EBB AND FLOW OF LIFE
A few years after we moved from San Diego to Jackson Hole, my Mom and Dad became ill. Out of necessity, we moved them to Jackson. Dad had a Parkinson’s disease and had suffered a severe heart attack. While I was in San Diego caring for my father after his heart attack, my mother was diagnosed with bone cancer. They needed care. They needed me.
My mother grew up on a dry land farm close to the Canadian border in Montana. When I asked her about leaving her beloved friends, home and garden in San Diego to move to cold, lonely Jackson Hole, she answered with a surprise. “Why, here I thought I was just going to grow old and die in this house and now I have a whole new adventure.” That was my Mom. I smile often when I think of her tenacity, cheerfulness and drive. I smile when I see those qualities in her granddaughters and great granddaughter. Time moves on but the past rides gently on our shoulders.
I will never be sure moving my parents from San Diego to Jackson was the best thing, but it was the only thing. We found them a condo with a Teton view close to where we lived while we built our home by the Snake River. After a couple years in the condo, my parents decided they needed a larger home. Upon hearing that news, I left their house distraught; sure I would never find them a suitable home. The criteria were too many, one story, close to our home, the right price, not too large, a view of the Tetons, few stair steps. It seemed unlikely in this area of few homes and much open, hostile space.
I did find a house. It sits boldly on the flats. Houses on the sagebrush flats look as if they would easily blow away in the ferocious winter winds. They don’t belong there. There is no anchor to hold them to the sparse rocky soil. This land belongs to sagebrush and small fragile flowers that manage a fleeting appearance, peaking from under melting snow in the spring and defiantly proclaiming their right to the sun in summer. This land belongs to moving animals and whistling wind. Migrating elk herds, bison and lonely moose forage out their uncertain existence. The arrogant permanence of a stationary object seems inappropriate, a conflict, an invitation to ruin.
Most buildings in the Teton Valley area appear insecure in place and in time. Modern conveniences and utilities are fragile against frigid temperatures and implacable wind. My uncle told of one winter in the late 1970’s when the temperature sank below 65 degrees below Fahrenheit and held there for days. Electrical wires snapped in the harsh winds. Electricity was out for days. My family members burned all the firewood they had available. Residents people who were trapped in the cold, went to homes vacated for the winter and borrowed all the wood they could find. The next thing on the list to burn was the furniture. It was the only hope they had to stay alive. My mind always turns to settlers during the late 1800’s and 1900’s when I hear these stories. I wonder at how long the winters must have been, how isolating and how lonely. Yet, stories written by early settlers ring with barn dances and friendly visits with neighbors during dark winter months. People, like the mountains, survive.
Against the permanent roar of the Teton peaks, nothing looks stable. Massive bison bodies with their thick chests and powerful heads become fragile under a mantle of heavy, thick snow. Their girth and mass look diminish under swirling snow and stinging ice. Nothing is permanent, nothing is stable, nothing but the distance and the time.
By the end of October, hiking at elevation gives way to watching the snow fall. Another winter stalks in quietly from the North. Out come the skis, we wax, we wait and hope for a good base. We plan. Life in Jackson Hole is ruled by the month, by the weather. Our lives change with the season, with the temperature, with the snow pack, with the day.
Spring in the Tetons is mud season. It is good to get out of Dodge. Not enough snow to play on, too much snow for hiking. We flee to the sun. We go to Hawaii or camping in Mexico. We often run into someone from JH. at these spots of refuge. One year, camping by the gulf In Mexico, we see a couple of kids in flip flops climbing a scree covered mountain. “Only someone from a place like Jackson would do that,” my husband remarked with a laugh. He was right. They were the Ottos from Otto Brother’s Brewery in Wilson. The boys had been surfing in Mexico and one of them had been injured so they were heading back home. The small scree covered hill was nothing to a kid from Wyoming, even an injured kid.
In Hawaii, we stop in a small interior village on the Big Island for an impromptu dinner after touring around the island for the day. Some friends from Jackson are sitting in a dark, cozy corner booth. I did not know they would be in Hawaii. Jackson Hole is a small world.
One spring I went with friends for a 3 week walking tour of Provence, France and a few years later to Tuscany. We take the girls on a three week tour and sailing trip with friends in Greece and Turkey. It is good to be gone in the spring. When we return, the world of the Tetons is no longer black and white. Color is returning and migrating birds are winging in with raucous cries. In a couple more months we will be able to get to elevation, to our canyons, to our lakes. We wait. We hike the lower trails and plan.
When youngest daughter was a senior in high school, my husband bought another sail boat. At 37 feet she is a few feet longer than the sailboat we built in the 70’s and a foot shorter than the one we built in the 80’s. It is much easier to buy a sailboat than it is to build. “Fidgity Feet” lived in Florida. For the next many years, just as the first snowflake fell, my snow phobic husband would announce, “There is a lot of work to be done on the boat before we can take her to the Bahamas.” By the middle of October, he would be on the boat caring for her needs. I was home caring for the teenager, while she was still at home, and my ailing parents. The first year, Daughter #2 went with us to the Bahamas for three weeks during spring break. She somehow managed to wrangle an extra week of vacation. Once during college, she joined us again this time, earning eight credits for her trip. She is a gifted negotiator.
