We had come all the way from Memphis to Wyoming to climb the Grand Teton, almost 14,000 feet of death-defying glory. We had left behind the dull flatlands for the thrills of the Northern Rockies. We were young, energetic, blissfully simple-minded. We had this kooky notion that if you have a couple of weeks and some money, you can do stuff like sign up with a guide service to climb a mountain. Save the money and go. Have some adventure.
We crept into the campground well after check-in time. It was one of those combination RV and tent places, with a store and a shower building and 1,000 kids. It was also the first place we'd seen where we could crash. We threw up the tent and drifted off to sleep, dreaming of rock faces and snowfields and eternal views from the summit.
We woke up to the TV set in the RV next to us, blaring something about a rodeo coming up this weekend. A young kid was screaming for her mommy. Somewhere a dog was whining.
I stumbled down to the store for coffee and donuts. There, a chubby man was complaining about the lack of hot water in the showers. A droopy-looking woman was waiting for a batch of sausages to get warm on the electric grill. Two scrawny kids were sifting through candy options.
This was not what I had expected mountaineering in Wyoming to be like. I thought we'd be running with the cool crowd, people who lived life on the edge, like we were doing. People who gave it all up and took chances, not people for whom a lukewarm shower was a hardship.
I resisted the temptation to tell the clerk that we were in town to bag the highest peak around, and I went back to the tent to get ready. This was the day for us to meet our fellow climbers!
The guide service sits at the foot of the Tetons, a range that shoots up out of Jackson Hole in one of the most dramatic vistas in America. They're 7,000 vertical feet of rock, snow, and ice -- beautiful, tempting, and deadly. This is what we came for!
We met our guide for the next day's climb, Jack. He was stocky, scruffy, wise-looking, bigger than life. He said he had summitted the Grand more than 100 times! He knew the man who did it first -- alone. Oh, if the folks back in Memphis could see us now, hobnobbing with the great climbers of Wyoming.
Jack pointed out our route. We'd be climbing up this steep valley to that rock line, then along this ridge to that soaring summit. Then he said, "Don't worry. We'll put you through our climbing school, and if you're in decent shape and can climb over a rail fence, we can get you up the mountain."
I felt soothed in his gracious presence, and then I played back what he had just said. School? A rail fence? Decent shape? That sounded pretty easy. Part of me was glad to hear it, but another part felt, well ... let down. I thought he would size us up and say he wasn't sure we could handle it, and then we'd have to prove ourselves to him. I thought he would use words like "terrible" and "avalanche" and "huge cliff." Now, it didn't sound like such a big deal.
We drove back to the camp, and as we were cooking a noodle dinner on our picnic table, some folks came over to say hello. I was afraid they'd ask what we were here for, and I'd have to say, "We're being guided over a rail fence." So I asked them what they were doing here.
"We're on our annual big driving adventure," the man said, with obvious pride. "Every year we save up money, pick a spot, then everybody gets in the camper and we go. Last year we went to the Grand Canyon, and this year it's the Tetons."
For a moment I thought, Dude, watching TV in a campground ain't no adventure. And then I realized we were in the same campground. I stayed quiet, and he went on talking.
"Yeah, the folks back in Missouri think we're kinda nuts, livin' in the camper with the kids for two or three weeks. It's an adventure! But we just love bein' out here, away from home, seein' the country and bein' together. Know what I mean?"
"Yeah," I said. "The folks back home think we're kinda nuts too."
We both chuckled. And in the silent moment that followed, I realized I was just another guy in the campground, out looking for some adventure. For some folks, it's being away from home, and for others, it's paying to learn about climbing and to get led up a hill.