Monthly Archives: August 2020

2020 Western Trip: Post Mortem

Just a few random, wrap-up thoughts after our 2020 trip to Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Montana.

RVing During a Pandemic. Definitely, the only way to travel during a pandemic is in an RV. No hassles with restaurants, public bathrooms, common spaces, germ-laden surfaces, or any of the infinity of petty (but necessary) annoyances of trying to stay free of contagion-laden encounters. Except for missing out on some of the attractions of our typical tours (such as rangers talks, guided hikes, museums, visitor centers, and the like) (all of which, to be clear, we did miss), RV travel during a pandemic is essentially no different than any other RV travel expedition. We wondered before we left whether this trip would provide the essentials of what have always made our trips memorable, and the answer is a resounding yes.

Schedules. Because our trip turned solo at the last minute, and because the kinds of activities that normally populate our schedules were largely unavailable, for the first time we had a trip that presented day after day with nothing in particular to do. And surprisingly, that made it one of the best trips ever.

Normally, when one’s time on a trip is limited, there’s a weird sort of pressure to make the best of it, to make sure all of the essentials get done, to avoid “wasting” time. But this time, we were free to do things as they struck our fancy. If we passed a sign for a trail to a waterfall, we were free to break from plan, pull over, and do a spontaneous hike. When we thought wildlife might appear, we were free to sit for three (!) hours just to see what happened. When we visited a particularly photogenic scene, we had the flexibility to wait for a couple hours for just the right light.

We witnessed one of those meteorological conditions where the wind blowing over the mountain top caused the mountain to generate ever-changing plumes of clouds. I actually did a time-lapse video of the scene, and if I figure out how to post it, I’ll replace this photo. The point, though, is that we had the freedom to spend an hour just sitting at the overlook, watching clouds. A special treat, and something possible only with an unencumbered schedule.

We don’t expect this to be our M.O. going forward. We laughed at what it would have been like to sit in lawn chairs by the side of the road for three hours if we had a shrewdness of grandchildren with us. But, for this one trip, the serendipity of an unencumbered schedule made it memorably special.

Connectivity. We noticed something odd this year: the visitors map to Yellowstone has several colored blobs indicating those areas of the park where cell phone coverage is available. Even worse, it looked to us like the Park Service is laying fiber optic cable in Grand Teton NP. On both counts, I have grave forebodings about what future park experiences may hold.

I understand why a lack of connectivity can be a nuisance. In Grand Teton, there was only one area we found that had cell phone coverage (a pull-out down by Willow Flats), and only one other location (down by the marina store) that had WiFi internet access. So, to fire off an itinerary change to the family, phone ahead for campground reservations, or respond to some supposedly “urgent” need back in Atlanta, all required an inconvenient detour to some suitable spot and a break from park activities.

But that’s the point. Immersing oneself in the splendor of the Grand Teton range is not about sending off emojis, updating your Facebook timeline, or firing off some blather in your TikTok app. It’s not even about staying connected to the office. The essence of a visit to a national park is that it forces you to detach from the consuming trivialities imposed by modern technology, take a deep breath, and momentarily focus on things that transcend the mundane details of ordinary daily life.

I’ve written before about the tragic superficiality of people we’ve seen who come across some scene of breathtaking beauty, turn their backs on the magnificence of their surroundings, take the obligatory selfies, and then promptly leave, only to continue their never-ending stream of missed opportunities. I wonder now if that tragedy will be compounded by the Park Service striving to make the national parks places for connected experience.

Blue Meanies. For many years, I’ve pondered the connection between city living and an excessive proportion of nasty people. And it’s not just one of my (many) (mostly random) theories: a friend’s wife who is an epidemiologist at CDC has actually done academic research on how urban density is a causative factor in aggressive behavior. This also explains a phenomenon we observed: states that are dominated by cities, and hence those states that tend to be blue, also tend to display the urban manners of the citified people that populate them.

We had an interesting confirmation of this social phenomenon this year. From time to time, more often than one might think in national parks, one encounters people who are unexpectedly and unnecessarily rude and aggressive. The most common examples can be seen on the park roadways. Speed limits in the park are generally pretty low (often 45 mph, slower near lodging, popular attractions, or areas where wildlife congregate). Many people (including us) actually abide by these speed limits. Unfortunately, though, for certain kinds of people, a speed-limit-obeying vehicle is little more than a source of frustration and an opportunity for attack. These are the people who ride the bumper of the car in front of them, swerve out (often illegally) to blast by the offending speed-limit-obeying motorist, drive the wrong way through a traffic slow-down, and otherwise bring the ill-mannered demeanor of urban life to the wilds of Wyoming.

