“I Don’t Know What Moose Like to Eat…”

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Camping hat (noun)- headwear sported while on a camping trip to conceal dirty and/or unkempt hair; usually a toboggan in winter and some sort of baseball cap in summer.

With the Jackson Hole weather forecast finally beginning to smile on us, Matt and I set out for a weekend camping trip with enough granola bars to last a week, backpacks capable of holding a small person (refer to the pictures- they’re enormous), and not the slightest idea of where we were headed. After a much-too-large breakfast at our favorite spot, Cowboy Coffee (where we aspire to become “regulars” but so far none of the employees have recognized us), we proceeded to seek the counsel of the supreme and all-knowing Park Rangers (because they know which trails are accessible and which are still covered in snow). We decided to hike into Granite Canyon to pitch our tent and hike back out the next day (about a 14-mile round trip). In order to do this we needed a backcountry permit, which is basically a permission slip saying that we are allowed to be camping in the national park. You may be thinking, “No big deal- people do it all the time,” which is true, but park rangers are technically federal officers and take their jobs very seriously. Backpackers are often required to take tests, watch safety videos, and basically hand over a kidney before receiving a permit (this, of course, is due to the astoundingly senseless things that people have previously done in the remote wilderness of the parks). Fortunately Matt and I were not subjected to these tribulations and were issued the permit and our bear canister without much opposition– a bear canister is a hollow cylinder about ten inches in diameter and a foot tall in which to store food so that a bear can’t smell it. It comes complete with two locks and extensive instructions such as: bury the canister at least 200 yards from your campsite, do not place near a cliff or water source, failure to return the canister may result in a lawsuit, etc.

And so we hike! Now, I feel like I should preface this account by disclosing that for the week leading up to this trip I had been exceedingly perturbed that I had not seen a moose. Matt seemed to see one every time he left the campground, yet I couldn’t glimpse one with a pair of binoculars and a moose call (not a real thing- that I know of). Anyway, we walked and walked and walked, and stopped frequently to identify the abundant wildflowers and to rest on the six-mile steadily inclining trail. It was on one of these breaks- we had climbed up onto a rock to check out the view of the now very distant road and the barely visible cars crawling along it- that we had our first close encounter. As we turned intending to continue along the trail, a sizable female moose stepped out of the brush alarmingly near to us- about 20 feet- and if that weren’t enough, following her was a baby moose that couldn’t have been more than a month old (and that would have been absolutely adorable without its intimidating mom). At a greater distance this would have been something to marvel at, but mother moose are notoriously protective and are known to be very aggressive when their young are “threatened”- and we were way too close– had we not happened to climb onto that rock we almost certainly would have been charged. So we began singing (rather amusing made-up moose songs) to alert her of our presence and were subsequently stranded on that rock for quite some time until she strayed far enough to warrant our safe passage. I realize now that it was a pretty funny situation, but at the time the moose probably realized we were there not by our singing, but because she could hear my heart thumping. And so we snuck past mama and baby moose and continued on.

We camped in a beautiful spot along a river fed by the melting snow from high in the mountains, with water clear and clean enough to be drunk unfiltered. The following morning, we took our time leaving camp and moseyed along the now entirely downhill trail (luckily for our thoroughly worked legs), both daydreaming about sandwiches and Starbucks iced coffee. Ahead of me, Matt abruptly turned and instructed me to go back- there were two male moose coming down the trail toward us- and goodness were they huge. Despite our moose-repelling songs they kept ambling toward us and on the narrow trail we really had no option but to hurry back the way we came. Just as we began to scramble up a wall of rocks (a pretty comical image considering that I was still singing, “I don’t know what moose like to eat, but I sure hope it’s not you or me…”), we saw that they were suddenly grazing nonchalantly on the other side of the river and not paying a bit of attention to us (we’re still debating how they got across the swiftly moving water- Matt thinks they jumped, I think they used their mighty moose powers to momentarily stop the water). We were able to finish our hike with no more excitement of the wildlife variety (aside from a jubilantly prancing mule deer), and I decided to never complain about a lack of animal sightings again.

