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Our First Travel Log

Our experiences while renting a cabin in Moose Wyoming, at the foot of the Grande Teton mountain range in 2016.

letter written to family by Kathy Titley, 17 May 2016

backend of car loaded with clothes for a trip
“Busting Trail” as my Aunt BJ would say — the car is loaded and read to head for the Tetons!

The best laid plans of mice and men …

Months ago we set aside an entire month to spend at a cabin in Moose Wyoming, in the midst of our favorite park: Grand Teton National Park, making a long held dream come true. We had hopes of Dave taking a week or two off to recover from his first semester teaching in addition to his Center and speaking duties, and the rest of the time working remotely. 

In March Dave informs me that we are going to have to delay starting the vacation for a few days so that he could attend a Very Important Conference in Miami. My smartie-pants reply was that my vacation would start on time and he could catch up with me! And that is kind of what we did. On Wednesday Dave flew to Miami and on Thursday, May 12, a week after finals I packed up the car and started west. Just like old times! In all the years of military moves, only once had we crossed the country in a two-car caravan, never once in the same car. I was quite looking forward to driving on my own, I kind of missed it, and after living in State College for three years I had The Navy Itch. 

Climbing the plateau west of State College I encountered fog so heavy I was happy to make out the road markings one car length in front of me. Even the ghosts of eighteen wheelers disappeared quickly. While as fun to experience the complete envelopment that standing within a sense-disrupting fog bank can be, it is something else entirely to be piloting a several thousand pound vehicle in that same alternate universe, and I was glad to leave the sound-deadening sight-obscuring white cocoon behind.

Lane closures and folks watching asphalt trucks jammed things up a bit

Alas, I was soon into Ohio, the entire state seemingly wrapped in orange cones as they studiously repair overpasses and repave endless miles of pocked roads. A very good thing — until you are at a dead stop or crawling at twenty miles an hour. Indiana seemed to follow it’s neighbor, with its own brand of cone-mania, though Illinois seemed to go its own way and not be spending road money – on Interstate 80 at least. A blessing for a tired traveler that just wants to clock in at her hotel.

I had forgotten how flat Ohio was — and how much Illinois had rolling hills. Somehow my perception of the terrain of those states was reversed. Still, I loved the open sky and plowed fields stretching out on either side of the car. After completing almost 600 miles, I arrived in Joliet IL, walked to the only restaurant in foot distance from the hotel to avoid getting in the car again, visited a Cracker Barrel for the first time in about three years, and then crashed in my room. Not that I was tired, but I never heard Dave’s text from Miami that pinged in at 8:45 pm!

iPhone Radar app a blessing 

the clouds are a tell-tale sign bad WX is heading my way
timing is everything!
which way d I go?

It is always a bonus if you can know what sort of weather you are driving in to. Of course, you are familiar with the problem of lurking on local radio stations (if you can find them in the middle of nowhere) — the landmarks for incoming severe weather only make sense to the locals — or maybe your co-pilot with a map on their knees. I’ve tried tuning to the weather radio stations that a state’s DOT has kindly posted on roadside signage for me — however the car’s digital search feature often fails to lock on to the suggested station or once again the references make sense only for locals.

All hail smart phone weather apps with radar! Dave sent a text heads-up that a line of thunderstorms would cross my drive from Joliet to Omaha NE. My custom forecast specified I would start seeing weather come at me from the north (my right of course) and darned if I didn’t start seeing the high blow-off from the storm tops mid morning! Happy me timed my gas stop just as the worst cells crossed over me and Des Moines Iowa. Got the bug splatz washed off the windshield while I read a few pages of my book.

I made it into Omaha and the hotel with plenty of time to spare, where I am scheduled to meet Dave at the airport. Google maps of course showed me a half a dozen airports in and around the city! Once again smart phones to the rescue. Before the aircraft shut the doors Dave sent the flight number and name of the airport. My GPS seemed to be confused about the best way to get there, but it worked out and I picked up my very sick and very tired hubby. Yay!

Wyoming Bound!

