On Tuesday morning, we awoke to sunlight gently peering through the window covers on the van. We’d managed to sleep undiscovered in the parking lot at Old Faithful, and this merited a breakfast at the slightly expensive buffet in the lodge.
Today we were to drive south through Grand Teton National Park and find a place to camp for the night. I was especially excited about this, since I had never heard of dispersed camping before and it sounded remote and beautiful.
Dispersed camping, where you find your own campsite wherever you feel like it and set up, is possible in US national parks like Teton, and I imagined it would offer unparalleled views of verdant pockets of nature largely unseen by roadtrippers.
A quick Google search reveals that the origins of the name “Grand Teton” are contested: it’s either named for a Native American Teton Sioux tribe or it was christened by French explorers with a name that translates to “large teat.” Leave it to the French to sexualize everything.
Camping also meant that, four days into our trip, we would finally have to visit a grocery store. We set off from Yellowstone somewhat reluctantly – 3,500 square miles of wilderness, we’d barely scratched the surface – and headed south without a map.
It might be hard to believe that there’s anywhere in the US where you can’t get cell reception or 3G, but I’m happy to tell you that Yellowstone is one of those places. For once, I’d found myself gawking at natural marvels alongside throngs of tourists who were doing the same – not furiously texting friends or barking into their phones.
With this in mind, the night before, we’d found a map in an atlas at the gift shop and I’d taken a photo of a tiny square showing Yellowstone, the Tetons, and Granite Hot Springs, our destination for the day. Both national parks are joined by the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, a straight shot south if you don’t go off-track.
It seemed strange that a national park would name its sole highway after someone whose name is linked with Standard Oil, but apparently Junior had a soft spot for conservation and donated land to a number of parks, including four I’d visited: Humboldt County (the redwoods), Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. (Laura, I think a memorial highway could be in the cards for Ryan!)
What’s also somewhat disappointing about our brief affair with Yellowstone was that we hadn’t encountered any wildlife. We’d been handed a disturbing pamphlet when we’d entered the park, which bore in capital letters: YELLOWSTONE IS DANGEROUS! The gift shop had stocked multiple copies of books with titles like, “When Grizzlies Attack” or “Stories of Bears Killing and Slowly Dismembering Hapless Campers in the Night.” They even had a copy of The Revenant. All along the road, yellow signs warn drivers to be cautious, as moose, bear, wolves, or bison may suddenly emerge from the thick and wander in front of your car.
“Oh yeah,” Laura nodded at once. “Of course there are bears here! This is where Yogi Bear is from, right?”
For all of this, there was nothing.
Laura and I kept our eyes peeled and inched through the park, much to the dismay of the cars behind us. The only thing we saw crossing the road was a tiny chipmunk-like rodent that might have been a mouse.
We arrived in Jackson Hole around noon and spent some time in the visitor center admiring taxidermied elk and deer. A very pleasant older woman attended to us, spreading a number of large maps across the counter and marking off grocery stores and a way out of Jackson Hole to the hot springs.
“It’s a big concrete pool,” she explained to us. I can’t be sure, but I believe that both of our hearts sank simultaneously.
“But it’s in the mountains?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Lovely view. But it’s a concrete pool.”
With that, we headed back to the van and stocked up on groceries and firewood at the store.
We’d been told that Granite Springs was marked with a small, unremarkable sign about 10 miles down a road outside of town. We were to keep our eyes peeled – there was a lot of peeling on this trip – and turn off onto a dirt road up the mountain when we saw it.
About 20 minutes outside of Jackson Hole, the road bisecting relatively clear stretches of grass on either side, Laura and I spotted something ahead on the right.
“Oh my God…is that…”
“It’s a bull moose! Is it? I think?”
Growing up in Alaska, Laura had seen hundreds of moose. I envision her elbowing her way through herds of them to get to the local grocery store. What was unusual about this moose was that it was completely still.
“Is it real?” she asked as we approached it. It was down in a vale on the side of the road, oddly still in a semi-fenced enclosure.