I would meet my husband in Florida or in the Bahamas depending on how my parents were doing and then, after Dad died, on how Mom was doing. It was difficult to divide myself between children, parents and husband. All of them needed me with them. Even when the girls were in college, and away, it was still too long a distance. I now tell my friends, who find themselves embarking on caring for aging parents, to be ready. From that time on, they will always, always feel they are disappointing someone, even if it is only themselves. There is the eternal push and pull for women. Husbands, parents, children, everyone needing time, care and love in their own way. It is impossible to fulfill every need, and therefore we fail. Not in everyone’s eyes, but in our own. Dad died the day before I returned home from the Bahamas one year. My husband had to stay with the boat. Dealing alone with the grief of losing my father, my guilt at not being there when he passed, my mother’s anguish, my children’s sadness and relentless, constant decisions was brutal.
The boat had its delights. Sailing in Florida is far different than sailing in the Pacific. The shallow water surrounding the islands is tricky to navigate and we were thankful for the GPS unit we had on board. This kind of navigation is a far cry from the sextant and charts we used in the 70s. At times one of us had to be stationed on the bow, watching for coral and sandbars. The consequences of hitting one would be far reaching.
We explored Miami and the East coast of Florida and we explored the islands of the Bahamas. Beautiful weather, fabulous water, wonderful diving, the months on Fidgity were fun. When I had to be home in Jackson while my husband was on the boat, I skied and played in the snow. I did my best to shovel the snow and keep the drive clear with the snow blower. One year, after a particularly deep snow, I pulled out the snow blower, and mumbling under my breath, tried to get the darn thing started. The snow was four feet deep and the drive a quarter mile long. A snow shovel was not going to make it. However, this was my husbands job and I was feeling quiet petulant about being left alone to deal, while the boat was getting all his attention. I got the darn machine going and tackled the drive only to have it sputter to a halt. Damn, out of gas. I slogged through deep snow to the garage. Red gas can, got it. Funny thing though, the snow blower did not seem to like the gas at all. The truculent beast refused to move. Finally, I reached my husband on his cell phone. He was basking in 80 degree weather but found time to listen to my complaint and offer advice. In the course of the conversation we realized, instead of filling the gas tank with gasoline, I had filled it with kerosene. The engine was not happy. My patient guy sighed deeply and suggested I park the snow blower in the garage and he would care for it in the Spring. Meanwhile, I still had a driveway covered in four feet of snow. Such is life in the mountains.
My hiking buddies and I try to take the cross country skis and go somewhere every day. Just GO!! Up hills, down hills in and out of the trees we ski. Snow covers our hats, our goggles. We are red, or blue, or yellow mounds under clumpy snow. Moving silently, gliding effortlessly. Silky, hypnotic swish of snow under the skis, loose repetitive movement, right, left, arm, leg muscles tensing releasing. We are part of the snow, part of the air, part of the forest, part of the mountains, part of life. We pass elk and moose. They are busy breaking though snow and ice for what food they can find and pay little heed.
All winter we gaze fondly up into the snow clad canyons of the Teton Range. There is Cascade Canyon, Death Canyon, there, the ascent to Amphitheatre Lake. The mountains are chiseled, rough shadows and light accents. But, in our minds we see last summer. We see the sparkling waters of alpine lakes. Sometimes a trout reaches out of the water for an insect. We stop and watch as he splashes back into the deep dark lake. Concentric circles float out from his entrance. We imagine his dark, cold beautiful world and smile.
Flower lined paths and sunlit peaks are irresistible. We picture the canyons and trails in their summer dress. There is no passage into these formidable areas during the winter months. Snowshoes and skis will take us only so far into the deep, dark winter canyons. Our gear keeps us from sinking to our eyes in soft, icy, treacherous snow, but the days are short and we are slow on our clunky snow shoes and long skis. We will wait for summer to climb high on our beloved, ancient paths.
And summer comes, and summer is glorious. It can be July before enough snow is off the trails to climb to the higher elevations. Now we can reach our favorite summer spots. Eight miles and a half up Death Canyon is the perfect lunch rock. Six vertical miles of switch backs takes one to Amphitheater Lake. Sometimes, even deep in summer, we climb steep cliffs above the lake and traverse to a still snowy spot. Then we slip, slide, ride the snow to the rocky, flower clad shores around the lake. Not too far. The lake is icy. Hard core kids carry their gear miles into the mountains to ski the summer snow. We are more sedate.