The biggest decision in starting this leg of our journey would be what route to take. We translated that into the choice of how much of the interstate we wanted to see: a lot, a little, or none. We chose none! It took half of a day of driving to convince the GPS to stop trying to turn us around!! Oh, it was soooooo worth it! Talk about the road less traveled. We could go for long stretches of time with not a car in sight before us or in the rear view mirror. We could just ogle the scenery; flora, fauna, and terrain without worrying about trucks. Just the occasional gargantuan farm vehicle traveling to another set of fields. 

Why take the interstate with trucks, traffic, and orange cones when you can take the back way for 900 miles to Moose?!

The route was so rural and relaxed that I could start keeping a list on my phone of the animals that we saw. 

  • Ring Necked Pheasant
  • Deer crossing road in front of us
  • Hawks: multiple
  • Red-Wing Blackbird
  • horses and ponies
  • Sheep: Suffolk and Columbia
  • Pigs: big
  • Cattle
  • Longhorn bull
  • Donkeys and ules
  • Quail or grouse
  • Ducks: various
  • Reindeer
  • Pronghorn
  • Canadian Geese
  • Mature Bald Eagle

The only concern we had all day was making sure we filled the gas tank when we had the chance, as it was a long way between towns, and there were a few communities, boasting a population of four, that might not have such services. We made lunch out of crackers and soda we picked up at one of the saddest gas stations I’ve ever seen. The inside could have been a movie set for a squatter’s apartment in an abandoned building. I said I felt bad for the fellow that had to work in there – but Dave didn’t think guys would mind it. I would have been clinically depressed in an hour.

One dark-on-tap and a Train Wreck with double cheddar please!

Long sections of the road followed either water or railroad tracks. I spotted one cargo train in the distance, but we lost track counting coal trains after a good dozen. After covering almost 600 miles, we pulled into Douglas Wyoming. Home of the Jackalope. No, I didn’t get a picture. Trip Advisor steered us to a local eatery across town called The Depot. It was in the old train station, about three feet out the back door ran the coal train line — as we saw! Clearly a local favorite hangout, we ordered the specialty of the house, their “Train Wreck” burger. Double cheese and more fixin’s than I can remember. We’re glad we decided to forgo the chain fast food route — it was just fun being there. (but if we move here I will need to buy more plaid)

Cabin — here we come!

Excited much? Not that we were eager to get going, but Dave was up at 4am, and I dawdled in bed until 5:30. Just about 350 miles to cover today — time to get cracking!

Still on back roads, we lost count of the pronghorn antelope we saw sharing the fields with the cattle. Unfortunately, it proved impossible to capture their portrait at 80 miles an hour — and we are expecting to see more in the park over the next month. 

The terrain changes, both subtle and dramatic, announced themselves in one of two ways. Either change could sneak up on you and you’d suddenly realize wide horizons of soft undulating fields of irrigated crops had morphed into short horizon vistas pimpled with short sharp rocky mounds suitable only for the cattle treading ridges into the dirt cones. Or you might find yourself weaving between low hillocks of sage brush and stacks of barbed-wire rolls and turn a corner to see the massive red wall of a mesa rising up in front of you.

Slowly we began to climb in elevation. The ranches became smaller and eventually disappeared. As we approached the Shoshone National Forest we saw luxury cabins lining the river. Wide open spaces gave way to stone walls and pine covered mountainsides. The deciduous trees had not made up their mind to leaf out yet, so the forest hillsides were draped in a mottled cloak of dark evergreen and pale gray. 

Once again I found myself in thick fog. The air temperature dropped from 50 degrees to mid thirties. We passed deep drifts of winter snow with icy fingers fiercely gripping the sharp edges of stoney ravines or trying to hide in the tangle of undergrowth within the forest. Switching to manual drive, Dave zig-zagged down the mountain, both of us anxious for our first glimpse of the Tetons that we knew were just ahead. If the fog would just clear! 

And there — glimpsed for a nano-second in between curves we could see snow covered mountains in the distance. Well, the foot of them anyway. Mother nature had decided to hang a white blanket of low clouds over Our Tetons, obscuring the upper half of our beloved mountains. The nerve!!

Reaching Moran Junction two hours before we were set to meet our host at the cabin we decided the best way to spend our ‘free’ time was to have lunch on the deck of the Jackson Lake Lodge, where we had such great memories from our previous stays. 

