Sometime circa 1976 I was given the opportunity, and the challenge, to write a position paper on the subject of individuals who “dodged” the draft by crossing the border from the United States into our northern neighboring country of Canada. I was in high school at the time and a candidate for a “Moody Scholarship”, a four year college scholarship based on academic achievement and financial need. The scholarship was provided by the Moody Foundation, made available by the famous Moody family of Galveston, better known to the general public via Moody Gardens. Both my high school GPA and my parent’s limited income met the criteria to be a Moody Scholarship finalist. But the third requirement for scholarship, after academic standing and financial need, was the completion of a written position paper, to be judged by a panel of reviewers representing the Moody Foundation.
I was to show up on a Saturday morning (along with other finalists), with no information formerly provided as to the positional subject I’d be asked to address. We finalists were given a specified amount of time (as described in the invitation letter) to draft and write our individual positional papers. The positional subject of the paper was provided to us at the beginning of the timed session. I don’t remember the amount of time given, maybe something between two and four hours. I have a vague yet vivid memory of phrases being provided with the subject matter topic that caused my throat to tighten: military draft; avoid or dodge; Canada. I was clueless as to how best approach the subject. It was a subject that did not impact my own myopic teenage world, so I had never given it much thought, much less a well thought-out position with written debate worthiness.
Like most high school students, my current news savvy was based on hearing piece parts of Walter Cronkite on TV, as I quickly walked past my parents, as they watched the evening news from their favorite living room chairs. Like most teenagers, then and today, I had that innate skill of coordinating my intended whereabouts, seeking assumed approval, and heading out the door with car keys in hand, without slowing down to answer more than confirmation of where I’d be, and when I’d be home. Thank you Mr. Cronkite for your assisted diversion in limiting parental questions, supplementing my uncanny skill to time my exodus just as your program’s commercial break concluded.
Until this week, I hadn’t thought about writing the Moody Foundation’s scholarship paper in many, many years. I was, am, and always will be grateful to the Moody Foundation, as I was awarded a thousand dollar a year scholarship, for four years (with yearly renewal requirements based on college GPA). That scholarship, along with other smaller scholarships--and summer jobs, allowed me to achieve my undergraduate degree without incurring dept. I have no idea the details of my position paper. I would guess if I had opportunity to read it today I’d be amused, and somewhat embarrassed, by the ignorance and flare for drama that it probably represented. And although I have no memory of the details, I’m confident of the overall position expressed, as my father, and many of my uncles, served in WWII; not to mention that at the time of writing the paper, I had an older sibling serving in our U.S. Army. I am fairly confident that a single sentence summary of my position today, on same topic, would be the same as then. But the details of my opinions would surely have changed. I’d find it much harder to voice the confluence of thoughts and opinions I currently have regarding our nation’s peace keeping endeavors, and how best to recruit, train, equip, use, reward—and care for, our country’s military women and men. After more than a half century of living, ready positions on complex topics do not come to me as quickly as they did when I was young. I guess I’m just not as smart as I used to be.
I should also admit that today, much of my awareness of world news (like most American adults) is received through the filters of cable news, as well as the long running network news programs. These past couple of decades would find me many evenings in my favorite chair, watching Tom Brokaw, and now Brian Williams, share their version of the world news. And now I have my own parental memories of a teenage offspring with the uncanny skill to seek approval for whatever, just as I was watching the latest “breaking news” story. But teenagers of recent years have it much tougher than we teens of long ago yesteryear; parents today are armed with that favored household tool that allows “pause” for both “live” and recorded TV diversions.
This week I’m reminded of that Saturday morning of 1976, with throat tightening over unexpected subject matter, and paper to position. My wandering back in time to this specific memory has nothing to do with current world news or polarizing public opinion polls. Quite simply: how do I write a blog about two weeks in Grand Teton National Park? Natural historians and scientists have written a multitude of books on this beloved national park. Outdoor enthusiasts have written a plethora of travel guides. Google “Grand Teton” and you will be overwhelmed with data, if not information.
