Driving west through the mountains is good for the soul

Jennifer & Don at Grand Teton National Park (NW Wyoming) in late July, with the famous Teton range in the distance.


It happens every time I drive west in the summer, heading for the Rocky Mountains. Somewhere near the Iowa-Nebraska border, my mind shifts into neutral. It happened again 3 weeks ago. Late in the afternoon of the first day of our 16-day jaunt, my wife and I pulled into O’Neill, Nebraska, in northeastern Nebraska, to spend the night. When we got out of our car, we realized the humidity had dropped and we each inhaled a big breath of air. “…aah!”

The air reminded me of the arid summer nights when I was a boy growing up near the Kansas-Colorado border. Come about 9 o’clock, even after 100-degree days in July and August, dad would open up the house, turn on the attic fan and say, “We’re gonna sleep good tonight.”

The next morning we skirted west along Highway 20 in northern Nebraska, stopping in Ainsworth to take a walk. I spent my 6th-grade year in Ainsworth, where my dad had been transferred for a year by the public utility where he worked in management.

For the next 200 miles en route to Fort Robinson State Park near Crawford, we passed cattle ranches dotting the Nebraska sand hills. After we arrived and checked in, we relaxed for 2 days as we hiked, meandered through the fort buildings, read the history of the fort and gazed on the bluffs, where a bison herd still roams. When our kids Ian and Maddie were small, we brought them to this old cavalry outpost. Even , today many of the original buildings survive at the location where in 1879 the famed Sioux Chief Crazy Horse was killed.

We left Fort Robinson at 6:00am, making our way through eastern Wyoming. By noon we had passed through the mining country around Casper, Wyoming, and the Wind River Indian Reservation, before stopping in Dubois, where we  replenished our ice chest. For the next hour, we climbed through the Bridger-Teton National Forest, crossing the continental divide and scooting our way west toward Grand Teton National Park.

Suddenly, coming over a rise on the mountain road, the Teton peaks soared in the distance, welcoming us for the 8th time (We think. It might be the 7th. The memory goes.) As we began our descent toward the park entrance, a 20-mile-wide valley opened before us. In the late 1800s when American explorer David Jackson first saw the immense valley at the base of the Teton range he said, “What a hole.” Thus, Jackson Hole.

For the next 3 days, we hiked the park trails. One 4-mile hike starts at the String Lake trailhead. After circling String Lake, the trail gains 600-feet in elevation, leading you high above Jenny Lake, a 250-foot-deep glacier lake at the foot of Cascade Canyon.  Bald Eagles and Osprey watched us from near their nests, as we followed the trail into the Cascade Canyon and up to Hidden Falls before reaching Inspiration Point, where we looked 20 miles back east across the Jackson Hole valley.

Leaving Grand Teton National Park at 5:30am and heading north toward Yellowstone National park, we were greeted by a black bear loping alongside the highway. By 7:30, we pulled into one of the 674 parking spots at Old Faithful Inn. After breakfast in the Inn, we gathered with a thousand other early birds along the boardwalk to watch the famed Old Faithful geyser put on her show, as she does every hour and 40 minutes. Imagine a thousand people circling the old geyser, holding their iphones at the ready, when the old girl started to spew. And yep, mine was among them.

From Yellowstone, we drove through Butte and on to Philipsburg, Montana, an old mining town where for 2 days we walked the streets and heard some local yore. At a gem store we paid for a 5-gallon pail of rocks. We learned how to wash them and use large tweezers to mine for sapphires. We found some and had them sent off to be cut and polished.

It was then on to Missoula where we hiked the strenuous Barmeyer trail. From the top we had a great view overlooking the University of Montana campus. One hundred miles north of Missoula is Flathead Lake, sitting on the south cusp of Glacier National Park. Flathead is the largest fresh-water lake in the U.S. west of the Mississippi River, boasting 200-square miles of water and 185 miles of shoreline. For 2 days we stayed in the log-cabin home of friends who live along the lake. We rode in their speed boat and cooled off as we swam in the 400-feet-deep glacier lake.

From Flathead, we drove south through Idaho, stopping for a long walk through the Idaho State University campus in Pocatello, where the campus sits at the base of the Bannock Mountain Range. The next morning we passed alongside Salt Lake City, pushing our way onto Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in southwestern Utah.  

We walked the Navajo Loop Trail in Bryce Canyon, oohing and aahing at the Hoodoos, the distinctive mystical rock formations, made from centuries of water and wind erosion. From Bryce we entered Zion National Park from the east, driving through the mile-long Zion-Mount-Carmel tunnel, and then descending down the harrowing highway with switchbacks and thousand-foot drop offs. Parking at the visitor’s center, we hiked trails all morning and then sat outside the 1920s Zion National Park Lodge and drank iced tea.

To the south of Zion park and just over the Utah border, there is only one road leading to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Only 1 in 10 people who ever visit the Grand Canyon make it to the north rim. (It is a 210-mile drive from the south rim of the canyon to the north rim. I guess that helps explain it.)

From the Grand Canyon Lodge we watched the sun cast shadows across the enormous canyon. When a cloudless night fell, we sat silently on the veranda and watched an entire sky full of twinkling stars.

With the trip drawing to a close, and 3,700 miles under our belts, I looked into the sky and thought of this Psalm of David: “When I look at the night sky and the work of your hands – the moon and the stars that you set in place, what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?”