The National Park Service turns 100 years old in 2016, and dirtbags nationwide are finding creative ways to commemorate the NPS Centennial. (My favorite so far is the Dirtbag Diaries’Milepost series.) I, on the other hand, lack artistic sensibilities, and am thus marking the occasion in the same way I celebrate everything else: by eating. Without further ado, then, I present the next installment in this series about things I’ve eaten, or seen eaten (in this case, almost me), in national parks.
No matter how early a start you get on the Garnet Canyon Trail, you’ll run into a dozen other climbers on any given summer morning. In the pre-dawn hours of this particular climbing trip in early July, the sky over Grand Teton National Park was ablaze with the twinkling pinpricks of distant stars, made brighter by the moon’s absence.
We’d started up the trail, the primary access point for dozens of routes on the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons, along with Disappointment Peak and Teepe Pillar, with hours to spare before sunrise, hoping to be off the summit of the Middle Teton long before the reliable afternoon thunderstorms rolled in.
Hiking in the Tetons in the dark is a little different than hiking in places uninhabited by grizzly bears in the dark, namely because of grizzly bears and the fact that they live there. While I didn’t relish the idea of putting off our planned climb for an encounter with a six-hundred-pound bear, I wasn’t especially worried because
- I’d been living in Alaska, where we had all manner of bears, though I wasn’t about to point out to the new friends I was trying to impress that I’d actually only lived there in the winter, when bear threats are minimal because they are cozily hibernating in their dens,
- We had bear spray, which is basically just industrial-grade mace, and
- There were five of us, all wearing headlamps, so to a bear we would appear something like a giant blob-monster, disembodied lights bobbing along in the pitch-black, which if I were a bear would scare the crap out of me.
An hour into the hike, I’d casually taken the lead due to my extreme bear nonchalance (read: eagerness to seem legit) and was sleepily making small talk with Bix, who’d taken up immediately behind me due to his extreme leadership qualities (read: definitely looking at my butt).
We rounded another in the seemingly endless succession of switchbacks, and I was awakened from my drowsy reverie by a scream that could only be described as bloodcurdling.
Bix gave me sort of a strange look, then seized the bear spray from my pack’s hip belt and leapt between me and The Unknown Threat, ready to deploy. Things were tense for a moment.
“I think it’s a deer,” Bix finally announced, exasperated and coffee-deprived, turning to the group.
“No, man, it’s definitely a bear,” said Mike, whose name I have changed to protect his identity from bears who might want to sue him for libel.
With Mike’s heels dug in, the standoff continued. Finally, as light crept into the eastern horizon, someone kicked a rock and a startled doe, accompanied by her still-spotted fawn, burst from the bushes and disappeared into the woods. We continued up the trail, though by now we’d burned plenty of daylight as we waited out the ersatz bears.
For the rest of what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt on the Middle Teton, group dynamics were uneasy. I couldn’t help but wonder who’d fallen apart at the sight of those non-bear eyes peeking out of the bushes—Bix had made a real show of snatching the bear spray; in hindsight, perhaps, this was an effort to cover for his momentary lunacy.
Once we’d made the call to shut down the climb—for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was our party’s apparent inability to communicate—it was time to embark on the long hike back down the Garnet Canyon trail.
Carrying a pack full of climbing gear is a fair amount of work, but it’s much more demoralizing when you don’t even get to use it. It was with this attitude, plus my mistrust of the bunch of potential weenies I’d thrown in my lot with, that I trudged down the trail, pausing just once, briefly, to take notice of a pair of denim-clad hikers equipped with nothing but a gallon jug of milk.
Eventually, as so many climbers successful and defeated have done before us, we turned up at Dornan’s, where we watched a nasty storm empty its contents onto the route we’d been trying to climb and ate pizza that can only taste this good when you can feel your exhaustion in your bones.
The jokes didn’t roll out as easily that night around the campfire as they had the evening before. Finally, lubricated by a couple of beers, Bix said what everyone had been thinking.
“Jeez, Emma,” he teased, “I had no idea you were so afraid of bears!”
Wait. I paused mid-sip.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I shot back in a register that probably didn’t convince anyone I hadn’t been the screamer.
“That shriek!” he laughed, mimicking a defensive bears-get-away gesture with his non-beer hand, “I thought you were this tough Alaskan badass!”
The rest of the group chimed in. I was incredulous. All day, everyone had thought I’d been the big baby who’d ruined our climb by making us camp out on the trail for what ended up being, if you’ll recall, a harmless, adorable baby deer.
As I sputtered for something to say, Mike cleared his throat.
“Erm. It might not’ve been Emma,” he muttered, inspecting the label on his beer can in lieu of making eye contact.
The raucous laughter ground to a halt as it dawned on the group that I had not, in fact, been the owner of The Scream.
I whipped around.
“You?!” I shouted, ensuring that no bears would approach our campsite for the rest of the night. That rat bastard.
In the end, of course, no one was eaten by a bear, though despite the noise generated by the lecture I laid on Mike, Pat would later be literally caught with his pants down at that same campsite.
In the years since then, I’ve seen a lot of bears, and even happened upon a number of them in Grand Teton National Park, though—for the record—I’ve never done more than quietly point it out to my companions and maybe snap a photo.
Though I’ve been lucky enough to avoid bear encounters, for the most part, I’ve always wondered about the milk. Not much sounds worse to me, on a hot day, than drinking from a jug of what must be, at best, a room temperature dairy product, but maybe that’s not what it was for. Homemade bear spray? For throwing on scaredy-cats, à la exploding dye packs in a bag of stolen bank money? Do bears hate milk breath? The possibilities are endless.
I have just one regret from that trip, and it’s not our failure to climb the Middle Teton. It’s not the food-baby I gestated after eating my weight in Dornan’s pizza or the fact that my friends didn’t know any better than to think I’d overreacted to a bear sighting, which, again, did not occur. It’s not even how harsh I was when I discovered Mike’s cowardly lie of omission. No, it’s bigger than all that. If I could go back and do one part of that trip all over again, I’d pull my head out of my ass on that hike down the trail, stop those guys, and ask them—
What the hell is that milk for?