After John Colterleft the Lewis and Clark expedition he headed north into Crow country, lookingfor good trapping areas. It is said he began his journey in November of 1807,and in the wintry months that followed discovered the vast and mysteriouswilderness of Yellowstone. The author and a friend are probably the first whitemen to make a similar trip (they chose to hike north to south) in midwinter.For 17 days in subzero temperatures they snowshoed through blizzards, clamberedacross mountains and elbowed through herds of elk in the valleys. They tookwith them only sleeping bags and packs, no tents.
An hour beforedawn I awake and lie staring blankly at the pulse of neon on the frostedwindowpane. Neon? Suddenly I realize the notion is absurd. In long underwearand socks, still half asleep, I walk outside to see what's going on. The nightis calm and clean, the air brittle with the cold. I scramble up a roof-highsnowdrift beside the wilderness cabin and find the northern lights performing agaudy fire dance on the rim of space—tracers of gold, red, green, blue. The skyshow sheds enough light to illuminate the mountaintops and fill the valley. Itis bright enough to read the battered Coca-Cola thermometer that hangs near thedoor: 27° below zero.
This is CookeCity, Mont., a mountain village on the edge of Yellowstone Park. The town islargely empty now, most everyone having left with September's first snow. About30 people remain to face the winter, a violent time that lasts for nine months.A ski school operates here in July, and from November till June, Highway 212,the only road through the valley, ends in a snowdrift at the end of town. Aroad through Yellowstone Park is plowed daily to provide access tocivilization—it is 60 miles to the nearest settlement, 110 miles to the nearestbarber or bank and 200 miles to the nearest pizza hut. One reason for the longwinter is the elevation. From the main street you can see nine peaks of over10,000 feet; they squeeze the townsite on all sides, so tightly you have tolook up to see the horizons.
As soon as it islight we will begin our journey into northwestern Wyoming where we will crossthe Absaroka Mountains and follow the major river drainages across YellowstonePark to the Continental Divide. We plan to pick up the Snake River on thewestern slope and follow it through Grand Teton National Park to the base ofthe mountains and the community of Jackson Hole. Our route covers a lineardistance of 175 miles at an average elevation of 8,000 feet.
January 29, 1973
Bindingstightened, Mark Stearns and I shoulder our 70-pound packs with grunts, pull onface masks, lower amber-lensed snow goggles and move down the deserted streetinto the red dawn. Someone pulls back a curtain and waves—our onlyaudience.
At the end of townwe mount a snowdrift, enter the timber and trudge toward the high country. Marktakes the lead, and I shuffle behind in the narrow trench carved by hissnowshoes. His movements are more animated than those I remember from years ofwatching Sergeant Preston; buried to his knees in fluff, his advance moreclosely resembles that of a high-stepping drum major than an Eskimo. Apparentlya pair of 10-inch-by-56-inch webs which might easily support the weight of aman on heavy, moisture-laden snow do not support him on the talcum powder ofthe northern Rockies, especially when the wearer is strapped to 70 pounds ofhardware. On the other hand, I'm not struggling at all, since Stearns haspacked the snow on which I'm walking.
Inevitably Markrealizes the inequity of our positions, and we agree to rest and change everyquarter of a mile. An hour later we are switching every 50 paces and cheatingwhenever we can get away with it. Our inner clothing is drenched with sweat,and with the temperature dropping about one degree an hour we are obligedduring those periods, ludicrously referred to as rests, to flap about likewing-shot mallards to keep our underwear from freezing.
Progressivedehydration is an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous condition. The sharp,dry air seems to suck body fluids from every pore, and the moisture is notimmediately replaceable because our canteens have frozen. The ashlike snowoffers no solution, and after braising my tongue on a frigid handful I decideto place the canteen against my bare stomach to thaw.
Despite thediscomforts I'd rather be here than, say, in Pittsburgh. A few hours out oftown we cannot see, hear or smell civilization. In a meadow below we watch acrippled moose, its head cocked, belching steam, its antlers clawing the air.It crashes through a spray of snow into a juniper stand. A half a dozen coyotesfollow. Stillness.
