When I boarded my flight to Bozeman, to drive to Grand Teton National Park, I was exhausted. I hadn’t been home for a weekend in three months. My feet were wrecked from hiking and climbing all summer. I was mentally worn down from trying (and, admittedly, failing) to balance the demands of my travel schedule and personal goals with my professional career in finance. It was taking me days to respond to text messages and e-mails. My social life – what there was of it – had largely come to consist of me trying to explain to various people why I didn’t have enough time to do ____________ with them.
I’m relentlessly competitive, and I derive a good deal of happiness from being successful (on my own terms) – and so, to feel like I’m not feel not quite up to par physically, mentally, personally, professionally, and socially has been frustrating. But, nothing is permanent – not even the stretches of life where you feel like you’re getting crushed. Exhausted as I was, I was grateful to be heading into the Tetons alone; I was grateful to have a few days to think and reflect and get back to even.
Day Two: Lake Solitude
On the second day of my trip, I hiked twenty miles into the Tetons to a place called Lake Solitude. Given how I was feeling coming into the trip, the name of the destination seemed fitting. The trail to Lake Solitude starts at Jenny Lake, and winds up through Cascade Canyon for 10 miles before you reach a glacial, alpine lake with clear views of Grand Teton. Despite its length, the trail was easy to navigate. And hiking into the canyon yielded constant, unobstructed views of the Tetons. I was mesmerized. It’s one of my favorite trails I’ve been on this summer.
On the way up, I ran into my first moose of the summer. Unfortunately, the lenses I carry with me aren’t really conducive to shooting wildlife; the strongest zoom lens I carry with me only has a maximum focal length of 70mm, which means I’ve got to be really close to an animal to shoot anything worthwhile. So, instead of relying on the zoom capabilities of a camera lens, any decent wildlife photography you see from me is dependent on one of three things (or, often, all three): (1) Ninja Stealth, (2) Courage, or (3) Ignorance and Stupidity.
I saw the moose when I rounded a bend in Cascade Canyon; it was in a creek, eating foliage, standing directly under Grand Teton. It was about a quarter of a mile away from me when I saw it, and I’d have to get within about twenty feet of it (without scaring it off) to get a decent shot. Ninja Mode. I hustled up the trail and dropped my pack. I started balancing and walking out on a series of logs that were hanging over the creek where the moose stood. The logs were no wider than my hands, and the water below me was deep enough to submerge both me and my camera if I fell in, which would effectively end my photography career for the summer (my camera is expensive). Courage. It’s worth noting, here, that I don’t have insurance for my camera or my lenses; that I was balancing on a log, hanging over a creek, within thirty feet of an animal that could maul me if it decided it wanted to. Do mooses attack people? What is the plural form of “moose,” anyways? Meese? Ignorance and Stupidity.
I spent a good hour shooting the moose, and by the time I was done there, a crowd of 15-20 people had gathered near where I left my pack (back on the trail). I’m not sure whether they were drawn to that spot by the moose sighting, or whether they’d just seen some idiot with a camera doing gymnastics on a log. But, I didn’t ask. I kept cruising up to the lake. I needed to go swimming. I smelled.
I can’t remember at what point this summer I discovered it, but there is no moment more wonderful than jumping into a river or an alpine lake at the end of a long hike. Lake Solitude, an alpine lake 10,000 feet up into the Tetons, was a prime spot to cliff dive and swim around for a bit before heading back down to my car. Whenever I can, diving headfirst into something (both figuratively and literally) is a strong preference of mine. Diving off the short cliffs along Lake Solitude into the icy, blue water felt therapeutic.
While I was hanging out on the rocks at Lake Solitude, drying off, I met a group of girls from Jackson that had hiked up to the lake. Where do I need to go while I’m here?, I asked one of them. And she said, There’s this wonderful lake. It’s a secret spot. The trail to get there is hidden. But here’s how you’ll find it...
Day Three: Secret Places
On the drive up to where I’d be parking my car, I was giddy. I was headed to an alpine lake that didn’t have a marked trail to it. But, as I approached the lot where I’d leave my car, I could see a small shelf in the Tetons where I thought I’d find the lake.
It’s not going to be a long hike, but it’s steep. The terrain is difficult. Perfect. I started climbing into the mountains. The “trail” isn’t impossible to find, if you’re looking for it, but it’s easy to get lost. You’ll need to have decent route-finding skills to make it there. I was climbing over boulders, swinging under fallen trees, and loving every second of it. It felt good to be using my body like that; to be truly exploring a place; to be alone in the wilderness. In fact, the only signs of life I passed on the way up to the lake were a handful of bears (more on that later).
Eventually, you’ll reach a boulder field. Once you get there, you should see a few, small rock cairns that guide the way up the mountain. Be particularly careful, and avoid passing through that area alone. Falling could be deadly. Seeing the rock cairns in the boulder field with my own eyes was this validating, magical moment; it confirmed that the place was real; it confirmed that I was on the right track; I felt like I was following a treasure map. I scaled up the side of the mountain, pulling myself up rock by rock, occasionally looking over my shoulder, down the side of the mountain, and out into the vast open space of Grand Teton National Park. Falling could be deadly, I thought, and yet, I felt so alive. I felt so good.
Arriving at the alpine lake, to find the whole place empty, was unlike any moment I’ve ever experienced. I spent the afternoon swimming in the water, there, finally taking a few hours to unpack my mind. I think anyone who goes on any journey has to, at some point, answer this question: What are you looking for out here? Sometimes, the answer to that question is what sends someone on a great quest; in other cases, I think it’s the search for the answer that drives someone on their adventure.
Last night, I left the Tetons in the waning hours of the sunset. I was making the drive from Jackson through the heart of Grand Teton National Park, up through the heart of Yellowstone National Park, and into Bozeman, Montana, where I’ll catch my flight home later tonight. Before I left, I parked in a turnout to cook dinner and watch the sun set over the Tetons one last time. While I was laying in the back of my rental car, waiting for my food to rehydrate and watching the sunset, I just felt so grateful for the weekend I’d had and to be on the journey that I’m on now. I realize I’d found the peace that I’d been looking so desperately for – that it was there all along.
I’ve visited seven parks, now; by the end of October, I’ll have been to seventeen or eighteen. I’ve learned so much, already: about the history and geography of our National Parks, about backpacking and climbing, about photography, about myself. And yet, I know this is still just the beginning. There’s still so much learning and exploring to do.
The journey is never over. I can’t wait.