And here’s what we noticed. These brutish assailants were almost always from blue states. Amazing. Most of the cars on the road were local (Wyoming and Utah mostly), but when some jerk crossed a double-line to drive at 70 mph in a 45 zone, blue state. And it was way too often to be a coincidence: New York, New Jersey, California, Washington. Blue meanies everywhere.

[For those too young to catch the allusion, the Blue Meanies were the brutish bad guys in the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine and a metaphor for mean people everywhere.]

Harleys. Speaking of behavior that is strangely out of place, here’s another one. Although I rode a motorcycle for 50 years, I never really understood the Harley Davidson crowd. The motorcycles themselves are not particularly functional (the performance riding course I took regularly would not even allow Harleys to participate), but the oddest thing is the fascination Harley people seem to have with removing the bikes’ mufflers. Why? For the rider, what could possibly be the attraction of a deafening, mind-numbing roar inches from one’s eardrums for hours on end, and how could anyone be indifferent to the annoyance that such a blast creates for anyone within a couple hundred yards of the offending tailpipes?

What brought on this detour into the oddities of the Harley Davidson subculture? Our time in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park this year coincided with this year’s Sturgis motorcycle rally, an improbable gathering of, no kidding, 460,000 motorcycles (down this year, maybe due to COVID-19, by about 9% from last year), in the town of Sturgis, South Dakota. An unfortunate proportion of the Sturgis-gathering motorcycles are Harleys, and a doubly unfortunate proportion of the Harleys are ridden by the aforementioned muffler removers. And one more unfortunate circumstance: the Lamar Valley is the natural route between Sturgis and the rest of Yellowstone. What that meant was that the roadway through the Lamar Valley was subject to a never-ending roar of groups (sometimes 30 or more) of unmuffled motorcycles blasting their way through the otherwise tranquil expanse of the park.

There’s a pretty funny video out there of a bison who attacked a woman who had gotten off her motorcycle and walked into a herd of buffalo to take pictures, with the animal adding insult to the woman’s injuries by pulling the woman’s pants right off of her. Really. Watch the video. It’s funny in a Darwin Awards sort of way.

One cannot go anywhere in the national parks without seeing these kinds of warning signs, which makes approaching a buffalo and getting pantsed in the process especially fitting.

In any event, though, we were not so fortunate as to see any bikers pantsed by buffalo this year. Next year, maybe, but at the very least we’ll remember to bring our ear plugs.

Overall. One of our best trips ever, enjoyable even in the midst of a disrupting social climate, and filled with new experiences. We are so glad we resisted the urge to bail out and once again reminded how blessed we are to live in such a beautiful country, and doubly blessed to be able to enjoy it.

Straight Ahead Providence

There are two kinds of winds that come out of thunderstorms: tornados and derechos. We know that we don’t want to be in the first; this trip gave us to opportunity to learn we also don’t want to be in the second.

The original plan, the one that involved “seeing” Montana in four days (ha ha), had us leaving Livingston on August 8, which would put us crossing Nebraska and Iowa on August 9th and 10th. That would have been a bad thing. On the night of August 9th, a derecho, which is an area of straight-line winds blasting out from a line of thunderstorms (from the Spanish word meaning “right” or “straight”), blew across the Midwest. This particular storm, incredibly, was a line of severe thunderstorms 600 miles long. Ahead of that fearsome monster were straight-line winds of at least 58 mph across essentially the entire front, and winds clocked in Iowa in excess of 110 mph. All across the area, roofs were torn off of buildings, trees were uprooted, semi tractor trailers were blown over, grain elevators were toppled, and thousands of acres of corn fields were flattened. At one point, power had been knocked out to nearly one million homes. The effect was essentially an inland Category 2 hurricane, spreading the same kind of destruction, except that unlike a hurricane, this one didn’t lose force over land, it gained it. Our route would have put us right in the middle of all this on the very night it happened.

We didn’t think to capture a screenshot at the moment the storm passed over where we would have been, but this gives you the idea: the dark red/purple blob passed almost directly over Grand Island, NE, where we had spent the previous night.

But, as it turns out, we were miles away. Since we decided we are basically morons for thinking we’d see Montana in four days, and having resolved to come back to Montana for a month next year, we realized we might as well get a head start on the trip home and leave on August 7th. That meant, instead of spending the night of August 9-10 in Nebraska, in the middle of unimaginable destruction, we were 300 miles southeast, watching on network news the devastation occurring in where we would have been had we left per our original schedule.