By late afternoonwe are climbing through the granite peaks of the Absaroka Mountains,approaching—if my $2 compass is accurate—a 10,400-foot rubble heap that bearsthe dubious name Republic Pass. Already a thousand feet above timberline, weare navigating through snow-filled couloirs and avalanche striations and acrossice caps that cling with exquisite delicacy to walls of naked rock—verydifficult maneuvering on snowshoes. The labor is exhausting, painful, but it isabsolutely necessary that we breach the pass before dark and move down into thetimber on the western slope. The alternative is a bivouac in the open on astorm-blasted mountaintop without the benefit of firewood.
After 10 gruelinghours we are on the summit. We stand on the narrow ridge vomiting and slappingourselves like Bowery drunks killing imaginary spiders. It is late. The sunswells and splits on the horizon. Shadows fill the valleys. We feel the need tomove on and find shelter, and yet we linger, watching the mountains turnlavender and gold.
The view isunrestricted for 200 miles in every direction, more of the earth than I haveever seen from one spot. Mountains shred every horizon: titan peaks, fiveseparate ranges at least, perhaps as many as nine. They unfold ridge behindridge into the night.
Many peopleconsider this the pantheon of American wilderness, the last and the best. Wecan look to the west and south to the farthest boundaries of Yellowstone andGrand Teton National Park, and even beyond into the wide buffer of PrimitiveAreas, Wilderness Areas and National Forests. We cannot see a single artificiallight, column of smoke, building or road. The village of Cooke has vanished. Atthis moment and for weeks to come, Stearns and I will be virtually alone in anisland of wilderness as large as the state of New Jersey.
We move off slowlytoward the timber line at the headwaters of Cache Creek. With no small measureof anxiety the two of us gradually begin to comprehend the enormity of ourundertaking. We have entered an environment in which man has no exalted post.Our lives have no priority here.
After bangingabout for an hour on the darkened mountainside we stop and prepare a camp in astand of lodgepole pine inside the eastern boundary of Yellowstone Park. We diga shallow sleeping pit, standing on one web and using the other as a shovel,then pack the bottom as firmly as possible and tie a sheet of plastic betweenthe bordering trees. Stooped uncomfortably beneath this canopy we stretch outinsulated pads and unroll our sleeping bags.
Shiveringviolently now that our movements are more confined, we brush away loose snow,pull off our boots and squirm into our bags—ignoring completely several logicalreasons for removing damp clothing. It is almost 30° below, and I have decidedthat my skin is as close to the air as it is going to get. Despite the parlortalk about the "dry cold" of this region, when the thermometer bottomsout an exposed finger will swell and split like a boiled frankfurter.
With one arm outof my bag, I set up a stove and begin melting snow from the wall of the cubicleto prepare supper, a task that proves tedious. With complete lack of foresightwe have packed a bottled butane stove without realizing that the stove willfreeze in this sort of weather. Even with impurities added to the fuelcannisters, the stove's efficiency, especially this night, leaves a great dealto be desired. Working by candlelight it takes almost two hours to melt enoughsnow for drinking water and to cook a simple dehydrated stew. The stew looks,smells and tastes like soggy tissue, but it has been a long day, and I lack theenergy and the inclination to prepare anything more.
I sleep dully andawake at dawn wrapped in a translucent shroud. Five inches of snow have fallenduring the night, and our plastic roof has sagged to floor level under theload, covering packs and bags like a massive quilt. Kicking the cover away wehalf bury ourselves in fluff.
The damp clothes Ihave slept in have dried, but the moisture has passed through them into mysleeping bag, which now bristles with spears of ice. Our leather boots, dampwith sweat and exposed to the night air, have frozen stiff, as well as our facemasks and the woolen inserts to my mittens. Enthusiasm, frozen like everythingelse, is discarded.
