When we first arrived in Grand Teton, the smoke from surrounding forest fires was so thick we could barely make out the outlines of the mountains. We headed straight for the Visitor’s Center where, after watching the movie about the Tetons’ rugged beauty and inspiration to climbers, the movie’s screen lifted to reveal a wall of windows with a view of . . . nothing, on that day. Haze. Tiny bits of raining ash.
We consulted a park ranger. “We’re not expecting it to clear any time soon,” she said. “Maybe in a few weeks, if we get some rain, if the wind blows the right way. Who knows?”
We were meeting my parents in Yellowstone the next day to spend part of the weekend with them, which gave us two days before we’d be back in Grand Teton. Both days it rained, and on Saturday evening, when we drove south from Yellowstone, we were greeted with clear views of the peaks, jutting straight up from the valley and piercing the sky with ragged tips. We drove the winding road up Signal Mountain to watch the sunset, still with reds exaggerated, a reminder that the West was still on fire.
Church was very good but also odd, because when we arrived the chapel and overflow were both filled to capacity, but then twenty minutes into the meeting, right after the sacrament had been passed, fully half of the congregants stood up and left. It was an awkward mass exodus and it continued over the course of the 80-minute service: at any point of transition, another group stood and gathered their things and strode out of the building.
I knew what was happening, of course: these were vacationers, short on time in the area, and they wanted to worship, but they didn’t want to (or maybe couldn’t) spend too much time on it. It happens everywhere and the huge percentage of tourists in the Jackson area, and thus in the congregation, just made the practice more notable. Still, it stood out to me because I’ve been thinking a lot about how we spend our time on this trip.
We’re extremely lucky to have few constraints on our schedule, to be able to spend chunks of time really enjoying the places we visit. Still, I am always tempted to stuff our days full, to rush from one thing to another in an attempt to see and experience everything. One thing we have learned is that no matter how much time you give a place, there is always more to see and do there. We haven’t yet visited a park where we left feeling we’d “done it.” On the other hand, our best experiences have been in places where we didn’t even try to do it all, where we sat on our rumps and played in the dirt and took our time doing one thing, and in the process sacrificed doing several other things. I’ve asked myself again and again: what is the point of travel? When we move from place to place, collecting scenes like baseball cards, are we really having the experience we want? Are we learning, growing, enjoying? Do those things require slowing down? Am I projecting my own value of slowness onto people who genuinely derive more enjoyment from packing their days, from limiting their worship to 20 minutes so they have time to ride the alpine slide before driving back to Utah? I don’t know. Probably.
In any case, we stayed at church for all three hours of meetings, which I write here not in self-righteousness, but because attending church all over the U.S. is one of the most delightful parts of our trip (something I’ve written about before.) On this day, we talked to people whose families have lived in Jackson for generations, who took the Rockefellers on sleigh rides and grumbled about the founding of the national park. I sat in a class with mostly older, wealthy women—the lesson was on education and they talked with great passion about the hobbies they’ve taken up now that their kids are grown. One woman had become an expert on beekeeping and the benefits of local honey. Another had started voice lessons. One produced plays by female playwrights. A woman in her 80s talked about the Montessori school she still runs and her passion for hands-on learning. It was fascinating and inspiring, and I came away wishing badly that we could afford to live in Jackson just so I could hang out with this terrific group of ladies.
I miss learning those stories when I move too fast, and I think I’ve loved church on our trip for this reason: it introduces me to people and stories I would not otherwise meet or hear. More and more I’m thinking what makes travel worthwhile is coming to know more stories.
Grand Teton’s story is one of ancient earthquakes and glacial sculpting, of multiple ecosystems across the varied landscape, of thousands of years of Native American history and a more recent history of ranching and farming by European settlers. It’s also a story of the complexity of conservation, as the national park’s founding required a bitter battle over control of the land.
We learned a little about the area’s history by visiting Mormon Row, a group of preserved homes and barns left over from a settlement of Mormon pioneers who made a tiny community in the valley. Some of these settlers were the ancestors of people we went to church with that morning, which made seeing the old structures that much neater.
The area around Mormon Row is all sagebrush flats; the next day, we headed for a different landscape at the feet of the mountains. Grand Teton has some of the best hiking in the National Park system and we knew we wanted to take advantage of it. We took a boat across Jenny Lake in the morning and began our hike through the forest toward Cascade Canyon.
On the hike, Margi and I got a bit ahead of the boys and as we turned a corner, we heard something rustling in the bushes. “Who’s there?” I asked the bush and a black bear poked his head up about five feet from where we stood. We looked at each other for a moment, both surprised, and then he quickly retreated down a wash, to my great relief.
We continued up to Inspiration Point, with its gorgeous view of Jenny Lake and the valley beyond, then climbed back down to the lake and around the other way to check out Hidden Falls. Afterward we got ice creams at the Jenny Lake store and made our way to String Lake.
String Lake, by some magic, is not freezing, and we couldn’t keep the kids from plunging in. Margi was especially bold, wading out to her chest, then bending her knees til the water just reached her neck before running squealing back to shore. We stayed and played til dusk.
The next day we headed toward the Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve. The Rockefellers have a long history in the area—most of the land that comprises the park was bought up by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and donated, but they maintained a portion of land, the JY Ranch, as a family retreat until 2007, when Laurence donated it to the NPS. The Preserve is designed to be a reflective space, so it was designed with limited parking. We drove in, then turned around and went right back out because we were slightly over the length limit of 23 feet. We parked back at the start of the Moose-Wilson road and rode our bikes back to the Preserve’s Visitor Center.
This is one of the coolest VC’s we’ve ever been in, with exhibits designed to help visitors experience the surrounding area with every sense. Our favorite part was a round room with a 360 degree sound system playing a recording of the soundscape in the preserve. It was incredible to sit still and focus on listening—the recording featured birds singing and elks bugling, streams and thunder and creaking trees. When we went outside, I felt like we were more tuned into the noises around us as we hiked around.
That night, we sat on the bank of the Snake River at Oxbow Bend, hoping for an animal to come down for a drink. We saw geese and ducks and an eagle, and we heard an elk bugling nearby. We sat for an hour, watching the sky darken and throwing rocks into the river, silent, listening.
We didn’t pack our days at Grand Teton. We barely touched all the park has to offer. But we heard and read stories, and we watched the sun come up and go down. We talked and played and didn’t get eaten by bears, and in quiet moments, we were quiet too. And that’s all I hope for, for us on this trip. Stillness and stories and a profound listening.