Month: September 2014

Zeniths of Beauty

It’s the single digit countdown, people. That part of the season when people wind down and pack up and head home. Coffee shops are quiet and spacious where a few weeks ago they were buzzing and crowded. Work shifts drag out until you wonder how many times it’s practical to deep clean the refrigerators in one week. And I lay down to sleep and happily squirm in the knowledge that I will be home soon.

But the word nostalgia exists for a reason and these are the last few days that my work contract will have me here in Jackson Hole, with a view of the Tetons right outside my bedroom window. Despite my hermit-like avoidance of social gatherings, I have become familiar with certain aspects of this place. There’s the coffee shop where I like to plug in and write these blogs. The main square park, where you can sit and people watch the crowded downtown shopping area and dodge tourists posing in front of the piles of elk antlers. The sidewalk stroll along Snow King Avenue that leads by a stream across the back of town, past parks, rodeo grounds, the summer fair, and ski lifts to the library and mountain side trails. The view from the top of Snow King, dropping down into the forest on one side, stretching across the entire town, elk flats, and foothills out to the Grand Tetons on the other.

There are the bridges and turns of the pathway where I ran many of my distance training runs, the back roads and neighborhoods where I went on shorter excursions. The hiking trailheads surrounded by lakes and the narrow trails that I’ve hiked in sandals, trail shoes, and barefoot. The spotless night sky, where you can see every star, with no city lights interferring.

Right now, the fall leaves are gorgeously softening the landscape. Spires of red, yellow, and the constant green of the pines cluster in front of the mountains and the musty scent of autumn floats everywhere. And because my days here are numbered nine to zero, I can relax into the changed beauty and enjoy my last glimpses of this breathtaking landscape.

The summer must have been beautiful as well, I’m sure some of my photos prove it, but right now the scenery is at its zenith. Partly, I have a partiality toward fall, but partly because it’s always easier to appreciate the not-home when you know home is almost within reach again. The last two summers here have been hard and fun and stressful and rewarding and full of laughter, complaints, joy, and pain. The scenes of Jackson will always have connections to certain memories now – the Albertson’s coffee shop where I waited for the bus that took me to my little brother’s wedding, the hillside trail where I had what will probably be my last long chat with my grandmother, the employee housing loop where I first really lived away from home.

This is the best part of any enterprise, the moment when you can pause at the end and reflect on what has happened, what has been accomplished and what has changed and wrap it all up in a sturdy list. And then you turn around and find yourself standing on the edge of a cliff again. Neatly summed up experiences and timelines behind you, you have to gather your breath for the next leap.

My housing deposit is due for the winter soon. I’m headed to Beaver Creek CO, nearly twice as far from home as my current location. And that will be the last one. It’s almost time to start thinking beyond the edge of this two year expedition, which seemed so huge and complicated when I started it. Last year, when people asked me if I’d be back in the summer, I said yes. This year, I murmur and evade. “Yes, it’s been fun, no, I don’t really want to commit to coming back next year,” just leads to more questions. You have to work around it with “I’m not sure”s and “I guess we’ll see”s. They don’t fool anybody, but they fill the social obligation of conversation.

For now, the only thing I need to be sure of is basking in the shining, fall sunlight and breathing in the wet, storm air. My suitcases are lining up by the apartment door, impatient to walk into the car trunk and secure in that, it’s easy to appreciate the last few days of my mountain summer.

It’s the Bear’s Knees

Couches in coffee shops; fresh, cold wind on a bike ride; random flakes of snow and miniature balls of hail; rambling chats with sisters and mother; window-shopping; lack of schedule or constraints – these are the lovely things about today.

(pictures probably to come, if I decide to actually go through the rigamarole that using my laptop to download photos from my camera has become.)

Less lovely is the stiffness in my knee which has been more or less constant for the past couple of weeks and has effectively curtailed my training runs. I was hoping that biking would not aggravate it, but it’s hard to tell if that hope will be fulfilled. The current twinges could still be results from Monday’s nine mile hike. Of course, on Monday, I blamed the twinges on Thursday’s four hour hike and on Thursday, I thought they might just be soreness from the previous week’s six mile run. It can be hard to pin these things down.

Even if the hiking did aggravate an injury, I can’t regret it. After a fairly dismal and grey August, the first week of September here was all crisp air, blue skies, and sunshine. Thursday, I hiked up into a meadow hidden within Paintbrush Canyon and despite trying to exercise some restraint, managed to snap 77 photos. I tried to get some panoramas to show the atmosphere created by the splashes of green and waterfalls in the center of the huge rocky points that are the ‘little’ mountains of the Tetons, but as always, nothing can quite compare to the actual experience. Standing on a rock in a clearing right after the forest falls away and spinning with head craned backward to see the sharp edges of grey against the bright skies can’t be replicated in any photo.

The wildlife highlight of that excursion was the moose, who placidly grazed in the bushes as a bunch of us hikers gathered on the wooden bridge and repeatedly tried to time our pushing of the shutter button with when it lifted its head.

Monday’s wildlife was a bit more stimulating. First, on the way up the hill, which we were still sweat free and relaxed, two young buck were casually walking along a few yards to the side of the trail and obligingly posed for photos without spooking off into the woods. As we continued the ‘STRENUOUS’ rated jaunt, I think our panting and low oxygen levels prevented any additional sightings on the upwards journey. Down was another mattter, though.

As my Russian co-worker and I began our descent from the mountain lake that we had climbed about 3,000 feet to admire, I noticed an odd animal in the bushes to the side of the trail. I stopped moving to process what I was seeing and then managed to call out, “Anastasia! Bear!”

Still processing what we were seeing, we backed up the trail until there was a more significant distance between us and the animal. Although we were excited to see a bear, we were also both relieved that the animal was clearly a fairly small black bear. Apparently, bears are one of those things that I’ve seen so many times in pictures that it was surreal to actually see one in person in the woods. Anxiety level wise, it was very different from watching the ZooBoise bear in its concrete pit. Then my companion noticed another, smaller bear, hanging out behind the first one and we began hearing an odd crying noise from the woods to our right. Nature videos paid off again and I said, “There must be another cub, hear him calling his mother?”

It was difficult to determine where the second cub was, so we hovered on the bend in the trail where we could be as far as possible from Mama Bear, while still being able to keep an eye on her movements. Since remaining stuck in that spot seemed like the wisest choice and noise is recommended during bear encounters, we kept up a stream of excited, nervous, adrenaline driven chatter and snapped photos of the unconcerned wildlife. Mama backtracked slightly toward her crying cub and then the three bears slowly meandered across the trail. Proving that she considered us insignificant, the mother bear then lay down in the middle of the meadow next to the trail, while the cubs scampered across the hillside fringes of forest.

Once we felt the cubs were far enough off the trail, we continued down the mountain, with a final friendly reminder to the family that picnicking on humans would be bad behavior. Moving slowly and staying alert until we had safely rounded a couple of switchbacks, we soon began passing a steady stream of uphill traffic. We let out some additional adrenaline by warning them about the imminent nature encounter and by the time we were another fifteen minutes down the trail, I no longer felt quite as panicky about the whole thing. Of course, this was when we encountered a pair of hikers who told us they had just seen a bear just a little bit further down the mountain. I guess they were all out enjoying the nice September weather as well? There was no additional bear sighting, although the warning certainly kept us alert during the remainder of our hike.

So now, having managed to wrack my mother with anxiety by telling her of the incident after the fact, and received properly silly advice on bear cub hugging from siblings, I can check another experience off my list and count down the last days of this second Teton summer secure in the knowledge that there are indeed bears in these mountains.