Lovers In The Tetons
As the setting sun warms the sage and grass hillside, we scan the distance for the source of the yip yips and low howls. Over on the open slope to our east something moves. Gray and graceful, the coyote changes her location. She lets out with another song; high and melodious, it fills the sparkling air of the valley.
She is proclaiming her territory for all to hear, including Kenai, our friends’ golden retriever sitting quiet, ears at attention, listening.
Kenai belongs to Kevin and Kacy Painter. Their log house sits in the middle of the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming. We are moved by the beauty of the place and the richness of it’s wildlife. As employees of the refuge, they host 10,000 elk every winter and spring and a couple of hundred bison hang around the house then too. People travel from all over the world to see the spectacle, and Kevin and Kacy live in the middle of it.
The coyote serenading us probably is the female whose den is less than a half mile from their house and whose pups they watched all spring. On another nearby hill Kevin saw a mountain lion and two cubs the same spring.
Their views include the jagged and snow covered face of the Grand Tetons and, in the opposite direction, the more rounded but equally impressive Gros Ventre mountains.
I can’t imagine anyone who deserves it more, or who could enjoy it more. Kevin and Kacy are unrepentant romantics. They have been following their dream to live and work in wild places since they met and married.
Claire and I met them several years ago, when we were planning a trip to Africa and they were planning other adventures. Besides travel, we also shared a love of bicycling and living in beautiful places.
We lost track of them after they left the Olympic Peninsula, perhaps expecting them to return the following summer. They instead took a position in Alaska.
We called them from Yellowstone (Don Stahl told us), and they convinced us to come south, a day out of our way, to visit. We’re glad we did.
Kevin and Kacy pursue dreams, and catch them. Their first priority is always their marriage. They are focused on their partnership in life, their never ending joy in each other.
They both work for the refuge now and try to arrange their work schedules to at least have morning coffee breaks and lunch together each day. While we were there they had staggered schedules and were disappointed not to be working together for the first time in months.
One of the questions Claire and I were asked about our planned year touring on a bicycle, was whether our not we would get sick of being so close together for so long. That question surprised us, particularly since it often came from married people. It would surprise Kevin and Kacy too.
Maybe it’s a popular-culture thing. There so are many jokes about marriage being boring and stifling. Whole television series are built around the premise of the couple as adversaries, coming together for a brief moment of marital accord at the end of the show.
It seems romance is supposed to go away somewhere after a couple settles into married life. Kevin and Kacy don’t see it that way, and neither do we.
Turning east again, we camped in a biker/hiker campsite in the Gros Ventre mountains, with a spectacular view of the jagged Tetons.
Claire had a scare when she went to the outhouse. She discovered dinner-plate sized, fresh muddy grizzly paw prints, about seven feet up on the side. She didn’t sleep well. I was very happy there was a quarter-inch steel bear box for our food. Claire considered leaving the food out for the bear and sleeping there herself.
Just after dinner, curtains of rain began climbing the valley toward us, overshadowed by the Tetons, all bathed in the mauve light of twilight. The next day, we had a good climb up Togwotee Pass, amazingly easy considering the 9600 foot elevation. Beautiful pass with a good bit of snow in the high meadows, then a long downhill run, with a tailwind to Dubois, a pleasant small western town. It is a little touristy, but in an innocent way. At the RV park, we paid an extra three bucks for our own teepee. Huge space and the light inside is beautiful. We could live in one, for three seasons at least.
Gorgeous country on this side of the mountains, with more red-rock than I’d expected this far north. And warm. Finally we are warm, for the first time in two weeks.
The next day, in the middle of 76 miles, we stopped for a couple of hours at a Pow Wow in Fort Washakie and enjoyed the dancing and drumming. We were the only white people there, but felt welcomed.
Jeffery City will always be Mosquito City to me. At the Sweetwater River we picked up mosquitoes and they followed us over 20 miles, sometimes going over 20 mph with us tucked into the draft behind our legs. Impressive things. We got lots of bites during that ride and we couldn’t stand the thought of camping, so we got a very nice motel for $25.
