The Starfish US summer road trip continues. Having eaten two of the largest ice cream cones in the galaxy we continue on our way north to Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons.
We make good ground motoring up Highway 191, which cuts north-south along the wide valley separating the Wyoming and Wind River ranges.
The Wind River peaks to the east are mesmerizing, almost mystical. Still snow-flecked in June, the range is a dramatic, craggy buttress rising up against the midday sky.
I’d read somewhere this beautiful isolated place was rarely visited by tourists and, being off the beaten track, remains relatively unspoiled by the modern world. Even the Orange Oddity in the White House (freshly impeached) hasn’t insisted on opening up this country to the miners and developers.
It’s Native American turf. If there was a scarcity of Shoshone evident in northern Utah, this is where you can find them, as the range makes up part of the Wind River Reservation, home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho nations.
But we have many miles to ramble and Jackson awaits over the northern horizon, so we continue on our way.
As a state, Wyoming is a bit of a one-off, a place of peculiar contradictions. It has always been brawny, wild country, replete with machismo, bucking broncos and hard-bitten cowboys. Yet this didn’t stop the state’s founding fathers (and compliant mothers) brewing up a shrewd state motto, The Equality State.
Considering the pervasive manliness, it’s surprising to learn Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote in 1869. You’d have thought such conspicuous egalitarianism arose in some pansy liberal electorate out east. No siree.
In truth, it was an exercise of convenience. Women were granted the right so there would be enough voting citizens to meet the population requirement for statehood, gender equality being rather secondary.
But it went through, and even if the misogynist chaps in chaps didn’t like it, they were canny enough to know dem dar frontier chickadees could wield a scatter-gun as deftly as any cowpoke, so the state kept its universal suffrage and life was better for it. Other states soon followed.
We are journeying through Brokeback Mountain country (the story is set in Wyoming, but was filmed in the Canadian Rockies due to the tightwads in Hollywood), where even cowdies out on the range sometimes get, well, shall we say, in range around the campfire and warm up the saddle blanket.
“You’re too much for me, Ennis, you son of a… (Pause for effect). I wish I knew how to quit you!”
This terrific redneck exclamation from the flick is echoing in my bonce as we drive into the cowboy hamlet of Pinedale.
But gawdblamit, it seems imprudent to test my best Jake Gyllenhall line on the gnarled and strapping ranchers (no Heath Ledgers in sight) in town pickin’ up vittles, lassos, chaps and grabbing dog-eared copies of Hello Mr. magazine.
Instead, we opt for café ordinaire and a fake fresh-squeezed fruit juice in a retro diner, and then push on. We pass through Bondurant, Hoback and South Park as the surrounds become more wooded and lush. Ahead, the mighty Teton Range majestically hove into view.
Driving into Jackson from the south, tracing the wild Snake River valley through steep, heavily forested terrain is exhilarating and quite beautiful.
“Look, a moose!” cries the co-publisher.
Indeed, Bullwinkle is standing in a paddock, even though it is but a life-size bronze rendering of the beast. He’s a nice entry statement, very realistic, and probably absorbs more gunfire from trigger-happy hunters than a Khe Sanh sandbag. But he is proof we are truly entering the land of large, furry North American quadrupeds.
We slip into town through the regular touristy, motel-strewn, fast food joint perimeter, unavoidable tacky Americana on show, find our hotel in the middle of old Jackson and check-in.
Well, “checked-in” is a slight misnomer; it was more squeeze in. While the online description boasts “room to roam” and “outside our windows, the quiet grace of nature surrounds us and inspires our every day”, our quarters feature nothing of the kind.
You couldn’t swing a chipmunk, let alone a dead cat. Maybe a chipmunk could swing a dead chipmunk.
The front vista presents a clear view of our car (a sight we’d seen all day), while out the tiny salon de toilette porthole at the back is a Steptoe-esque tableau of a yard overrun with weeds, rusted machinery and busted white goods. Two metres away, through an open shed window, I spot a nude man soaping himself in the shower, and a decrepit, jacked-up Ford F-100 pickup, sans wheels, circa 1954.
We’ll spare you the name of this Lilliputian billet, but it rhymes with The Anthill and features comparable interior dimensions.
Undaunted, we don’t let size ruin our afternoon, and toddle off to the lobby to avail ourselves of the free bike service – a process that involves more paperwork than a corporate audit. Must be a lot of bike rustlers in Jacko.
Slipping the north end of town, wheels spinning, we burst into the open country on a trail that hugs the eastern boundary of National Elk Refuge wetlands. This area teems with animal and birdlife and is an important wintering ground for elk that migrate in from the frozen mountain valleys.
It’s a bright, clear late afternoon and the clean air and slight arvo chill exhilarating as we ride out toward the mountains.
At one point a weasel with a mouse in its mouth (dinner) jumps out and galloped down the path in front of us. Cruel, but cute.
To me, it seems the US produces far better single gear bikes than Australia. We found this in Colorado and Wyoming. Peddling along on their big, gangly, cruisy, treadlies is far less gruelling than our inefficient antipodean models, which often feel as if you are riding waist-high through porridge.
