Monday, September 5, 2011

Jenny Lake

What is it about Jenny Lake?  Well, we're glad you asked.  So pull up your Grand Pa Box, your iPad or your iPhone and sit a long spell.  Here's the story.

It all started for Susun back when she was a wee little tyke--so young she has perhaps only one memory from that time of her life.  She's not sure how old she was back when this memory formed and those who might know are Dearly Departed.  Susun spent much of her early childhood with her Grandparents.  Clair McCulla, her Grandfather had packed up in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and moved to Ol' Airy Zonie was back in 1919.  His express desire was to go get jobs building roads.  Clair and his wife lived in tent camps out in absolute MOAN Country up until the 1940's.  When they finally moved into a real home in Mesa, Arizona, is was a modest edifice and decorations were few, if practically non-existent.  Theirs was a spartan existence in Arizona's early days.  Susun's Mom remembers going to 13 different grade schools flung wide across the Sonoran Desert landscape.

Back in the late 1940's or early 1950's Susun spent a lot of time at her Grandparents.  Her key memory of that time period is of an oil painting hanging on the wall.  It was a large painting, at least it loomed large in her eyes.  It showed majestic sharp-tipped mountains rising high over a beautiful lake, shimmering in soft summer light amid a sea of pine trees.  Day after day Susun would stare up at that painting wondering if such a place truly existed.  She remembers thinking over and over to herself, "If that place is real, I want to go there someday because it surely must be Heaven."  At least that's how Susun describes her thinking way back when.

Well, it turned out that the painting was a realistic rendition of none other than Jenny Lake!

For my part back in the late 1950's, my parents took one of those classic Chevy Chase American Vacations.  It was the same vacation during which I was later nipped by the black bear.  We went to the Tetons and camped at Jenny Lake Campground.  I remember it well.  Mom bought me a full day's climbing lesson from none other than the famed Glenn Exum.  Somewhere an 8mm film exists of that day.  I will never forget my first exposure to Jenny Lake and the Tetons--they were burned in my "kid brain" forever.

After Susun and I got together over 25 years ago, we talked often about the painting on her Grandparent's wall and I recounted my own story a time or two as well.  For some inexplicable reason, Jenny Lake was a topic of rather regular conversation for many, many years.  Perhaps it was as if Jenny Lake was calling to us.

Let's fast forward to the year 2003.  We were on one of those high speed road trips serving as Secret Shoppers for the Forest Service on the NVUM project.  We eventually covered over 6,000 miles in a little more than a month.  It was a high stress, go-go-go episode.  We longed for a break in the action to regroup and rest.  One day we realized we would have two days off and, lo, we looked at our maps and realized we might even be able to camp at Jenny Lake.  I remember us both looking at each other quizzically.  "Do you really think we could do that," was on both our minds at the same time.  Soon we began chattering like squirrels about the possibility and we visualized ourselves there at Jenny Lake.  We had to drive a few a couple of hundred miles the day we arrived there.  Little did we know that Jenny Lake Campground had become "first come, first served" and that is was basically impossible to get a spot in that campground unless you got up and waited in the pre-dawn hours.  Our naivete played to our advantage and, by some fluke of history, we drove in and got the last spot available before they hung out the "FULL" sign in front of the campground.

The campsite was impossibly small but luckily our truck fit the parking spot and our tent fit the regulatory tent pad.  Someone came by to tell us that if our tent didn't fit the pad, we would have to leave.  Perhaps that's what happened to the people who vacated our spot when we arrived that afternoon--far too late in the day to have ever snagged a site there in that coveted campground.

We've since learned that all sorts of camping apparatus are banned from Jenny Lake.  Truck campers?  GONE!  Soft side truck campers? GONE!  Tent Trailers?  GONE!  Gear trailers? GONE!  Generators? GONE!  It's a throwback to the Old School Days.  It's strictly "tents only" and your tent can't be too big or, as they say, "yer outta here!"  The people they hire to be Enforcers at Jenny Lake would make Barney Fife proud.  If you don't meet the strict requirements of the campground they have no mercy, no compunction, no remorse--"yer outta here."

What this means is that it's basically impossible to get a campsite there unless your Jenny Lake Karma is intact.  We didn't know that in 2003.  Basically, we lucked out.  Only in the 20-20 vision of hindsight do we now know how wildly lucky we were that day.

Well, we set up shop as we always do when we are camping.  Susun is a real handwashing Nazi and so we've been traveling with The Farrah bucket for far too many years to remember.  Who knows when we first pioneered that bucket?  Anyway, we set up our handwashing bucket on the picnic table and we soon began to notice someone staring intently at us.  He kept staring until the point of rudeness.  Finally, he walked over to our campsite and interjected himself and bluntly said "WHAT'S THAT?" while pointing at the bucket.  We showed it to him and he was totally smitten.  It took him only a few seconds to get the play on words.  "Farrah Faucet!"  That's right, we had mounted a faucet into the side of a pickle bucket and we named it Farrah, bless her departed heart.

