SI Vault
Beau Westover
January 29, 1973
After John Colter left the Lewis and Clark expedition he headed north into Crow country, looking for good trapping areas. It is said he began his journey in November of 1807, and in the wintry months that followed discovered the vast and mysterious wilderness of Yellowstone. The author and a friend are probably the first white men to make a similar trip (they chose to hike north to south) in midwinter. For 17 days in subzero temperatures they snowshoed through blizzards, clambered across mountains and elbowed through herds of elk in the valleys. They took with them only sleeping bags and packs, no tents.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 29, 1973

Walk On The Wild Side

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Wind coming off the lake forces us inland, and it is almost two days before we reach Geyser Basin at West Thumb. We camp on the lakeshore in the heart of the thermal activity, taking advantage of the open water for cooking and drinking. This is forbidden land, according to park regulations, just as the mud volcano region had been, but the ground here is warm and we are cold. I am prepared to risk the wrath of the National Park Service. We are ushered to sleep by the bark of geysers and another more soothing melody, a distant lofty song far out on the lake, sad and compelling. I have never heard anything like it and haven't the slightest idea what it might be.

We wake to a different and hideous sound, a snowmobile. The road that passes through West Thumb to Old Faithful 20 miles to the west, although now plowed in the winter, is open to snow machines. Park records indicate that it is heavily used. Fine with me, there is nothing I want to see along that road, anyway. We move east to get away from the noise.

North of Heart Lake we cross the Continental Divide, jubilant with the knowledge that from this point it will be downhill all the way to Jackson. With an easier route ahead, we are certain after a week of serious doubt that we will not have to surrender our racked and weary bodies to the ranger at South Entrance of Yellowstone. Despite the storms, the frostbite and a weight loss of 20 pounds, we are now convinced that we can finish the journey as planned. A cause for celebration. We indulge ourselves with a few mouthfuls of slushy wine—even alcohol freezes.

To avoid fording the Snake River we move west around Mount Sheridan to the Lewis River Canyon. Here, where a bridge spans the gorge, we encounter a six-passenger snow coach that has plowed head on into a drift. The engine grinds, the tracks spin and the machine begins to sink into the snow. Stuck. They have a radio, they will just have to get someone to come pull them out.

Rather than rejoice at this unexpected confrontation, we are repelled. It is like finding hordes of strangers in your favorite fishing hole. For no good reason I can think of, these people don't belong here. I resent their presence.

We move to avoid the stranded vehicle, but are stopped dead when a female head pops from a porthole in the roof yelling, "Harry, Harry, Harry!" A bald head begins to emerge, but in her excitement the lady begins slapping frantically, first on the roof and then on the bald head, which quickly withdraws.

"Oh, oh, oh, ah, ah," the lady goes on, "you've come to get us. They've come to get us, Harry. Harry!" The Nikon camera that dangles from her neck, without a lens cap, begins to bang with horrible percussion against the porthole. I can see the scratches from 10 feet away, and begin to hate that woman with a passion that can only be comprehended by a poor man who happens to fancy cameras. Stearns, fortunately, is able to handle the situation with a modicum of tact.

He apologizes. He says, "I'm sorry," and we turn and leave; the Nikon lady yelling, "Wait, wait, we'll pay!" Our mood is a foul one, familiar to bigots and other rabble.

The four-day trip down the western slope of the Divide through the Teton Mountains is sadly anticlimactic. After the incident in Lewis Canyon we never regain the sense of isolation that separated us for so long from the common lot of sightseers. Grand Teton National' Park is simply too accessible and too crowded for my taste. The valley floor has been slashed by highways. Two ski resorts operate near Jackson, much of the park is open to snow machines and every lakeshore and aspen grove seems to be inhabited by a party of cross-country skiers. If local promoters have their way a new, bigger, noisier airport will be built across this valley to permit an even greater influx of people; and after that, more hotels to house the travelers, more restaurants to feed them, more rental cars, more gas stations, more subdivisions for those who wish to stay.

We arrive at Jenny Lake in the middle of a snow squall, and the mountains, although less than a mile away, are hidden by clouds. Strangely, I can feel their presence even without being able to see them. Skulking like animals we hide our camp on the lakeshore, hoping it will be missed by the patrolling rangers—neither of us could pay the fine for illegal camping. Over a frequently doused fire we prepare the last of our rations: a single envelope of oatmeal and half a pot of tea. We do not bother' with a shelter, we are much too tired. We just unroll the sleeping bags in the snow and crawl in. Sleep these days is never far away.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7