Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful
Beautiful boy – John Lennon, 1981
It’s a soft summer evening as I walk out of my house, pulled by a familiar rhythmic sound coming from the far corner of the yard. Surrounded by tall maples, the sun has slid west, leaving the pool a flat, clear blue. At the far end, trimmed in turquoise, the diving board extends above the water, still and waiting. Colorful gardens blossom on either side, barely separated from a childish scramble up the ladder. Evenly trimmed grass warms my feet as I walk across the lawn, pass between two small airey buckthorns and sit on the edge of a chaise. Instinctively, without knowing, I listen to the flow of water as it leaves and returns, soothing and steady. My eyes are on my son, tucked beneath an old curving apple tree, as he gracefully rises, flips and lands on his feet. Rises, flips and lands on his feet. It is effortless and beautiful. Each vertical swirl of hair and limbs smoother than the last. Oliver is unaware that I am watching. He is mesmerized by his body’s weightlessness, his flight. He is at peace in movement.
Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sent parties from the Salt Lake Valley to establish new communities to support their expanding population. Mormon homesteaders, settled east of Blacktail Butte near the turn of the 19-century. In stark contrast to the splendid isolation typical of most western farms, Mormons formed clustered communities to share labor and fellowship. Arriving in the 1890’s, drawn by fertile soil, shelter from western winds by Blacktail Butte and access to the Gros Ventre River, they established 27 homesteads in what the U. S. Post Office named ‘Grovont,’ now known as ‘Mormon Row.’ Between 1896 and 1937, in spite of the harsh conditions of Jackson Hole, they built an intricate network of levees and dikes to funnel water from central ditches to their fields. As I walk among the weathered barns and cabins, water still flows in many of the ditches dug by hand over 100 years ago.
Leaving Mormon Row, like the clean parting of hair, a pin straight road leads south toward the Gros Ventre River, before slightly turning, comma-like, and ending in the tiny niche of Kelly, population 138. In Kentucky, I have created a small expectation, one that arrives by mail after each park I visit. I have run out of postage, so I stop at the small post office to a buy a book of National Park stamps. Returning to the van, I head east along Gros Ventre Road, where the park ends and Bridger-Teton National Forest begins. Overlooking Slide Lake, I park and write a few words in the note card I had bought three days earlier in Yellowstone. Addressed, sealed and stamped, I place it above the visor. As I turn and drive west, retracing my steps toward Mormon Row and Antelope Flats to the north, I look up at the white envelope with my childlike scrawl. Somewhere, in a small town, a collection of cards sit on a dresser. Or bedside. Perhaps in a wooden box. A collection of handwritten cards that carry all I have to give in absence. A set of cards with words from my heart that I will never see again.
Bill Menor came to Jackson Hole Valley in 1894, building a small wooden home on the western bank of the Snake River. With most early settlement in the south, or on a few scattered areas with fertile soil to the east, Menor was the only valley homesteader on the western side of the river for nearly 10 years. His ferry, a simple platform set on two pontoons and a cable system across the Snake, used pressure from the current against the pontoons to push the ferryboat across the river. His ferry became a vital crossing for the early valley settlers who crossed to hunt, gather berries and mushrooms, and cut timber at the foot of the mountains. In 1918, as the number of tourists visiting the valley grew, Menor sold out to Maude Noble, who promptly doubled fares to $1 per automobile with Wyoming plates and $2 for those with out of state plates. In 1927, a steel truss bridge was constructed just south of the ferry, making the ferry obsolete. Maude Noble sold the property to the Snake River Land Company in 1929, the year Grand Teton National Park was established.
A short walk from the cables and wooden ferry-boat, Chapel of the Transfiguration, a small log chapel built in 1925, shyly frames the Cathedral Group of mountains. Rising over 7,000 feet above the valley floor, jagged pyramids formed of glacial shift arrogantly pose on the horizon. A short boardwalk beneath a chain operated bell, leads to a beveled plank door with decorative ironwork. Inside, the rustic Western Craftsman style of design, with exposed log interior walls and stained glass windows on either side, is plain in its embrace. A humble alter stands in front of a clear glass picture window, the majesty of mountains bathed in clouds and sunlight. I sat in the front pew and stared at nature’s gift to the small chapel. I could almost hear the stained glass windows weep.