Anyway, it turned out he was a river runner so we had a lot in common.  He lived in Casper, Wyoming, but had come to Jenny Lake to camp while he ran the Snake River Canyon through Lunch Counter and Big Kahuna Rapids.  The water was running high at that time so lots of hard core river runners were staged all around Jackson Hole.  Brett just got lucky and snagged a site in Jenny Lake just as we did.  Well, we hit it off and danged near became Best Buds right there on the spot.

We went on with our trip and it was a "douzey," as Ned Ryerson would say in the movie "Ground Hog Day."  There's a whole backstory about the rest of that trip including the famous place where you could pay $12 to camp or you could buy a $12 twelve pack and they would let you camp free.  Go figure.  If we weren't on a tightrope schedule that year, we'd probably still be camped there alongside the Grande Ronde in Troy, Oregon.  We wound up camping on some vacant land in The Bitterroot Valley beside Bear Creek that Susan Kliewer owned.  When it got unbearably hot, we hightailed it to the Oregon Coast and spent the rest of the summer at Gold Beach where the Rogue River meets the sea.  But that's another story.

Along about February 2004, an email arrived from Brett--the guy we met at Jenny Lake in June 2003.  He said he had got lucky and received a Salt River Wilderness permit and wondered if I wanted to go along on the whitewater river trip.  He said he didn't know a soul that would be coming on the trip--he had invited strangers from all over America.  Well, that sounded like my kind of trip so I said yes in a heartbeat.  It was a great trip in every way.  A whole van load of people showed up from Arkansas.  They had driven Hunter Thompson Style night and day to get there in time for the put in on the White Mountain Apache Reservation near the US Highway 60 bridge over The Salt River that Susun's Grand Dad helped build back in the early 1930's.

One of the Arkansas Guys was a State Trooper who was at a very high level.  He was on two security details.  One was to protect the Governor and the other was to protect the Razorbacks football coach during and after games each year.  Obviously, he was well placed.  Anyway, Lance and I got along great and he talked often how he would like to retire and volunteer for the Forest Service like Susun and I had been doing for three years at that point, accumulating close to 2,000 official hours each in the process.  I promised Lance I would send him the Region 4 Volunteer Guide when I got back to civilization.

As chance would have it, I returned home to find that we were fresh out of the R4 guide.  So I called Bill L. in Ogden and requested another box of them.  We were relentless promoters of Forest Service volunteerism so Bill sent a box of guides by the fastest possible shipping method.  It was just before Easter Weekend 2004 when I asked Bill to send the guides so I could send one to Lance.

Meanwhile, that Easter Sunday, Susun and I decided to hike that day along what we call "The Dance Trail" beside Beaver Creek downstream from Forest Road #618.  We talked all day during the hike about how burnt out we were with volunteering for the Forest Service.  As the hike went on, we talked ourselves out of volunteering that upcoming summer.  We decided instead to go camp on Utah's Aquarius Plateau.  We even shook hands on the deal right there on the trail.  We were delighted with our decision and looking forward to a summer of non-volunteering.

Meanwhile, on Easter Monday, the box of R4 Volunteer Guides showed up.  I prepared to send one to Lance in Arkansas but thought it wouldn't be right to send one without some kind of a letter enclosed.  So, I decided to conduct a random poll of various volunteer managers in the guide.  I would flip to a random page and place my finger down and then call that Manager and ask a set of stock questions.

I asked:
1) How long had the person filling this position been in this position?
2) How many people do you have on the waiting list?
3) If a vacancy did occur, what would be your criteria for selecting an applicant

Each of the first four Managers gave me very good information.  Once they knew I wasn't interested in the position, they simply chatted along and we have some great conversations.

So, I called the fifth guy at random.  At the time of the call, I didn't even know where he was located---I simply flipped to a page in the guide and threw a finger down on a listing and made the call.  I went through my disclaimer that I wasn't calling to volunteer but wanted to ask three questions.  I asked my questions and there was total dead silence on the other end of the line.  (This was a copper wire landline call.)  At first I thought I had really peeved the Manager.  Then he spoke very slowly and said, "Well, the person who has been doing this for several years just called an hour ago and cancelled out of this summer, are you interested in doing this?"

Naturally, I said we had not interested in the position because we were just conducting a poll.  But this guy began laying a world class sales pitch on me extolling the virtues of the place and he went on and on and on.  I told him I had made a deal with my wife that we weren't going to volunteer but he wouldn't stop and didn't let up.  Finally, I turned to Susun and said, "This guy is trying to talk us into volunteering again."  She said, "We made a deal, John, tell him about it."  Well, the guy laid on his best sales pitch and I thanked him and hung up.