Breakfast iselaborate and awful. Each serving consists of two packages of instant oatmeal,one package of instant breakfast, four ounces of powdered whole milk, twotablespoons of Tang, a few raisins and dried apples, half a handful of wheatgerm, brown sugar, honey and a cup of boiling water. The concoction tastesevery bit as terrible as it sounds, but for nutritional reasons (it is much toocold to stop for lunch) and to conserve water, we agree to make it our standardmorning meal.
It is a gloomy,gray and altogether nasty morning. A milky froth has settled over themountains, and the sun has dissolved without a trace. Snow falls, but there isno wind, and the huge flakes drop straight and silent through the pines. Wehave to get moving, obviously, but I for one am somewhat reluctant to pull on apair of frozen boots and venture out into a raw and moody landscape that moreclosely resembles the surface of Jupiter than anyplace else on earth.Self-discipline at this point is a superhuman virtue, and after considerableshouting and mutual beratement we begin moving.
For several hourswe tramp through magnificent stands of fir and spruce, gratefully aware thatdescending a mountain on snowshoes is easier than ascending one. Followingice-clogged Cache Creek, we arrive eventually at its junction with the LamarRiver. We hear the river long before we see it. The sound comes rolling throughthe snow like the gentle rustling of curtains. It is the first sound in 24hours not related to our movement, and we savor it. The river appears black inthe dull light, and water vapor rises like smoke off the surface, marking itserratic course until it meshes in the distance with the gathering mist.
We move northalong the waterway, cross a convenient ice bridge near Chalcedony Creek andmove downstream into the broad Lamar Valley. In the shelter of the valley webegin encountering game: elk, moose, buffalo, mule deer, a few bighorn sheepand the inevitable coyotes, ravens and magpies. Of these, elk are by far themost numerous. They are all around us, moving silently through the gloom likegoblins on the moor. In areas of heavy grazing the valley is crowded with them,thousands of animals weaving through the falling snow in a tangle of antlers.The herds extend as far as we can see. Our route becomes a maze with animateblockades. Close contact is unavoidable and, although many animals are wary,there is no panic. We pass close enough to some to brush away the cape of snowthat covers their backs; our jackets are soon damp from touching the rivuletsthat trickle down their sides.
Occasionallybuffalo mingle with the elk, but these are usually solitary animals grazingapart from the larger herds along the Yellowstone River. They forage with heavylumbering movements, plowing through the drifts with pendulum swings of theirmassive heads. Most of them are feeble and stalked at close quarters by coyotesthat give us scant berth on their perpetual hunt. Winter is a fat time forpredators. Our travel is frequently punctuated with gory scenes of coyotes andmagpies tearing strips of flesh from dead or merely exhausted animals.
We camp at the endof the day in a tumble of boulders at the base of Specimen Ridge, hoping thenatural shelter will keep us from getting stepped on and also provide somerelief from the rising wind. The elk are still with us. I can hear thembrowsing in the dark; panning with my flashlight I fill the night with dozensof glowing green globes. A few coyotes investigate our presence or, moreprecisely, investigate the beans we're cooking. We toss them strips of beefjerky, and they reward us with a community sing. The valley soon reverberateswith a high, lonesome yodel.
It is stillsnowing, but the dense cloud cover has warmed the air to a stable 6° below.Feeling adventurous, I strip to long underwear and socks before crawling intomy bag. As an afterthought I pull in my boots, pants, a fuel cartridge for thestove and a canteen of water. Sleeping with these items is the only way to keepthem from freezing, and I'd rather sleep in a lumpy bed than spend half an hourtrying to jam my feet into frozen boots.
We awake the nextmorning as cramped and stiff as before, but this time the stiffness does not goaway, it gets worse. Our muscles are as hard as wood and will not flex withoutpain. During the night my knees have swollen so drastically that pulling on mypants requires stubborn effort, and after we move out I begin to feel thegrating of bone in my knees and hips. Our movement slows. Walking till dark onsnow packed hard by foraging animals we cover only seven miles. High adventure,I'm beginning to realize, is not synonymous with fun.