So, I’ve thought about it. I could journal about the rick-man’s and my daily hikes, birding experiences, and location of outings. This idea for blogging about these two weeks reminded me of my favorite author’s most recent book, “The Lacuna”. This recently published book by Barbara Kingsolver was written in the complex artistic form of first person diary. I was continually impressed with Ms. Kingsolver’s writing skills as she crafted the technique of aging and maturing the fictional diary writer, providing belief in the story’s passing of time by aging and maturing the diary entries. The diary entries at the beginning of the book were such stilted writing; such shallow topic that you’d think Ms. Kingsolver had suffered some malady of writing skill. It took me awhile to snap to the fact, and then adjust to her writing technique, as representing the style and “skill” of an elementary-aged boy, journaling to satisfy his need to write. As the boy became a young man, the diary entries developed the man’s character depth and complexity of personality (or lack thereof). But even with my appreciation of “The Lacuna” as a challenging story to author, I found the diary style a bit of a bore to read. If it had been my first book to read by Barbara Kingsolver, it probably would have also been my last. So should I attempt to blog a journal of the rick-man’s and my daily adventures in the Tetons, diary style? I don’t think so…
So I‘ve thought about it some more. I could weave our daily adventures into an integrated story, intertwining our outdoor experiences with the summer-time tourist atmosphere of the place. But my story-telling skills need a lot of work, and now is not the time for improvement, as I’m hiking, birding, and generally ABSORBING this wonderful place.
So, I’ve thought about it even more, trying to get past the throat tightening syndrome of my Moody Scholarship paper. And all I could come up with is this: I think I’ll simply blog about some of my personal observations during these two weeks, in no particular order. There is much to observe, and many observations that have surprised. And although I have no “breaking news” stories, it seems I do have a cacophony of observations about the natural wonders of this place, some of the human persuasion. Not to worry--I’ll sprinkle some pictures throughout, to give you something to look at, when my observations bore.
Observations in Grand Teton National Park
(In no particular order, except maybe the first):
1. The name: Grand Teton National Park. OK, I can mentally stereotype the mountain men and French-Canadian fur trappers of the early 1800’s that summered (and some even wintered) this unbelievably beautiful area. Their physical strength and endurance are somewhat beyond my understanding as they lived off this land with its flowing rivers, glacially-carved lakes, geysers and other geologic wonders—not to mention Grizzly and Black bears, and other four-legged predators. And mosquitoes, I need to mention mosquitoes. They trapped the beaver of the Snake River valley, many as members of the 1816 British Northwest Company’s expedition that included 55 men and 300 beaver traps. I can hear their French-Canadian accents, as they looked up at the sharply-angled peaks of the mountain range and expressed that they the mountains were grand, or really large. I can also hear their accents and their amusement as they referred to the angular peaks as tetons. And if you don’t know the English slang equivalent for teton, well, ahem, I’m not saying. But these hardy men of the early 1800’s seemed to have women’s anatomy on their mind. It would seem some things don’t change, regardless the century. And now let’s fast forward in time and society to 1929 when Grand Teton National Park was established. Just over 80 years ago this country’s governing elected leadership created a national park and named it the Really Big T_ _, or, Grand Teton National Park. When I stop and think about it, I’m a wee bit bothered. 1929 was only nine years after women got the right to vote. 1929 was WAY before women would be “allowed” to serve on a jury, and WAY, WAY before women could have a credit card in their name. (Check your recent history knowledge. It is quite interesting to note the timeframe that banks began providing credit cards to John Doe; then to Mrs. John Doe (in that name); then much later to Jane Doe, whether Mrs., Ms. or Miss)
Before you roll your eyes and think I’ve started a social justice blog (and I’d rather think of you chuckling over the subject matter), I’m just reminding everyone that this particular blog is based on my observations while wandering around the national park for two weeks. So I’d like to make two other points (no pun intended) regarding the name. First, I’d like to think that if this beautiful mountain range was becoming the namesake for a national park in 2011, our publicly elected leaders would give it a different name, having nothing to do with a woman’s anatomy. I have to wonder about young students in foreign countries—countries that view the U.S. as their enemy, referring to American citizens as infidels. I have to wonder if these students are taught about the name of this park as an example of the evil ways of the American society. It wouldn’t surprise me. And that makes me sad. And as a second point, I’d like to mention that the name of this park shares something in common with the last book of the Bible: it is singular, and most people refer to it as plural. The Biblical writer John had one Revelation, not multiple Revelations. Those early 1800’s Canadian-French trappers saw one peak, larger than the rest—the Grand Teton; not the Grand Tetons.