And so, with the sun sinking, we ride several effortless clicks out along the refuge before turning back. The wind at our faces and feeling revived after the day’s driving, we stop at the hotel to freshen up before dinner.
“Thanks for the bear spray,” pipes an elegant fifty-odd blonde in the foyer, also returning from a ride and handing in a canister at the front desk. It’s unclear if she was using it to ward off grizzlies or her randy swain, but it indicates such deterrents might be necessary for those parts.
That evening we enjoy a great Asian fusion meal in a funky new fusion bistro called The Phoenix and the Dragon, then take a stroll around town.
Jackson has done a fine job preserving its historic Western character, with the old-style covered board sidewalks and classic wooden facades.
You can almost see the ghosts of long-gone drifters, mountain men, trappers and outlaws hitching steeds to posts and moseying into the nearest saloon, only to be blasted back out the swingin’ doors by Gary Cooper.
The town is full of good restaurants and cafes, galleries, boutiques, bookshops and bars. While it is still an important regional ranching and agricultural town, it relies heavily on the summer tourist trade and world-class skiing at Jackson Hole in winter. If Colorado has its Aspen, then Wyoming has Jackson, and both towns do mighty well for themselves, thankee pardner.
It’s easy to get around, no need to drive, and the town has some attractive green spaces like the Jackson Town Square and Miller Park. You can tell the Jacksonians are proud of their Rockies home, as the streets are immaculate and the locals friendly and obliging.
We are in town in mid-June, but the place is swarming with visitors from all over the world. (They say the crowds are three times worse at the height of the ski season).
The Town Square is crowded and sightseers mill around under the curious elk horn arches on each corner of the space for the obligatory selfie or photo op.
We’re horrified to see the arches are made up of hundreds of elk horns. Surely they hadn’t gunned down herds of elk to fashion these peculiar atavistic portals?
Thankfully they hadn’t. Turns out the antlers are collected around the countryside by local nippers after they are shed in the springtime when elk testosterone levels are lowest. The low testosterone levels cause the bone connected to the base of the antler to deteriorate and eventually fall off. (A similar thing has been known to happen to the human male appendage after 55.)
Next morning, we spring up with the meadowlarks, jump in the car and make our way out of town to catch the morning light on the nearby Tetons.
It’s said these mountains were named by 19thcentury French-speaking trappers, who called the range Les Trios Tetons (The Three Teats). The moniker was later anglicized and shortened to the Tetons.
Yet peering at the peaks I can’t for the life of me imagine how they could possibly be interpreted as nipples. Perhaps months in the wilderness piling up grubby furs with their repulsive d’amis masculins, made the frog trappers crazed for female company, their idle loins erupting, and they began seeing breasts everywhere.
Either that or they were lacking calcium and wanted a drink of milk. Whichever, one certainly doesn’t envy the womenfolk when these energised oafs dragged their pelts back into town.
However, other historians disagree. A rather more plausible explanation is that the mountains were named after the Teton Sioux tribe.
Today the Grand Teton National Park is an exquisite rugged wildness, one of the most beautiful clusters of mountains on the planet. However it may have ended up looking like an alpine Miami Beach had one John D. Rockefeller Jr, not intervened on the behalf of Mother Nature.
The valley of Jackson Hole remained primarily in private ownership when Rockefeller and his wife visited the region in the late 1920s. They were mighty impressed and bought up large areas to the north of Jackson Hole, land which he hoped to protect for perpetuity and ultimately turn over to the National Park service.
Surprisingly he got a lot of flak from the locals about his plans for the prime land. There was a great deal of toing and froing, but finally, with the general agreement of prominent Jackson Hole residents, President Calvin Coolidge signed the executive order establishing the 96,000-acre (39,000 ha) Grand Teton National Park in 1929.
Later, with the addition of more land from the Teton National Forest, President Roosevelt created the 221,000-acre (89,000 ha) Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943. It was a great victory for the environment and a gift to future generations – not something you’d ever see from the current POTUS, who seems to have been hell-bent on doing the opposite.
Entering the park we stumble upon a sign with advice about how not to be torn to pieces by a bear.
On a surprise encounter with a bear, it says “slowly back away.” If the bear charges, “stand your ground and use your bear spray.” If a bear attacks during a surprise encounter, “play dead.” It a bear persistently stalks you and then attacks, “fight back.” If a bear attacks you in your tent, “fight back.”
If there was a growling, musty 360kg grizzly on top of you in your pup tent, claws slashing, jaws chomping and your various parts flying, the “fight back” option seems rather daft, even for a sumo wrestler.
In regard to the “play dead” option, I’m sure even a dim-witted bear would take the “play” part out of the equation pretty quick smart.
Jacqui decides to weaponise by carrying a log throughout the hike. If a bear attacks, bash it over the nut with your log, which the bear then uses as a toothpick after you are inside said bear.
We are bound for Lake Taggart at the base of the Tetons, one of the finer vantage points for observing the range and surrounds.