I assume that, had we been in the jaws of this beast when it hit, we would have taken shelter in the campground bathroom building, or some other suitable shelter, but the RV likely would have been damaged, maybe totaled. Instead, it’s just a story of what might have been. We’re pretty much devoted Presbyterians, so we don’t believe in luck or coincidence. But whatever you call it, providence or luck, but for a spontaneous decision to leave a day early, this would have been an entirely different post.

Seeing Montana

Wendy and I have driven through Montana probably a half-dozen times over the years, and every time we do, Wendy says, “Wow! This place is SO beautiful. Instead of just driving through, we should stop for a while and see Montana.” So, having wrapped up Grand Teton National Park, we headed up to Livingston, Montana, for a week. Two of those days were spent in Yellowstone, but that gave us four days to see Montana. Hold that thought.

You know how sometimes you hear someone say something and you wonder, “Are you serious? What are you thinking? Are you actually that clueless?”

Now, back to seeing Montana. Yes, we actually are that clueless and no, I don’t know what we were thinking. “Seeing” Montana in four days is nuts. Montana is almost 150,000 square miles in size. (Compare that to Georgia, which is about 60,000.) Montana is roughly 570 miles by 315 miles in length and breadth. It has 70,000 miles of paved roads, and an immeasurable number of dirt roads. So, what were we thinking that we could “see Montana” in four days?

Needless to say, we didn’t “see” Montana. What we did see was one little sliver of the south-southwestern part of the state, specifically the Gallatin River canyon, and then the Madison River valley. Seriously. Two riversheds. And it took all day.

This is it, and it took all day, and it was a L-O-N-G day. In our own defense, though, (and it’s not much of a defense), it’s easy to forget how big the states are out west. One doesn’t just bip on up from the bottom of the state to the top.
Gallatin River Canyon: At this point, the canyon is fairly wide. Over most of its course, though, it’s steep-walled with fast-moving currents.

The Gallatin River canyon, though, provided us with a quality experience that overcame the shortfall in the quantity of Montana that we actually saw. As usual, we stopped for a picnic along the river’s edge and then simply sat there for an hour, doing nothing but taking in the beauty of that particular place. Which was different than the beauty of the place a mile down the road, which was different than the beauty of the next mile, and so on, and so on, for a hundred miles. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” True indeed.

Usual deal: we found a wide spot in the road along the Gallatin River, set up the lawn chairs and the folding table, and had a picnic sitting by the river. And then just sat there and enjoyed the scene.

Here’s something else that’s great about Montana (and essentially every other western state). Almost 40% of Montana is “public lands.” Actually, for the western third of the state, probably 80% is public land. It’s hard for eastern people to appreciate what that means. But realize that every mile or two there’s a fishing access point, a trailhead, a canoe launch point, a pullout, or a picnic area. Mile after mile of profound beauty, with nearly limitless access.

What this means is that to really “see” this little sliver of Montana that we explored, to hike the trails, spend time at a sample of the campgrounds, fish the streams, even head back to hunt the backcountry, would take years. Really. Years. One could never really “see” Montana, even the western third of Montana, is a lifetime. But it would be wonderful to try.

Halfway through the trip, we headed up to Big Sky, a resort area just west of Highway 191. Back in the early 1970s, several investors and developers (including Chet Huntley, the newscaster of the Huntley-Brinkley Report) began the development of the area, which now claims to be the largest ski resort in the country. It has a permanent population of almost 3000, and swells to several times that during the winter.

Big Sky is an area of unspeakably stunning beauty, billing itself as a place not only for skiing, but for hiking, fly fishing, mountain biking, camping, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and hunting. I’m sure all that is true, although to look at it one might think it was developed mainly as a resort area where nice rich people could go to hang around other nice rich people. How nice? The guy with spotting scope in Yellowstone who set it up so Wendy and I could see the wolves? He lives in Big Sky. And how rich? The spotting scope that he let us look through was a $4000 20-60X Swarovski. Seriously. The cost of his spotting scope was more than the down payment on our first house. That’s OK, though. He can probably afford it: a small, two-bedroom condo in Big Sky would go for somewhere between $400K and a couple million, and single family homes start at around $1 million and range upwards to you-don’t-want-to-know.