And so I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to stand in the Snake River valley and look up at this amazing mountain range, pondering what name I’d give it today. It is beautiful. It is ominous. It is beyond understanding. It is not known. It carries a glacier whose age boggles the mind. And as I look at that largest peak, shaped somewhat differently from the rest, I think those wild and rugged men named it as they saw it. Thank you Mother Nature:
2. Animal Encounters, of the Human Kind. The rick-man and I mentally prepared ourselves for this trip to Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) to be quite different than our former visit in September of 2007. We planned this trip for the summertime, and that would mean lots of visitors, lots of families. We weren’t wrong to prepare ourselves for the numbers and types of humans encountered. Exploring a state or national park, in the midst of so many summer vacationers, is not our favored mode of travel. But it certainly has not caused us to regret escaping the Texas heat in favor of this wonderfully cooler locale. I would be remiss if I didn’t confess that many of my observations are related to “human nature” and the interaction of people groups. Unfortunately I can include no photos—photographing these observations would surely cross the line of socially acceptable behavior. And before judging me as a busy body, remember I am a birder by hobby; an analytical observer by training; and by habit, a person who wonders about my observations. So quite simply, dealing with statistical majorities, observing people has been the most common experience of this summertime GTNP experience.
And before you picture me as one of those scary people that blatantly stare and eavesdrop, don’t forget my hat. Its size and shape serve two intended purposes: first to protect my face, scalp and neck from sun and wind; second, it allows me to more “silently” steal a peak at birds without scaring them away with a hardened stare. If birds don’t know you are watching, they remain centered in their world and are a delight to watch; if they know your stare, they are gone before you can raise binoculars for closer viewing. And as it turns out, my hat serves a third unintended purpose (especially when complemented with sunglasses); in similar fashion to bird watching, it allows seemingly polite human observations without blatant staring. I’ll be quite happy to NOT use this third unintended attribute, but these two weeks, the human observations abound.
I will over simplify by suggesting that there are three “types” of people groups visiting GTNP: adult couples (or small groupings of adults), families with children, and families with teenagers. The latter two types have been the most interesting to observe, although the young twenty-something couples have at times given me a smile, or an urge to stick a finger down my throat. I’ve also observed many women traveling with women, some as tent campers and some in large Class A RVs, but all seemingly experienced at the camping trade. But I digress from the two groups I’ve found most fascinating:
a. Families with children. I realize that I am over generalizing, but families on vacation to GTNP seem to be having a great time. Oh, there are crying babies, tired toddlers, sibling fights, and general fits to be thrown; but the parent(s) seem purposefully pleased with the experience and family memories they are building (or so they believe). Some are young families with babies in backpacks, all outfitted with hiking gear and matching floppy hats. Some young families have toddlers in hand, with the toddler receiving detailed natural history and biology lessons from Mom or Dad, as they slowly waddle on down the trail, reminding me of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. But mostly I see families with elementary age children. These family units seem to rank highest in the “having a great time” category. Whether the parent or elementary-age child is the first to sight a yellow pine chipmunk, a moose or other wonder of nature, the entire family engages with a cry out of “Look, Look!” and heart-felt pleasure in the experience. The common theme seems to be family togetherness, a unit of multiple people all interacting with each other, called family. I’ve repeatedly witnessed a sort of cascading of joy, excitement or enthusiasm passing between all the family members. It is a pleasure to watch, even though the noise of these family-types makes carrying binoculars, camera body and 400 mm lens a waste of energy. Only the Robins stick around to watch, blatantly staring. The majority of these family units have two parents, but more than might be expected are women in camping vans with multiple children aboard. The theme of these family-types remains common, regardless the number of parents involved: togetherness; shared experiences; family fluidity; multi-faceted interaction; positive facial expressions. Their progress towards trail or other destinations appears slow; smiles appear common; and conversation and chatter abound.
