Into the Mountains
A Journey of Loss And Acceptance in Wyoming
STORY & PHOTOS BY MIRANDA MCDONALD
“Are you meeting someone in Jackson Hole?” inquired the lady sitting next to me on the plane.
I wondered if she was genuinely curious or simply making conversation because she felt as anxious as I did about the turbulence currently bombarding our tiny aircraft.
“No,” I choked out as I tightly gripped the arm rest of my seat. At this point, my stomach felt like it was permanently lodged in my throat. “I am actually spending the week alone.”
“Oh. What brings you to Wyoming?” she continued. Her confusion now momentarily replacing the fear.
As I looked down at the backpack wedged between my feet, I thought of the list of possible answers I could give her: a failed marriage, the two years of utter confusion that followed, or I could describe the overwhelming guilt I carried with me every day since the moment I decided to leave my old life behind.
“I am here to hike in Grand Teton National Park and do some writing.” I decided to keep it simple.
“That sounds nice,” she replied. “Be sure to take some bear spray and try to find other hikers to walk with on the trails. They say groups of three are best!”
I wanted to tell her it wasn’t the bears I feared. I wanted to explain to her that I was embarking on a spiritual journey with this trip, and that I hoped to unpack all that guilt I had strapped on my back so many months ago and leave it on those trails in the mountains.
Besides the wildlife tour I had booked two days prior to my departure, lightening my mental load was the only thing I had really planned for the trip. Oh, but there was the minor detail of finding a place to sleep for three nights. I had thought about pitching a tent. However, once I discovered the temperatures dipped down to the 30s when the sun went down, I decided to book a stay at a Heart Six Ranch in Moran, instead.
Like the city itself, which has a population of just under 12,000 people, the Jackson Hole airport was small. Well, small enough for it to nestle comfortably at the southern base of the Grand Teton mountain range. As I stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac, I counted the snow-covered mountain caps directly in front of me. The mountains were unlike any I had ever seen.
“I hope you enjoy your stay in Wyoming,” the lady said with a smile as she walked by with her luggage rolling noisily behind her.
I watched her walk quickly ahead of me and into the airport. She had been so kind, and yet I had never bothered to ask her name. I was thinking of our interaction on the plane when my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of another plane flying overhead. I guess names were irrelevant at this point. It was time to gather my luggage and pick up my rental car.
Even though the temperature was only 50s in Wyoming that day, I rolled down every window in my rental so I could take in the spring air rolling off the mountains. I quickly typed the address to Heart Six Ranch into Google Maps, and it informed me that I only had 26 miles to travel from the airport. However, what Google didn’t mention was that I would be driving through a national elk refuge that housed 25,000 acres of wildlife, or that I would also encounter some of the most beautiful views of the Grand Teton mountains during my commute.
By the time I reached Moran, I had parked to take pictures at almost every turnabout on the highway, stopped twice to allow elk to cross the road and watched a moose graze in a small creek that was just a few miles away from the ranch. Somehow, I turned my 30-minute journey into four hours of sightseeing.
When I finally reached Heart Six Ranch, the sun was going down, and I was welcomed by a furry, four-legged “ranch hand” named Leo. His body stiffened and he began barking as I got out of my car. As a peace offering, I let him sniff my hands. I guess he found my smell acceptable because once he was finished, he walked with me to the lodge for check in. I had been in Moran for less than an hour and had already made a friend.
A Cup of Coffee
The next morning, I loaded my backpack with water, a journal, my camera and a book, and walked over to the main lodge at the ranch. I needed guidance on which trails to hike while in the national park. Leo was sprawled out and still asleep on the couch by the front desk, but the property manager was already up and reading the local newspaper behind the counter.
“I was told I need a big can of bear spray for my hike,” I said as I slung my bag onto the desk. I hoped a little humor would be a good way to start a conversation so early in the day.
“Of course, but how about some coffee first?” he asked.
As we walked into the dining room, the smell of eggs drifted from the kitchen and into my nose. With our coffee in hand, we sat at a large table made of beautiful, tan wood. It matched the logs that constructed the entire building and all the cabins on the property. I sipped my coffee slowly and hoped it would help me shake off the fogginess from another sleepless night. I seemed to be having quite a few of those lately.
“So, what brings you to Wyoming?” he asked.
“I want to hike the trails by the Grand Tetons, and hopefully do some writing,” I explained.
“Oh, you are a writer,” he said with as much enthusiasm as he could muster up before 8 a.m. “What will you write about?”
I picked my mug up and took a large drink of the hot liquid inside. “Divorce,” I explained after the coffee was fully down. Something about his presence made me feel comfortable enough to finally say it. “Well, not just divorce. I want to start figuring out who I am after divorce.”
“I see,” he replied.
“I was recently laid off from my desk job, so my schedule just got a lot more flexible,” I responded with a sarcastic tone as I played with the loose string hanging from a seam in my jeans. “I don’t own a home. I have no kids or even a dog. My marriage is over and there is no significant other that claims me. Oh, and my landlord just sold the house I am living in. So, here I am.”