And, of course, given the Big Sky clientele, everything about the area is perfect. All of the homes, businesses, sidewalks, even the trails, are immaculate. Following one spur-of-the-moment impulse, we did a short hike down to see a waterfall and, as you would expect, even an otherwise nondescript stream was perfect.

Ousel Falls in the Big Sky development: Reachable by a short hike down a perfectly manicured, engineered trail, which also connects to a number of Forest Service trails that surround the Big Sky area.
One of the nice things about developments like Big Sky is that the wildlife are trained to pose in photogenic locations for the enjoyment of the residents. Really. Look it up.

I’m not sure that Big Sky is the kind of place we’d ever like to live. Among other things, I expect one can only live a “resort” lifestyle for so long. But especially nowadays, when rancor, bitterness, ugliness, hatred, etc. etc. etc. all seem to be de rigueur, it might take us a pretty long time to grow weary of living in the company of nice rich people.

In any event, we left Livingston substantially short of our goal of “seeing” Montana, but now we have a new plan to “see” Montana. On some upcoming trip (maybe next year), we’ll divvy up the western portion of Montana into a half-dozen areas and spend several days in each.

Some of the areas we’ve identified for future trips so we can actually “see” Montana. I guess it says something about us, or the state, or both, that we’re already excited about these trips.

We’ll see. But our prior impression was true. Montana is an unimaginably beautiful state and we can hardly wait to go back.

July 2020: Yellowstone National Park

The original plan was that we would explore Yellowstone for a day or two during the Grand Teton stay, and then spend a week exploring Montana the following week. But, Grand Teton turned out to present more opportunities than we had time for, and Yellowstone (at least part of Yellowstone) was more accessible from our Montana location anyway. So, change number 37 to this itinerary: Do Yellowstone from the north.

Then, we then further modified that modification to spend time focusing solely on the Lamar Valley and the Northern Range area of Yellowstone, skipping all of Yellowstone’s more familiar geothermal features, Hayden valley wildlife, canyons and waterfalls, and the gazillion other things that Yellowstone has to offer, to follow a concept much like we did at Grand Teton: select an area that was relatively unknown to us and then just wander around, with no particular objective in mind, and see what happens.

This was by far the best two days we have ever spent in Yellowstone. I’ll leave the highlight of the trip, though, for last.

The northeast corner of Yellowstone is the least visited area of the park. It consists of three regions, the Northern Range, the Lamar Valley, and the Soda Butte Canyon (which leads up to the northeast entrance to the park).

So, to explore the area, we did our usual motor touring and day hikes.

Undine Falls: No hike was required — the falls were visible with a walk of about 20 feet off the parking area.
Wraith Falls (although it might actually be more of a cascade than a waterfall), which required an easy, half-mile hike. And along the way we saw blacktail deer, including a cutesy-putesy little fawn (still with its spots).
One of the things we like doing is the self-guided trails put up by the park service along the roads. This one explained the flora and fauna of the Northern Range, along with the incredible forces that created the topography in this area, including at least three massive volcanic eruptions (the last one of which occurred a mere 600,000 years ago and was so powerful it blew debris into Louisiana). Experts say the next one could happen at any time.
This pretty much represents our standard M.O. for the trip: find a scenic place around lunchtime, set up the lawn chairs and picnic table, haul out the sandwiches and chips, set up the camera, and spend an hour or two enjoying life. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
Wendy and I disagree about the story here. I think these are two not-quite-fledgings, waiting impatiently for mom and dad to come back with some fish. Wendy thinks this is two fledglings with an adult perched in a nearby tree, and with another fledgling (making in all, three) and the other parent off on a training mission. Either way, I missed seeing the other birds take off from the nest, so Wendy and I set up our lawn chairs (see above), had a picnic lunch, and waited for over an hour for those birds to come back. Didn’t happen. But even still, what could be more fun than sitting by a deep canyon, in the beautiful splendor of Yellowstone, watching nature and anticipating action?
Upper Soda Butte Canyon.
Trout Lake: We actually didn’t plan on doing this hike. Well, we actually didn’t “plan” on doing any hike, or anything else for that matter. But one benefit of this kind of travel is that we just do whatever strikes our fancy at the moment, and we fancied hiking up to this glacial lake.

