by Pamela Domash, ’05
We are singing as we huff up the steep trail in the Tetons. But the altitude is catching up to us Midwesterners and we have to stop to catch our breath under the shadow of the Grand Teton.
The pine trees overhead offer an equal amount of shade and flies. We move on quickly.
I haven’t been to the mountains out west in several years and it’s been far too long. The air is clear and cool, the peaks are sharply outlined against the crystal blue sky, and the grass and trees are greener than seems possible. I’m with my best friend Emily and we break through the trees into the lush green meadows sprinkled liberally with wildflowers and a small stream as the trail continues upwards. It’s her first time in the mountains and she’s overwhelmed by both the distance and the view. I know the best part is just starting so I keep pushing into the fairy tale picture.
This is my first time in a national park since I was an SCA intern at Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia, and it feels weird. I don’t know the rangers, any of them, interp, law enforcement, or maintenance. I can’t answer questions; in fact, I’m the one with them. It’s a weird feeling to be on the other side of the fence, the one who knows they are the fourth person in the hour to ask for directions to a certain trailhead but ask anyway.
“It’s far,” Emily gasps.
“It’s worth it,” I answer.
We reach our destination as the clouds start to roll in. Afternoon in the Rockies is always accompanied by thunder. Always. We pick our way around to the rocky shore and stand looking at the glacial lake. The sight of the steep rock walls and the dark green lake sends chills by my spine. Snowy peaks cluster back down the trail and as I look around I feel a sudden sense of calm that I only feel when I’m in a place of unbelievable beauty. I slide off my pack and stretch my arms. “Worth it?” I ask, searching for my water bottle.
Emily is standing with her hands in her pockets, staring at the lake in silence. “Yeah,” she says in a hushed tone. “It’s completely worth it.”
As we sit silently enjoying the pristine view, we hear voices. We both wince as our solitude is interrupted by a large group who do not so much walk as stampede into view. They ignore the clearly marked signs that tell you to stay on the trails and trample the delicate grasses of this high altitude area. Emily bristles and I can’t help myself. I stand up and yell “Get off the grass, can’t you read the signs?” They ignore me and I yell, louder, and they sulkily glance my way and walk back to the trail. I’m mildly impressed that they listened even though I’m just another hiker.
“Idiots,” I mutter.
“How hard is it to read a sign?” Emily asks, her eyes flashing. She’s never been to a national park before and I’m impressed by how quickly she’s caught on. As they approach us I feel guilty and explain quickly why the area is off-limits in hopes that they won’t head off-trail the second I leave. I can’t tell if they’re ignoring me or not. I wished I had thought to toss on an SCA or volunteer hat to carry more authority.
A crack of thunder reminds us that we are above tree line and we throw on our packs and hurry back down, eager to escape the crowd close by. Rain starts and the stones become wet and slick, and we slide as we hurry down the trail. The storm ends and we forget it even happened as we hike the last handful of miles in silence.
Waiting to catch a boat back across the deep blue of Jenny Lake that separates the trailhead from the parking lot, Emily and I chat with a few other visitors that were waiting as well. We tell them about our hike and Emily mentions the inconsiderate visitors with a grimace.
“Oh yeah, you see a lot of that,” an older man in a Diamondbacks hat offers. “Too lazy to pay attention to a simple sign.”
“It’s so frustrating,” I say.
“You can’t let them spoil it for you,” he says. “You can’t fix everyone.”
“I can try,” I respond but I feel a sinking in my stomach when I realize that I let some people’s actions ruin the wonderful calm I had been enjoying. “Maybe they learned something.”
The man shrugged. “We can only hope.”
As we leave the parking lot, I look back towards the peaks as they come back into view. The clouds are still hovering over the rocky spires, constantly shifting as wisps of foggy air catch in small recesses in the rock and billow out around the contours of the mountains.
Now he walks in quiet solitude through the forests and the streams, seeking grace in every step he takes. Emily sings John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” and smiles at me. “That was amazing. Thanks for bringing me along.”
I smile back and turn my eyes back to the mountains. You win some, you lose some, I think, and stare at the endless sea of green trees and the hypnotizing clouds settled above.
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