From the parking lot of the Old Faithful Inn to the Grand Teton National Park is a distance of about ninety miles. To think that I could reach it was a stretch, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to camp at Yellowstone, seeing that I hadn’t made a reservation. Old Faithful had just blown, and the traffic was horrible. In a few minutes my mood went from elation to fury.
There were around twenty cars stopped in both lanes around the south exit, entirely blocking the road. I hit the dashboard with both hands and craned my neck to see what the hold-up was. It was a herd of elk crossing the road, taking their time, not shy at all about the tourists jumping out of their cars to take pictures. Oh my God. The sun had now set. In less than an hour it would be totally dark.
I had had extremely good luck so far, using Google Maps to find campgrounds at the very last minute. There were bound to be dozens of campgrounds outside the park, I reasoned, Yellowstone being one of the most popular campgrounds in the world. I turned to my phone and found that I had lost service. Curses. There was no signal at all. I couldn’t call anyone or use the internet.
The sky was still pink. There was nothing to see besides the trees growing on both sides of the road. No one else was in a hurry. There was no way I was making it to the Grand Tetons, no matter how many cars I passed or how much I swore. I was just going to have to just hunker down somewhere and wait it out.
All the campgrounds I passed were full. My last chance was at Colter Bay Village, right beside Jackson Lake. It was dark when I pulled up to the campground there. It too, was all sold-out. I drove down and sat in a parking lot beside the lake, wondering if I could just tilt my seat back and sleep there. It was way too out in the open. Someone was sure to come along and hassle me.
Next, I went and parked in the parking lot of a lodge, crammed between two larger vehicles. Someone was making the rounds on a golf cart, possibly checking license plates. I got paranoid and bolted from there, not knowing where I was heading.
It was so dark by now I needed my headlights on bright. For the first time on my trip. I was screwed and knew it. I’d had to just pull over anywhere I could and wait for daylight. One lot I happened across had signposts with information about the Tetons, and also a closed-down camper, that served as bear country headquarters. No one else was parked in it. I figured I’d take my chances.
It was one of the longest nights of my life. Sitting in the car, driving around the country was one thing. Sitting there trying to sleep, was another. At one point, I tried to lock the car doors from the inside and the car alarm went off. Nothing I did made it stop. I was desperate, inconsolable, screaming at the top of the lungs. Finally, I opened the car door, and it got quiet. Then the car wouldn’t start. The whole system seemed to be disabled. Never had things gone from so good to so bad in such a short time. I tried to calm myself down. There had to be an explanation. If there was, I never found it. Just by fluke, I stepped out, locked and unlocked the doors a few times, and when I got back in, everything was back to normal. That had been way too close for comfort.
That night it got freezing cold. I put a blanket over my head and was buffeted by my own bad breath. When I got out to take a piss, the stars were brilliantly shining overhead, on this night like cruel, sharp diamonds. A few shooting stars streaked across the sky.
At three o’clock in the morning, I started the car and turned on the heat. A few hours later, I started to drive towards the Grand Tetons, figuring I’d try to be there by sunrise. I got on the 191 and headed south, only the faintest ripples of light now appearing on the Snake River, which ran beside the road. There were still a few stars left in the sky. Most of them had dimmed considerably.
The Grand Tetons are the youngest mountain range in the Rocky Mountains. They were formed between six and nine million years ago, when two faults collided and one shot skyward, giving them their jagged, rough-hewn edge. They were of great importance to the Shoshone tribe, who hunted big-horn sheep there, and there are stones enclosures on the upper slopes that they journeyed to on vision quests.
Although, my thought was to meditate at the base of them, the journey I was most likely to take would be one into fitful sleep, having slept only one or two hours the previous night, at most. I pulled over at the Snake River Overlook, with as good a view of the three peaks as I was going to get and turned off the engine.
What I did then, was largely dream sitting up. No white wolf came down from the mountain. The voices of my ancestors didn’t ring in my ears. No. I just sat there in exhausted confusion and thought about getting a hotel that night. I was running myself ragged and for what? On this morning, I really wasn’t sure.