I keep getting glimpses of little moments: my daughter, Morgan, filling the plastic bag with water which she will then hang on a tree branch, allowing the gravity-fed system to drip water through the hose and carbon filter and into another plastic bag, providing a few liters of suitable drinking water for us; me bent over the creek to catch water in the black metal/ceramic coffee pot which we will then boil for five minutes to kill the germs; the multitudes hiking the trails alongside us in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming — so many people we often had to step off the trail, allowing them room to jockey about, take photos, and grab children’s hands, while others queued up to take boat rides across Jenny Lake; riding down the road in my son, Ian’s vintage Jeep, the girls in a much newer model following behind, as the road curved and bent through the mountains, following the Salmon River in Idaho — one of the deepest gorges on the continent — the dust clinging to the cream-colored vehicle like it was part of the paint job; my daughter, Arianna, singing, always singing, as we hiked up into the clouds or sat admiring a waterfall; Ian, all arms and legs and height, leading our little group up the mountain where we would eventually wade into an alpine lake so cold it took your breath away; the Sunbeam Cafe in Sunbeam, Idaho where two sisters and their mom served the most amazing food while other family members ran the outfitter, providing river tours and gear, boats, kayaks, whitewater rafts, an oasis of sustenance and conviviality for adventure-seeking travelers; so many small snapshots against the backdrop in my mind’s eye of mountains rising up to kiss the bluest of skies, all now part of my soul.
We spent a day in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and two days at the Atherton Creek Campground, frequenting the freezing but beautiful Lower Slide Lake, about a 20-minute drive from the visitor’s center for the Grand Tetons at Jenny Lake.
The campground was special, tucked away from the thousands of people who visit the Grand Tetons each year, and while we were amazed by the magnificence of those mountains, I was grateful to have done that leg of the trip first because the throngs were, at times, overwhelming.
Contrast Jackson Hole with the Idaho wilderness which is synonymous with isolation, and you might reach the same conclusion. Over the next five days spent camping in Idaho, we met barely a handful of people who had chosen, like us, to transport themselves across the rugged terrain of Salmon-Challis National Forest and call it a vacation. I’ve not witnessed such quiet in a place since camping in Canyonlands National Park in Utah over 25 years ago — and I have no idea if Canyonlands is still as cloistered or has been, like most places on earth, overrun by humans — but I revel in the fact that some places like Salmon-Challis National Forest remain as too remote for people to cast an appraising eye in its direction.
There’s something magnificent about having such a place to yourself. We hiked in the day then swam in a lake or rinsed off in the stream in the evening. The Forest Service has built bathroom accommodations here and there in this vast wilderness and the three different ones we camped near were clean and well-stocked, not with running water, but with toilet paper and hand-sanitizer. The luxury of having fresh water — even if you had to filter it — and a place to use the bathroom while camping cannot, IMO, be overstated.
The trail to the Moose Lake, the alpine lake atop Wildhorse Creek Canyon that feeds the gorgeous Fall Creek waterfall where we camped for two nights was over the river and through the woods and meadows. Abundant wildflowers clamored for attention while a glimpse of a wild moose in the woods sent a momentary ripple of panic through our group. The moose we had seen at Moose Lake in the Grand Tetons eating seaweed off the bottom of the lake was practically domesticated in comparison. There, dozen humans sat along the banks, watching him eat and speaking, if at all, in hushed tones as if we were all sitting in church.
The wild moose we saw in Salmon-Challis was but a movement and a rack strutting along through the sunlit trees, a few moments and then gone, enough time for Ian to move the bear spray from the back pocket of his pack to the front. Morgan had brought a bag of jingle bells to ward off bear, but none of us knew what to do about a moose other than “look big and stand your ground,” as Ian advised. He said moose don’t scare too easily and “will trample you just because they can.” They also don’t respond to noise like bears. It’s good he saved the part about trampling until we got back to camp because as it was, Morgan stayed close on Ian’s heels for at least a mile or more after that sighting. Coincidentally, the lake in the Grand Tetons was also called Moose Lake. Apparently, the namers of these fine specimens didn’t think too much beyond the obvious when considering nomenclature since so many of the names for things were repetitive.