They were so bad around the motel that we shoved Zippy inside fully loaded and slammed the door behind us. Then it took a half-hour of leaping from bed to bed smacking our hands together, to kill all the buggers that got in with us. After we turned out the lights we could hear one lonely bzzzzz, above us. The one we missed. Waiting her chance.
Coming down a long hill on the way to Rawlins, we saw a man pushing a bicycle up the hill with two dogs following. Mike Barlow, a Kansan, cycling his way along the Oregon Trail to Portland to find work. He wintered in Eastern Wyoming doing political cartooning and is starting again this summer. He has to stop to work often since he has no money. I wonder if he’ll make Portland this year. Thirty miles is a long day with dogs. They are slow, and he pushes the bike most of the time. The dogs carry their own food in little backpacks, making quite a little procession in this open country.
The job he wants to get in Portland is animation for television commercials, an idea I found unusual for someone who has such a minimalist lifestyle. I can’t quite imagine him doing commercials for cell-phones and luxury autos.
He says he is treated as homeless, but he sees himself as leading the life of a vagabond, somewhat more respectable one would think. But, people can’t tell the difference sometimes and make him move on. I think I understand. People aren’t always so sure about us either, but I think it helps being a married couple. We may be unusual, but we’re not threatening.
It’s June 27, and the rolling prairies of southern Wyoming are carpeted with flowers of yellow, blue, white and red. They flow to the base of green mountains; above them cotton clouds, pasted on a rich blue painted backdrop, float lazily back over our heads. We are wrapped in a sphere of arrested time, almost too beautiful for truth.
I think the wet springs that bring mosquitoes also bring this spectacular beauty. It’s worth it. Mostly.
It is cold at night and not overly warm during the days; some days have us taking off and putting on clothes all day. We’re maintaining a good bit of elevation here. I don’t think there is any low elevation in Wyoming.
We’d heard there were hot springs in Saratoga and stopped early for the night at an RV park. Before taking off for the springs, we talked to a neighbor in the campground, Fal de Saint Phalle. He was in his second year of a walk across the country. Fal, who looked to be in his mid 30’s, had been a banker, but gave up the acquisitive life for a life of witness by walking. While we were talking, a man came by with a large trout for him. Fal says it happens all the time. He never goes hungry, never lacks for a place to sleep. His witness is a quiet one, a small white cross sewn to his backpack and the demeanor of a person at peace with himself and the world.
They call the free pool the Hobo’s Pool. It included free showers and was a very hot, 112 degrees. Rapidly approaching thunder and lightning sent us scrambling for shelter into Mom’s Diner.
Lightning flashed blue in the streets and rain washed the pavement in windblown waves. We parked Zippy against Mom’s wall and ran inside. Just after we’d ordered we heard a crash outside, as he fell, was blown over. We jumped up and scrambled between tables and out the door. Zippy is our baby, afterall, and we had to make sure he was okay. He was. As we straggled, dripping, back into Mom’s, people looked at us as if we were crazy, or in need of sympathy. But we met some nice people who wanted to hear our story. I never get tired of seeing their faces when they hear we’re traveling like this for a year.
After a mashed potatoes and gravy dinner, we rode home to our tent in the rain, were treated to a golden sunset rainbow, and slept 12 hours.
The next morning we talked with Fal for awhile, and saw him off on another 20 mile days walk north. He’s got some big country ahead, very few days with towns, or even ranches every 20 miles. We worried just a little, but Fal is not walking alone.
We turned south in sunshine, passing through miles of rolling prairie painted purple with wild iris, so beautiful we didn’t mind the headwind. We spent the afternoon and early evening in the Bear Trap Saloon. The owner is a young military retiree who took off for a couple of months with his wife to tour the west looking for something to do. He found it in Riverside, and bought it. The bar/restaurant seems to be doing well and both he and his wife seem relaxed and happy. Good life in beautiful country.