“I see,” he replied again. “So, you are a gypsy?” His tone made the words sound more like a declaration than an actual question. “At this point in your life, you don’t have anything tying you down to one place,” he continued. “You, my dear, are a gypsy.”
I had never thought about this title before. Of course, I had been labeled many over the years: sister, writer, spouse, friend, coworker and now there was the heavy title of ex-wife. However, this one – gypsy – was completely new to me. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it, but I sat there for a moment and imagined myself trying the word on like a new pair of gloves. In my head, I pictured myself slowly pulling these gloves up over my fingers and then onto my wrists. Looking down at them as they covered both hands, I wasn’t quite sure how they fit.
“Now, about that bear spray,” he said after a long moment of silence.
After a few recommendations from various sources, I decided to hike the trail to Taggart Lake first. I was informed the walk was under 5 miles and boasted spectacular views of the park.
Once I arrived at the starting point, I laced up my hiking boots, tightened the straps on my backpack and wrapped a denim jacket around my waist. With a can of bear spray also hanging from my belt strap, I started my journey to the lake.
Even though it was May, there were still mounds of snow covering parts of the path. Eventually, I came upon a bridge that had an extraordinary view of a small waterfall. I slowly walked onto the narrow apparatus, and with water rushing over rocks of all shapes and sizes below me, I sat on its edge and dangled my feet over the side.
I thought about why I was there. I forced myself into these woods in search of something that would help me finally move forward and out of my current mental state, but I still wasn’t quite sure what that something was. I guess I was hoping it would meet me somewhere on the trail.
After sitting for a few moments, I realized the answers I searched for were not on that bridge, so I got up and started walking again.
I hiked a mile before I reached a small clearing. The trees were sparse in this area, and the snow was deep. I had only come across a few hikers that morning, but there was still a large path of footprints showing me the way to a part of the woods where the trail picked back up. The sun bounced off the snow with such ferocity that I was forced to shield my eyes with one hand as I walked. Once I reached the next set of trees, the temperature took a noticeable drop. I was getting close to the lake.
After a few minutes of walking through more snow and trees, I came to another clearing and stepped out onto a bed of pebbles. I then looked up and before me was a frozen Taggart Lake and an astonishing view of the Grand Tetons behind it. I walked to a fallen tree at the edge of this frozen body of water, and after a few minutes of stunned silence, I sat down to journal.
This is what I wrote:
At some point after my divorce, I came to believe that I deserved to be punished for hurting a person that I loved for so many years. Even if our 12-year relationship needed to an end, the guilt I feel from leaving my marriage consumes me every day. I still see the pain in his face and the fear in his eyes when I told him I had to leave. I still hear sadness in his voice when he told me not to go. The memory is just so vivid in my mind.
I have allowed this memory to block all the good memories that came from my marriage. I have allowed this memory to put a halt to any happiness that has tried to enter my life since that day. My failed marriage has made me also feel like a complete failure.
However, as I sit in front of something so grand and pure, I realize that there is so much beauty to be seen in this world. I have to start making space for this beauty. I have to unpack this guilt and leave it at on the edge of this lake.
I sat on the shore of Taggart Lake for what seemed like an hour. It was so peaceful in this spot that I could hear the silence fill the space around the trees behind me. Tears rolled down my face as I sat in the silence.
Before I started my journey back, I walked to the edge of the lake. There were a few inches of shallow water that had thawed under the warming rays of the sun. Dipping my fingers into the cold water, I tried to imagine the entire ecosystem that existed just below the surface. There was so much life sitting under that ice and it was just waiting for everything to melt so that it could finally reveal itself. Was I like this lake? Was I also waiting for a new season to arrive so that I could finally reveal a metamorphosis that was slowly taking place just underneath my own surface?
I’m Not Good at Goodbyes
After three days of soul searching on the trails of the Grand Tetons, it was time for me to catch my flight back home. I woke up early to see my last sunrise at Heart Six Ranch. As I watched the sun peek over the valley below the lodge, I wished I had booked my stay for longer. Leo must have known I would be leaving soon because he came to sit down beside me around the time the sun was almost completely above the ridge.
“I am not good at goodbyes,” I said to the French Mastiff as I rubbed a spot behind his ear. Besides a small group of bison I stopped for every day while driving back and forth to Jackson Hole, Leo and the ranch manager were the only regular contacts I made while in Wyoming. Most of my days were spent alone, and in silence.
A few more minutes passed before I walked to my cabin to gather the luggage I packed the night before. Leo followed closely behind. I picked up my backpack. It seemed so heavy when I first arrived, but now it felt a bit lighter. I guess I had accomplished lightening my load after all. This made me smile.
“Where will you go next, Gypsy?” the manager asked as I started to walk to my car with my luggage and Leo, my faithful escort.
“Everywhere. I will go everywhere,” I declared with a feeling of confidence I hadn’t felt in some time.
After all, I was now a gypsy and there is just so much world to see.