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Tent-house Suite

Before we arrived in Wyoming, I was a little nervous about living in a tent.. in an RV park.. in the middle of nowhere.. for two months. But I was mostly nervous about the tent part. In the weeks leading up to our move, it was hard to imagine not having the everyday amenities that we typically think of as customary and absolutely essential—for that matter, these things seem so normal and necessary that we often fail to think of them at all. Now I’m not talking about “luxuries” like toasters and cable TV and hair straighteners- I’m thinking way more basic- things like kitchen sinks and refrigerators and showers where flip flops aren’t required. As our days trundle on, though, I’m continually surprised at how little I miss such things—our tent-house (which we’ve affectionately termed “the Nest”) seems a little more normal (and a little less “roughing it”) every day.

Each morning, Matt and I awaken to a mostly-deflated air mattress (which continues to leak despite our best duct tape efforts), and Matt begins the twenty-step commute across the parking lot to work in the main office/convenience store/gas station here at the campground. We each have various chores to complete while the other works—mine usually include cleaning out the fridge (a.k.a. draining the water from the cooler and adding new ice) and storing our things away in our very organized and efficient Tupperware bin closet system (Note the sarcasm). When Matt and I trade places at work, he washes our pretty limited collection of dishes in the frigid (and not drinkable) water from the outdoor spout (bless his heart, that water is horribly cold), attempts to clean the floor of the tent (which we’ve realized is pretty futile since it is immediately re-speckled with dirt and grass), and starts making dinner on our trusty CampChef stove. After we eat, we bag up the dishes to be washed the next day, stow away all food items (on the off-chance that a bear wanders into camp in the night), and tuck everything out of the way of the rain that’s been falling on and off for the past week (and which last night, to my extreme dismay, turned to snow). Then we re-inflate our mattress and begin again.

I’m not going to pretend that living in a tent for an extended period of time is easy- we definitely have our problems: There’s no surefire way to keep out bugs and critters, we can only plug in one thing at a time (i.e. a phone charger equals no lights), and the tent’s interior is almost never a comfortable temperature. However, the simplicity of having no furniture or carpet or overhead lighting is somehow refreshing, and the 40-foot RVs parked in the next site over seem more ridiculous by the day. While I certainly enjoy air conditioning and dishwashers at home, coming into our new lifestyle and less-than-ordinary routines has been a remarkably  pain-free and un-shocking transition.


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One more snooze and then let’s go

After almost two weeks of our new jobs here at the campground, Matt and I have pretty much gotten into the swing of things. The work is fast-paced and the guests diverse—international travel to Wyoming, the least populated state in the country, is far more common than one would expect. Calamities and crises arise daily- whether it’s trying to explain to a guest that the nearest Walmart is 150 miles away (“Yes, I’ll Google Map it to make you believe me”), a pair of birds trying to set up home in the convenience store, or listening to the guy from site 153 yelling about how his Netflix isn’t working and there’s nothing to do around here (Hello, have you LOOKED outside lately?)- there is hardly a dull moment here at the RV park.

Our current dilemma is this: Matt and I have completely opposite work schedules. He works all day and I work all evening, and so naturally you’re wondering, “But how on earth are the two of you going to explore every inch of the Tetons and Yellowstone when you collectively work 13 hours a day?!” Fear not, kind readers, for we have formulated the most ingenious of solutions (really it’s just our only option). We’ve formed a habit of leaving camp around four in the morning and heading out for a sunrise hike. Now this may sound cold and miserable and dark (which I’ll admit, it sometimes is, especially since there’s no coffee to be found that early in the morning), but these pre-crack-of-dawn outings have afforded us rare experiences and insights to the Tetons that we wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. Perhaps it’s that there are no park rangers granting us admittance and offering us maps and brochures, or the lack of tourists spilling off of their luxurious buses in hordes with their cameras and fanny packs and visors pulled down over sun-screened noses, but these mountains in the early morning are still and serene and feel so deeply remote that you get the notion that it would take days or weeks of traveling before another human being could be found. There is a placidity about the woods and waters of the Teton range that can instill an absolute speechlessness and reverence for the towering peaks and the clear dawn—and the anticipation of having this wonder imparted anew is what drags me out of bed at 3:30 each morning- long before the sun or the birds, even before the coffee- and makes me realize that what seemed like such an un-ideal situation turned out to be one of our greatest blessings.


