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We can see as far as the driveway.

letter to family — 22 May 2016

No reason to pile in the car this morning. Not only is it cold and rainy, but the mountain range is completely obscured behind a massive cloud bank. Even the roadway in front of these houses is hidden from view — nothing to take a picture of.  But around 9:30 we had a small reprieve and the clouds broke apart and created some amazing landscapes in the air. Aside from doing three loads of laundry, we by and large stuck close to the cabin and watched  the weather roll by. And watched a very harried robin bring nest construction materials to the eaves of the porch. I think she forgets which space — because she has about 7 going until the storms blow them down and she starts again. I got a little sewing done with a shot of light breaking thru just before sundown.

Sun, Rain, and Graupel

Thick and low clouds blanketed the hills to the east this morning, making us doubt that the sun could penetrate the gloom and light up the peaks this morning. But we got lucky and for a few moments watched dawn come to the Tetons. Over night snow visited the elevations around us and we could see fields that had been green yesterday look like cakes that had been dusted with powdered sugar. It was mid 30 degrees outside. If it snowed at the cabin during the night, it left only frost on the car.

unusual morning clouds on the east side of the cabin
red hills in Gros Ventre wilderness

As we sipped our brought-from-home Starbucks coffee and watched the light come to the valley, we reflected on our time here and all the things we had seen so far — many familiar places that we revisit like old friends. In the past, we would be packing up now to return home. Taking advantage of our extended time here we dedicated the day to finding new places to see. We decided to drive out to the Gros Ventre Slide Geological Area east of us within the Bridger Teton National Forest. As soon as we leave the park, the road gets rough and narrower. We are grateful that we have a four wheel drive vehicle with good ground clearance. There are mud holes and rock falls to navigate, not to mention the road clings to steep hillsides — with no guard rails, looking down is very scary! 

We reached the slide overlook and read up on its history. In 1925 a large part of the mountain slid off, crossed its valley and whooshed up the mountain on the other side. It created a dam over 200 feet tall, creating Slide Lake. The debris wave unfortunately killed several people and wiped out the little town of Kelly. The trees have grown up now, so it is almost easier to see the missing chunk of mountain from out by the cabin than it is at its feet. The terrain out here is a mix of rolling green hill (now dusted with last night’s snow squalls) that would look at home at the wild end of Carmel Valley, the exposed ground a cherry red. Or, sheer rocky cliffs — the play-ground of mountain sheep. We scanned for movement among the rocks, since looking for a white sheep or goat against the new snow would not work. I got faked out a few times by the shadow of a bird high aloft hunting, their shadow leaping across the cliff face.

Guide books mention red rocks ten miles out this way so we decided to keep going. Literally to the end of the road and the edge of the map! We had a great time taking photos out at the Crystal Creek campground. Campsite number 4 was right on the river and had a great view of The Red Rock. Nothing says ‘out west’ like a treeless monster pile of blood red jagged rocks dominating the landscape. This is not the image on the Tetons travel brochure. We are so glad we came! We scan the hills for sheep or goats — the guide books promise that they love this place, and spot instead a blue heron perched on driftwood on the far bank.  Soon she takes flight and flies a corkscrew of air higher and higher over our heads and disappears down river. It is time to head back the way we came. I learned at Disneyland that looking behind you can have as many visual treats as just looking forward. And so I was excited for the return trip — I’d had a peek or two in the sideview mirror. 

We are so used to seeing the Teton range just rise straight up from the valley floor that it seems unusual to see them the way you see most other mountains — in glimpses around corners, from the crests of road passes or across lakes. There are a lot of ranches out here and the road proves far busier than we would have imagined, especially given its unpaved washboard surface. I am glad we have the inboard side of the road in this direction! To complete our wild west theme of the morning we stop at the entrance to one of the ranches for a photo op. I could not resist the chance to take a photo of a big red wagon and have the Tetons in the background. Across the road was a small pen of horses with a barn typical for the area watched over by stoney angels. 

Just after reentering the Park, I spot the ruins of an old homestead that I had just seen that morning in a photographers guide and urged Dave to pull over. We really had fun climbing all over the Pfeiffer Homestead taking pictures — searching for that magic alignment of ruin, fence, and mountain. We may comeback here some time to try and catch dawn’s early light — if we can get the weather to cooperate. 

Pfeiffer Homestead — also known as the “Shane Cabin” of Hollywood fame
the storm is headed our way

We could see the clouds building to the west, so decided to head back to the cabin for lunch. As we pulled onto the private road to the cabin, who should meet us but Mr. Fox. He had two squirrels in his mouth and was going for more. He didn’t care that we were there, and marched right on past Dave’s side of the car!

We felt very lucky to have used what looked to be the best part of the day as a squall line of rain and light graupel went by. To our delight, it blew on past quickly and we could see that the rest of the afternoon would be unsettled, but impossible to tell where a shower might pop up. Dave wanted to get in his 6+ mile hike for the day, but agreed to a hike around Taggert Lake so that I could come too. When we reached the trailhead I thought we were crazy, seeing the showers in the hills above us. But Dave said if we waited for the perfect day to hike we’d be waiting for weeks. So we went.

It was about a four mile hike with only 13 stories of elevation, or 22, depending on who’s iPhone you believe. We started out with base layers, sweatshirts, winter coats, wool hats, gloves, insulated hiking pants — we were covered for 39 degrees! A quarter of the way into the hike and the layers started coming off! We could be in forest shade, out in the middle of a sunny meadow, blown by the gusty wind along the edge of a marsh, enveloped in cold mountain mist, or my favorite, hear the plink-plink-plink of graupel dropping on your shoulders. I like snow, but I have a thing for graupel. After hiking for two-plus hours and seeing veils of precipitation drifting over our heads, we never were seriously dumped on. The only animal we saw this trip was a mallard duck.  

On the drive back we stopped at the Snake River Overlook for the first time. Apparently it is famous as ‘the money spot’ — the spot where Ansel Adams took the photograph that convinced Congress to establish Teton Park. The trees have grown up as you’d expect, their effect has minimized the drama of the scene when compared to the original. 

The mountains had one final farewell of the day for us — graupel — it was so big I thought at first it was hail! It painted the road white in seconds. And the amazing thing was driving into and out of the bands in just few hundred yards. It was really cool – though I am not sure my driver felt the same way!! Home to dinner and a fire — and catching up on this travel log. 

wall of graupel
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