In the vicinity of the Three Cathedrals in the Grand Tetons National Park, we find the trailhead at String Lake and set out for a short hike. Earlier this morning, we rode on horseback across Pacific Creek and up a mountainside for some pretty nice views of the mountain range. The weather has changed during the day in what we are told is its typical pattern for this time of year. The morning chill has turned into afternoon warmth.
Signs at the trailhead warn of bears but there are no vendors nearby offering pepper spray nor do we have any bells. We decide to take our chances and cross the footbridge over the creek and head into the trees, following the trail. The air is clear, humidity low. I finish a granola bar and Randa sips from her water bottle. We have taken to heart admonitions to stay well hydrated to prevent altitude sickness. So far, it has worked well for us. I still remember vividly the headache I got in Breckenridge several years ago when I did not know about the hydration factor.
The remedy itself has side effects but this area is filled with trees and bushes and there are very few hikers. After a last “rest stop” in the lowlands around the lake, we cross the creek again and walk out of the trees.
The mountain base rises up to the northwest, a half-mile of sage and rocks with a few large boulders scattered around. On the ridge above us, I see what looks like a post with a box fastened to it. “Curious place to get your mail,” I muse silently.
“Let’s hike up the side of this hill,” I suggest and Randa agrees to the challenge even though there appears to be no trail. Bright sun and thin air conspire against her, though, and before we’ve made it more than a fourth of the way up, she is beginning to feel nauseous. “You go on,” she says with conviction, “I’ll wait here.” I hesitate, reluctant to leave her alone but eager for the climb. She looks at me again, “Go on.”
Two hundred yards farther up the slope, the hill gets noticeably steeper but I find a trail. Sweating and breathing heavily, I stop for a quick breather and look back down the hill. I wave to Randa as she is sitting on a large boulder, watching me hike. String Lake lies to my left and Jenny Lake to my right. Farther north, the longer expanse of Jackson Lake stretches its blue reflections along the valley. I climb higher following the trail, then rest again. Soon after my third breather, the trail cuts back away from the post I have chosen on the ridge as my goal. I step into the loose thin soil and gravel that serve as base for the sagebrush.
Back at the lake, I’d picked up two pieces of dead branches, one just over a foot long and the other about eighteen inches. I have been hitting them together as an improvised noisemaker to keep any bears from being surprised by my presence. It has occurred to me that they might find the noise merely interesting and be moved to investigate but I try to keep that thought out of my mind. Whenever I near a tree or large bush, I hit the sticks harder together. At this point, though, in the relative open and on the steepest part of the slope, I find another use for the sticks.
I begin using them as climbing aid, jabbing each into the ground and using them for additional traction in a technique that must resemble crawling more than walking. It seems undignified but effective. Not only does it keep my feet from slipping out from under me on the steep terrain, in just a few minutes I have gained the top of the ridge.
My marker post turns out to be a tall stump about eight feet tall, all that is left of an old tree with a large circular piece missing on one side about four feet up from the ground. I walk up past it and look beyond the ridge, toward the mountaintops. In spite of the sweat and the soreness in my legs, I feel a sense of exhilaration. I find that I am now standing above the level of the snow that blankets the side of the mountain and fills the gaps. I can hear the pounding of the melting runoff as it cascades down the rocks and pours into an incredibly clear glacial lake trapped in between this ridge and the higher mountain.
I turn back toward the way I came and realize I have probably underestimated the distance I had to climb to reach this point. I cannot even see the boulder on which Randa is sitting. The lakes seem small below me. I can barely see the wake of a boat motoring across Jenny Lake. The broad valley floor stretches out for miles. I see the faded peaks of the Wind River Range far away. At my feet, wildflowers bloom in the June spring of the Wyoming terrain. I cannot describe the joy, the intensity, the excitement and the strange way they all blend into an incredible peace.
I am sixty years old but I feel like I am young again, a child stroking the face of God.