Entering into the halfway point of our trip through the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and parts of Montana, we awoke on the morning of day 5 completely sore and exhausted from our hike the day before which took us to 12,000 feet of elevation. Today though, I planned on embarrassing myself because for all of my skills and gifts, catching fish has never been something I've had any luck with. My wife, on the other hand, has slayed bass all over Lancaster County so I just resigned myself to being the good husband and cleaning her fish after the mighty huntress returned. We swung by the fly fishing store and rented some gear and then drove down a few miles to try a stretch of the Gallatin River. After about 20 minutes, I realized that Justine had never tried fly fishing before so she asked for me to help teach her how to cast. She had a few minutes of instruction, then asked me how to set the hook on a fly rod and play the fish to shore; I told her we'd worry about that when the time came. Calmly, she informed me that time was now because a trout had just hit her fly. I vaguely remember shouting something and jerking the rod to set the hook, but she quickly got the hang of it and pulled a 7" cutthroat out of the water.
I wish that the rest of the day was filled with snatching trout out of the water by the creel full, but after tromping up and down miles of the Gallatin, all we had to show for it was lots of pretty action shots of us casting fly rods and a nice tan. That night, we found the life spring of all Southern life; a BBQ joint that served honest to God sweet tea. This was also supposed to be the night the blood moon that would bring about the end of the world and change your life forever (depending on who you believed), but because of dense cloud cover we didn't see anything more than how dark it gets at night in Montana.
On the next day, we decided to cut through some places in Montana and Idaho that usually don't make the guidebooks with the first stop being Earthquake Lake. I had only been told about the place, and didn't realize that it was a memorial to the 20 people who died while camping when a 7.3 magnitude earthquake crumbled a mountain, an estimated 80 million tons of rock and rubble, into the Madison River and the campground below. If you weren’t killed in the landslide, you had to escape the deepening lake that was forming by the river backing up.
Sobered up by finding a new way to die in the woods, we cut down to Henry's Lake in Idaho before deciding that Yellowstone felt unfinished and unexplored, like maybe we missed what it was all about when we passed through on our way to Montana. So we cut back through the southern half of Yellowstone before finally camping at the Lewis Lake Campground which was one of the few still open. Out of all of the National Park campgrounds I’ve seen, Lewis Lake is probably my favorite, with spacious sites with plenty of space between them. Pulling through the campground we found a site that was in a small meadow apart from the rest of the sites and it was about as perfect as we could hope for. Wanting to see a grizzly, our best chance was to head towards Yellowstone Lake and the Hayden Valley which is one of the prime wildlife viewing spots in the park.
At this point, I want to drive home the fact that Yellowstone is so big, it is outside of my Eastern minds ability to understand. A figure 8 road forms the “Grand Loop” that fills most of the park. If you draw 2 lines, one horizontal and the other vertical splitting that figure 8 into quarters, each quarter takes on average 2 hours to drive across one way; so, even if you want to do a day trip from one of a quarter to another, you’re looking at 4 hours of driving round trip or more if there’s a buffalo herd parked on the road. So that evening as we drove to the Hayden Valley, we saw all of the animals we wanted to see (buffalo, grizzly, etc.) but since it was a 2 hour trip back to the campground we didn’t return until late. It was the coldest night of the trip, with temps dropping into the low 20s and we slept horribly. Full moons are very pretty, but with no light pollution it was like a spotlight aimed at our tent all night long. Wolves also started howling for 15-20 minutes which was incredible and terrifying. I’m sure they were 4 miles away and didn’t even know we existed but it sounded like they weren’t more than 100’ from our relatively insecure tent.
We broke camp covered in a heavy frost, convinced we had seen everything we wanted to in Yellowstone, but we still couldn’t get enough of the Grand Tetons. So we headed back down south, our next 3 days we spent filling in all of the gaps in the map that we hadn’t covered in our first few days and simply staring in continued awe at the sights that had made us speechless the first time.
Photography has been a hobby of mine for a long time, so I dedicated an entire day to capturing the pictures I’ve always dreamed of taking. Waking up early, I headed to the Mormon Row section of the park, taking pictures at sunrise of barns with the massive peaks rising in the background awash in pink and gold light. Later that day, Moose Rd. lived up to its namesake and we saw a whole family, (a bull, female, and calf), feeding in some low-lying marshes. Finally, I came across an entire harem of Elk, with the alpha male chasing the females in a manner not all that dissimilar than a drunken barfly loudly propositioning a lady.
On the map further down Moose Rd, we found a bright green patch labeled “Laurence S. Rockefeller Wilderness Preserve”, and a quick consultation of our guidebooks showed a great 7 mile loop around Phelps Lake. The hike was easy, with nothing more than gentle slopes that led up to this alpine lake roughly half the size of Stumpy Pond. Like every other alpine lake, its waters were crystal clear and we could see down 30+ feet, which let us see all of the trout that we weren’t going to be able to catch. As we were watching, a very large fish (it was 2 feet or more if it was an inch) jumped 30-40 yards from shore. Visible that far from shore not only because of its size, but also because it was an albino of some sort and perfectly white, we watched it swim lazily about before diving out of sight. Later that afternoon, we asked a ranger if it was an albino that they knew about, or if some tourist with a sense of humor had dumped a Koi fish in the lake. At first, he laughed, then turned quiet and said, “You know…I wouldn’t put it past some people. I think I’ll have to investigate that this weekend…with my fly rod”. We went back to camp at Gros Venture campground, where we read by the river while it chilled the vintage sodas we had picked up from the grocery store. Before going to bed, we met some fellow Carolinians who were going to Yellowstone the following day so we gave them advice and recommendations based on our experience so we hopefully saved them from seeing the wonders of a lot of road work.
Thursday we played the tourists, going to both the National Gallery of Wildlife Art and every art gallery in downtown Jackson. We were tired after several days of pushing hard, and this break was much needed and while I couldn’t afford anything in any of the galleries it was still nice to look. Our final full day, Friday, dawned with temps that didn’t get above 50 and a constant drizzle of rain. In the morning, we explored beaver ponds along the Snake River, and the Lupine meadows area of the park. The fog never relented so our final day barely gave us a glimpse of the Tetons at all. We stayed at a hotel near the airport since we were leaving out early, and the following morning saw us standing at the security checkpoint at Jackson Hole Airport at 6am. The only hiccup, much like our trip out of Charlotte, came from our trekking poles; a unique rule in Jackson Hole is they will not allow any trekking poles as carry on and forced us to check them as luggage. No loss on our part, since they did make it home just like we did.
It’s now been a month since we returned from a trip, and I’ve been slowly processing the entire experience. Eye opening doesn’t even begin to describe it, and the magnificent sights only spur me onward to go and explore not only my own backyard but the rest of the world. That hasn’t been the biggest revelation though; what I’ve had to come to terms with is for 10 days I spent 24/7 adventuring with the love of my life and it was the best time I’ve ever had. It’s also the longest amount of time we’ve ever spent together, since for the last 6 years I’ve never been able to take more than 5 days off at a time. Coming back to work, and spending 50+ hours a week there, is hard not for the lack of adventure but missing the person I was adventuring with.
Sometimes it’s not where you’re going; it’s who you’re going with.
Authors note – If you ever need any assistance planning a trip in that area, please let me know and I will give you as much information as possible.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.