Dave capturing Mt. Moran across the lake

As we crossed into the park proper, digital roadside signs blinked cautions about bears and wolves using the next three miles of roads for crossing. Ha! Nada. Zip, Not Lucky this time. But we had lunch to look forward to. As we pulled in the lodge driveway we were met with two signs: welcome new employees – dorms this way, and lodge set to open May 16th. Ugg! Foiled!! Okay, well, lets see what is happening at Colter Bay. Umm, opening on May 26th. Okay, plan C! We stop off at one of our favorite spots on the way south. We stop at Antelope Flats turnout, largely closed due to bear activity. Next is Oxbow Bend, where the water seems kind of low. We scan for the ducks, otters, herons, elk, eagles, osprey, and moose seen in the past. We find tourists, and miniature trail guides in (yet to be properly identified) ground squirrels. The thermometer may read 50, but that breeze is cold! So we head for another favorite.

close up of face of ground squirrel
my trail guide — Unita Ground Squirrel

The park service has done everyone a favor and paved the steepest portion of the grade descending the bluff down to the Snake River at Schwabacher’s Landing. It used to be a short steep switchback of shifting gravel craters hemmed in with paint scratching sage brush. Once the road leveled out it returned to the ‘au natural’ stone washboard we remember. Ah yes, so familiar….

Schwabacher Landing is a touchstone for us — to see what stays the same and what mother nature changes in the landscape. When we first visited this much photographed location we hiked along a stoney creek to reach a beaver’s dam and the wide still water dammed up behind it. On a windless day the pond mirrored the iconic Grande Teton peak looming over its still waters. I remember arriving before sunrise, the last to join an army of photographers with their tripods and remote shutter cables searching for that perfect alignment to capture the first blush of alpen glow on the highest peaks and its twin framed amongst the pines in the obsidian mirror below. The beavers thankfully were not early risers that day, and beneficently allowed us the opportunity to capture a rare moment of beauty — in our minds eye and memory if not on actual film.

American Wigeon
Barrows Goldeneye

Today we witnessed the changes beavers and plants can bring. The creek was still there, its curving course modified and its strength adjusted by four or five beaver dams in a short length. The calm pool of water had retreated up stream, no longer in magic alignment with the peaks. A grassy marsh full of ducks was collecting sediment and filling in where once we had such perfect reflections of mountains. Of course, said mountains were still playing peek-a-boo in the low cloud bank, but it was easy to see having visited the same spot over the years how the landscape was changing. For one moment you are nostalgic, for the amazing view you once held and almost sad to see the changes. But the next breath brings gratitude that you once witnessed an amazing spectacle, and are now seeing the birth of a mountain meadow courtesy of a beaver family — and new photography challenges and opportunities. Today I captured the images of two ducks, which I later identified with the help of my neighbor Milly’s loaned book on western birds to be a Barrow’s Goldeneye and an American Wigeon. How cool is that??

But I digress.

We are on our way to pick up lunch and get to the cabin. Luckily, Dornan’s tourist center in Moose had opened just enough to have food. Turns out the cashier, a young man in his twenties has just arrived this week, never having been in the west before, leaving a job as an insurance salesman to work for the summer in the Tetons. No doubt we will learn more about him over the next month as the shop is less than three miles from where we’re staying. We grabbed our expensive lunch of sandwiches and headed to the cabin. Funny, all these years of going up and down the main road between Jackson and Yellowstone, often pointing to those few lucky grandfather-clause homes perched on a low bluff staring right at the mountain range and wondering what it would be like to live there — now we get to find out! Our cabin is actually back a row, so we can see the roofs of our neighbors if you care to “see” them.

