Besides the Oregon Coast bike tour, this was my other big trip of 2018. This time I didn't manage to recruit any friends with enough vacation days, so I went by myself. On a Friday afternoon I left work a little early and flew to Salt Lake City, then drove north towards Grand Teton. Interstate 15 had a speed limit of 80 mph (the highest I've ever seen), and in practice people were going at 100. The "eco" light on my rental car turned off around 95.
The road got increasingly empty as I drove farther into the night. There was a one-way section with a long red light, where I got out to pee and realized how alone I was. There were no lights other than my car, which I left running. It was just me and the Milky Way.
Around 2 AM I pulled onto a forest road near Alpine, WY, and settled in for the night. After a few hours of fitful sleep in the back seat of the car, with recurring dreams of waking up to a $75 ticket, I got up and moved on. (No ticket! Whew.) I arrived at the Signal Mountain campground around 9 AM, and grabbed one of the two campsites that weren't claimed yet.
Grand Teton Day 1: Carry Bear Spray
The first hike of the day only climbed a few hundred feet, but my heart beat like I was running a marathon. It would take me a while to acclimate to the elevation. The mountains were covered in a disappointing haze from some remote forest fires. For a while I wished that I had tried harder to find some friends to join me, but that feeling went away in the coming days.
At every trailhead there was a scary sign about bears. "Be alert. Make noise. Carry bear spray. Avoid hiking alone. Do not run." I stepped into a convenience store planning to get some bear spray, but balked at the $50 price, especially since I couldn't take it on the plane home if I didn't end up using it. So I made the questionable decision to continue on my trip without bear spray.
In the hour before sunset I drove up to the top of Signal Mountain. On one side, the landscape looked like something out of a Warcraft II-era game. On the other side, the sun was slowly descending over the Tetons. I sat down with a giant watermelon and scooped it up with a spoon, deflecting envious glances from other sunset watchers.
Grand Teton Day 2: Of Elk and Moose and Child Carriers
The plan for today was to hike Granite Canyon from the top of Rendezvous Mountain. This trail was one long 4,000-foot descent, with the Jackson Hole aerial tram doing the hard work of getting you up at the beginning. The engineering of the tram was pretty impressive, but the views were not (too much smoke).
The first part of the hike was a feast of wildflowers -- spring comes late in the mountains. The second part was along a picturesque river -- I dipped my toes in but it was obscenely cold. On the third and final part, some animal lept a few feet away and scared the crap out of me -- it turned out to be just an elk.
Later I swung by Phelps Lake just in time for sunset. There I saw a French-speaking couple with a young kid walking by himself, and another one in a baby-carrier backpack. I found this really inspiring; maybe having kids and exploring national parks are more compatible than I previously assumed.
Driving back at dusk, I saw a moose staring ominously from the side of the road.
Grand Teton Day 3: The Moods of Mormon Row
This was a prolific day in terms of photos. I forced myself to get up at 6, and drove to Schwabacher Landing where I heard there was wildlife to be seen. But the only things I saw were a paddling of ducks and a horde of DSLR-wielding tourists. I joined the latter for a while.
My next stop was Mormon Row, where the abandoned homesteads of early settlers still stood. It seemed incomprehensible that people would abandon or sell such prime real estate, but I guess starvation due to failing crops can be a pretty powerful motivator.
Then the weather changed, and the place looked like a horror movie set.
I spent the rest of the day rambling along the edge of Leigh Lake all the way to Bearpaw Lake. It was supposed to be a flat and easy 8 miles, but my feet were hurting after yesterday. I made it back to my campsite pretty early, and ate dinner without a headlamp for the first time.
Grand Teton Day 4: The Mother of All Day Hikes
I had a 19-mile loop hike planned for today, but after how my feet felt yesterday, I thought I would turn around after 7 miles. When I got to Lake Solitude though, I still felt pretty fresh, and the scenery was so breathtaking that I decided to keep going.
Paintbrush Divide was rocky and barren, and so high up that it still had some snow in the middle of August. On the way down I was greeted by a family of mountain goats! (Mom, dad, and two kids.) They were as big as cows, and amazingly adept at descending on steep rocky and snowy slopes.
Once I got down to a lower elevation and my brain started working properly again, I realized that my decision to push forward with the 19-mile loop had two serious flaws. First, I didn't bring enough water. Second, I had to catch the last boat across Jenny Lake at 7pm, or risk being stranded with the bears.