We had planned toford the Yellowstone River pioneer fashion at the ancient crossing on the oldBannock Indian trail, but the trail is lost somewhere under eight feet of snow,and we prudently consider the alternatives before attempting to negotiate anunknown stretch of water. We cross instead the bridge near Tower Falls and headsouth along the spectacular river gorge. Behind us now are the rolling graymeadows of Blacktail Deer Plateau. Looming somberly in our path are theWashburn Mountains, a few tight peaks on the lip of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon.Although it involves another serious climb, we must cross this range to reachthe Central Plateau and Yellowstone Lake.
A north windrises late in the day, pushing clouds that skid along the ground, filling everycreek bottom and ravine and pouring through the passes around the mountainslike rivers of smoke. Since our first night in the park we have been dogged bysnow squalls, low cloud ceilings and poor visibility, but now I have thefeeling that something serious is about to happen. There is a certain tensionin the wind. A storm center is approaching. Already our path is blocked byswirling drifts, and the new snow drives through the trees with a terriblefury.
Harassed bystinging flakes that dodge through the darkness like swarms of hornets, weprepare camp near the base of Mount Washburn, four miles from Dunraven Pass.The wind is pounding much harder than before. Snow whirls through the night,and the wild gyrations of the treetops paint silver trails on the black cloudbottoms. Too tired after our climb to cook dinner, we settle for jerky and afrozen brick of cheese and use the last of our water to make lemonade. I sleeprestlessly, my body so cramped and twisted that I am unable to stretch fulllength.
Sometime beforedawn the wind accelerates to gale force, and we are jerked awake by thepowerful sound of trees smashing together. Moments later our plastic roofalters its casual undulation and begins snapping violently with hideous shotgunreports. It tears loose finally with a wrench that snaps its nylon anchors andsails off through the trees like a giant bat. Unobstructed, smoking tendrils ofsnow pour into our sleeping pit, burying our gear and us. In less time than ittakes to struggle out of our bags the crude shelter is nothing more than a lowplace in an ever-expanding drift. We load our packs, fumbling in the dark forstray equipment. On the verge of physical collapse and without water, we headinto the storm.
The air is soladen with wind-whipped snow that the dawn, when it arrives, is hardly morethan a glow and does nothing to improve visibility. All sense of the horizontalhas vanished; my vision is so restricted I cannot see my feet.
The wind screamsbeyond the pass, pushing the snow into grotesque drifts that rise head higharound us; as the hillside gets steeper our route becomes an obstacle course.Drifts meet us head on like moving walls—we breast them like surf. This isexhausting, especially in our weakened, dehydrated state; pain occupies everyfragment of our consciousness. My brain is filled with music, forgotten songs,the top 10 of 1963, a little Wagner, drum rolls, insane lyrics; all pain,pulsing pain, rhythmic pain, like some masochistic dream—torment to yourfavorite tune.
We break from thetimber onto the barren hillside and the wind slams us with such vehemence thatbalance becomes precarious. We fall frequently, tumbling head over heels. Thereare no handholds; no up, no down. Our packs wrestle us like living opponents.The wind fills my mouth and throat with snow and blisters my lips. My lungsache from sucking the air. An icy crust is forming on my cheeks and nosedespite the protection of a face mask, and my feet have begun to burn with thesharp intensity of an open wound—frostbite, no doubt about that, but there isnothing I can do about it until we camp.
Exhaustionsoothes me like a balm. It erases in equal proportion pain and will. The urgeto stop is overpowering. The roar of the wind becomes a soporific melody.Arctic explorers may well have lain down in the snow to die. After fightingthis blizzard I actually look forward to falling because it allows me a singlemoment of rest while buried in a drift. Once down I fight the urge to roll backand sleep, but Stearns is wise to me. If I don't get up immediately he beginsthrashing me with the tip of his snowshoe.
When pain andfatigue have all but blotted out the storm, an avalanche supplies a shot ofadrenaline. We have just crossed a steep couloir near the end of the pass whena cornice the size of a house tears loose from the mountaintop and roarsthrough the narrow channel into the valley below. Above the wind we can heartrees snapping like match-sticks, then the rumble dies and there is only thestorm.