But none of that is what made our exploration of this area so special. The Lamar Valley has been called the “Serengeti of America,” and it is an apt designation. Coming over a rise and descending into the valley, one sees this:

A herd of several hundred buffalo, and this is only one of a dozen or so herds. Seriously. Mile after mile of herds of buffalo. There are probably 1000 or more buffalo in this area. As we drove through the area, we tried to imagine the 19th century experience when the plains were home to maybe 60 million buffalo.
This may indicate that we’re incurable dorks, but we actually found it interesting to watch the buffalo cross the Lamar River. I know it’s like watching cows.
A different guy crossing a different water body. Exciting, eh?
Maybe this just cinches the dork assessment, but we think buffalo are just interesting. We spent hours sitting in our lawn chairs watching them. Apparently the rut is just beginning and Wendy saw one pair engaged in, shall we say, a “romantic moment.” We were going to send a photo home to the families of “the act” so the parents could use the photo as an opportunity to have “the talk,” but the moment was over before Wendy could grab her camera.

And, something truly exciting for me, we got to see a wolf prowling the valley floor.

Trust me. That little dot is actually a wolf.
See? Told ya. OK, so this one isn’t that much better, but the wolf was a long way off and I haven’t been able to sweet-talk my dear, loving, beautiful, and understanding wife (in case she’s reading this) into letting me buy a new super-telephoto lens. Maybe this insufficient photo will persuade her. In any event, I know that watching a little black dot work its way across a distant slope may not seem all that exciting, but I believe it’s the first time I ever saw a wolf in the wild. In any case, things are about to get a lot better. Keep reading.

Finally, here’s the highlight. It’s hard to explain, but Wendy and I have been RVing and camping since the early 1970s. Although all of these trips have been special for us, and are chock full of memorable moments, in reality they are largely the same kind of thing that anyone would likely have spending time in the same area. But not this time.

It started when we struck up a conversation with some random guy, who mentioned to us that there was a buffalo carcass up the road, and earlier that morning there were wolves and bears on the carcass. Even more, if nature holds true to form, the wolves and bears would be back around 5:00 or 6:00 later that afternoon. So, we drove off, marked the location of the carcass, and vowed to return at the appointed hour. Except we got nervous and returned at 2:30 instead, setting up our lawn chairs and the camera, binoculars at hand, and waited for the appointed hour. And waited, and waited. Waited for two-and-one-half hours sitting in the sun to be precise. But, that’s us. If you’ve ever seen a dachshund waiting outside a chipmunk hole, you know where the phrase “dogged determination” comes from. Well, that’s us. “Dogged determination” for two-and-a-half hours.

The buffalo carcass, with a (former) buffalo cousin walking by. According to a professional photographer with whom we were chatting, the most likely cause of the buffalo’s demise was a rut-induced sparring match between two bulls competing for the affections of a buffalo temptress. It occasionally happens that the fight results in a puncture to a blood vessel or a lung, and it’s pretty much cookies for the loser.

At around 5:00, a guy with a spotting scope standing next to us said that a pack of nine wolves had emerged from the woods, quite a bit to our left, and was headed towards to carcass. Sure enough, all nine wolves in the pack worked their way across the sagebrush prairie, and pretty soon we saw this:

There are only seven wolves visible in this picture. The other two are in the sagebrush somewhere. Seriously. A pack of nine (!) wolves, roaming the prairie, and feasting on a buffalo. We are totally engaged: this is reality, not some nature show. It was fascinating. The pack’s behavior was not what I expected. No howling, snarling, fighting over pieces of rotting meat, whatever. They basically just walked around, taking a bite every now and then, sometimes moving off or laying down, and pretty much nonchalant about the whole thing. More like a table of finger food at a cocktail party than anything else.

After 30 minutes or so of doing buffalo munchies, the wolves meandered off. And not in a “pack” per se. The just sort of separately wandered up towards the woods, laying down in the sage from time to time, sometimes going one way, sometimes the others, until after another 30 minutes they happened to all be near the woods edge more or less in one group, and then they disappeared. At this point, Wendy and I are counting this as one of the best days we’ve ever had.

Then, as if this wasn’t enough, what swoops in but a bald eagle! The only eagle we’d seen our whole time in the park. Seriously. I was hoping he’d also fly down for a tasty morsel, but after flying around a couple times, he just perched in the tree and kept an eye on the goings-on below. But wait … there’s more.

At this point, the professional photographer standing next to us said, “Stand by. There’ll be a bear here soon enough.” As it was explained to us, a grizzly might be able to drive a pack of wolves off of a carcass if he wanted to, but a black bear certainly couldn’t. So, said the photographer, there was almost certainly a bear watching the wolves from the tree line, waiting for them to finish up. And, sure enough, a few moments after the wolves entered the woods, we saw this:

This medium-size (estimated 400 pound) black bear, literally running across the sagebrush prairie towards the carcass...
…and then he settled in for about 30 minutes to get his fill of delicious, sun-roasted buffalo steak. Just like with the wolves, this was completely fascinating. The bear would wander from place to place, pulling off a piece of something here and there, then pause, look around, and go back to munching. Just like the wolves, he seemed pretty nonchalant about the whole thing.