There are always exceptions. I’ve only seen two. The first was a woman with what I’d guess to be a 10 year old son and maybe a 6 year-old younger brother. I was headed into the Women’s public restroom at one of the GTNP Visitor Centers, suddenly unsure if I should wait or move past these three standing at the entrance doorway. I soon decided it would be best to move past. This was not a single person restroom, but a large facility with lots of women, lots of stalls. The rick-man found the Men’s restroom to be equally busy. I was somewhat surprised, as I approached the Women’s doorway that the mom was arguing to convince the two sons to go into the bathroom with her. The probable 10 year old was seriously balking, stating rather rationally, “Mom, I’m too old; I want to go to the Men’s bathroom.” She firmly said no, multiple times; and with one hand on his arm, and the other hand attached to the younger brother, she achieved a swift motion that landed all three of them inside the doorway, just as I was attempting to pass (and give appearances of ignoring their conversation). The woman’s face showed angst and pain; the older boy’s showed anger and embarrassment; the younger boy’s showed no surprise. There is no judgment on my part—no one knows her life history or experience; and I have no reason to doubt that she probably knows what is best for her sons. But I longed for a solution that gave her peace and gave the older boy a bit of mercy. The best I could offer was the appearance of single-minded focus on the next available stall.
The second exception was sighting a family of four, with two elementary age children, one boy, and one girl. The rick-man and I were walking the wonderful boardwalk of the Old Faithful geyser area (on a day trip to Yellowstone). The weather was great, the geysers and mud pots fascinating. Just as we walked past this family of four, the son turned from a whispered conversation with the probable sister, faced the parents and said “Can’t we just go home and swim in our pool?” Ah, I could see the Dad’s expression as he was silently calculating the cost of the family’s summer vacation versus the cost of a summer at home, utilizing the backyard pool. A glance at the mom gave no clue; she held a stoic expression that would challenge the best of poker professionals. I walked on, not hearing the response to the son’s recommendation. But I knew the son was teetering on the age that our current society calls the “tween years” with the teenage years just ahead.
b. Families with teenagers. Oh, what an interesting field of study! That is, if you aren’t one. I could go on and on, but I won’t. From the rick-man’s and my first hike, we have encountered families with teenagers. On that first day’s hike, less than 50 yards into the beautiful Jenny Lake trail that leads to the magnificent Hidden Falls, we came across a family of four, stalled trailside. Two parents, two teenagers: male and female each. The two teenagers must have practiced, as their chorus of words came quickly, complementing and harmonizing with single focus: “We’re tired; this isn’t interesting; can we just go back to the car and wait for you?” The teenagers stood together; the parents did not. It appeared that both the mother and father were about to verbally explode, but it was not obvious as to the direction of the explosion. I quickened my pace, onward past the 50 yard line. And, after enjoying time at the falls, the rick-man and I returned on the same trail, and encountered another memorable family group. First came the silent father, with wrinkled brow, looking straight ahead, with body language that expressed performance of a dutiful chore; next in line came the mother, with facial expression that was simply painful to note, and one I won’t soon forget; following third, a teenage male of early high school age wearing black knee-length shorts, black T-shirt and mirrored pilot-style sunglasses. Of note was his impressive skill at franticly “thumbing” his hand-held gaming device, held pointedly out on display at face height, similar to a trumpeting position, as he marched with steady cadence behind the probable parents. He walked with complete ennui to the trail and lake and glorious habitat, as he appeared to stare intensely at his gaming device. I convinced myself that he was stealing secret glances downward, behind mirrored lenses, to avoid the rocks and roots of the trail. Each of these three family members spoke volumes with body language and patterned behavior. These 3 represented what seemed a common theme of families with teenagers: togetherness had only to do with physical proximity and nothing to do with interaction.
Another day’s delightful hike ended with a walk across a large parking lot. As the rick-man and I headed for our vehicle, I could hear a woman’s voice, and it was not a pretty sound. She wasn’t screaming, but she was definitely yelling. Her words caused me to assume a spouse or mate were on the receiving line, and the more phrases she spewed, the more surprised I became at the lack of response from what I assumed to be a probable husband. She yelled something to the effect: “I’m so DONE! I can’t stand living with you anymore. I hate being around you and I hate this trip. I am DONE with you.” Silence followed. I was surprised. I kept thinking a male voice was about to unleash itself. I hazarded a glance in the direction of the yelling, and readily sighted the woman, beside minivan, with probable teenage son and daughter before her, in silence. There stood three people, in an apparent family unit or subunit, not functioning so well in this lovely park. I walked on, cringing with the new understanding of her words, and the impact to all three.
