A personal sense of wilderness
Becky and I head up to Jackson Lake Lodge for a pre-hike lunch at Pioneer Grill, a '50s diner where everyone sits elbow-to-elbow around U-shaped counters. I'm partial to their buffalo burgers, although after watching the snorting grandeur of a herd trundle across Antelope Flats Road earlier in the morning, I'm feeling guilt that's hardly assuaged by the knowledge that my meal was raised elsewhere.
The food chain is less of an abstract concept at Grand Teton National Park than it is in most places. In the Tetons, it's impossible ― and unwise ― to ignore the many warnings about black and grizzly bears. Visitor centers sell bear repellent, and hikers can be seen with canisters dangling at the ready from their necks and jangling noisemakers on their boots designed to alert bears of their approach ― not, as some have grimly joked, to sound the dinner bell.
We have seen bears at a distance and never come close to a confrontation. But, perhaps still unnerved by our travel day, we clap more and talk a little louder than usual as we hike up Cascade Canyon. The first leg of the trip is a boat crossing ― really a ritual passage ― across Jenny Lake, followed by a crowded first stretch to a pair of the park's most popular destinations: the not-so-hidden Hidden Falls and the truly inspiring Inspiration Point.
From there the crowds thin, even though the beauty only deepens as the glacially carved canyon leads into the very heart of the Tetons. To be inside the range is to transcend the familiarity of all of those photos that glory in the Tetons' profile from Jackson Hole. There's a feeling of being pulled into the mountains as the sounds of Cascade Creek fill the lush forest of fir and spruce before the woods open to a new perspective on the peaks.
Here the Tetons are a living place, not a silent, monumental backdrop. Raspberries and thimbleberries hang heavily from shrubs. Our eyes follow the foaming flow of a waterfall and cascade, which trace the gap of a side canyon up through a thick forest to a snowfield set beneath the great gray triangle of 12,928-foot Mt. Owen. Trout zip through shallow pools, and picas ― small rabbitlike animals ― dart in and out of gaps on a huge boulder slide, their bleating calls out of proportion to their decidedly modest stature.
We see more moose, sunbathing marmots too. Yet, alas, no bears. Then, on our return to the boat dock, a fast-moving storm rages in. Its thunder, which began as a distant kettledrum murmur, approaches with ever-sharper cracks that rock the canyon, rattling us in the process. As the gap between flashes of lightning and thunder closes, Becky shifts into a hiking overdrive, and suddenly I can barely keep up with her pace.
We are, in a word, scared. Scared less of imminent personal catastrophe than shaken by the unfamiliar sensation of smallness in these huge and powerful mountains. But you know what? It's liberating and energizing to experience the Tetons on such a visceral level. The wild is not some abstract other that's found elsewhere; for the next few miles, it's our entire world. As Mardy Murie ― the great conservationist who lived in the shadow of the Tetons for 76 years ― once said, "My sense of wilderness is personal. It's the experience of being in wilderness that matters, the feeling of place."
We are feeling cold and wet yet exhilarated too as we finally reach the dock. The storm has blown through and the clouds begin to break up. Fog drifts between the peaks, the Tetons slowly receding yet looking bigger than ever as the boat slowly chugs back across Jenny Lake.