I took to jogging on the flatter sections of the trail, and my feet felt like tenderized meat. The path to Lake Solitude had been quite crowded, despite the name. This current path was nearly deserted though, and I was a bit worried about animals. I clapped my hands loudly every few minutes, trying to make as much noise as possible.
In the end I made it to the boat on time, and rewarded myself with a sports beverage from the convenience store on the other side. This was a bad idea; the drink was basically all sugar, and gulping a liter of cold water after hiking for eight hours shocked my temperature regulation system so much that I started shivering and had to sit down.
Despite all the poor decisions, this was a pretty epic day hike (my longest ever!), and a grand way to end my time in Grand Teton. I felt grateful for the long summer days, and also for my apparently invincible legs. On the road back to my campsite, this place gave me one final, unexpected gift: a horse paddock with sprinklers dancing against the setting sun.
Yellowstone Day 1: Too much, too bright, too powerful
In the morning I paid for a hot shower at Signal Mountain campground, and it was the best $10 I ever spent. Then I drove to Canyon campground in Yellowstone, which was much farther than I realized. The park itself was huge and kind of intimidating; I looked at the map and didn't know where to start. Finally I picked Norris Geyser Basin since it was relatively close.
This place was so alien and incredible. Blue pools opened into the earth like some kind of portals from another world. Fumaroles exhaled sulphur from their endless lungs. Hot water snaked in rivulets under the boardwalks, with thermophiles tracing its path in unholy streaks of orange and teal. In some places the water bubbled with a restless energy, or exploded upwards in angry geysers. Near the hottest features the trees were dead and limbless. Only their blackened trunks remained, petrified, reaching pointlessly skyward like soldiers who stood too close to the blast.
This was where the human realm ended, and something altogether different (and possibly Lovecraftian) began. I felt a strong impulse to defend and protect these irreplaceable sights, and awe at the foresight of those who made this decision 150 years ago. To live to see this place was the luckiest I've ever felt. The poignancy of this caught me off guard; it was a kind of spiritual experience that even this stone-cold atheist could appreciate. It reminded me of that one time on the California coast when I felt similarly cracked open.
After much staring and wandering, I drove north to Mammoth Hot Springs. Here was another place where water behaved in strange and unexpected ways.
I always thought that moving water worked against flatness, by slowly carving a riverbed wherever it flowed. But here the water was so full of minerals that it worked towards flatness, by plugging any places where a tiny riverbed might start to form. This shaped the landscape into travertine terraces, staircases of water that ranged in scale from a few millimeters to about a foot high.
After greedily traversing the entire graph of boardwalks built up in the area, I got some groceries from Mammoth and started driving back to my campground. The views on Grand Loop Road were spectacular, especially in the golden hour. This is what the American West must have looked like before it was "civilized".
Around dusk I got into a traffic jam caused by a giant freaking buffalo heedlessly walking in front of a long line of cars. I filmed it as it passed right by my open window, within arm's reach, and definitely closer than it would normally be safe to approach. Then I sped off and couldn't stop laughing. Only in Yellowstone...
Yellowstone Day 2: I Can Feel Their Blue Hands Touching Me
I got up early because of the cold. Even in late summer, the nights approached freezing temperature at this elevation. I drove to the Mud Volcano area, arriving to an overcast sky and muted colors. The place looked foreboding, with thick columns of steam hissing out of the earth, like smoke from a burnt village.
By the time I got to the West Thumb Geyser Basin, the sun was winning its battle against the night, and the world was bathed in a perfect morning light. Set right on the edge of the vast cold expanse of Yellowstone Lake, this place was especially enchanting. I spent an hour or two staring into the turquoise pools of the hot springs, imagining what kind of magic Murakami might conjure out of them had he been there. I'd never seen natural features so improbably beautiful.
Eventually I got hungry and moved on. Driving towards Old Faithful, I was surprised to find myself on a 2+2-lane highway, complete with a raised, clover-leaf-type exit. This seemed out of place for a National Park, and I wondered if it had been built in an earlier time, when people saw all the promise of the emerging automobile, and none of the consequences of having a country full of them. (Yellowstone is the oldest National Park, established in 1872. The Model T didn't arrive until 1908.)
Having just missed the Old Faithful eruption, I walked into the visitor center and learned that they could predict the next one within +/- 10 minutes. Just enough time to climb up to an overlook and watch the spectacle unfold. After that I found my way to Solitary Geyser, which erupted every 5-7 minutes, and I stayed to see a few iterations (the second was weak; the third made up for it). I caught Castle erupting from a distance, although at this point, I had to ration space on my camera's SD card, and I was feeling a bit desensitized to all this magic.