I’m not saying I haven’t seen teenagers appearing to have fun, actively engaged in the multitude of activities offered by this diverse habitat. I’ve seen teenagers hiking with playful chatter, kayaking with enthusiasm, and generally out and about having good, clean fun. But consistently, these happy teens were with other teens, and no adult in sight.
I’ve reflected these two weeks on the summertime family camping trips of my childhood, when I was in elementary school. My mother’s favored daytime activity seemed to be sitting in a lounge chair at the campsite, reading her latest book. My father would take me on hikes or out fishing or to the park’s playground, with occasional returns to the campsite to check on my mother. My two older siblings, teenagers at the time, seemed to daily disappear, always together, and consistently return just in time for lunch, then away again, returning just in time for dinner. They brought back stories that made me envy their day’s exploration. Looking back on these summer family vacations, I’m starting to realize that my parents were way smarter than I ever gave them credit.
3. Water, Bears and Mosquitoes, Oh My! As a Texan escaping the heat and drought, I didn’t think to connect the dots as to what happens when a 3-sigma snowy winter begins to melt. I have no personal complaint as I’ve known no personal impact in the aftermath of this extreme winter of snow. But others have. I’ve seen news stories of cities and towns that have flooded, farming land that has been lost, and general destruction to man-made structures as they become floating tinker toys. The snow melts, fills the head waters, and overflows the rivers as they make their way south. For the rick-man and me, it has provided fascinating scenes of snow packs still present along roadsides above 7,000 ft elevation; of snow melts causing creeks, streams, rivers, cascades and waterfalls to be an overwhelming sight of energy and turbulent motion. Mostly we’ve stood and watched, or driven by and stared, but on occasion, we’ve wanted to cross some form of creek or cascade, when hiking. And on some of these hikes, we’ve had to turn back, do to trail closings or trail bridges washed out. And some trails are completely closed, due to the amount of snow still present, this July. We’ve watched the shoreline of Jackson Lake disappear, and our evening strolls to favored lakeside points around the Colter Bay campground, just last week, are now underwater. After a winter of extremes, we are witnessing a summer of extravagant water shed. I will remember these scenes, to which photography can give no justice, as long as my memory allows.
The rick-man and I spent ten days inside Yellowstone and GTNP in September of 2007 and never saw one bear—no grizzly, no black. We weren’t disappointed as most of our time was spent hiking and birding, under perfect weather conditions, and neither of us have the personality type to hope for close encounters with bears while out on the trail. Some trailheads posted warning signs of active bear activity in the area, and provided recommended avoidance techniques, including “be noisy” as you hike. I hike as a birder, as quietly as possible. And even though some trails had warning signs, no trails were closed, that we knew of, due to bear impacts. It was that September 2007 trip that influenced our return. The rick-man made the specific request that we come back, camp at Colter Bay in GTNP, and spend two weeks. Since that decision I’ve spent some time studying the “birdy spots” of the park. High on the list of places to bird is the Willow Flats trail that runs behind Jackson Lake Lodge. The Willow Flats area would offer us over five miles of hiking, with extensive willow thickets and wet grassy meadows. Creeks and beaver ponds would provide a riparian habitat that usually provides a gold mine for birding. The expected sighting list would include MacGillivray’s warblers, Lazuli buntings, Red-naped sapsuckers, flycatchers and many sparrows. We packed our day packs, carried binoculars and cameras, and walked with excitement to the trailhead. It was closed:
OK, I told myself, we are here for two weeks—the bears will move along. We walked to the viewing area behind Jackson Lodge and I found a park ranger. As I waited impatiently (at least I’m honest) for a woman to complete about 50 different questions on how to keep her family safe from wolves, I finally broke in with one question: “Do you know when Willow Flats trail will open?” I was surprised by the specificity of the park ranger’s answer: “Yes, it will open August 15th. The bear activity in the area dies down when the baby moose are older. We close the trail each year in springtime until August 15th.” I just stared at him. No polite sideways glance from under my hat; a “caught off guard” kind of stare. The woman began question 51 regarding wolves and I walked back to the rick-man with the news. And did ANY of the web or paper literature or glossy books I’d purchased forewarn of Willow Flats closed each year until August 15th? You know the answer. Drats.