It’s an invigorating trek along forest paths in the clear, cool dawn air with the sun rising at our backs. We meander across streams rushing down from the snowpack, through pine groves and quaking aspen, and eventually reach the water’s edge.
Magnificent beauty greets us at this wild place. The Tetons rise majestically behind the pine forest and lake, reflecting the snow-capped peaks and sky.
We have the place entirely to ourselves and for about an hour it’s blissful solitude. The early bird gets the worm…
The picture books and movies certainly do justice to the Tetons, but to stand beneath that great rugged range on a perfectly still summer morning, surrounded by pristine forest and glassy waters, listening to birdsong and distant pronghorn antelope, is a rare and memorable experience we’ll not forget.
Our lakeside idyll takes an abrupt turn when we hear an ominous shuffle and scuffle in the leaf-litter on the path ahead.
Grizzly? Mountain Lion? Wolverine? Skunk? Chipmunk? Cricket? Jacqui raises her trusty log, poised and ready for the onslaught of fur and fangs, and we wait.
Moments later, a small Japanese salaryman bursts from the undergrowth and scurries toward us with an outlandish, high-speed shuffle. Coming out of a copse of Douglas fir he is a precise fusion of Charlie Chaplin and Hideki Tojo, and seems an awfully long way from the Kyoto production line. He’s palpably terrified.
“You this way go with me, go you now, this way,” he mutters excitedly. “You go me, we go down together, get in a car, drive away fast. Speedy speed. Please, come!”
He’d evidently deciphered one of the above-mentioned bear signs and is now feeling noticeably alone and like feeble prey, but shrewdly banking on the old axiom, safety in numbers. With our serendipitous appearance, his chances are now one in three of being cruelly devoured in the wilds by a large North American carnivore.
“Sorry, old blade, we just came that way; been there, done that, the road less travelled and all that garbage,” I tell him. “It’s a beaut route, though .”
A severe and inscrutable glare shoots from our new backwoods buddy, then he suddenly rockets off down the path toward the parking lot like a man possessed, or at least one convinced he has a grizzly and a cougar snapping at his sandals.
We never see him again.
Starting the loop path back, we soon happened upon another fellow. This one is a mid-thirties Okie man of the cloth in Wyoming for a hike. He too seems tremendously pleased to see us and in need of trekking companions.
He starts nattering like a crazed marmot, touching on everything from his fine marriage ceremony services, the season’s cut in couture cassocks, indiscretions at the seminary, the unabridged history of Oklahoma, top speed of a weening mother black bear, and the psi bite force of an adult cougar.
In time we manage to work free of his ministrations and take off at an indiscrete gallop before he has a chance to read a few passages from the Book of Revelation.
During the second half of the hike, we spot chipmunks, squirrels, birds of prey and a rather skittish pronghorn antelope. We’d been told those woods and foothills were teeming with wildlife, but most of the big guys seem to be lying low. Alas, the long-suffering mountain creatures have grown pretty good at avoiding the crosshairs and humans in general.
Driving out at about 10 am the roads are bumper-to-bumper with tourists heading into the park National Park, so we feel lucky to have had beautiful Lake Taggart to ourselves.
We stop at the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Centre which is the Grand Teton information hub offering natural history exhibits, video, maps, books and gift shop.
It is a slick modern informative facility and well worth a look if you wish to know more about the region’s natural and manmade history. But it’s also a bit like Grand Central Station on the Monday morning of our visit, so we decide to escape the madding crowd and headed back to Jacko.
The weather turns a little wet that afternoon (not unusual for Wyoming), so we opt to check out a few more of the galleries and sights in town.
We are admiring the excellent wildlife photography in one gallery along with other locals and visitors when something rather disquieting occurs.
The self-enforced silence that inexplicably pervades all art galleries (churches and libraries suffer the same reverent quiet), is rudely shattered by a series of loud staccato cracks and pops. Sounds like someone has opened up with an automatic weapon outside the gallery door.
Within a split second, gallery patrons of all ages are hunching, crouching down and cowering behind furniture, flashing terrified glances toward the front of the space.
Expecting to see a deranged psychopath machine-gunning us, we instead spot a gawky teenage skateboarder gliding past waving and grinning, his polyurethane wheels clattering over the hardwood board sidewalk, sounding every bit like an AR-15.
The panicked reaction of gallery patrons says much about the pervasive and ever-present threat of gun violence in America. While few would admit it for fear of being berated by Second Amendment zealots, it seems everyone is privately on guard and twitchy.
When you see octogenarians diving for cover behind furniture because a skateboarder cruises by, you know there’s something terribly amiss.
Most of the gallery crowd look at each other with slightly silly embarrassed smirks, roll their eyes and go back to perusing the wildlife images.
Feeling a tad overstrung ourselves and spooked by sk8ter boys, we check out more of the town then end up tucking into hearty Mexican nosh at The Merry Piglets, a local favourite that’s been dealing dishes off the cuff for 50 years.
Then it’s back to slot into our sardine tin digs for a good night’s kip before our next leg on the morrow, over the Tetons and westward-ho into Idaho and Oregon.