The trip up to Moose Lake was about 4.5 hours. I’ve no doubt my son could have done it without us in three, but he’d been here before and we tourists love our photos; plus, when we got into the higher elevations, we needed to stop just to catch our breath.
Wildflowers dotted every meadow and even some gravelly places where nothing so beautiful could have grown, but there, impossibly, they were, vibrant and vivacious. The blossoms I will eventually learn the names of now that we’ve been introduced, as well as the rivers and tributaries that snaked and braided and climbed and fell in their never-ending journey to return to the source, and I will definitely go back and call them each by name. Hello lupine. Hello Indian paintbrush.
In the ghost town of Custer, an old gold-mining town founded circa 1880 and ghosted by 1910, mining tailings lined the banks of the Yankee Fork, a major tributary to the Salmon River, along the roadway into town, a terrible blight on the landscape. The tailings were not pretty and neither what was left of the town, a sad sore on what was probably once a wild and beautiful part of the river, but from a historical perspective it was very interesting and the conditions that the miners and their wives lived under were grueling and precarious.
My lackluster response after so many days in the wilderness was directly related to the tailings, I know, but I couldn’t put it out of my mind. So much of our country’s land has been bullied into submission for the resources it holds, and once coerced into giving up its treasure, the remains are left sitting, like mining tailings aside a river, unsightly, unattractive, and definitely out of place.
An entire camping vacation and we never made a single fire. The smoke filling the air in Salmon, Idaho was enough to stifle any desire for one. The Moose Fire had started July 17th, a few days before we were leaving to go to Idaho and see Indianola, a Ranger Station where Ian lived when he wasn’t on a hitch, but they had been evacuated from the site before we arrived and firefighters were still battling the fire, so much that a tent city for firefighters had been set up in a parking lot just off the main street in Salmon. In a place so dry it seemed capable of spontaneous combustion, the carelessness of a few humans put over 1,000 firefighters’ lives at stake.
Bringing me back to where I always go which is — water. Luckily, all of our campsites but the last one included a water feature and even that one was near the Yankee Fork, much prettier away from the tailings piles, but we had to cross the road and scramble down a craggy little hill to get to it which I did once, but didn’t repeat the effort since we were going out to dinner that night, to celebrate Ian’s birthday and mark the end of our lovely family vacation. I can’t imagine constantly counting how many gallons of water I would need to have available for use each day for a family and then filtering enough to meet those needs as even with a stream nearby on most days, the arid nature of the West never leaves you, drying you out from the inside, and once home, it took a week for the inside of my nose to recover.
It takes a lot of water to put out a fire, substantially less to quench your daily thirst, but that’s only the start. We need water to cook, bathe, luxuriate and recreate, and we have water a-plenty in the U.S. — unless you are one of the 2.2 million people here that don’t have access to clean, safe water — so we don’t pay close attention to how much we use, how we acquire it, and how utterly lucky we are to have it delivered safely to our tap.
Water sustains life, there is no question — literally creating its own ecosystems and habitats since virtually everything else relies upon it. What other element can claim such jurisdiction? Slowly, I am resolving to be more like water: flowing, with less insistence on knowing where I’m going, and a mind to just enjoying the journey, a tough thing in minute-to-minute world.
If you worry about how much water you unconsciously use every day and want to to cure yourself of that bit of wastefulness, may I suggest camping? It’s the best kind of reset around.
You can’t take it with you, they say, and while this is true, the smart ones among us know that you can take the feeling, that sense of place with you everywhere you go. I feel Idaho in my bones now. The endless slope of trees unto rock unto dust unto sagebrush which doesn’t just dot the land but consumes it, miles and miles of it abiding along open roads and plains, enveloping it like a mother with her newborn, holding the parched earth to her, sustaining life despite the lack of rain, the endless sun, the mountains climbing ever higher into the unbounded sky as if the world itself were infinite.
8.8.22 — pam lazos