Meanwhile I began telling Susun about the place he described.  It was in the total Middle of Absolute Nowhere.  We would be living in a 1939 Guard Station surrounded by 10,000 and 11,000 foot mountains in a remote canyon at the headwaters of the East Fork of the famed Salmon River.  And meanwhile there was a HUGE hot springs 200 yards away from the cabin and our main duty would be maintaining the hot springs to make sure it was clean and tidy for visitors.  Well, that got Susun's attention right away.

We talked and talked between each other and with the guy who managed the place.  Finally, we agreed to refute our vow to each other and agreed to take the position.

And that's how we came to Idaho.  We didn't know diddly about Idaho until we spent four summers at Bowery Guard Station, logging over 2.000 official volunteer hours and probably another 2,000 unofficial hours as well.  Bowery Guard Station changed our lives, pure and simple, and we can trace our presence there directly back to Jenny Lake.  If we wouldn't have met Brett there in June 2003, there's simply NO CHANCE we would have ever wound up at Bowery.  It wouldn't have happened. So we can thank Jenny Lake for birthing our Idaho lives.

But there's more.  So, after four summers in the total Middle of Absolute Nowhere, we had hit the wall.  We were living out in the middle of nowhere, we longed to live in a real city.  That's when we spotted the classified ad in the Post-Register for an opening as Director of The Eastern Idaho Retired & Senior Volunteer Program.  They wanted us right away and even said later the almost sent out the police to keep us from driving back out of Idaho Falls.  We spurned their job offers for a few weeks but the siren call of the city lured us into taking the position for 2.5 years until we returned to our senses and retired again--this time hopefully forever and always.

Well, meanwhile, we bought our little house and, by and by, Susun's Mom wanted to come and visit in the Fall of 2008 when we had been here just over a year.  And, so, wouldn't you know where we would go, eh?  Yeah, you got it right: Jenny Lake.  Susun's Mom, Doris, went down to the edge of the lake and posed a touchingly beautiful portrait there with the Teton Range as a backdrop.  The water was shimmering beautiful that day.  We will never forget it.

Life has its twists and turns and Doris passed on to the Great Beyond a few months later.  The following fall season, Susun's daughters Stasea & Sarah came to visit with Sarah's Baby Son, Gage.  Naturally, Susun took them to Jenny Lake and there they scattered some of Mom's (And Grandma's) ashes right on the shores of Jenny Lake where she stood just a year before.  It was a very special and emotional moment for them all.

And that is why we go to Jenny Lake.  We go there not just to camp in a tent.  We go there to celebrate our heritage, our Families and our Future.  For if Jenny Lake has given us such great gifts in the past, there is no doubt in our minds that it will continue to bring stories, karma and great gifts in the future as well.

For us a visit to Jenny Lake is like a trip to church.  We kneel with deep and humble reverence in the cathedral of Jenny Lake.  We each understand our own connection to the place and it speaks to us with a voice only we can hear.  We walk down to the place where Mom's ashes rejoined the Earth and we listen as the quiet lake waters lap ashore as they have done for perhaps thousands of years.  It is reassuring to our souls and touches our hearts in ways that mere words can't describe.

If not for Jenny Lake, we would not be in Idaho and we would not know the dear pleasures of this awesome place.  As we each progress in our years, we learn new insights.  We have come to realize that Jenny Lake is a spot special beyond compare in our lives.

And so it is that we go there during the week following Labor Day each year.  To those who do not know us, it is merely a tent camping trip.  And to those who know us, a return to Jenny Lake is a spiritual reconnection to our roots and to our future.

We love Jenny Lake!  What else can we say?

Have a great week & Many, Many Cheers!  J&S

PS--The woman who engaged us in all those special Secret Shopper trips served her very first duty at Jenny Lake.  Sue has a serious cancer now and we are praying she will beat it.  We hope she will come to visit us so we can take her back to Jenny Lake to heal.  Our storybook with Jenny Lake has many chapters yet to write.

PPS--In the photo below in 2009, I somehow captured the moment Susun learned her Grandson Van had been born a few hours earlier that morning as Susun stood beaming near the shores of Jenny Lake.


The Goatherder said...

A tale well told. Thank you for sharing it! Have a great trip.

Wayne Ranney said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing. I too have a special place in my heart for the Tetons!

siegfried said...

Well, well and well!!!
I camped at Jenny lake on my first trip West in 1954. I hiked to the waterfall on the West side and met a family from the area who invited me to share their lunch. It was a beautiful and memorable place.
The next time I'm there I'll remember and say a prayer for Susun's Mom.
Dave E.

Maggie said...

That is a special story that reveals just how connected you two are -- soul mates.