Thursday, August 6, 2009

Impossible Beauty meets The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Grand Tetons, from the deck of Jackson Lake Lodge

As is often the case, the clouds that clung low to the ridges and peaks on the east side of Togwotee Pass gave way to a breathtaking clear blue on the far side. I was worried the Tetons would be obscured by the low ceiling. Now, as the clouds melted away into a sparkling clear afternoon sky, I began the final 20 mile descent down to Grand Teton National Park peering anxiously around every corner for my first view of this magnificent mountain range.

STOP. Oh no! The sign's intent was all too clear even if it's bearer, chewing on (and spitting out) a seemingly endless supply of sunflower seeds procured from his pocket and staring hollow-eyed into the distance, seemed completely disinterested. Immediately behind this impervious impediment to my travels the pristine highway gave way to a vast dirt wasteland.

This heaving scar of dirt stretched across the pastoral mountain valley as far as the eye could see. Hundred ton machines scratched and clawed the earth, spewing columns of dust high into the clear blue mountain air. Gargantuan loaders heaved mountains of dirt onto growling semi-trucks bound for destinations unknown while small pickups flitted back and forth like ants attending the smoking behemoths.

It was Rocky Mountains meets Dante's Inferno. I must have just missed the last group of travelers to be led trembling and cowering through this volcanic maze of machinery. This meant I had the dubious honor of waiting longer than anyone else in the line of vehicles now piling up to my rear for the next escort. As the wait stretched on I began to anticipate each spit of cud-like husks from the curled lips of the sign bearer.

After a seemingly interminable wait in which the sun seemed to sink faster just to spite me, a line of vehicles finally emerged from the dust. Like a column of refugees emerging from a lost city, the cars, trucks, buses and mobile homes continued to materialize, lead by a small white pickup, its flashing yellow light leading the way to freedom. The column must have been over 400 yards long. As they marched solemnly by, you could sense profound relief as they once again hit pavement to continue their journey, combined with abject pity for those of us still waiting to run the gauntlet.

When the small white pickup with the yellow light on top reached the pavement, it jerked away from the front of the column, nearly hitting the lead vehicle, yanked itself directly in front of our column in a cloud of dust and backed up with resounding speed stopping abruptly just inches from my front bumper. My friend the sunflower seed chewer, whom I now suspected of having a feed bag full of things shoved in his pants, opened the passenger door of the truck, exchanged a few words with the driver, looked back at the column and laughed. I somehow felt they were laughing at me personally.

When the last gigantic RV in the column had finally past, the sign bearer nonchalantly flipped his sign over to read SLOW. I hated him. As soon as the sign flipped, the small white pickup with the yellow light on top sprang to life, pelting the windshield of my rent-a-car with various sized rocks and pebbles as he fishtailed away. I started the engine, dropped it into gear and jumped in to follow. I felt I was at the head of a wagon train moving out again onto the Oregon Trail. Hopefully we wouldn't have to eat anyone.

The small pickup with the yellow light on top would speed up and slow down erratically as we twisted and turned our way through the labyrinthine construction site. Swinging mechanical arms bearing bus-sized loads of earth swayed overhead, while semis, tractors and steamrollers toiled in the swirling maelstrom. After five miles or so of this harrowing journey, hands white knuckling the steering wheel, the dust suddenly gave way to clear blue skies, the smoking volcanic landscape to fresh pavement. We were free! As we passed the line of cars piling up to cross from the other side, I laughed demonically as I passed a sign that read: Thanks for your patience. Your Recovery Dollars at Work!

The wait and crossing had taken over an hour. I was now worried that my arrival at the Tetons would be too late to take in the afternoon scenery. No sooner had I begun to mope when from around a bend in the road, the huge, jagged outline of Mount Moran became visible, huge, imposing and bigger than anything I had seen on the trip thus far. Driving further on the walls of the valley gave way to a vast golden plain, reaching across to a full, unencumbered view of the Grand Tetons, stretching from horizon to horizon.

Grand Tetons at Sunset. From the deck of the Jackson Lake Lodge, Huckleberry Martini not included

The breathtaking scale and jagged countenance of the mountains towering over the golden plain makes these mountains extraordinarily unique and impossibly beautiful. As you get closer they grow ever larger, ever more imposing in their majestic beauty. After paying the obligatory 25 bucks to enter the park (good for seven days, both at the Grand Tetons and nearby Yellowstone), we headed up to Jackson Lake Lodge, or accommodations for the next two days.

Left: Grand Teton (left) from Jackson Lake Dam. Right: Historic Jackson Lake Lodge

The Jackson Lake Lodge, designated as a historical landmark in 2003, was completed in 1955. It sits on a ridge or a pristine meadow where moose and dear can often be seen in the early morning and late evening. Across the meadow Jackson Lake fills in the visual plain leading to the Tetons, the ultimate reflecting pool.

The thirty foot high windows of the main room offer an exceptional view, but to get the real feeling of the Tetons, simply step outside and have a drink at the outdoor bar overlooking the lake and meadow. This Ansel Adams view is simply one of the best in the world. After a long day of driving, the Lodge's signature huckleberry martinis combined with the view worked together seamlessly to deliver a near religious experience to the afternoon sunset.

Accommodations were at the small and comfortable cabins nestled in the aromatic pine woods adjacent to the lodge. As the pearlescent night set in, the travails of the day melted away in mountain splendor. Today, The Grand Tetons, Tomorrow, Yellowstone, where we were told of a great little used bookstore in the town of West Yellowstone near the west entrance to the park.

Until then- Cheers!

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