Three Days in the Tetons: A Glimpse into the Unreal

Taking in the unparalleled views from Paintbrush Divide.
Taking in the unparalleled views from Paintbrush Divide. Jake Wheeler
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There have been, and there will be, far more epic stories to come from the Tetons. The three days we spent there were moderately adventurous at best. But there's something about those mountains that makes it difficult—impossible even—not to pay some homage. Simply put, something must be said for the Tetons—no matter how insufficient those words may be.

So here goes nothing.

We set off from Salt Lake on a Saturday in July. My traveling companion was a scruffy, woolly-haired wanderer named Jake, and we'd been touring the country together for the past two and half months. So, life on the road was nothing new to us. We'd seen the rolling blue hills of the Southeast and the tidal flats of the Lowcountry, and we'd shot across the open grasslands of Kansas and spent three weeks in Colorado, and we'd cruised the California coast along Highway 1 and passed under the Avenue of the Giants into Oregon.

But this was something entirely different.

Getting There

We traveled along US Route 89—a wavy, winding road that blew us back and forth between state borders for two hundred miles. Idaho, Utah, Idaho, Utah, and then, finally: "Welcome to Wyoming: Forever West." And boy do they mean it. The state sign and every passing license plate are proudly branded with the icon of a silhouetted cowboy bucked by an angry bronco, one hand gripping the reins, the other held high in the air with a high-crowned, wide-brimmed hat—a tribute to the wild days that were.

Then, it was off through amber waves of grain and barley, past countless roadside sculptures and stands. Cars and trailers for sale. Beef jerky for sale. Land for sale. Dude ranch gateways hand-carved into grizzly bear, bison, and bald eagle totems. Names like Star Valley, D Dad's, Goose Wing, Moose Head, and Paradise.

Jake came way too close to buying this trailer
Jake came way too close to buying this trailer Jake Wheeler

And beyond these elaborate entryways, there lies the rolling sea of grasslands, dotted and splotched with thousands of hunks of living beef. Ignorant beasts who only interrupt the monotonous rhythm of their sideways munching to whip a tail here or flap an ear there to rid themselves of a pesky fly. And nearby, flying in the face of these lazy hunks, there are the stallions, the colts, and the mustangs—the mystical kings of the high prairie—who roam through fields of juniper, impatiently shuddering a shoulder muscle or a hind-leg haunch and trembling with dormant power, tails and manes timelessly caught in the western wind.

With our windows down, the smell of sagebrush and dung fills the air. We pass sagging, tilting homesteads and giant, breadloaf-like bales of hay and rippling, wrinkled hillsides that unfold across the land like a quilt, until gradually growing larger, starker, and sharper and transforming into steep, forested mountains and eventually swelling into barren alpine peaks.

And it's into these gigantic and jagged mountains we go, following the green and white waters of the Snake River as it slithers towards Jackson.

We arrive in town early on a Saturday evening. Whiskey is in order, and after two drinks at one bar, beer is in order at another. A cowboy bar. With walls that are lined with moose and elk antlers and old-timey rifles and maps and furs and movie posters.

"Before we know it we're drunk...."
"Before we know it we're drunk...." Jake Wheeler

Before we know it, we're drunk, and we're losing to the locals in billiards, listening to the country band play their honky tonk tunes, and learning the "Texas Two-Step" from a New Jersey native while listening to "Sweet Home Alabama" in a Wyoming bar. We run into two people we've known from previous lives, and it's easy to see how small the world becomes in Jackson. Everywhere else on the planet, it's six degrees of separation; in Jackson, it's about two.

When the bars shut down for the night, the local police come out to play, making more public intox arrests than the Teton County Jail can presumably keep up with. We sneak by them and sleep in a public place where we shouldn't, yet somehow we get away with it.

The next morning, we wake in our sleeping bags, not in a jail cell, but to the sharp nudge of a local farmer's boot, and we get the hell out of dodge.

Day One

At the top of Paintbrush Divide in Grand Teton National Park
At the top of Paintbrush Divide in Grand Teton National Park Jake Wheeler

To the Tetons we went. But you'd never have known it with the intense layer of fog that's draped across the valley floor. The whole scene is socked in. Break lights and barely discernible yellow lines the only things keeping us on the road.

