It was a trip I’ll never forget. I don’t know how else to summarize the week and a half in Wyoming in August 2021. What started as an idea on a day where Elizabeth and I were snowed in in early February turned into the most-involved trip I’d ever planned. There were campground reservations to grab, two massive national parks to research, and family members who constantly were inviting themselves. As the days heated up into summer, there were travel reservations to book, an engagement ring to buy, and a photographer to book. In the days leading up, there was the coordination of meeting everyone before the proposal, constant last-second adjustments to our perfect itinerary, and daily calls to the national parks to try and get better campgrounds.
This trip was on the forefront of my mind all summer. The summer of 2021 was maybe the best summer of my life, with a remote internship that I liked that gave me the flexibility to go work from wherever I wanted. There was the trip to St. Louis with my family in June, an epic 4th of July weekend in Michigan, a week oceanside in San Diego in July for Chris and Chanelle’s wedding, a full week in Rehoboth, and then this, all in the span of two months. We were traveling as much as we were home. And yet, whenever Elizabeth or myself was down about life, it was the thought of the Tetons that brought us through it.
Last summer was also when I began going to OU Counseling to try and work through a serious funk that I’d been in. Yes, this was happening simultaneous to the best summer of my life. Mental health is weird! One of the things we talked about long after the summer had gone was the reality gap. When you build something up in your mind too much, it can’t help but fail to meet those expectations. As someone who builds up the big things in his life to impossible-to-meet standards, I am well aware of what the reality gap can do.
Summer 2021 was an object lesson in the reality gap for me. I flew to Michigan spur-of-the-moment to go to visit my family for the 4th of July, and I loved every second of it. The San Diego and Rehoboth trips, neither of which I maintained any expectations for ahead of time, were super fun. I didn’t feel sad about leaving, not least because there was another trip coming, and this wasn’t the main event of the summer. But the reality gap struck me once we entered Grand Teton National Park from the east on a smoky afternoon. This was the park that I’d watched dozens of hours of YouTube videos on, the one where Elizabeth and I had built a to-the-hour itinerary of everything we wanted to do and see, the one where I would go to Google Maps and click a point when I was frustrated with work and needed an escape. That builds up a hell of a standard that wildfire smoke alone made it impossible to live up to. The Tetons are obviously beautiful. They’re some of the most beautiful views in the United States. I’m planning on Jackson Hole for my bachelor party not least because I want to see them again (in May, in clearer skies). But when you’re driving around a park and all you can see is another sign of the oncoming climate crisis, whether it’s a lake currently at 40% capacity, or a mountain range shrouded in smoke from 5 miles away, or yet another record hot day, you can’t help but get this empty feeling inside of you.
The “reality gap” struck even at Delta Lake. Delta Lake is every bit as incredible of a finishing point for a hike as one could imagine. The pictures I took there have, in my opinion, stood the test of time as probably my best landscape shots ever. The water really was that blue, the mountains really made me feel like I was in nature’s cathedral. And yet there was a part of me that kept waiting to be struck by a transcendent epiphany or something. This is obviously stupid. Life is what you make of it, nothing more, nothing less. Leave it to an overthinking moron like me to sit around at the most beautiful place he’s ever been, waiting for something more.
Funny enough, the reality gap didn’t strike me as hard at Yellowstone. I think Elizabeth and I focused so much of our time and energy into imagining what Grand Teton would be like, that Yellowstone was allowed to fly under the radar. And that was foolish of us, because Yellowstone was incredible. Now, I think some of the disappointments in Yellowstone – Grand Prismatic comes to mind – were more disappointing than anything in Grand Teton, considering we could do just about everything we planned in Grand Teton. But somehow those disappointments were easier to bear. And when I ended up at home, reflecting on the national parks later, it occurred to me – Yellowstone was actually my favorite national park I’ve ever been to. It just exceeded expectations at almost every turn. The scenery, the thermal features, the lack of crowds, the sheer breadth of the park – it’s something to behold. If I could retire right now and spend a summer somewhere for three months, the Canyon Campground might be at the top of my list. By contrast, Grand Teton is probably my second-favorite national park I’ve ever been to, and one that will always hold a special place in my heart as my engagement occurred there. And yet, this rated out as a vague disappointment to me! Life and expectations are weird.
I’ve tried to learn a lesson from this. In two days, Elizabeth and I embark on another potential “trip of a lifetime” to Glacier National Park for 7 nights. Once again, it’s a park we have to visit soon because of the existential threat to it from climate change. The glaciers hang on for now, and the only no-questions-asked plan I have is to make sure I touch one. Other than that, I’ve tried to learn something from my experience last year – be more flexible, don’t spend as much time overhyping it in my head, assume things will go wrong. That last part has proved prescient, as the main road through the park – Going-to-the-Sun Road – is closed at least through the start of our week there. Will I have to navigate a smaller reality gap because of this? No clue.
All in all, as I said at the top, this was a trip I’ll never forget. There’s a reason I wrote 37 blog posts – at a conservative average of about 1,350 words per post, that would be about 50,000 words, or the length of a short book – about this trip. 40 or 50 years from now, the memories of my young days will have faded. Hell, maybe either of these national parks as we know it will be completely different because of the impacts humans have on the environment. Maybe Teton Glacier melts, and Delta Lake stops being so blue. I don’t know. What I do know is that I have spent a lot of my free time over the last year painstakingly editing all of my favorite pictures, of which there were dozens, and writing up the experience at each stop to the best of my memory. My best has already gotten worse over the months – you’ll note there’s a lot less quoting, and a lot more general of an overview from the first blog post in this series to the last. In that way, I’m glad the proposal happened so early in the trip. Not only did it get the gut-wrenching nerves out of the way early, so that I could enjoy the rest of our time in the glow of being a newly-engaged man (not sure I mentioned that enough, but man was it wild to think about every so often when I looked at my new fiancee!), but my doing so early I was able to concentrate my best narrating powers into those blog posts. I’m sure if the Internet is around by the time I have grandkids, I’ll show them those posts first.
I don’t know if I will do another blog series this painstaking. Maybe after Glacier I will find some way to be more concise (doubtful), or else I’ll just try to upload images and captions or something. That’s something I can figure out in a few weeks. For now, I think I’m going to be logging off of my blog until a possible Rehoboth Beach diary on July 22-27.
The final verdict? Every person should go to these two national parks. They are some of America’s most truly beautiful places. The crowds when we went were at times annoying, but never truly disruptive. I think anyone can have fun at Grand Teton and Yellowstone. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about having family there with us, but it turned out to make the trip so much better. Hopefully the next 46 national parks are as magical as these two were.