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Over the river and through the- supervolcano?


Matt and I took our first big excursion over the past two days, and what better a place than Yellowstone to celebrate the end of our first week in Wyoming. Only after entering the park did I realize that I had absolutely no preconceived notions about Yellowstone and what it would be like, and found that this was due to an astounding lack of knowledge about the park and where its immense fame stems from. The diversity of the landscape is stunning: from gaping canyons to coarse mountains, rumbling hills to vast stretches of valleys, and mysterious hoodoos to boiling pits of water (optimistically called “thermal ground”). If you’re looking for a particular type of scenery, you can probably find it in Yellowstone.We spent an entire day seeing the park by car and stopping for all the main events: the steaming tiers of hot springs at Mammoth, animal-rich Hayden and Lamar Valleys, the massive and colorful Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the timely spoutings of Old Faithful.

After camping in Gardiner (a little town north of the park that looks like it could have been the set of every John Wayne movie ever made) we spent our second day in Yellowstone on a nine mile hike up and down Bunsen Peak. This mountain (really just an over-sized hill compared to the Tetons) had an elevation of only about 9,500 feet, but to my Tennessee-accustomed lungs, we might as well have been scaling Everest– altitude is something I had never truly considered until I found myself living at a base elevation of almost 7,000 feet and wondering why I was winded after climbing even the smallest of inclines. Thunderstorms stir themselves up out of nowhere in Yellowstone (especially in the northwestern corner, according to Matt, Resident Expert on All Things Yellowstone), and we nearly sprinted the last couple of miles back to the car in an attempt to beat the suddenly impending rain (unsuccessful). We were home in time for sunset, back in the Tetons on the shores of Jackson Lake, and happy to return to our neck of the west until the time comes for our next expedition (a.k.a. next weekend).


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Pronghorns and marmots and bears.. oh my.

It has now been five days since Matt and I bid farewell to sweet Tennessee and struck out for Wyoming with a filled-to-the-brim car, more guidebooks than any two people could ever read, and an almost inappropriate amount of excitement. We’ve set up our summer home (also known as a 10×14 canvas tent) at the campground where we will both be working, located right between Jackson and Yellowstone, and, pardon the crudeness, within spittin’ distance of Grand Teton National Park. Needless to say, we are already having the time of our lives, and we’ve only just begun. Every spare moment is to be filled with hikes, climbs, dips in excruciatingly cold lakes, and evenings of watching the sun sink all to quickly into the gloriously nearby mountains.

One of the most fascinating and frightening facets of living in this part of the country is the ever-present and often too-close-for-comfort wildlife. Grazing bison, rascally marmots and pikas, and, of course, the “hopefully not hungry” grizzly bears are just some of Wyoming’s diverse mammals that could quite possibly (and almost definitely) be encountered at any given moment. I must say, this unnerves me far more than I expected. I was aware of the abundant fauna here since long before we arrived, but I am still taken a little aback each time Matt stops and says something like, “Maybe we should have bought some bear spray,” or, “Ya know, I’d really like to see a mountain lion sometime.” My concerns began about a month ago when on my birthday he presented me with this tiny bell, literally a jingle bell, and proceeded to explain that this bell was actually a highly sophisticated bear-repelling device, proven to be effective.. sometimes. In the weeks since, I have made a desperate attempt to acclimate my mind to the idea of rounding a corner and seeing an elk or a moose (which one might think are clueless, lumbering horse-deer, but are  actually dangerously aggressive creatures). No such luck. I’m accustomed to going camping and worrying about things like unbearably itchy mosquito bites, unexpected downpours, and even snakes, but Wyoming’s diverse animals are adding a  dynamic to outdoor living that’s not usually found in the southeast and, perhaps I’ve been naive, but making me realize why the west is called “wild.” While caution is nearly always a beneficial approach, part of me knows that I’m being at least a little bit paranoid, but the other part of me wants to holster a can of bear spray or two and never take my finger off the trigger. For now I will resolve to soak up every inch of this most sublime place and its plethora of opportunities for unforgettable adventure. But I won’t lie– I will cling diligently to my bear bell all the while.


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