Jackson Hole

Click to enlarge this route mapAt seven in the morning we looked out the window of our lodging in Grant Village on a cloudless sky, but by the time we finished interacting with the breakfast buffet, loaded the car, and got on the road, more low gray clouds had rolled in. The road back to Old Faithful was clear, but we decided that it was time to move on, and we turned south to Grand Teton National Park, which is only a few miles south of Yellowstone.

Tetons and Jackson Lake -- click to enlargeThe weather continued partly cloudy, and when we came into the somewhat unromantically named valley of Jackson Hole and got our first look at the Tetons, parts of them were hidden by clouds or mist. This continued throughout the day — the Tetons looked as if they were trying out (a bit late) for the role of the Misty Mountains in The Lord of the Rings. Tetons and Jackson Lake from Signal Mtn -- click to enlargeNevertheless, we could always see most of them, and the cloudiness didn’t deter us from taking their picture from Jackson Lake, Jenny Lake, and Signal Mountain, where the sweeping views of the mountains, Jackson Lake, and the flat valley were truly impressive.

Jackson Hole from Signal Mtn -- click to enlargeBesides being a feast for the eyes, Jackson Hole has an interesting geology. The Tetons, a steep wall along the valley's western side, are moving upward on a fault line, like the eastern side of the Sierras, but the valley floor is also moving downward. The matching sedimentary layers on the two sides (mountain and valley floor) are now about 34,000 vertical feet apart, and they’re both still moving. The reason Jackson Hole is sinking is that the molten magma below it is being drawn northward toward the unstable caldera of Yellowstone.

Click to enlarge this map of the parkWe ate lunch at the Signal Mountain Lodge. I had a bowl of very good cheddar-jalapeño soup and Dorothea ate a “Tuscan chicken” sandwich made with focaccio and including provolone melted over a chicken breast, as well as roasted peppers, Kalamata olives, and pesto. While Dorothea was in the ladies’ room I overheard the man at the next table say to his wife, “Well, I don’t care; there’s nothing else to do. I’m not gonna fish that river no more, it’s too damn cold.”

After lunch we continued exploring the park. (The map shows our route in red.) At one point, we caught sight of a yellow-bellied marmot scurrying across the road — bushy tail, yellowish tan tummy, similar to a woodchuck but smaller and not so plump.

At about 3:30 we checked into the Angler’s Inn (a motel despite that name) in Jackson, and went into the town for a little gift shopping. Later we had dinner at the Snake River Brewing Co., where we ordered one of their small pizzas with pepperoni and one with smoked chicken, roasted peppers, and feta cheese. Both also had Asiago, which we found made them richer without adding anything to the taste. Salt helped both, and hefty sprinkles of grated parmesan and red pepper further improved the pepperoni. Whatever the weakness of the pizza, however, the Snake River Pale Ale I drank with it was first-rate.

The next day’s drive, diagonally across Wyoming to Rawlins, was to be 285 miles — not much different from some of the stretches we’d driven recently, but none of it on interstate highways and all of it through mountainous terrain. The mileage diagram in the corner of our AAA map estimated that driving time would be seven hours — a very long day for us. So we decided to avoid Jackson’s best-known breakfast places, which were reported to have lines outside on weekends. (The next day, though Monday, was Memorial Day, and we figured that the lines wouldn’t be much different.) The motel didn’t offer breakfast, but we located a diner, unsung and unstoried, where we planned to grab an early breakfast and get away.

Across Wyoming

Click to enlarge this route mapMonday was sunnier in Jackson Hole than Sunday had been, but there were still some clouds. According to plan, we loaded the car and went to eat breakfast at the Route 89 Diner, which to judge from the sparse crowd was not one of Jackson’s most sought-after breakfast spots. Regardless, it served good diner food, and we breakfasted well on a cheese omelet, grits, and toast for me and blueberry pancakes for Dorothea, one of which I got to help her finish.

When we came into the diner, I went to wash my hands (dirty from touching our dusty car) before I sat down. When I joined Dorothea at our table, a woman sitting nearby jumped up and warned me not to sit in that chair — one of the side rails, as she showed me, had pulled entirely out of the back leg. Nor could I use the chair next to it (we were at a table for four), which had the very same defect. The waiter brought a sound chair from a nearby table and took the first one away somewhere.

Later, when I was paying the check, I thought to tell the hostess about the second broken chair. She shrugged and said “We have lots of chairs that are broken. We’re hoping to replace them at the end of this season.” She and the woman behind the register exchanged sad smiles and sighed; I gathered that this pious hope was a hardy perennial. I said, “Well, in the meantime you wouldn’t want the smartest lawyer in New York to sit down in one of those broken chairs.” Unless local fashion changes, however, he probably won’t be eating breakfast at the Route 89 Diner.

Tetons and Snake River -- click to enlargeClouds still obscured some Teton mountaintops as we drove back up the valley — a couple of thin clouds even hung out in front of them, halfway down from the peaks. Nevertheless, the morning sun shone directly on the slopes in most places, and the mountains looked rather less Tolkienish than they had the previous day. Despite our wish to cover ground, we stopped once or twice before we were out of the park to take pictures. One viewpoint where we stopped had been made famous by Ansel Adams. Like other viewpoints in that category that we’d visited on this trip, it had far more visual splendor than we could squeeze into our wee lenses.