Stearns and I aresuddenly fueled by a mechanical energy that supports us far beyond the rationallimits of endurance. Good thing, too. Not only am I bone weary, but the pain inmy feet is rapidly easing to a dead, hollow feeling. Not a good sign; I won'tbe able to walk much farther.
We breach thepass in the middle of the night, having traveled slightly less than four milesin the last 15 hours. In the lee of a hillside on the least slide-prone slopewe can find in the dark, we dig a shallow snow cave and crawl in. But before wecan sleep, unpleasant rituals must be performed. Mark removes his boots andsocks and plants his feet in my armpits. In turn I place my feet in his. Mytoes are chalk white and slick as glass, and my blackened toenails are held inplace not by skin but by pools of frozen blood. After five minutes the firstflashes of pain slice through the numbness, and moments later my toes feel asthough they are filled with acid. Massages follow, until the circulationimproves and the threat of gangrene is no longer imminent. My toenails aregone. They lift off as easily as pennies off a sidewalk.
We sleep as ifdrugged for the next 30 hours and still feel the need for rest, but the saggingroof of the snow cave encourages a hasty departure, and there is no point inprocrastinating with 20 tons of snow suspended eight inches above our noses.Before we leave I cook up some macaroni and cheese—our first hot meal in fourdays—and we gorge ourselves with water. No meal ever tasted better. Life seemsplausible once more.
Outside, the snowhas stopped and the wind is down, but the sky still looks ominous. Will itstart again? I don't know. I don't want to know. In the South that blow wouldbe called a hurricane, easily. What is the wind-chill factor with a 90-mph windand an actual temperature of 10° below? Seventy below, maybe? Eighty? I'm notentirely certain that I could survive another blizzard; I almost didn't make itthrough the last one. The circulation in my feet is very poor, and I ampainfully reminded with every jarring step that my toenails are gone. I canfeel the blood congealing in my socks. I can still walk, but not far or fast.Mark, to my utter amazement, has escaped serious frost injury, but he hassomehow damaged both his hip joints, rather severely I think. His movements areaccompanied by a sickening, slushy noise, like someone crushing handfuls ofsoda crackers.
It is snowingagain as we approach Yellowstone Canyon, but there is no wind and the sky issoft and white. We walk through pine grottoes and across the plain, followingas closely as possible the gravel roar of the Lower Falls, and emerge from thetrees on the north rim of the chasm. At this point the plateau drops abruptly1,500 feet into the foaming Yellowstone River. The colorful canyon walls arelined with massive spines of volcanic rock, and here and there a puff of steamand a dot of green against the snow will mark the location of a belchingfumarole. At the head of the canyon a mile to the south the Yellowstone Riverplunges 309 feet into the snow-filled gorge. We cannot see the base of thefalls because a wall of ice, maybe 90 feet thick, rises out of the river tohalf the height of the cascade. Enormous icicles hang from the cliff beside thefalls, and it is difficult to determine from our distant vantage point wherethe ice ends and the falls begin. The torrent seems stationary, frozen inspace, with only the terrible thunder to suggest differently.
On a very narrowpinnacle of rock that extends farther than the others from the canyon rim, wedig a snow cave. We could, should, travel on and try to make up lost time, butthere is something powerfully attractive about this place, something almostsupernatural. When night comes we build a fire on the edge and watch enrapturedas the glowing red embers curl off our tower on a quarter-mile free fall intothe abyss. It is an odd, not entirely pleasant, sensation to stare down intospace, more so here than anyplace I've ever known. The Indians believed thisexotic labyrinth was inhabited by animistic spirits, and I don't doubt it. Ifeel drawn to the center of the earth, beckoned by sirens, taunted bywaterfalls. We throw the last of our wood on the fire, and when it is burningbrightly kick the flaming brands over the brink...flashes of red on the canyonwalls, the silver snow and for one instant the sparkle of the river. Anoffering.