Yellowstone Day 3: Where I End and You Begin
Artists' Paintpots looked like a haunted forest in the morning. The smell of sulphur only strengthened the impression that something evil was going on. I made my footsteps extra quiet around the gurgling mudpots, lest they awaken Cthulu.
After two days of shuffling along boardwalks, I was ready to go on a proper hike and leave the other tourists behind. Unfortunately I was not the only one with that idea; the trail to Fairy Falls was a superhighway. The waterfall was impressive enough, but the real reward was Imperial Geyser, about a mile farther out. Here I finally had the place to myself. And what a place it was, when the forest shed its ordinary facade to reveal a steaming turquoise pool and an exuberant gusher.
When I got to the viewpoint above Grand Prismatic Spring, the sky was mostly cloudy, and the spring's famous colors were subdued. What caught my eye was the area next to it, where the plants must have boiled alive, and the travertine stretched across the earth like so many scars. In this landscape of devastation two blackened trees remained standing, their reflections and shadows like the hands of clocks that continued running long after there was anyone left to read the time.
While those clouds deigned not to ruin my day, they showed no such mercy for my campsite. Everything was cold and dripping when I arrived. My cheap tent fought a brave battle against the rain, and lost. The sleeping bag inside was completely soaked. With nothing dry to sit on, I ate some dinner standing up, then put on all the layers I had, and braced myself for another night in the back seat of my car.
Yellowstone Day 4: I Have It All Here in Red Blue Green
Somehow I survived without my sleeping bag, and did not have to drive out of the park to a lower elevation, like I had feared. In the morning I took a long detour through Lamar Valley. There were herds of bison, as promised, and I wished I had a long-zoom lens.
Then I returned to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The weather was getting dicey again; I hiked to Point Sublime and then ran most of the way back, thinking that in case of lightning, the exposed lip of the canyon was the worst possible place to be. Did I hear some static crackling? Maybe I just imagined it.
On the north side of the canyon there were two epic, deafening waterfalls, but before I got to explore the trails there properly, it started raining for real. I suppose I got pretty lucky with the weather on this trip; today was meant to show me how much worse it could've been.
I drove back to the Old Faithful area, which cloudy but still relatively dry. Greedily I walked the remaining paths, knowing that this was my last day in Yellowstone. A drizzle came on and off, and the crowds thinned. As the daylight waned, I was the only one left roaming among the mysterious blue pools, the sulphur-spewing gashes, the rusty wounds in the earth.
I was lucky enough to catch Daisy erupting, and the violence of it at dusk gave me a thrill of primal fear. It made a haunting sound when it subsided, like a train departing: click-clack, click-clack, click-clack. When it got so dark that my camera couldn't focus, I knew that it was time to go home.
After one final night at the campground, I packed up my things, took a glorious shower, and settled in for the long drive back to Salt Lake City, where I had a few hours to walk around. Like San Francisco, the place was swarming with hobos. Unlike San Francisco, there were some official "don't support panhandling" signs. I was impressed with the architecture of the temple and the surrounding area (all private property), and happy to see some equally impressive secular buildings: the library, city hall, the state capitol, some old mansions.
At the airport I accidentally tested the recall of the x-ray detection system. I forgot my foldable camping knife in my carry-on, and they found it. I had to go back and put it in my checked-in luggage, which they luckily allowed me to do. Also, I almost flew home with the spare key for my rental car, which I also went back and returned. This is why I always get to the airport with time to spare...
One thing I didn't mention earlier is that I saw a lot of cool RVs on this trip. Especially intriguing were the minivan-sized RVs from a New Zealand company called Jucy. I have a weird fascination with younger people who choose the traveling lifestyle for a longer period of time, and I wish I had made an effort to start some conversations and learn their stories. Maybe next time.
As usual I measured my mustache by tallying up trip expenses:
- Flights SFO-SLC plus baggage fees: $286
- Car rental: $340
- Gas: $111
- Campsites: $264
- National Parks pass: $80
- Misc (Lyft to airport, aerial tram in Jackson, etc.): $90
- Groceries and food (rough estimate): $200
This amounts to $1,371 for a ten-day trip. The most obvious opportunities for optimization were the car, gas, and campsites -- these could've easily been split in four had I convinced some friends to come with me. But while this trip wasn't cheap, I had the time of my life, and that's what money is for after all.