Our host pointed out where the thermostat controls were, asked us if we had any questions, commented that no one here locks their doors but being from the city we might be of a different opinion and showed us the bowl the keys normally sat in, and gently took his leave of us. Oh, and one last thing, don’t be surprised if we find a bison resting next to the car in the morning! The first thing we did was grab our papersack lunch and settle on the porch to take in the view with our ham and cheddar sandwiches. The clouds still had not abandoned the peaks, but it didn’t really matter. The air smelled right — of the divine mountain air, cold though the breeze was, we turned up our collars and were entertained by a fat robin annoyed that we had interrupted its nest building activities. And of course, we were duty bound to take a picture of our dining room and post it so friends and family knew we’d arrived okay, and well, to make them a little jealous too I suppose. What a bucket list moment!

dining room with a view

Then we unloaded the car, and Dave went off to town (35 minutes away) to stock up on pantry supplies for a few days while I found places to stash our gear. Then we decided to walk to Moulton Barn, just across the meadow behind the cabin. The light was coming from the ‘wrong’ direction to photograph the barn with the mountains behind it, but we thought we’d go have some fun anyway. We took lots of photos, but I will say once I reviewed mine I didn’t find many keepers. Still, it was fun. We’d followed the road out, but decided to take the more direct route across the meadow, a grassy minefield of bison patties and sagebrush snares back to the cabin. I fixed a simple dinner thanks to Dave’s excellent foraging skills and we settled in to cull our photos and catch up on e-mail — or so we thought!!

The cabin is set up with satellite wifi, but it redefines patience. We both gave up frustrated and went to bed. We anticipated an early start to get Dave to the airport and back to the east coast for a meeting with a group he’d been trying to work with for a long time. But his cold, which we thought was almost gone had other ideas, and he decided to cancel at 5am. So, for now we are staying in, and as you can see, I have made some headway with the technology this morning!

We discovered we have a colorful neighbor, and it is now my mission to get at least one good photo of our mountain bluebird. Stay tuned….

bluebird of happiness

Cabin – or Field Blind?

elk having breakfast as fast as they could walk

As I mentioned, Dave’s chest cold & coughing kept him from getting on an airplane at 6am. It turns out a herd of elk were munching there way across the field we had just walked across last night. Dark blips to the naked eye, I caught some blurry images on my camera. 😉 They kind of walked while they ate and in a very short time they were lost from view. 

Rain and thunderstorms were in the forecast for the early part of the day. I watched the clouds tumble around the peaks outside the bedroom window. For a short time we could see blue sky. I took the opportunity to set up the time lapse camera on the picnic table outside and point it at the mountains. Today was likely to be a dynamic weather day and stood a better chance of something fun to watch as opposed to the field behind us now empty of wildlife. So far it hasn’t disappointed as the clouds reassemble and collect like cotton candy around a cone with the wispy bulk sliding lower and lower down the side of the hills.

Western Bluebird
Tree Swallow

Also in that brief time the sun was out, our bluebird of happiness came to call, sitting high atop the snow plow markers lining the drive. Across the road another bird with a white body and green iridescent back — which I think *may* be the Tree Swallow (aka Tachycineta) — captured our attention sitting on another pole preening. We bounce back and forth between the windows that face the mountains and the cloud dance on one side of the cabin, and the wide meadow between us and the Moulton Barn, watching the birds swoop and dive for insects or fight over who gets the nest box out the window on the other side of the cabin. It made me think of an animal blind for research.

Between looking out the window and checking the bird guides, I can add to the animal sighting list:

  • Black Billed Magpie
  • Mountain Bluebird, male and female
  • Barrow’s Goldeneye
  • American Wigeon
  • Savannah or Song Sparrow — not sure
  • European Starling
  • Tree Swallow
  • Elk

After chasing birds around the cabin, I set myself the task of trying to get this journal caught up. Dave has doctored himself with cold meds and had better luck with the internet so got some business handled. Next is checking with rangers on what is open as far as trails and services and what is still closed. 