“In that episode of This American Life, they talked about Buzzwinkle being really still. Maybe this moose is drunk, too,” I suggested hopefully. We decided to turn off the road and investigate, getting close enough to the beast to realize that it was plastic.
Consider us duped. Desperation will make you see what you want to see, I suppose.
We continued on toward Granite Springs, the dirt road ambling up a mountainside that overlooked a rushing, clear river, a gorge, pine trees, and dozens of unoccupied spots that seemed begging for us to camp there.
It was a 1/8 mile walk from the parking lot to the hot springs, which we survived, and spent $6 each to enter the pool. A couple soaked under hot waterfall trickling down an artificial rock. A few others swam easily in the steaming water. The pool itself was indeed concrete and had been painted a bright blue. Overhead, the sun blazed down.
It was disappointingly uninviting, especially when a family hiked up behind us, toting a large cooler, beach towels, and armfuls of sandwiches. I was surprised they were allowed in.
And then, hiking back to the car to get Laura’s bathing suit, we passed a troop of 15 teenage boys heading up for a cozy dip in the hot springs. I imagined all of us packed tightly into the pool, brushing slimy elbows and staring uncomfortably at one another.
Laura felt the same, and so we hiked back up toward the pool along a river streaming downhill. A few natural pools had been created in the river using rocks, and Laura climbed up into one to test the temperature.
“It’s warm! Come on in!”
Reluctant – it’s against the rules, right? – but open to enjoying some hot springs, I followed her. It was lovely.
Sure, there was a sign posted directly beside us that read “NO WADING IN POOLS”, but Laura argued that it was facing the wrong way and was probably referring to something else. There was also a dead bird in the pool, but we piled some rocks on top of it and proceeded to enjoy a quiet, stunning view of the woods pierced by sunlight, my fingers pruning beneath the crystal water.
After, we headed back the way we’d come to see if any of the beautiful camp spots were still open and – what luck! – they were!
We drove off the road through a thicket of trees to a clear, grassy outcrop overlooking the river. It seemed the kind of place where, in the early morning, one might glimpse a grizzly pawing out salmon or a deer drinking water. No one was around.
For the first time, we properly set up camp. This included two rocking lawn chairs, a little camp stove, and a splendid awning to keep out the sun. I fiddled with my Olympus E-10 and stepped out from beneath the awning. Overhead, a bald eagle wheeled majestically.
To round it off, our site was dotted with chair-like tree stumps that would make perfect toilets. Laura handed me a tiny shovel that unhinged and I got to digging. Life was good.
An hour or so in, we noticed a camper had pulled into a nearby spot, and its inhabitants – a couple and their dog – came over to say hello. They’d brought their own axe – I was a bit fearful at this – and were chopping firewood, some of which they gave to us.
As the afternoon wore on, we dined on bison meat with macaroni, started a fire, drank a beer, and started strumming our guitars on a grassy bluff overlooking a river with almost no one around. That is, until the storm clouds rolled in.
Out of nowhere, the wind kicked up and Laura and I took shelter beneath the awning. The couple, Chris and Melissa, joined us, and we all sipped beer and comforted the dog as the storm hit. At one point, the awning flew up and we all scrambled to pin it down with rocks and metal stakes.
The storm passed quickly enough, and the four of us moved our chairs around the fire, which was pleasantly toasty on my shins. I do love the smell of campfire and the sound of conversation.
Chris and Melissa were living in their camper and had given up most material possessions, taking a page out of Thoreau’s book. Their stories were cool, and included tales of working in Antarctica as snow shovelers and studying in Hawaii, which led to eerie tales of Night Marchers that I would have preferred to have heard in the morning.
The evening ended with them presenting Laura with a black and white drawing of King Kamehameha, illuminated by the orange glow of the fire.
Despite the ghost stories, we slept soundly in our perfect little paradise tucked away in a breathtaking slice of American wilderness.
Categories: United States (USA)