Here’s the deal with the Grand Tetons: yes they are very tall, rugged and impressive mountains. They have those soaring jagged peaks that were so vividly christened by those salty French Canadian trappers. Their craggy vertical walls and ridges hold winter snows well into summer, giving them a dazzling display of color and texture. Yet, other mountain ranges can claim these things too. What makes the Grand Tetons so stunning to behold is that they have no foothills. Usually, one sees such magnificence from afar and as you gradually approach your view is alternately blocked by lesser peaks and the vertical perspective is continuously reduced as your own elevation increases. With the Tetons, you stand in the flat plains (a few millennia ago the earth simply dropped leaving a vast depression now known as Jackson Hole) and BOOM, there they are – The Grand Tetons. They rise straight up out of the ground to their full 13,775’ glory. They're what the word stunning was created for.
This highly unusual perspective plays tricks on your brain. It’s like seeing a shipwreck underwater. Ships aren’t supposed to be underwater, they are supposed to be on top; so your brain does a big double-take. It’s the same with the Tetons. You just keep staring at them thinking “wait, what?” They are young mountains by geologic standards, only around 775 million years old, though in some of the canyons there are rocks that are as old as the earth itself (4 billion years old). So that’s cool.
We explored the range and the valley with Vermont friends Jeff & Ann Smith who are working in the park again this summer. They work out at Mormon Row (location of the now iconic barn shot we all know) sharing the history, selling souvenirs, and yelling at the tourists who can’t follow simple parking instructions. I think this last bit would be my favorite part of the job.
One night we ventured out to the Stagecoach in Wilson, WY. The house band at the Stagecoach has played every Sunday at 6PM for “Church” for the past 44 years. Lori got her swing on with some cowboys. I nursed a beer. Not much has changed since Junior High for me on that front.
It's a short drive up to Yellowstone from the Tetons. But there are no short drives in Yellowstone. Yellowstone is the granddaddy of them all. You can fit most of the New England states inside its boundaries and still have room for dessert. It is not merely America’s oldest National Park, its founding inspired dozens of other nations to preserve their own natural treasures as well.
I miss those days, when conservation was cool.
Yellowstone is also one of the planet’s weirdest places. I remember Earth Science class in Junior High (almost as well as the dances). Bad teacher, forget his name. What I do recall about the earth is that all the boiling hot magma, fire and brimstone stuff – well it's supposed to be way down inside, below a few miles of rock, crust, mantle and other layers whose names escape me. In Yellowstone – it's right there on the damn surface. I mean literally right there, boiling the water, the soil, the mud and occasionally the tourists.
It’s completely crazy that they even let people go in there.
It’s as if the local playground was filled with quicksand and crocodiles, and we’re like: “Go ahead kids, have fun, but be home in time for dinner.” Who approved this?
Despite the obvious danger, every year millions of us tiptoe in there just to see if we can make it out alive before the whole thing blows again. I’m not a geologist, but I did get a C- in Rocks for Jocks in college, and believe you me – it’s gonna blow. It has been 640,000 years since the last super volcano in Yellowstone, and it tends to go... oh about every 600,000 - 800,000 (give or take) like clockwork. It’s a ticking time bomb. Just look:
I rest my case.
It gets worse. There are the Grizzly Bears. A few of you may recall that the last time we ventured into Grizzly country, I was armed only with a sharp stick, having left the bear spray in the truck. Not this time. I've been practicing how to mace a Griz, assuming that I can locate the bear spray in the depths of my backpack before she can finish her charge. I used to wear it on my hip, but that was uncomfortable (and uncool).
A Sign of the Times
Because of the ever present danger, the Park Service puts up lots of helpful signs about some of the more obvious no no's. Maybe this helps a bit. But, Yellowstone remains a rich source of Darwin Awards.
One sign explains that bear spray works best if you spray a charging bear (in the face preferably) and that it is less effective (much much less) as a bear repellent (i.e. spraying it on tents and clothing). I wish they had explained that before I used up a $50 can of bear spray on Lori.
Geysers do sort of resemble a water park back home, what with the spouting water jets, but this should not induce you to put on swim trunks. People still die because they tried to go hot tubbing in Yellowstone’s thermal pools. One guy in 2016 fell into a pool while searching for something suitable to soak in. And he just dissolved, like something out of an Austin Powers movie.
So, they have to put up signs like this because the steam and frequent blasts of super-heated water apparently isn’t enough to deter the curious.
And then there are the Bison. Sure, they look docile, almost cute, but should we really have to remind people that taking a selfie with one is only slightly less dangerous than asking to take a selfie with Sean Penn? And while I feel bad for the Bison having it on their conscience after they righteously gore some poor sap, shouldn’t we be thinning our own heard this way?
And then there is this sign in the bathroom.
I actually found this one pretty helpful.