Jenny Lake Visitor Center is 8 miles north of Moose Junction. Ranger Tom smiles as he asks me how he can help.
“I see there is a shuttle across Jenny Lake. How late in the day does it run?”
“Today, 5:00. What did you have in mind? Is there a particular hike you wanted to take, or just ride the boat across the lake and back?” His finger traces the path of the boat across the small blue oval on the map.
“I wanted to hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. From there, maybe Solitude Lake. Any suggestions?”
“Well, it’s about 4:45, so if you want to catch a shuttle, you need to get down to the dock. At this time of day, everyone will be coming back across the lake. Not many heading the way you’re going.”
“Would I have time to take my hike and catch a return shuttle?”
“No. If you cross now, you’ll have to hike back around the south side of the lake. Part of that hike is through stretches of thimbleberries. Black bears love thimbleberries, so keep your head up. You alone?”
“Yep. Just me. How far is it from the boat drop to here?”
“That leg is 3.5 miles if you do the Moose Loop.” His finger returns to the map. “Here. It’s a one mile loop through very isolated woods with marshes where moose sometimes forage. It’s worth the extra mile.”
“Okay thanks. I appreciate the map and tips.”
“You better hustle if you want to catch the boat. When you finish,” he looks at his watch, “make that tomorrow, let us know if you see any bears.”
“Will do. Thanks again.” I’ve got about 10 minutes to find the dock.
A young lady takes my money and tells me that the next shuttle will be leaving in a couple of minutes. I snake through the ropes leading to the dock, where a boat with the capacity to ferry 50 people sits empty. I am the only one in line. A couple of minutes pass before a young man in a baseball cap, unclips the rope and says, “Sit anywhere you like. We’ll be getting underway in a few minutes.” He’s wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. When he removes his cap, his forehead is white. Two minutes later he asks the kid on the dock to toss the line and we start motoring onto the lake. I’m the only passenger.
About a minute into the cruise, I walk up to the front of the boat and sit across from the captain. He looks at me and we both silently acknowledge the humor in a ferry with one passenger. I extend my hand.
“Kevin.” He has a great, firm handshake.
“You’re going to get some funny looks when we dock on the other side.”
“You have no idea how used to that I am, ” I said.
He looks sideways at me and laughs. “There will be at least a hundred people in line to come back the other way. It’s that time of day. Everyone has hiked their limit, or sat at HIdden Falls all day. Either way, the sight of one guy going in the opposite direction will be a hoot.” He chuckles.
“Plenty of daylight left. Crowds heading in the opposite direction is a good thing.”
As we cross the blue lake, he begins to point out and name various peaks. He clearly has a short canned speech, but this isn’t it. Instead, it turns into a Q & A session. One we both enjoy. Everything from van life and photography, to cooking tips and how to move quietly through the woods. At one point, as we get close to the dock, he does a slow loop in the middle of the lake to give us more time to converse. “They aren’t going anywhere,” he says, nodding toward the shore.
I toss the line to a young man on the dock and he ties us off. As I’m gathering my backpack, the captain walks over and we shake hands. “Good luck with everything Smitty. Watch out for black bears.” I nod. “Will do captain. Thanks for the lift.” As I walk down the plank then up the ramp past a long twisting line of people, almost each one glances my way as I walk by. Inwardly I smile, thinking about what the captain had said. When I look back to see if he is taking note of how right he was, he is taking a young lady by the hand, helping her step onto the boat.
