It snowed on the night I arrived in Grand Teton.
The next morning, on the last day of September, the wall of mountains simply disappeared into whiteness, and as I hiked through the sagebrush, my face tingling with falling drops of ice, I sent this tweet:
big snowstorm overhead/ mountains melt into heaven/ the sky is alive
All day I watched the magic of the mountains—one moment, they offered a vague outline pointing upwards, the next, they vanished completely, rendering the landscape practically Midwestern. But I knew that they were there, gargantuan and still, and always changing among the snow and rain and elusive sun.
Thanks to social media, there was no shortage of readers who wanted me to know the well-known story behind the mountains’ name, how the 18th-century French Voyageurs, suffering from a prolonged female deficiency, saw the immense western mountains and christened the largest peaks les trois tétons (the three breasts).
I’m afraid I did not see the resemblance, perhaps since the mountains can be modest this time of year, or else totally shrouded in weather. What I did notice were the incredible aspen trees, sliding from green into yellow and gold, complemented by the tinge of red-orange mountain maples, and the silent forests of silver birch that line the curvy streams in the park. All these trees made up the chorus of nature, singing in the winter one fallen leaf at a time.
Walking along the moss banks of Snake River, my right fingers tapped on the can of bear spray in my belt, and I acknowledged that perhaps those voyageurs were on to something—for the beauty of this park is most definitely female. Even now, on the cusp of October, life was spilling down from the mountains and feeding every living thing, from ancient spruce to the dancing bluebirds. Indeed, if nearby Yellowstone is the alpha male of our national park system, then Grand Teton is the indomitable goddess.
My wildlife encounters happened one by one, as if each were a separately-wrapped gift opened beneath the Christmas-tree forest. First came the elk on the flats—a bull with weighty antlers, circling seven females and two calves, all busy munching in the sage. My filmmaker Josh and I hiked closer and closer, cautious to not spook them, but wanting to capture their presence in pixels. They seemed unbothered—I suspect they have seen their share of tripods and lenses.
Next came the black bear cub, doddering in the trees, not far from the road. He was so young and small, with shiny black fur and a determination for food that outweighed his fear of humans and their noisy cars.
The bison were omnipresent, enormous and hairy, with warm puffs of breath shooting from their nostrils. Behind them, shy and fast, the herds of pronghorn preferred showing us their white butts rather than pose upright. Josh reminded me that taxonomically speaking, pronghorn are not “antelope” and I said, yes, I knew that, of course.
“They’re actually most closely related to giraffe,” I said, then quickly checked Wikipedia on my phone to make sure that this was, in fact, the case (it is). Then we watched (and filmed) those strange American giraffe, grazing in the cold with the looming wall of mountains across the snow-filled sky.
Only yesterday, on the first of October, did the sun show up in Grand Teton National Park, offering a “Wow!” kind of morning and a spectacular reminder that nature never shuts down, even if the lousy bureaucrats back home had just ordered the park closed.
I left the park as ordered, with the brilliance of autumn in my rearview mirror, and the burst of a million yellow aspen trees that will grow through winter and into next spring and summer, and then back into fall.