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Sunday in the Park

Last Monday, when I was sitting in a little café in Paris, I thought how it came to be that I was there, while my luggage was in London and my great travel earphones were in Sydney.

I should clarify: I was in Paris, Idaho, in a booth with bad beige plastic bench seats and a paper placemat celebrating the trail of Lewis and Clark. My luggage was with a friend in London, England, and my headphones were in Sydney, Australia. My possessions traveled better than I did this month.

I was driving to The Tetons to take photos of critters and read novels and otherwise unplug. And yes, the weather was just about as lousy there as it was here, but at least it was somewhere different. And as it turns out, because of the hard winter and the continued cold, the guides around Jackson are declaring this an epic year for viewing wildlife.

My first sighting took place about 25 miles outside of Jackson while I was driving along high, high above, but parallel to the Snake River, lost in the music on my iPod (I’m late to that party, but what a cool piece of technology). Out of the corner of my eye I see movement and then, in a WHOOSH and a flash, three wild Blackhawk helicopters rise up from the river like a bad testosterone movie scene. They fly in formation along the riverbed for several miles with me and then they make a hard right and take off down a lush valley. They never did reappear. When I mention this later at check-in at my lodging, the concierge says, "Yeah, Cheney is probably fishing today. (He lives outside of Jackson when not in D.C.) He never catches anything ’cause those helicopters scare the fish. You’d think he’d figure that out."

You’d think.

The next morning I was up early to drive into Yellowstone, about an hour and half from where I was staying. The little local’s road into Teton Park was curvy and narrow and unpaved in portions. Part forest, part grasslands, and all just right to spot two blue herons, first at rest and then in flight, and three trumpeter swans in flight, and a pond full of white pelicans. And a female elk. Not a bad start in the first eight miles.

The drive through Grand Teton Park is spectacular. Quiet, still, this time of year. And lush. I could drive for ten, sometimes twenty minutes and not see another car. Not even at a pull-out. Say what you will, and you will, about those robber barons, the Rockefellers, but their donation of public lands is unmatched. The Rockefeller parkway between Grand Teton and Yellowstone is some of the most stunning landscape in the world. (See this month’s cover story in National Geographic.)

Once in the park, I had to choose at Grant Village whether to go up the east side or the west side. I was already stunned at the still-frozen lakes and the snowdrifts more than a dozen feet tall. I drove into the parking lot there to look at my map and, when I looked up, an all-white, doglike only bigger and fiercer-looking animal was staring back at me. I later learned at the visitor center this was the resident coyote. I wasn’t sure. Why not a wolf? Ah, they explained, when you’ve seen both you’ll know the difference. I felt so uneducated and wildlife ignorant. No well what do you call it in the woods? Not street cred, of course, Path cred? Trail cred? I don’t know.

I left there to drive up to the Canyon Village, another hour plus, depending upon how many times you stop and pull over to look at a view, or buffalo. And yes, I can identify buffalo on my own. There were elk aplenty and more birds of so many colors and wingspans, I broke down and bought yet another bird book. As I was casually viewing and driving, I noticed a silver car kinda riding my tail. After a few minutes of this, I found a place to pull over and let him pass. Yes, I could identify the driver as a silver-haired male, most likely of the Republican Hawk variety. How did I get so accurate, you ask? His license plate read WAR EGL.

At the next visitor center there was an old-fashioned soda fountain. I sat on the silver stool with the red leather circle seat and I ordered perhaps the best root-beer float of my life. I looked at exhibits and walked around, then headed back out of the park the same way I had come in. I would save the Old Faithful side for another day.

I’d like to tell you what happened next was because of my keen eye but really it was due to the cars pulled over on the side of the road. A couple of cars, maybe five. No tour buses or Rvs that will come soon enough. When you see cars pulled over, you know you should too, and I did. And there, across the road and across the river, was a white wolf. It was obvious. He was full-bodied and large with short ears and a huge fluffy tail. That, and the guy with the foot-long camera lens told me it was a wolf.

For a few minutes we all just watched in silent awe and admiration of the powerful, natural world. The wolf strutted his stuff, looking for lunch along the riverbank, I think. After a while, he tired of the search and trotted off back into the woods. And we strangers, who had exchanged minimal pleasantries, knew we had been witness to something wild and rare.

I drove back toward my lodgings tired and happy with at least three rolls of film shot already. It was the "just right" start to feeling away. Really, really far away And then, as I made the turn to the little cutoff road, I saw in the twilight that the meadow was covered with dozens and dozens and dozens of elk

To be continued

Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.


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