We follow theriver above the falls where it winds through the hills to Hayden Valley. In themeadows that are open for a long way to the west the snow is packed hard by thewind, and the walking is easy if we stay on the crests of the drifts. Thediscomfort of our abundant injuries is serious, but not intolerable as long asour movements are simple and regular. Consequently, we are making an inspiredeffort to keep them simple and regular.
The valley thatwe enter is a wide, rolling plain open to the horizons except for a fewscattered stands of pine. A large herd of buffalo, perhaps a hundred animals,grazes in a tight formation near the river. Another, smaller, herd is plowingfour abreast over a hillock on the south shore of Alum Creek; the lead bullsare buried to their throats in snow. We see one other mammal, an enormousotter, dragging a spirited trout out of the river onto a snowbank. A momentlater there is only a tiny scarlet splotch where both had been.
Waterfowl are themost numerous living things in the valley. We round a bend in the river and areblitzed by a quacking, flapping explosion of geese, ducks and swans, thousandsof birds. They struggle frantically for altitude, make one wide swoopingparabola and land once more on the same stretch of water they occupied beforeour intrusion. Birdcalls replace the wind as our companion noise; I couldfollow the river blindfolded.
In the afternoonthe wind rips holes in the clouds, admitting ribbons of yellow light that floatacross the valley floor, illuminating patches of frozen marsh. A bald eaglesoars against the sky, then banks with a flash into a column of sunlight andout again. He is a rebel; all of his kin migrated months ago, and hisaerobatics don't resemble any hunting maneuvers that I've ever seen. It looksas if he's flying for fun.
Billowing steamrises out of the timber south of the valley, cresting in the bitter air to forma dome of ice crystals that hovers mirage-like above the tallest trees. Thepungent odor of hydrogen sulfide drifts through the air. As we move closer wewade through an eerie ground fog that floats in the forest, hiding the sourceof uncountable subterranean explosions. We camp on warm and barren ground neara lake of boiling mud, a thermal feature typical of the area. At our camp thetemperature six inches off the ground is 35°. Fifty feet away the snow is fivefeet deep and the temperature is 5° below zero.
In this bubble ofwarmth formed by the boiling pools and fumaroles are swarms of flies and gnatsand green plants growing in profusion. Algae stain the hot pools with vibrantcolors, reds, blues and oranges, that contrast sharply with the snow, andghostly frost-covered trees ring the mud volcanoes like pieces of sculpture.The earth rumbles, gasps. Tongues of sulfur explode into the air. This is aweird, unnatural place, gruesome in the half-light of winter. Walking here, youhave the feeling that you are witnessing the formation of the earth.
It takes anotherfull day to walk the seven miles to Yellowstone Lake. Warm chinooks blowingdown the eastern slope of the Continental Divide have made the surface snow wetand sticky. It grips our webs tenaciously, forcing a painful, jerking stride.Our injured bodies perform with reluctance.
This hugemountain lake is not frozen, as we had hoped; we could have shortened our routeby 20 miles by crossing the ice. We have arrived a few weeks too soon, and aregreeted by choppy gray surf. With Jackson still 90 miles away, we must beginexercising a degree of economy in preparing meals. We are almost a week behindour projected schedule, and have full rations for only three more days.
Wind coming offthe lake forces us inland, and it is almost two days before we reach GeyserBasin at West Thumb. We camp on the lakeshore in the heart of the thermalactivity, taking advantage of the open water for cooking and drinking. This isforbidden land, according to park regulations, just as the mud volcano regionhad been, but the ground here is warm and we are cold. I am prepared to riskthe wrath of the National Park Service. We are ushered to sleep by the bark ofgeysers and another more soothing melody, a distant lofty song far out on thelake, sad and compelling. I have never heard anything like it and haven't theslightest idea what it might be.
We wake to adifferent and hideous sound, a snowmobile. The road that passes through WestThumb to Old Faithful 20 miles to the west, although now plowed in the winter,is open to snow machines. Park records indicate that it is heavily used. Finewith me, there is nothing I want to see along that road, anyway. We move eastto get away from the noise.