When we get to the trailhead though, everything changes. The sun burns through most of the fog, and we're left with only the occasional wispy layer of stratus floating in front of the Grand.

It's 9:00am. We're not drunk from the night before, but we're not entirely sober. Our plan is to obliterate any chance of a hang-over by running 8 miles from the String Lake Trailhead up Paintbrush Canyon to the 10,700-foot summit of Paintbrush Divide and back down. Sixteen miles all told. With lungs more acclimated to the lowly hills of our hometown in Tennessee than the lofty heights of Wyoming. Not to mention the half pint of liquor and the handful of high gravity IPA's just waiting to clutch our leg muscles with cramp and suck out all of the water from our vital organs.

Running up through Paintbrush Canyon
Running up through Paintbrush Canyon Jake Wheeler

We start off slow and steady. We pass a handful of day hikers. We reek of Jack Daniels and Bullet Rye. We clap our hands and hoot and holler to ward off any bourbon-loving grizzlies out there, and we gradually make our way up through the huckleberry bushes and wildflowers until we reach the bowels of Paintbrush Canyon. To each side, and in front of us, there are steep, scree-filled couloirs slicing up to the towering peaks above.

We continue up through the canyon. Half hiking, half running. A gorgeous days it's become. A deep blue sky contrasting against the pearly white peaks of the Tetons. We crisscross a crystal mountain stream a number of times, and we pass sediment-rich glacial tarns that must be achingly cold. Annoyed marmots scurry across the scree-fields as we approach.

At the top of the 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide
At the top of the 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide Jake Wheeler

More of the same. We climb. The air becomes the thinner, the scenery more breathtaking. We crunch through a patch of snow, and we finally scale the last little bit of the climb to reach the top of the divide. The views on the opposite side unravel with more beauty than we could have possibly imagined.

Jake taking in the views of Cascade Canyon and Lake Solitude
Jake taking in the views of Cascade Canyon and Lake Solitude Ry Glover

We cross to the far end of the divide and peer down into Cascade Canyon and Lake Solitude . Total silence except for the distant humming of the wind and the occasional yip echoing through the canyon from excited climbers who've bagged a nearby summit. We fill our bottles with unfiltered water from a nearby spring, and we drink like castaways. The water is cold to the teeth and even colder as it makes its way down our parched throats and into our bellies. Our organs expand with gratitude, and we lie in the grass and bask in the sun. The hills are alive with the sound of music sort of scenery.

A hung-over Jake getting his Teton tan on
A hung-over Jake getting his Teton tan on Ry Glover

Eventually, our sweat-drenched shirts force us to keep moving. The chill has set in, and we set off with tightened muscles and chattering teeth.

Back down for 8-miles. Running most of the way and simply going through the motions, one lumbered lunge after another with heavy legs, enflamed joints, and cotton mouths. We reach our vehicle totally exhausted. Mud-streaked calves, salt-streaked clothing. Time to end the day in the only acceptable manner we can: with a trip to Dornan's.

Enjoying a plate of Buffalo bolognese at Dornan's Restaurant with the Tetons looming in the background.
Enjoying a plate of Buffalo bolognese at Dornan's Restaurant with the Tetons looming in the background. Jake Wheeler

We sit on the upstairs balcony, scarfing down hearty plates of Buffalo Bolognese and drinking a pitcher of beer. The sun drops behind the Tetons, slowly, steadily, and then it's gone. The signal of the day's end in Jackson Hole and the final curtain on our first full day in the Tetons.

Day Two

The next couple of days are spent loitering around Teton Village. We work at our computers during the day in the basement of The Mangy Moose and we sleep at The Hostel  during the night.

When 5:00pm rolls around on the second day, we set off for our second Teton adventure. Our 4-Runner bumps along the pockmarked, pot-holed road until we reach the Death Canyon Trailhead. Compared to our hung-over exploits from the day before, the 1.2-mile run to the top of the Phelps Lake Overlook is routine and easy. Then it's a ripping descent down to the edge of the lake, followed by a swift, primal-like sprint along the cedar-strewn banks through ferns and over a soft-packed, pine-laden forest floor.