Hiking and birding the high country trails? No—impacted due to snow and snow melt. Hiking and birding the Willow Flats trail? No—closed due to bear activity. Not to worry, there are LOTS of miles of woodland and lakeside trails that are glorious hikes and great birding. One of my favorites is the lovely String Lake and Leigh Lake trail. This trail winds through lovely mature woods and frequently touches the shoreline of String and Leigh Lake, with views of the mountain range that reflect pristinely in the clear lake waters. The rick-man and I knew we’d take this easy multi-mile hike several times over this two week period. But there is one thing that fictional authors occasionally forget to mention. When Mother Nature is overly extravagant with snow and snow melt and springtime weather, she also provides an ABUNDANCE of mosquitoes.
Now I’m a Gulf Coastie, and grew up with mosquitoes and mosquito avoidance techniques. But I never expected the little buggers in GTNP. There weren’t a few; they were swarming the wooded trails and any other spot without a good breeze. The rick-man and I quickly learned that the beautiful wooded trails were not an enjoyable option. We’d start out, with nasty mosquito spray applied, and a few 100 yards into the trail, and turn around. It just wasn’t even close to enjoyable. The common observation of all people, out and about, was watching their technique for “swatting” motions, as mosquitoes leveled the playing field of human behavior, regardless the people-type. The rick-man talked to a man that had been coming here for the last 14 years, and that man said he had never seen anything like it. An extravagant winter of snow leads to an extravagant snow-melt which leads to unusually green and wet conditions, and Mother Nature’s little buggers having a bounty year. Come on birds, eat them up!
4. Mother Nature’s Yellow Powdered-Sugar. I’m not sure how to blog about this, but I’ve never seen anything like it: pine tree pollen, in mass. I’ve seen lots of spring-time pollen. I had a home for many years that included four lovely Live Oak trees. In the springtime, my sidewalks, driveway and window screens held a fine yellow powder. But the amount of pollen release while at GTNP was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And apparently, also tied to the three-sigma snow-melt and side effect of springtime tree “mating”. I could stand at lake shore, avoiding the mosquitoes, and watch huge yellow clouds blow across miles and miles of land. A yellow haze to the sky made one pause and wonder if some chemical release had occurred. Yellow powder was everywhere; dry on land, and a wet yellow blanket along shore lines. And, with two windows left open on the Airstream after a day outing, we returned to find the yellow powder on every surface of the Airstream. Thank goodness for no carpeting! I spent several hours cleaning. I should have taken a picture. Dampen a paper towel and run it across the table: a bright yellow residue was collected. I could write my name on the kitchen counter. We watched a young girl grab a low branch of a tree; give the branch a pull, then release. She was immediately covered in a dusting of pollen, kind of like a sprinkling of fairy dust, straight out of an animated cartoon. I’ve camped in places that required adjustment to the amount of desert dust, or sand, but I’ve NEVER observed anything like this. Yellow pollen, the texture of powdered sugar, in and on everything. I’m sure I’ll be finding it in the Airstream for years to come. But it was a fascinating thing to see: trees gone overboard with prolific creation of their next generation’s opportunities. We humans got slimed with yellow powder, with no embarrassment or apologies from the trees.
It has been an amazing two weeks—just not what I’d planned. Birding was minimal; hiking was tightly constrained. I did expect lots of people; I did not expect to be so fascinated by their behavior, and so reminded by bird behavior. The surprises flourished and were tied to the aftermath of an extreme winter: overflowing rivers and lakes; trail closings; mosquitoes; blankets of yellow pollen.
I’m so thankful for this trip’s surprises. They reminded me that when we think we know what Mother Nature will provide us, she reminds us that she cannot be fully known. I am thankful for observing both nominal and off-nominal conditions, in nature—and in human nature. They remind me that there is a common theme between the natural world and we human’s that depend on it: nature and humans will surprise. They cannot be fully known, nor fully understood. Nor can we fully plan for life’s experiences—whether two weeks “away from our world” or each day in “our world”. Seems it might have to do with being created in the image of the unknown. Any day I take Mother Nature for granted, is a day I forget to fully experience.