North of HeartLake we cross the Continental Divide, jubilant with the knowledge that fromthis point it will be downhill all the way to Jackson. With an easier routeahead, we are certain after a week of serious doubt that we will not have tosurrender our racked and weary bodies to the ranger at South Entrance ofYellowstone. Despite the storms, the frostbite and a weight loss of 20 pounds,we are now convinced that we can finish the journey as planned. A cause forcelebration. We indulge ourselves with a few mouthfuls of slushy wine—evenalcohol freezes.
To avoid fordingthe Snake River we move west around Mount Sheridan to the Lewis River Canyon.Here, where a bridge spans the gorge, we encounter a six-passenger snow coachthat has plowed head on into a drift. The engine grinds, the tracks spin andthe machine begins to sink into the snow. Stuck. They have a radio, they willjust have to get someone to come pull them out.
Rather thanrejoice at this unexpected confrontation, we are repelled. It is like findinghordes of strangers in your favorite fishing hole. For no good reason I canthink of, these people don't belong here. I resent their presence.
We move to avoidthe stranded vehicle, but are stopped dead when a female head pops from aporthole in the roof yelling, "Harry, Harry, Harry!" A bald head beginsto emerge, but in her excitement the lady begins slapping frantically, first onthe roof and then on the bald head, which quickly withdraws.
"Oh, oh, oh,ah, ah," the lady goes on, "you've come to get us. They've come to getus, Harry. Harry!" The Nikon camera that dangles from her neck, without alens cap, begins to bang with horrible percussion against the porthole. I cansee the scratches from 10 feet away, and begin to hate that woman with apassion that can only be comprehended by a poor man who happens to fancycameras. Stearns, fortunately, is able to handle the situation with a modicumof tact.
He apologizes. Hesays, "I'm sorry," and we turn and leave; the Nikon lady yelling,"Wait, wait, we'll pay!" Our mood is a foul one, familiar to bigots andother rabble.
The four-day tripdown the western slope of the Divide through the Teton Mountains is sadlyanticlimactic. After the incident in Lewis Canyon we never regain the sense ofisolation that separated us for so long from the common lot of sightseers.Grand Teton National' Park is simply too accessible and too crowded for mytaste. The valley floor has been slashed by highways. Two ski resorts operatenear Jackson, much of the park is open to snow machines and every lakeshore andaspen grove seems to be inhabited by a party of cross-country skiers. If localpromoters have their way a new, bigger, noisier airport will be built acrossthis valley to permit an even greater influx of people; and after that, morehotels to house the travelers, more restaurants to feed them, more rental cars,more gas stations, more subdivisions for those who wish to stay.
We arrive atJenny Lake in the middle of a snow squall, and the mountains, although lessthan a mile away, are hidden by clouds. Strangely, I can feel their presenceeven without being able to see them. Skulking like animals we hide our camp onthe lakeshore, hoping it will be missed by the patrolling rangers—neither of uscould pay the fine for illegal camping. Over a frequently doused fire weprepare the last of our rations: a single envelope of oatmeal and half a pot oftea. We do not bother' with a shelter, we are much too tired. We just unrollthe sleeping bags in the snow and crawl in. Sleep these days is never faraway.
Morning, our lastday. The storm has passed, the sun rises. The Tetons loom with the coldausterity of an ancient ruin. We pack the gear slowly and tramp off toward thetrail that leads from Moose Park to Teton Village. The pines thin in the riverbottom and are replaced by gorges of silver-barked aspen; the sun plays on thesnow through the barren branches. Near Phelps Lake we catch a last glimpse ofthe Grand Teton before it passes behind a shoulder of rock. From this crag thewind drives plumes of snow into purple space where they hang soft and distantlike the sails of a phantom clipper. A fine ending, grand and glorious.
We reach thevillage after dark, guided in the final stretch by the multi-colored beaconswhich adorn a tiny spruce tree in front of the hostel. It is Christmasnight.
YELLOWSTONE NAT'L PARK
GRAND TETON NAT'L PARK