At this point, we’ve been watching the wolves-bear buffalo-buffet going on for over an hour and then the unthinkable happens. A bunch of onlookers headed down the hill from the roadway and started walking towards the bear! Yes, there’s a river between the bear and the tourists, but it’s the same river that the buffalo waded across a few moments ago and one that would take a charging bear about 10 seconds to cross at full speed.

So, this is the moment of truth. In a way, we were rooting for the bear, not wanting any of the tourists to be eaten per se, but a nice mauling would be OK. Unfortunately, though, the bear decided that mauling a tourist might mean he’d end up getting euthanized, so thinking that discretion is the better part of valor, he decided to vacate the carcass instead. A-a-a-a-a-r-g-h! These stupid tourists had managed to drive off our bear!

But then, ta-da!, the heat showed up. A ranger walked down and rousted the tourists.

Eleven morons being escorted away from proximity to the carcass, although at this point they had already shooshed away the bear. The photographer explained that, even though approaching wildlife close enough to disturb its behavior is an offense, the rangers usually settle for “education” and simply remove the tourists to a more appropriate distance. On occasion, they will issue a citation, and in rare circumstances will actually double-tap the offending tourists, but unfortunately not so in this case.

At around 6:30, we decided we needed to head back to the camper. There was a chance that the wolves would return for second helpings, or maybe even a grizzly would show up, but we had a two-hour drive home and wanted to get there before dark.

So, for this last day, we had spent nearly 12 hours simply wandering around the northeast corner of the park, with no particular plan in mind, taking up whatever delights we happened to come across, culminating with watching, in the wild, unaffected by human presence (until the very end), the wild behavior of a wolf pack, a bald eagle, and a brown bear. What a day!

July 2020: Grand Teton National Park

In an earlier concept for this trip, we were to meet Cliff and his family here, with all of them staying in a cabin, and with our RV serving both as our lodging and as the combined gathering and eating place for both families. The COVID situation pretty much killed that idea, and for a while we considered whether traveling to Grand Teton National Park on our own would be worth it. Oh well, we figured, we can either stay isolated in Atlanta, or we can stay isolated in our RV as it sits in a national park. Phrased that way, it seemed an easy call.

Not a slam dunk, though. Although the park is technically “open,” it’s more like open-ish. None of the lodges are open, none of the museums are open, the restaurant at Colter Bay is the only available eating place, and it’s take-out only. Only a few of the amenities are operating (like the Jenny Lake ferry). Colter Bay has a grocery store, laundromat, showers, marina, and the like, but it’s all limited and masked up. Everything else is lock-the-doors-Nellie closed.

And, for us, the biggest disappointment is that all of the ranger-guided hikes and evening ranger talks are cancelled. Over the course of forty years of RVing, staying regularly in national parks, we’ve probably attended hundreds of ranger-led activities, and yet the absence of them for this trip was almost enough to cause us to pull the plug.

Even still, it’s the Grand Tetons, we had nine days reserved, and hiking, touring, and photography are all largely unaffected, so off we went. Let’s face it. COVID or not, this is one spectacular place.

This is the view that Ansel Adams made famous, done here to lesser effect on one of our afternoon drives. Even when the weather is dark and cloudy, the Tetons are dramatically beautiful.
Typical Skip frolic and detour: up at 4:00 a.m. to make an hour-long drive to be in the right spot to photograph the John Moulton barn, just as the first rays of sunlight hit it.

So, what follows are a few impressions from a trip in a distinctly unique time, which should be taken as a complement to our account from the last time we were here four years ago.

Crowds. To be sure, even though the park isn’t fully operating, there are beaucoup people here. Some of them are staying in the campgrounds (which are all full), some are driving up from Jackson, some must be spontaneously generating from the pavement. In any event, they are all over the place.