Red Canyon -- click to enlargeWe had left the restaurant just after nine, and the road was clear of traffic, so we made good time out of the park onto US-287 and over the Togwatee Pass. Once we descended from the pass, the two-lane highway was smooth and mostly straight, and we moved along much faster than we’d expected. We got to the motel in Rawlins shortly after four, our total elapsed time six hours — including 45 minutes spent buying gas and lunch in Lander, plus another 50 minutes or so taking, following, discovering, and then correcting a wrong turn. We didn’t regret the wrong turn, because it took us past Red Canyon, an amazing and beautiful sight that we would have missed otherwise.

The gas we bought in Lander cost $1.99 a gallon — the first time in a couple of weeks that we’d paid less than $2.00.

Near the western border of Wyoming, where the parks are, we were among high mountains. As we traveled southeast, the landscape gave way to grassland so dry that it was hard to imagine that the cattle we saw could find enough to eat. In some places there were outcrops of of rock or layered buttes colored red or tan or gray.

We crossed the Continental Divide three times during this travel day. Actually we crossed two separate continental divides. The first (just east of the Togwatee Pass) is the one everybody learns about in school, between the Pacific watershed, which we left, and the Atlantic, which we entered.

About 30 miles north of Rawlins, however, we crossed a second divide that separates the Atlantic watershed from the Great Divide Basin. We were leaving the huge area where all water flows ultimately to the Atlantic and entering a much smaller region where such water as there is flows nowhere. Like the Great Basin we’d passed through in Nevada, water can get into this area, but it can’t get out (on the surface). Just to the north of the city, we recrossed the same divide and were once again on the Atlantic side. The Great Divide Basin, about 90 miles from east to west and half that distance from north to south, consisting mostly of sand dunes and alkali flats, is entirely contained within Wyoming — most of it, strangely enough, in a county named Sweetwater. On the west, of course, the basin is separated from the Pacific watershed by another divide. It’s as if the major Atlantic-Pacific divide had briefly pulled apart, leaving this odd space in the middle.

Wyoming is a lovely place. It’s also a windy place, as we rediscovered every time we got out of the car. Arriving at the motel in Rawlins, we pulled in under the porte-cochère in front of the office assisted by a hefty tailwind that I was unaware of until I opened the driver’s door and had it pulled right out of my hand. (The door banged into a fake stucco column, but no apparent damage was done on either side.) Our room was fortunately close to an entrance on the lee side of the motel, so we had no further trouble getting in and out of the car.

The wind was constant in both velocity and direction. A flag across the street was, every time I looked at it, standing out parallel to the highway as stiffly as if made of metal. It’s no wonder that Wyoming is home to the Wind River and the Wind River Mountains, or that the highways are protected against drifting snow by big wooden snow fences marching across the landscape. They aren’t low, continuous fences like the ones that go by that name in New England, but short rows of high barriers placed at an angle to the highway so that the end of each row overlaps the beginning of the next.

Most restaurants in Rawlins seemed to be closed for Memorial Day, including the one in our motel. The desk clerk told us that a place called Rustlers’ Family Restaurant, just down the road, was open, so we turned to this as the easy way out. The menu proved to be meager and uninspiring, and we both chose rib-eye steak as the option least likely to be mangled. The menu bore the following guide to doneness:

Rare — Inside red and cool
Medium rare — Inside red and warm
Medium — Inside red and hot
Medium well — Inside pink
Well done — Brown all through

Distrusting the precision of this scale, we both ordered medium in spite of wanting what the menu described as medium well. When the steaks came, mine had some pink in the middle and Dorothea’s was brown all the way through. We weren’t really surprised by this, as the steaks were only half an inch thick. I don’t know what the owner could have been thinking when he inserted that description in the menu. Perhaps he dreamed of turning out a rare steak in a few seconds on the grill.

Our steaks were served with French fries, cole slaw, baked beans, and some optional grilled onions that we paid a dollar extra for, but found too rare. The pie we got for dessert had a nice crust, but the usual heavily thickened filling. And, as this was one of those family restaurants that serves no alcohol, I had to drink instant lemonade. (Blyech.)

However — the baked beans were superb. Really. Red kidney beans with a hint of chili in the sauce.

Our waiter was a sweetly ingenuous lad who looked as though he might have just graduated from high school or come home from his first year in college. He was eager to please, and while you couldn’t call his service sophisticated, it was willing, and as speedy as the kitchen would allow, since we were almost the only customers.

He appeared to have recently completed a training course in which waiters are taught to address all patrons except those who come alone as “you guys.” Or perhaps he was just following a general linguistic trend in which the second person pronoun in America is regaining a distinctive plural form (perhaps influenced by Southern usage, where — thanks to “you all” — it never died out). Those of us who are over 50 and not natives of the South may be the last generation able to feel comfortable saying just plain “you” to more than one person.

For whatever reason, our waiter followed this rule so closely that he extended the distinction to the possessive: “Here are you guys’ drinks.” “Can I take you guys’ dessert orders?” He never uttered the word your  except when referring to an item that belonged to only one of us. Although over the past few years I’ve become familiar, like everyone else, with the “you guys” form of address, this young man achieved a degree of consistency that beat anything I’d come across in the past.

Before retiring that night, we cut our eighth and last (on the road) set of CDs, storing all our Yellowstone and Grand Teton pictures.


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This section last updated 12-13-2004

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