The Americas have several hydrological divides, one of which runs all the way from northern Alaska to Central America. Being the longest of all, this one is known as THE Continental Divide or sometimes as the Great Divide. Compared to the other divides, the great one is associated with the highest peaks along the primary mountain ranges of the Rockies and the Andes. The spine of the Rockies runs through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and is likely the most outstanding feature that defines the American West. I always thought that if I could fly alongside the Rockies at eye level, I might envision the peaks to be an arrangement of musical notes and each mountain range might be a chord.
While camped on the Henry’s Fork near West Yellowstone, we devoted one day to drive a long distance (110 miles one way) to Grand Teton National Park. Inside the park, we viewed the peaks named by the early French voyageurs, ‘les trois tétons’ or ‘the three nipples’. What makes the Teton Range so famous is that they have a dramatic elevation on the eastern side, which is where the national park is established. From the valley floor, the staccato-like peaks rise sharply 4000 to 7000 feet without foothills or smaller peaks to block the view. This is because the Tetons are relatively young and have not yet eroded into the slow tempo of soft hills. In fact, the Teton Range is the youngest among the Rocky Mountains. The young summits rise as high as 13,775 feet.
When most people vacation in the American West, it is with the intention of being in the mountains, to stand in awe of the grand peaks, to hike up or climb on. Like a melody, the mountain peaks inspire us and evoke emotions. Consequently, I felt a touch of guilt as I stood on the Teton valley floor looking up at those spectacular peaks feeling a bit uninspired. Maybe it was the high-pitched expectations, after all we were told by a few that the Tetons would drown out Yellowstone on any day. Not so for me.
And here is why. We saw the Tetons, but we didn’t experience them. We heard them, but we didn’t really listen to them. Admittedly, we were in the park for a half day, barely enough time to hike along String Lake or capture a few shots of the peaks from popular locations like Schwabacher Landing and Mormon Row. The peaks remained a distant pattern, like the repeating sound of a jazz drummer’s ride cymbal. From our very short visit, we can only say we have been to Grand Teton National Park where I took a postcard photograph of the famous peaks. And that’s about it.
After staying near West Yellowstone, we pulled the RV a short distance north of Yellowstone NP where friends Mike and Kris built their home near the Yellowstone River. They generously gave us their driveway to park and then introduced us to the Beartooth Mountains, another mountain range offspring of the Rocky Mountains, but much more mature than the Tetons. Classical vs contemporary. These mountains are part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which makes them unique and diverse. Among them is Granite Peak, the highest point in Montana (12,799 ft) and through which Chief Joseph led the Nez Perce Indians while attempting to reach Canada in 1877.
The Beartooth Mountains contain large plateaus that exist at altitudes above 10,000 ft and contain 25 small glaciers, and over 300 lakes, some with waterfalls. We had the pleasure of hiking a small portion of the Beartooth plateau (where no trees grow), which allowed Vivian to touch snow for the second time in her life. Unlike our Grand Teton visit, we were IN the mountains. An octave or two above the valley at 10,000 feet, we stood on large rocks (among some of the oldest on earth) and looked at the mountain peaks at eye level. We were in an alpine environment where winds can blow above 100 mph and temperatures can drop to 70 degrees below zero. It is where an inch of topsoil can take up to a 1,000 years to develop, and where plants and animals survive a growing season lasting three months or less. If this environment were music, it would be the harsh and loud brass instruments that can also be lured back into a steady and calm note to support the softer melodic woodwinds.
Later, we hiked through a subalpine section (8000-10000 feet) where we found respite from the hot daytime temperatures that had prevailed for several weeks on our travels. Wildflowers were beginning to come out of dormancy and entice us with brilliant blues, reds and yellows. Small glacial lakes offered brilliant water reflections of rock and snow patches. I could almost hear the lilting sounds of a clarinet concerto. Avid hikers and climbers, Mike and Kris have spent many days and nights playing these mountains and memorizing the notes. A small sample was given to us as they pointed to sections of the range and described their climbs – the woodwinds over here, the percussion over there.
If the mountains were a grand symphony, then our short time in the Teton and Beartooth Mountains amounted to one note. But it was a spectacular note. Maybe on our next visit we will hear a few bars.