Feeling restless and marginally better, Dave asked if I wanted to drive over to Teton Village to see what was there. Sure! It was a nine mile drive back in the woods, where we never have been, heading south towards Jackson. Along the way we ran into the Laurence Rockefeller Preserve and decided to check it out. We encountered two hand written signs tacked up announcing a black bear had been sited close to the currently closed visitor center just 45 minute before. We decided to keep walking – trying to find the source of the water we heard, but the trail turned into dense brush and I chickened out – no matter how much clapping we were doing. Back in the parking lot a gaggle of five year olds asked if we saw the bear – they hadn’t either, clapping their hands “the WHOLE way!” they exclaimed. Dave will not let me live down that five year olds were braver than I was. Hraummph!

heading back to Wilson from Teton Pass

Teton Village is a ski town nine miles outside of Jackson Hole. Very upscale condos and restaurants – much of which was still in the process of waking up from its post ski-season stupor. Check, been there. On the loop back we detoured to see the town of Wilson, population 200. Next thing we know we are climbing Teton Pass on the way to Idaho! And it is raining. Dave loved the 10% grades as we went up and over until we found a nice turnaround and went back to do it again. I think I wore a hole in the floor ‘helping’ the brakes. Returning to Wilson I felt like I’d just touched terra firma again after a rough sea crossing.

And yet, I was ready for dinner. So we headed for the pizza place near the cabin — it was Hootenanny night apparently. The parking lot was jammed with cars from Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, New Jersey, and now Pennsylvania. Guess it was a big deal to hear the band and we didn’t stand a chance of getting through the door, never mind finding a table or getting food. So we settled for box mac and cheese and a fire in the fireplace. Just outside the kitchen window three magpies scoured the rain soaked ground for worms, and I grabbed a few shots.

the attentive bird gets the worm

Amazing Karma!

You all know I am not a morning person, but this morning something called my eyes to open at 5:59am. There at the foot of the bed, framed by curtains with embroidered birds, rested the Tetons, waiting patiently for the day to begin. The clouds had cleared over night. Just as the thought that I should get up to set up the time lapse camera to catch daybreak crossed my mind, the first rays lit the peaks. Too late. What else could I do but stay cuddled under the country quilt and watch the sun’s liquid rays drizzle down the ridges into the canyons?

Good Morning All!

What a marvelous start to the day! By 6:30 we had the coffee on and were starting a list of things we want to do and see here this month. Dave also had to tackle some work questions. The wi-fi here blows hot and cold as to wether you can get the internet to respond or not, and then even if you can open your browser page, it may take five minutes or more to load. So, he was striking while the iron was hot. To amuse myself I set up the telescope and took a few pictures of the tree swallows in the nest box (I can attach my camera body to the telescope) but for some reason the photos were waaaaaay over exposed. I’ll have to tinker some more later. That is when I happened to see some pronghorn antelope mowing their way from south to north across the field between us and the barns. They barely picked their heads up munching as they walked. If I hadn’t been watching the birds I would have missed the four legged visitors to the neighborhood.

By 10:30 we were packed up and headed back to the Rockefeller Preserve that we’d stumbled on yesterday. We had our bear spray this time! We took a trail that led to Phelps Lake. Dave promised me this was a flat hike, but that first section had more than enough elevation for me. Puff, puff! The day was warming faster than expected — quickly I was down to just insulated hiking pants and thermal shirt – and sweating! But the first three miles were really quite lovely, and much of it spent close to the lake itself with views of the southern peaks of the Tetons and up into Death Canyon.

looking towards Death Canyon
kindly left on the edges of the trail

There were a few flowers starting to bloom. Dandelions — where aren’t they growing? Little forget-me-nots, and other tiny flowers I did not recognize. In addition to boulders, round rocks of all sizes, and tree roots, we also had to watch our footing to avoid the gifts various wildlife had left for us along the trail. We are guessing the ‘pecans’ were from elk or mule deer. Very nice of them to leave their scat at the trail’s edge rather than in the middle of the lane. The trail had a great mix of sun and shade and so it was great hiking for the first three miles or so. 

Dave in the lead turns to ask me if I can tell what is in the middle of the trail up ahead. I break out my camera to zoom in. He thought it might be a squirrel. It wasn’t a squirrel, and it was charging right at us!! He/She/It was not afraid of us at all! Hard to say if it was curious or trying to get rid of us. It was a Yellow-bellied Marmot! He stood in the middle of the trail checking us out, and then just as I was trying to find a way to let him pass, he darted into the woods and posed for a few more pictures. How cool was that??!