But not exactly all over the place. There’s a statistic that I can’t recall exactly, but something like 95% of the people who visit national parks never go more than 100 yards from a paved surface. That matches our experience — venturing a tenth of a mile from any form of pavement means we were essentially alone in the woods. Every day, save one where it was cold and rainy all day and we stayed in the campground with friends, we ventured off into the woods with no other purpose in mind than to enjoy the sheer beauty of this place. And each such experience was mercifully free of crowds. Even free of crowds when it shouldn’t have been free of crowds. For instance, there’s a little dippy two-mile trail that leads off from the campground for a loop along the lakeshore. It’s literally a matter of stepping out of the door for a one-hour walk. Even still, we saw only a couple people.

Here’s another example. One day we hiked up to the top of Grand View Point. In all the years we’ve been coming here, this view, from the western side of the park, looking width-wise across the park to the mountain range on the other side, was new to us and completely unique. (As opposed to partially unique, which is what happens if something is one-of-a-kind but there’s more than one, whatever that means.) This is the view:

Grand View Point.

Priceless. Anyone who ventures into GTNP would surely seek out this trail just for the spirit-filling beauty of the place, right? Nope. How many people did we see over the course of three hours on the trail? Less than 10.

Wendy and I spent hours trying to figure out what could possibly account for the overflowing crowds along roadways, in turnouts, in parking lots, and generally hanging out in Colter Bay, while simultaneously there are few people just a fraction of a mile away. We haven’t settled on the definitive explanation. One possibility occurs to me: ever since the turn of the 20th century, simulations of reality have been displacing reality itself. In the current visually overloaded era, everyone knows what the Grand Tetons look like, and in some ways the reality of the location is just another version of what’s more accessible virtually. So for many people, the purpose of being in the park is not so much to experience the park itself as it is to document one’s presence in the park. Why spend hours walking the woods to do that? That would explain the M.O. we often see: people show up at some scenic overlook, jump out of the car (leaving the engine running), turn their backs on the scene, snap a few selfies with the view in the background, and then jump back in the car and drive away. For Wendy and me, the process of slogging away to get to a scenic vantage point yields a qualitatively different experience than the effect of any virtual substitute. Perhaps for many, though, there is no meaningful difference. Whatever the explanation, “crowds” in national parks, except at designated selfie locations, is largely a myth.

Well, almost. For most of our time here, we thought we’d do something a little different and explore the lesser-known, western side of the park. So, we spent 5 days hiking around in areas where we’d never been before. But, our favorite locations, and some of the most scenic, and hence most popular, are on the eastern side of the park, right along the base of the mountains. So, we decided to spend our last couple days revisiting those locations.

String Lake — looking at the outflow end.
On the trail to Taggart Lake at about 8:15 in the morning and zero people on the trail.
Taggart Lake, where we actually did encounter people. Two of them, to be precise. A nice couple from Winter Haven, Florida, with whom we chatted for a few moments before hitting the trail in solitude again.
Brantley Lake Trail. Same deal: at this point we’re about 4.5 miles into the hike and seeing other hikers only rarely.

These locations are something of “tourist spots,” so they can get crowded. For example, the short hike from the ferry dock to Inspiration Point can be pretty much elbow-to-elbow people. On our hikes to Taggart and Brantley Lakes, shown above, another “tourist” hike, we were on the trail at 7:45 but even still we probably saw 20 to 30 people over the course of five miles. Not a lot, but not exactly isolated either.

Until we were almost back to the starting point, and then things got weird. Really weird. Like nee-nee-nee-nee weird. At 11:30 am, 1.1 miles from the parking lot, at the Taggart-Brantley Lakes trail junction, we noticed people were streaming up from the parking lot. Streaming. Like a stream. No, more like a river. One group after another. Some huge groups, like 20 people in one group. Eventually we started counting the people streaming by us and we got to 162! What this must mean is that, on those occasions when people actually get out into the woods, they all go to the same places and move in herds.

And another weird thing. In a COVID era, there’s an etiquette to hiking. People step off the trail as they pass each other, trying to create a proper six-foot social distance, and most people pull up their masks over their face for that moment just as an additional precaution and to show proper sensibility and courtesy. Not during the aforementioned weird interval. No pretense of stepping off the trail to maintain distance, and mask discipline was pretty much gone. It’s like, in all of the vast expanse of the Grand Tetons, there was one little trail section dedicated as a hiking area for morons, and that section happened to be the last segment of our morning hike.

And since I’m on a roll about weirdness, here’s another one. One of the groups we passed consisted of about 20 Asians. Asians always wear masks, right? It’s sort of a cultural thing. They wear masks in a non-COVID era. But not this group. What kind of a world is it where Wendy and Skip wear masks and Asians don’t? Maybe we stumbled into a parallel universe where everything is the same except cultural norms for masks has been reversed?