Situated near the mouth of Cascade Canyon, Hidden Falls drops roughly two hundred feet in a series of loud steps. Near the edge of the trail, mist has turned the ground soft and dark. Dead trees and large boulders have designed a viewing area. A group of Japanese tourists are placing their hands, palms up, in front of the distant falls so in a photograph, water appears to flow into their fingers. Waiting their turn, they giggle and then step in front of the falls with an upturned hand.
From the falls, the trail resumes climbing along a very rocky and rugged trail. Near Inspiration Point, a section of trail traverses a fairly steep, granite carved ledge built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s. A sign warns hikers to use caution along this stretch of the trail. Behind me, I hear a slight slip of a boot. A set of young hikers, one has taken a mis-step and a small shower of stone trickles over the edge before finding gravity’s momentum and clambering out of sight. I listen to the rocks bounding down the slope and move a little closer to the wall on my left.
The Spring 1939 issue of Grand Teton Nature Notes states that “By far the most popular trail in the park is the lower portion of the Cascade Canyon Trail which leaves Jenny Lake and climbs above Hidden Falls.” Not much has changed in 80 years. Rising above Inspiration Point, the “Cathedral Group” towers above the canyon in the west. 12,325-foot Teewinot Mountain, 13,770-foot Grand Teton and 12,928-foot Mt. Owen, hover above the forest. To the east, Jenny Lake rests in an olive colored valley reaching toward the Snake River. I stop to rest and consciously try to sear this moment into my memory.
At one point along the trail circling the bottom of Jenny Lake, I hear Japanese being spoken in a female voice. I have no idea who she is speaking with, or what she is saying. She speaks and there is no reply before she speaks again. She is far enough ahead and above me that I can’t see her, but her voice is growing nearer as a climb a short rise. Rounding a bend in the trail, a man and woman stand next to each other. She is pointing into the woods and speaking in a loud, animated voice. She is dressed in flowing, flowered clothes, with a visor and trekking poles. She is wearing tennis shoes. Next to her is a small, elderly man wearing what appear to be suit pants and dress shirt. He is holding a cane. His black street shoes shine against the rocks. When he speaks, it is but a whisper. I am only a few feet away and his words sound like hollowed air. She looks at me and points into the woods. A large black bear is feasting on thimbleberry, oblivious to the three mismatched strangers. We smile at each other and the elderly man offers a slight bow. I bow in return, then turn and bow to the woman. Her bow is almost imperceptible, before tapping the man on the arm and starting down the trail.
As I begin to dream, a waning gibbous moon hangs over Jackson Lake, a silver pearl dancing on the water. It’s summer. It’s always summer in these dreams. Billowy clouds tumble across a blue shaded sky. Austin, Oliver and Preston. Mustang top is down and the radio is playing a song by The Temptations. A song of my youth.
I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day
When it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May
Well I guess you’d say
What can make me feel this way?
My girl, my girl, my girl
Talkin’ ’bout my girl
We’re driving into Detroit on the John Lodge. We’re driving through Harbor Springs, the road curving on the northern edge of town. Suddenly, the boys are small and we’re driving across Sullivan’s Island. We keep singing as the backgrounds change, one scene sliding into the next, edgeless and without transition. Younger still, we climb Cristy Creek toward my uncle’s house. Small ponds dot the land below as we seamlessly begin to sing another song. Jack Johnson.
It’s always better when we’re together
Yeah, we’ll look at the stars when we’re together
Well, it’s always better when we’re together
Yeah, it’s always better when we’re together
We’re watching velvet racked elk, strut across a Montana road. Canoeing across an unending lake near Atikokan. Looking down on New York City from Liberty’s torch. Now I’m watching my boys from a distance. They’re playing baseball at Andover on a deserted field. I hear the crack of the bat and watch as they run the bases, voices lifted in pure joy. Then the earth begins to tilt. I watch as the landscape slides toward the horizon. In slow motion, frame by frame, my boys begin to fade. Dissolve. I reach for them, through them. In the blink of an eye everything goes black.
It is the dead of night. I am scared. As I look up at a waning gibbous moon hanging over Jackson Lake, faint images of my boys flutter through my head.