National Parks Trip: Colter Bay Campground, Night One

I was newly engaged, surrounded by family, and had a full week ahead to explore two of the world’s most famous national parks. What more could a person want from life? The answer, of course, is food. My family and I had coordinated it so that they would pick up much of the necessary items for dinner tonight; in fact, with my parents’ version of their trip nearing its conclusion, we would be obtaining all of their remaining food.

For now, we needed ice and a set-up campsite to sleep at that night. I took care of the ice issue at Jenny Lake Visitor’s Center. For the other, we would have to drive up to Colter Bay. Elizabeth, Pam and I got back in the Subaru and drove back up Teton Park Road toward Jackson Lake. Once again, I marveled at the almost-legendary features of the Grand Teton landscape. Colter Bay itself is found on a little side road off of the main highway traveling up the eastern spine of Jackson Lake. The side road heads out southwest toward the lake briefly before coming to an intersection; to the right lie the campsites; to the left, cabins; straight ahead, a visitor’s center, general store, and restaurant. Herein lay the seeds of a confusing evening for me.

The first jolt occurred down the right branch of the intersection. Months prior, Elizabeth and I had booked our site at Colter Bay in part because of how close to Jackson Lake it was, in the far back corner of the campground. We had followed up by booking another for Pam, Terri, and Garrett a few loops over, and shortly before leaving, she had found yet another site next to the second one for Michael and Irene. Or so I had understood. In Elizabeth’s mind, the third site was for myself, Pam, and her, while the original lakeside campsite would go to Michael and Irene. In my blissful ignorance, I told my parents and Michael to meet us all the way over on the lakeshore. Oops. And of course, service at Colter Bay was nonexistent, so I couldn’t even rectify the situation.

Once I’d realized my mistake, I left Elizabeth and Pam setting up the picnic table and took the car to the other side of the intersection to the cabins. Where exactly was my family? I had no way of knowing which cabin was theirs, but luck was on my side. I drove past a car and noticed a green shirt and a cane in it – the cane belonged to Alex, as did the MSU shirt. Okay, so now I knew the block of cabins they were in. I still wasn’t sure exactly which one housed the Meisters, but I got just enough service to call Rich and have him step out to open the door for me. Unintended consequence: I got to see the cabin that the four of them were staying in all weekend. After seeing it, and breathing the stuffy air, and seeing the warnings about possible bats, I’m not sure that it was in any way an upgrade over our handy Coleman tent, much less Pam’s brand new one we had purchased for her at REI. I didn’t hear any griping over the weekend, though, so I guess everyone managed. Either way, I was able to tell them the right site to bring the food to and escape back into the fresher mountain air.

Warning Michael and Irene was proving to be much more difficult – they were still somewhere over in Jackson, picking up Tucker from daycare. I checked to see if I could intercept them at what was evidently their campsite now, but no luck. So instead, I returned to our block to help Elizabeth and Pam set up the tents before we lost daylight. It is often said that many hands make light work. August 13 was definitive proof of the truth of this statement. When the Meisters arrived, my parents helped set up the picnic table while Taylor helped Elizabeth and me put up the tents. I was grateful for the help, because the corollary to the many hands theory is that many gadgets make much work. Clotheslines, hanging lanterns, decorations, tablecloths – not to mention two full tents that needed to go up as well as everything in them – and I needed to get a campfire going so that we could cook our hobo pies. So yes, my family had plenty had plenty to do to help us set up our campsite while I sat in the tent next to the ridiculously tiny air mattress pump.

As the afternoon faded to evening and shadows beneath Colter Bay’s lodgepoles lengthened, our campsite gradually became livable. Michael and Irene were still AWOL, so I trudged over a few loops to try and intercept them once more. I was once again unsuccessful. To my great surprise, by the time I got back to our site the two of them were there. How had this happened? Evidently, Rich had driven over to their site and stuck a note to the signpost informing them where we were. It didn’t stop them from giving me shit, but once again, thank heavens for many hands.

The whole group was now together for a pseudo-engagement celebration. On the downside, we had 11 hungry people and only one pie iron, but with a little creativity, some aluminum foil, and my camping stove, sooner or later everyone got their turn eating. My parents had gone all out on hobo pie materials. There were loaves of bread, jars of marinara, and all the cheese you could want, vegan or otherwise. There was even an entire veggie platter for those who wanted peppers, onions, or mushrooms on their pies. I got the camping stove fired up and the food started to flow. It took a while, with some ruined sandwiches in the interim, but that’s just how hobo pies go. Meanwhile, everyone gathered around and started gossiping. This was really pretty cool. My family and Elizabeth’s family haven’t gotten to spend much time together over the years, and I’m not sure we’d ever had this many family members concentrated in one place. We were a little short on lawn chairs, but I gamely sat on a rock and dodged campfire smoke as people laughed and shared stories. We pulled out the slightly fizzy growler of Tumblewheat from Altitude and I poured cups for myself, Elizabeth, Taylor, and Michael. Good food and good beer bred good stories and laughter.

To set the scene a little bit, picture the campsite, sheltered by big lodgepoles, with decent space between us and other campers. If I walked out as far as the car, I could peer down the road and see the peaks of the northern Teton Range, backlit by the setting sun and hazily silhouetted by the smoke. It was all so surreal – being here, the place I’d been anticipating for months and months – hell, being engaged!

My parents had brought one final treat for our campfire celebration that night – a bottle of champagne. We popped the top to a Nolan cheer of “Happy New Year!” By that point, I couldn’t have been the only one fending off exhaustion. My parents aren’t exactly night owls, Taylor had had an early morning flight from Grand Rapids, and Alex was already back at the cabin. Pam and Elizabeth had woken up at 6:00 with me. Besides, I wanted to be up early for sunrise the next morning at Oxbow Bend. While everyone dispersed, I poured water on the hissing coals. Then I walked over the bathroom and brushed my teeth, came back, kicked off my slides, and crawled into the tent. Elizabeth had insisted on not putting up our rain flap so that we could try to see the Perseids – I’d caught one meteor earlier, but hadn’t been looking too much. Unfortunately, when we turned the lights off we were faced with the dual problem of the nearby garish bathroom lights, and the tree canopy. But most importantly, we didn’t see the Perseids because we almost instantly fell asleep.

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