OK, one more. One of the groups we passed consisted of a half-dozen twenty-something, garishly tatooed dipsticks. Not only were we subjected to a loud, constant blather as they walked along, one of them had discordant, tinny music blaring out from her iPhone. Seriously? The Grand Tetons is the place you go to socialize with your friends and listen to music? Please shoot me.

Anyway, that last 30-minute stretch was unlike any hiking experience we’ve ever had. We can only conclude that we happened to stumble upon the time and place established by the Park Service as the portal through which weirdness enters our universe.

Bears. GTNP is definitely bear country. There are bear warning posters all over the place. And every now and then, one hears of some hapless hiker who gets mauled by a bear. So, that presents a question: venture into the back country, bear territory, or not? The approach Wendy and I take is that, if one says I’ll never go anywhere if there’s a chance of getting eaten by a bear, then one will never go anywhere in the park. That’s not an option. So, instead, we educate ourselves about bears the best we can, hike sensibly (using good technique and being alert, especially where there’s a chance of surprising a bear), equip ourselves with bear spray, and then venture forth. If one of us gets mauled by a bear, so be it. There are things in life worse than getting eaten by a bear. (Although frankly, none come to mind.)

Which is a good theory, except for our hike around Christian Lake. The trail worked its way through twists and turns, with high brush on either side, and we kept seeing bear sign on the trail. Seriously. On the trail, like stepping over bear poop as we walked along. And, plus that, no other people. None. We found ourselves totally alone in thick brush. We kept wondering whether we were being as smart as we think we are. The next day, we got our answer: in talking to a ranger, he mentioned that the Park Service doesn’t recommend people hike in that area except in groups, and seeing signs of bear activity in that area would have made him “nervous.” Oops. I wonder if we were in a different but equally distinct designated moron area?

Campgrounds. OK, so we call this “camping,” but it’s really not. Our RV has a large-screen TV with satellite television, we have a full-size bedroom, and separate bath and shower, and a fully equipped kitchen. Our “camping” spot provides water, power, and sewer service. But even still, RVing constitutes a mode of travel that is more rustic and less luxurious than staying in the resort hotel down the street. And it has a different feel. A campground is a qualitatively difference experience than a hotel lobby. Especially for kids. Children are free to run around unsupervised, make noise, ride bikes, whack trees with sticks, and do whatever kids do when they’re free from the constraints of civilized living (a form of liberation that produces consequences adults can only begin to imagine).

Our campsite at the Colter Bay RV campground. This is just a short walk from Jackson Lake, as well as all the Colter Bay facilities, most of which were open to some degree.

So, “camping” provides a sort of cultural norm that ought to prevail even in an “RV park” like this. And generally that’s true. But not always. At one point in this trip, we were subjected to some bozo who set up his RV, and then opened up his outside television so that he could set his son up with a loud, very loud, military combat video game. Seriously. We were 50 feet away from someone who thinks that the Grand Teton experience mostly involves the sound of machine gun fire. And even worse, he was instilling in his son that version of the “outdoor” experience. Suffering that was bad enough, but then it was made worse listening to this cretin encourage his son by yelling out, “You got him! You got him!” He topped off that bit of depravity by saying, “This is great! It’s just like being in a movie theater!” I was seriously considering whether I should call DFACS and have the child removed from his custody, or simply write a blog post and move on. Wendy thinks DFACS is unlikely to respond, so here you are. In any event, he was gone the next morning. Unbelievable. This miscreant pulled into a campground in Grand Teton National Park, encouraged his son to spend their time here playing video games, never walked down the path to see what lay before him, and then left.

Other memorable moments at campgrounds abound, but most of them are heart-warming, or at least funny. Campgrounds are uniformly family locations, and there are kids all over the place. Yesterday, we heard one father admonish his ten-year-old son, “There’s nothing funny about being rude.” He’s obviously got a lot to learn. Being rude can be pretty darn funny, especially to a ten-year old boy. But somehow, even the rudeness of little boys seems a little less bothersome here than in other places. There are several family reuinions going on, and one sees a dozen lawn chairs assembled around a grill, with grownups and kids laughing it up. What a wonderful place for a family to assemble. I know there are people who find five-star resort hotels, like the Jenny Lake Lodge, the preferable accommodation, and there are people who find resort cities, like Jackson (which is sort of like Aspen with a buffalo motif), the preferred locale, but I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be for a Grand Teton visit than this campground.

We’re already making plans to come back next summer.