Samurai Jake in mid-air at the Phelps Lake Jumping Rock
Samurai Jake in mid-air at the Phelps Lake Jumping Rock Ry Glover

We reach the infamous Jumping Rock , and the dread sets in. This will be cold. This will be worth it. But Jesus, this will be cold. We jump, we swim. The cold is shocking to the point that our bodily systems momentarily shut down and our lungs panic for air. Adrenaline pumps through the veins. But then it's a quick dog-paddle back to shore and we do it all over again. Two fellow Chattanoogans are jumping from the rock as well. We'd first run into them a month prior at Oregon's Crater Lake , and here they were again. Two degrees of separation.

Back in Teton Village, we have Thai food and whiskey for dinner. A little too much whiskey, in fact, and it makes for a fitful night's sleep and a rare sighting of the sunrise the next morning.

Day Three

The perks of a whiskey-induced, poor night's sleep
The perks of a whiskey-induced, poor night's sleep Ry Glover

Our final day in the Tetons produces the most surreal experience of all. After a day of emails and phone calls and greasy breakfast burritos in the basement of the Mangy Moose, we set off for the String Lake Trailhead once again. Only this time, rather than a hearty run up and over the pass, we unload our paddleboards from the car and set them loose on the immaculately smooth and shallow waters of String Lake.

Paddling beneath the grandeur of the Tetons at sunset should have been enough—with the silence, the stillness, the overwhelming feeling of smallness, the make-believe backdrop of the Grand and its sister peaks, and the uncanny mirrored image of this backdrop reproduced on the glassy waters below—but somehow we're in for even more of a treat than that.

String Lake, GTNP

Posted by RootsRated on Wednesday, August 12, 2015

We put in at the pebbly beach, and push off into the lake. The water, no more than four feet deep even in its deepest places, is clear as glass, and we can see gigantic cutthroats swimming among the fallen trees, now turned to long, slimy logs beneath the water. As we paddle, an elephant-sized beaver begins to swim next to us, getting within a paddle's length and then splashing us with a whale-like thump of his tail.

Then, a few moments later, after rounding a bend and entering a more remote part of the lake, we make friends with a young mule deer. At first, he merely sips from the water’s edge, but eventually, he wades into the water to investigate our mysterious vessels.

Paddling on the immaculately smooth waters of String Lake in Grand Teton National Park
Paddling on the immaculately smooth waters of String Lake in Grand Teton National Park Jake Wheeler

A bald eagle peers down at us from a towering fir tree, and the mule deer clops along through the foot-deep water, following after us with suction cup-like sounds of its hooves exiting the mud. Everything is quiet and still and intelligently designed, like some sort of 18th Century American landscape painting come to life.

Only the gentle quacking from a family of ducks and the occasional cawing from a nearby crow can be heard. But then, from the stillness, comes pure Animal Kingdom chaos….

In a matter of seconds, the large bald eagle comes diving towards the water. Her talons scrape the surface, but the unsuspecting lake trout somehow avoids her clutches with an athletic, writhing twist of instinctual energy, and the eagle rises and returns to her perch in failure. But not before the whole scene erupts in a brief moment of madness. The mother duck swims to the scene of the crime, incessantly quacking in fear for her ducklings. The crow caws with renewed and distressed fervor. The mule deer, spooked from the eagle’s dive, takes off through the water, galloping and splashing for a few hundred yards until eventually reaching the safe confines of the lakeside forest. And the two onlooking paddlers turn and stare at each other in total shock and awe.

Epilogue

And that was it; that was our time in the Tetons. Three moderately adventurous days at best, but three days that have stayed with me ever since.

The next day we set off through the bubbling valleys of Yellowstone and eventually made our way across the cornfields of South Dakota into the Land of 10,000 Lakes and up towards the traffic-choked interstate systems of New England, before carving our way back down through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to our hometown in Tennessee. And over the course of this 20,000-mile journey across America, there was absolutely nothing that compared to our time in the Tetons. It was an unforgettable glimpse into the unreal.

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