One year we watched a bear, high in one of the pines trees, breaking off branches and tossing them to the ground where he later extracted the juicy pine nuts. He has only a few summer months to fatten up for winter. It is a big job. He is noisy and aggressive. We watch, smiling as we eat our lunch. Alpine lake to the right, bear to the left, six hours hike back to the car. It is a good day.
On our property by the Snake River, we often saw little black bears, elk and moose. We lived in there for five years. We didn’t keep that wonderful spot. Everything changes. We traded our home in the trees for a lovely place on the flats with a view of the Tetons. The new place was still surrounded by Teton Park land but more in the open. A magnificent view of the Grand made up for some of the loss. I thought moving away from the Snake River, even the short two miles, would kill me. I am more resilient than I had thought.
Many people warned me that until we had been in Jackson for three winters, locals would not invest a lot of time in us. If you can survive three winters you might stay, but chances are, the winter weather and hardship will be too much and off you will run. Better not to invest time in someone who is transient. We stayed. I can now count some incredible people as my friends.
Winters in Jackson Hole are brittle and beautiful. Thirty degrees below zero is commonplace but fifty and sixty degrees below zero are not a surprise. At those temperatures skin freezes after only a few minutes contact with the air. I learned my most basic lesson early on. There is no bad weather, just bad gear. At thirty below we take our cross-country gear and head for Teton Park. There were many times when the day trek turned into a grueling marathon, whipped by frozen winds and slow snow. The only thing worse would be to stay inside. We loved it.
Winter trees and bushes in the Teton Valley are wooly, sparkly. Snow wrapped and ice incased, they rise out of their surrounding white mounds like giant ice sickles. Hoar frost clings to spindly branches giving leafless trees and bushes depth and bulk they do not exhibit in their lighter, summer garb. At twenty below zero, the scant humidity in Jackson’s frigid air freezes so that showers of ice diamonds drift slowly in the frozen air or sting spitefully when the breeze quickens.
There is no color in the frigid winter months. Everything is white and shades of grey or black. Dark and imposing, the Tetons loom above the Snake River, snarled in snow. Shadowy grey, skeletal trees cling lifelessly to frosty white snow. Here and there a loan bush shows bravely above sharp, icy drifts. It will be covered soon. Wind whips and swirls the snow until all is white, and quiet. Quiet. The silence is like a wet, soft towel. Nothing moves, all is frozen, rigid, stark. It is beautiful.
My car in winter is stocked like a Mormon cupboard. A flashlight, a shovel, extra gloves, a pair of boots, a sleeping bag, water, food all are necessities. A trip to the grocery store could end badly and there is no guarantee of rescue in a blizzard. If any of us should pass a car stuck in a bank of snow or hanging precariously to the edge of the road, we stop. My teenage girls stop often to pull a neighbor or visitor from a snow bank. We must. Another car may not come along for a very long time and life is uncertain in the winter.
On the perfect winter day in the Tetons, it is snowing and about 20 degrees. Too warm, and the snow gets sticky and then sloggy. A bit colder is fine when there is sun and little or no wind, but at around 20 below zero it is getting cold enough that removing gloves and goggles is uncomfortable. I found wearing a liner glove worked to keep my skin from freezing while I quickly ate a sandwich or fixed a frozen ski binding. We burn so many calories that we learn to wear less clothing and to carry an extra layer in our packs in case we must stop long enough that we cool off. It is best to keep moving. Two hours or eight, it is best to keep moving.
THE PERFECT PASS TIME
Early one summer morning, one of my hiking buddies, Chris, and I set out for a hike up into Holly Canyon. At 7:30 in the morning Leigh Lake parking lot was empty and the forest was yawning awake from tranquil dreams. Chris and I did not add to the quiet of the forest and silent lake. We chatted and laughed our way around the glassy, still lake. Shimmering on the lake’s quiet surface, were perfect reflections of the craggy Teton peaks.
To hear Chris tell it, she suddenly became aware of what she recognized, as the prickly back of a hedgehog (Chris is from hedge hog country) sticking up above a waist high bush. At the same time my sub conscious registered the back of a porcupine. As a round snout, round ears and a characteristic hump emerged from behind the bush onto the path, Chris and I both snapped back to reality, this animal was too large for a porcupine or hedgehog. What we had at first thought were spikes, were bristly fur, shining silver and gold in the early sun. A young Griz sauntered resolutely onto the path, glanced in our direction and headed to the lake’s edge. We were only a few yards away. Without a sound, Chris and I backed away, all the while unable to take our eyes of the rippling, glistening coat and soft snout of the beautiful bear. He had smelled some fish carcasses left by a careless camper and was out for a snack. Chris and I were no hazard, he ignored us.
Silently as possible Chris and I backed up the path as we watched the bear disappear into the bushes and trees next to the lake. We could hear his snuffling delight as he found the fish carcass. Happy bear, happy morning. We skirted around our new friend and continued to Holly Lake. The perfect start to the perfect day.