area and the trail to Taggart Lake collect dozens upon dozens of hikers, skiers, tourists, and outdoorsfolk. Leaving the road, the trail lightly follows the mostly frozen creek, bordered on the other side by a large meadow of sage that reaches to the foothills of the Tetons, which rise high overhead. Three large moose sat in the brush and fragrant bushes just off the trail. Two were large bulls; their brilliant antlers of no use to them now that the rut had passed, though it would still be more than a month before they were to be shed. All three watched me. Pausing, not wanting to surprise them and cause them to stir (and waste mortally important energy), we enjoyed each other’s company for a few moments. I altered my course, leaving them in peace.
Another two moose were foraging on the open hillside a distance away. These solitary creatures frequently gang together in sometimes large communities during the winter months. Perhaps their numbers allow better protection from wolves. Perhaps they just like some company when it’s cold and the loneliness is most pronounced.
After a half hour or so, I made it to a set of cabins in use by the park service, where I turned slightly and made a trail perpendicular that re-connected with the road a ways from where I started. From there, I continued along until I reached one of my favorite summertime places, Lupine Meadow. In warmer months, the wide meadow is filled with the purple splash of lupine. Enormous boulders dot the meadow, reminders of the ever-changing mountains. This trail is frequently not well tracked in the winter, and as I had tracked it in previous outings, with a watchful eye to the western sliding of the sun, i turned back. The temperature falls quickly, I dare say immediately, once the sun begins setting. A 10 degree evening can sharply turn into a -10.
Clouds were enveloping the mountains again, leaving only a short window of their visibility. Even at that, only a few peaks and other rock parts were distinguishable from the mist. For the most part, the setting sun was also locked behind the clouds, with a few lines of magenta sneaking out here and there.
The morning was spent In various yoga and meditations an organization in Jackson was organizing. Once my practice closed for the day, I headed out to Granite Canyon. This area is rife with large boulders, open meadows that crawl up the foothills of the mountains, and draw into the forest, eventually up into the canyon, where it crawls until it has reached the 10,000 back shelf. I would not be traveling that far today.
Though the sage was dormant, its perfume seemed to drift in the air. It had snowed the night before, and there was a decent blanket over the 2-3 foot high sage brush, as well as nearly coating many of the boulders.
My trail ended shortly after it wound into the forest. I continued on through the stands of pines decorated so perfectly, they seemed each one as a perfect Christmas tree in some Christmas movie. To not stop and stand in reverence is to be blind to the beating pulse of the world around and within us.
Meadow after meadow passes along this route until finally either turning in to begin the ascent into the canyon or drifting into the forest to eventually make your way away, back to the road.
A lone boulder sat within a few hundred feet of my path, and I set my sights for it. The snow had slid or melted off most of it. Standing taller than I, it was too much to climb with my snowshoes, and as I was unwilling to exert the effort to remove them for a short climb, I leaned back, laying on the granite, breathing.
The mountains were breathing in splendid pslams.
With the ravens adding harmony.
After several “Oms”, and a solid meditation, I made my way away from the canyon. Snow sparkling in the air the whole way, as a real-life snow globe. It also shimmered in the snow covering the meadows. What a surreal disco ball of natural brilliance!
A staple in my hiking is Swan Lake. This trail is fairly north in the park, so the snow is generally more, but the trail winds through an inviting and open lodge-pole pine forest. The past summer, this is where I came upon an unhappy mother elk who proceeded to charge for three quarters of an hour before I could get a safe distance away. There was no repeat of this incident, thankfully. Swan Lake itself was frozen and snow covered. Willows lined it and grew in their great giant willow flat on the other end of the lake. The calm is striking here. The silence is penetrating. And yet, relaxing. No sounds from the crows, geese, or people here.
Just the stillness and crispness of the air.
One can see numerous rabbit tracks hopping out from under low-limbed pines, but as much as I hoped, I did not catch any sight of the little creature that day. Sunsets here are frequently astounding. The vast fronts of Mt Moran and its neighbors that form the end of the Teton chain turn a light violet, with hints of pink. The sky above and behind them is dashed with darker purples and even the occasional red. The mountains turn blue and the chilliness of their wilderness goes from something suspected to something very real.
Moose tracks dashed back and forth from the forest.