Yellow-bellied Marmot
what is that on the trail?
Yellow-bellied Marmot

Near the trailhead for Death Canyon there was a great waterfall of melting snow. My brilliant idea to get closer to take a photo — not realizing it was a steep half mile. Ugg!!! Hey, at least I made it there eventually and enjoyed the view.

The middle of the hike was very stressful for me, but fortunately Dave waited patiently for me to catch up. Under the umbrella of a massive boulder shed from the face of the mountain I declared a snack break to catch my breath and cool down. The only birds we saw on the walk so far were robins, all as busy stuffing nest building materials into their cheeks as the demented robin at the cabin — having started seven partial nests at last count. Finally I was ready to go and not long after we crested the highest point. Whew!

Soon we were back at lake level and spotted a long necked bird out on the lake diving for dinner. We think it might have been a Western Grebe, but we are not sure. Then we passed over a brand new boardwalk in a swampy area noisy with singing frogs — who promptly shut-up upon noticing us. We waited for awhile to see if some raptors might be hunting or some ducks come by, but all we saw were bugs. Time to get going — the weather was changing and starting to get cloudy.

The last section followed a fast flowing stoney creek. On a gravel spit against the far shore we spotted two Canadian Geese. Were they resting? Were they nesting, don’t know. At this point a group of teenagers on a Teton Science Center summer camp hike passed us. We followed them for about a mile, when all of a sudden we see them drop their packs and scatter into the woods. At first we thought maybe they’d seen something on the trail and were getting a better look. We just continued on, but when we ran into them again in the parking lot we found out it was a predator-prey game like hide and seek. Okay good, they weren’t trying to leave us as bear bait. 

Our hike had taken about four hours to hike roughly 7.5 miles, including enough elevation to equal 39 flights of stairs! And a few photo and snack breaks along the way. 

We decided to pick up a sandwich at Dornan’s and then find a place to share it, so as to not ruin dinner. I suggested Jenny Lake and so we headed into the park proper. Cruising along on the road at the very feet of the mountains on our left, we spot pronghorns along the road to the right. Just like this morning, this bunch is munching as fast as they can walk! How great that we could get a picture that was more than a trust-me-its-an-animal brown dot in the distance. In all our years here, we’d never been this close!

Pronghorn Antelope

We parked at the Cathedral Group turnout, essentially in front of Mount Moran to enjoy our sandwich. And watch folks pose for selfies. Then we continued the loop around Jenny Lake Lodge (also not open for the season yet) and pulled into a favorite turnout overlooking the lake. Unfortunately just as we did a big tour bus dumped a noisy crowd off. It turned a quiet spot into chaos so we left. But what is it, with all the photos we have of the mountains after coming here over the last 23 years that we still feel compelled to hunt for one more perfect spot and one more picture?!

Cathedral Group Turnout — the clouds really change the character of the mountains

We headed north. We spotted some elk back against the tree line but didn’t stop. On a whim we decided to drive up Signal Mountain and see what we could see. A lot of people go up there with strong binoculars hoping to see bear or moose in the valley below. It looked pretty quiet down below, but it was fun to see the butte that is behind the cabin from 7700 feet up. And more selfies.

We checked the map and decided to take a road we’d never been on before. A dirt road that is on the border between Teton Park and Bridger National Forest. Riding along we were reminiscing about places we’d seen animals around the park in the past. As we crossed the Jackson Lake dam, near the lodge where we’ve stayed, we could see the bluff we used to watch sunsets from (sandwich hill) and commented that we’d seen elk, moose, and bears through binoculars from the hotel porch. Dave slowed for a car pulled on the road shoulder. It was a ranger. She ordered us to pull over behind her.  ???   Ok. She frantically stopped some cars that tried to pull around us and made them back up. We quickly learned why.

Momma Grizzly and two cubs were about to cross the road! We scrambled for cameras. This was some mighty big karma coming our way!

We don’t know if this was bear 610 or her famous mother 399, but it doesn’t matter. I will never forget having a front row seat to see a grizzly bear and her cubs 40 feet away!

We found our dirt road and thank goodness for high clearance on the Subaru! It was serious off roading! And we encountered more elk, they even posed for photos. What an outstanding and awesome day. And it was only Day Two! Whew!!!!

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