My sister and I knew we were closing in on the last leg of our drive across half of America and back. We were feeling road weary and dirty, plus we were sleeping and eating outside the boundaries of our normal routine. At the age of thirty I could do this for months, but at sixty-four I begin to question my own strength and stamina. We camped in a national forest campground on Lewis Lake, and learned from our neighbor camper that fresh grizzly droppings had been seen on the back side of the lake that day. I’ve been told that grizzlies can rip apart a camper if they want to, but the behavior is unheard of–a good thing for us.
We headed out the western gate of Yellowstone, following the Lewis River for several miles, stopping to photograph a misty steam lifting off the surface of the river, which reminded me of my mother’s oil paintings. It was from her artistic view of nature that my sister and I had learned at a young age to love wandering and looking at shapes and colors untouched by man. Within a few miles we reached our first vantage point of the Grand Tetons, a favorite subject among artists since first discovered. Looking at these lofty, jagged, points of rock in the pink-skied morning made my sister and I both feel as if we had returned to our younger days, when mom would take the family on painting expeditions. We’ve had her paintings of the Tetons in our faces all of our lives, so sitting for a spell on the shore of Jenny Lake and looking up at the peculiarly bold ridge lines gave us a sense of having her watch over us from the grand beyond.
Rather than drive straight into Jackson Hole, Wyoming on Highway 89, we took the Moose Wilson cut-off through some bad, back country roads that skirted along the edge of the Teton mountain range, down to Teton Village. We stopped along the road for about fifteen minutes with other travelers and waited for a brown bear to come out of the brush close to a creek. He stepped carefully through a meadow, posing–it seemed–for pictures, before slipping into heavier brush across the road. It was the first and the only bear I would see on this whole trip, which made this rough section of road worth the while.
Teton Village is a large cluster of shops and condos at the base of a ski mountain. The place appears to be dripping with money, although in this recently down-turned economy, I imagine summer speculators swarming in with schemes on how to profit from what has gone badly for others. American capitalism at its finest, on broad display in this gorgeous little corner of the world, where beauty has a price tag.
A few miles onward to Jackson Hole. My sister and I had been here a couple of years ago on another driving trip from California, so this time around we walked through the tourist shops and art galleries a little quicker because of our familiarity with the lay-out of the town. An art and craft show had been set up in the town square, with local people selling their wares. The galleries here display work from some of the best western artists alive, so we spent most of our allotted time looking at paintings from the more renowned painters. The theme of cowboys and Indians may not be popular in other parts the country, but that spirit continues to live on here in Jackson. The town itself is crowded with tourists, even after Labor Day weekend. A large forest fire in Horsethief Canyon filled downtown Jackson with smoke so thick that many walking around in town struggled to breathe. Black clouds with orange underbellies slopped over the mountains and into the basin, making me wonder if the town might need to be evacuated.
We were anxious to move on. Rosie struggled to get over the long grade, Highway 22, that climbs out of Jackson and into Idaho. This seems to be the steepest we’d driven on in two weeks. Up to the summit and down the back side into Victor, following creeks for several miles that tumbled out of the mountains, while we looked for a place to camp. Thunder and lightning, a splash of rain, we knew that we’d be better off to get out of the higher country, in case of snow. We found a campground on Pine Creek in the late afternoon, a few miles east of Idaho Falls. The campground was cuddled inside a long, hair-pin loop in the highway, and was nearly unoccupied until after we had settled in for the day. A hunter soon drove up the dirt road past our camp, and within a few moments we began hearing gun shots. My sister’s son is a hunter and a cop, with a room full of powerful rifles, but she, like me, is uneasy around weapons, and became quite concerned that we would be shot.
A second hunter then drove by. My sister ran out in the road to flag him down. I wasn’t clear why she did so, but they talked for a good long spell, and when done she told me that it was illegal to hunt here with guns, and that the shots were from someone trying to scare away a grizzly bear. He told her that two grizzlies had been shot in this camp the day before, and he pointed to two different circles of vultures flying over our heads that had been feeding on the remains. A Jeep then pulled up beside us in the adjoining campsite and out popped a young couple dressed in camouflage hunting outfits, who, we were told by the second hunter, were going bow hunting tonight for elk. The bow hunters waved to us with big grins, excited to go kill, I suppose, then slipped into the thick woods.
I’m not a hunter and don’t hang around with gun people, so was a little unnerved by all this hunting activity that I had managed to move in on top for the night. The hunter my sister had befriended told us we would be safe here. We would not be shot or eaten. As we lay half asleep that night we heard more rain, on and off, pounding the roof of the camper, and my sister counted another seventeen gun shots in the dark. Must have been one stubborn grizzly.
At dawn we awoke and drove quickly over the rest of this mountain range and into Swan Valley. We passed along the edge of Palisades Reservoir on the south fork of the Snake River, a lake that looked to be a sportsman’s paradise, but saw not a single boat or fisherman on the water. Perhaps the allure of bow hunting for elk was the bigger draw this time of year. We continued to Alpine, a truck-stop junction sort of a town, and found a breakfast cafe called the Yankee Doodle. The cafe was completely decked out with red, white, and blue flags, and other decorum with a strong patriotic motif. On the walls hung placards promoting freedom, liberty, and justice for all, and I noticed that one was a quote from radio announcer Rush Limbaugh. I could see that the cafe prospered quite well. In California the owners would have to change their decorating scheme, or go under. Food was good and we ate plenty, knowing we had more hours of driving through a remote stretch of Idaho before we would get to hot springs, where we could soak the worry and the ache out of our bones.