Wyoming favors the dramatic – vast open spaces and unusual landscapes with huge masses of rock, cracked and riven by time and water, reshaped by millennia of unimaginable pressure and stress, sunken under vast seas, lifted by tectonic forces. The panorama is sweeping and vast, with craggy outcroppings visible from far away, crumbling plates of sandstone, abrupt mesas, snow-covered mountains, tiny dots of buildings on vast ranches, roads unfolding to the horizon.
The sky is no less partial to spectacle, with rapidly changing weather, cloudbanks stretching from one horizon to the other, massive formations towering over the ridges – puffy cumulonimbus, peculiar mammatus, dark masses dropping rain.
I was driving over the 10,000 foot pass in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and there were some serious pyramidal mountains on either side of me – were these the Tetons? They were pretty awesome, though not heart-stopping. The forest was a mix of dark tree skeletons and shorter healthy green growth. I remember that there had been serious forest fires here and suspected this was the result. Forests recover, but it’s a slow process.
Then I was heading down the far side of the pass, the road winding back and forth between the mountains. There were white clouds ahead and above, with a distant haze toward the end of the long pass. Some clouds were lighter, others darker, and in the far distance I could see a very high layer of pure bright white clouds. I was dictating into my phone as I rounded a turn and it all came into focus. Here’s a transcript: “… forests recover, but it’s a slow … OH MY GOD!” I suddenly realized that the intensely white clouds were actually the snow caps of the Tetons, impossibly high in the sky. They were haloed in fog and mist, creating an unreal, mystical quality, simply floating in the air. Whew!
Once in the Grand Teton National Park, driving on the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, I noticed the signs warning “Be alert next six miles – bears with cubs crossing.” I entered another area of forest fire with large, patchy areas of blackened and charred trees. Some had fallen, others were still upright. There were often burnt areas adjacent to recovering areas. As I knew from my college ecology and environmental courses, fire is actually a necessary and important part of forest health, especially with lodgepole pines. Logging, livestock grazing and forestry management practices over the last century have reduced the incidence of smaller, more localized fires and greatly increased the risk of severe ones.
For much of the drive the snow was in drifts three or four feet high on either side of the road. I passed deep gorges with rivers boiling over the rocks deep below; it was easy to imagine a couple of hundred thousand years of erosion at work here. There were also vast meadows with wide, shallow streams and broad lakes fed by snow melt from the surrounding mountains. They were rimmed with ice and it was darned cold. Swimming didn’t seem a viable option.
I crossed the continental divide and thought that from there on, the melting snow was flowing toward the Pacific. Then I crossed it again – back to feeding the Mississippi – and then a third time. It was hard to resist the urge to stop at every turn to photograph one dramatic scene after another, each grand view followed by an even grander view.
However, I was racing the weather. According to weather.com – yes, the same weather.com that assured me that there would be no rain in Wildcat Hills – that there had been rain through here around 3:00. That was confirmed by the wet road, but I was promised that the next rain won’t be coming through until after 7 o’clock.
The car in front of me was from Texas, the driver obviously not familiar with the concept of “curves in the road.” Every time the road deviated from dead straight, he had his brakes on. Come on, buddy, there’s dark clouds above and I don’t want to be setting up my tent in the rain! Eventually I saw steam rising in the distance and knew I must be near Yellowstone and Madison Campground.