My backpack is so heavy that I have to prop it up on the edge of the car’s open hatchback, then somehow slip my shoulders under the straps from below. I look around the hot and sandy parking lot while my boyfriend attaches our backcountry permit to his own 26-pound backpack. A backcountry permit is a necessary authorization enabling a person to camp in the untamed, undeveloped backcountry of a national park in the United States.
In front of us, the Grand Teton, the highest mountain in Grand Teton National Park, looms over us at 13,770 feet like an imposing wall. Gray like a burly elephant. I swear, the silly chunk of rock is laughing at us. Over 11 miles to three lakes we want to hike. With 3,300 feet of elevation gain the first day. On a trail where last time I had twenty-three and a half blisters on my feet and stomach cramps to boot—and that was with only a light daypack.
So, the first thing I do is sit on a log and tape my feet prophylactically.
"I don't know if we'll have enough Band-Aids for that," my boyfriend notes.
"I'll also take some duct tape," I reply.
Then we're off.
To a circular paradise of water and stones, to bear boxes, to a turquoise glacial lake, to sweat, curses, and gigantic boulders—and to the most beautiful and perfect reflection in the world.
A long hike is like a class schedule. First, it is fun with art and music, then breakfast break, then you analyze a poem you can't figure out, and in the last hour it's math and you just crap out at that time. Well, I hear there are people who like math. But I'm the group that wins the Nobel Prize for Total Incompetence in the supermarket when asked, “Five bananas cost $5. How much does one banana cost?”
Anyway. The first two miles feel good. We walk through a shady forest with tall, dark green, pointed fir trees. In between, the elephant gray peak of Grand Teton peaks occasionally through the branches. Excitedly, I take photos.
"One last photo?" my boyfriend asks with a grin. If it were up to him, we would have been on Everest and K2 three times in the same amount of time. He is the Gyro Gearloose of all hikers. And he is almost as old as the mountain!
Shortly after, the moderate trail turns into an almost deadly, steeper trail of dusty switchbacks that just never end. In the scorching heat of the radiating pulsar in the sky, which many astronomers simply refer to as the sun.
I brace my shoulders under the 26-pound sandbag on my back, which is enough sand to save all New Orleans from the ravages of the Mississippi during a Class IV hurricane.
What the heck? Well, when you camp in the wilderness, some of the things you need is a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, food, toothbrushes, sunscreen, warm clothes for cold nights, and most importantly, water. Lots of water. Especially because of the pulsar and the 3,300-foot change in altitude.
"Now we have only the nine more little switchbacks!" my boyfriend shouts cheerfully, while I sit on a rock and curse inwardly. At least I don't have any blisters. I wonder if Moses also had a sleeping pad and sunscreen when he was in the desert for 40 years? What nonsense!
We go on.
After five hours we finally reach the area where we want to pitch our tent. In the forest above Surprise Lake, the first of the three lakes we plan to explore, there are some primitive camp sites. Nothing more than slightly leveled sand and gravel. And a metal box to keep our food and toothpaste safe from bears. Because they smell everything. And then they come and eat not only the food and toothpaste, but the owners as well. No kidding. This is not Florida beach camping here.
There's no running water, no toilets, no fireplaces. Out here, you're alone, with no one else around. It's beautiful and yet tantalizingly wild at the same time.
After we pitch the tent for the night, we walk over to Surprise Lake. Green and circular, it lies between a deep, yawning abyss on one side, and the suddenly very close peak of the Grand Teton on the other, around which the evening light shimmers with a bluish aura like a faint gas flame.
Then we hike another quarter mile to the slightly higher Amphitheater Lake, dark gray and rippling with small quivering waves in a basin at the bottom of a huge cirque. Golden light, shifting every second, lies over the entire mountain range. It's like a hologram postcard.
My boyfriend and I embrace. Long. What a day, what an accomplishment.
"Your eyes are as blue as the lake," I tell him. Oddly enough, I find it easy to be romantic in English. In my native German, everything always sounds either as abrupt as a military command, or it immediately comes across as total Heidi twee.
Then we bugger back to our 5-star campsite and cook up some freeze-dried stuff that blows me away about as much as fries deep-fried in ten-year-old oil. But it is an easy meal that is light to carry. And that's all that matters in backpacking.
As darkness begins to envelope us, we sit wrapped in our jackets on a fallen log, sipping hot chocolate, and looking up at the sky. A star. Just one. Directly overhead. A one-star campsite. And it couldn't be more beautiful.
The next day I literally run excitedly to Surprise Lake. On the one hand, I need go to the bathroom, which just looks like a big fir tree in front of me, and on the other hand, I want to see the lake in the morning light! My boyfriend follows me, a bit more practically minded, with our water filter because we have to prepare for the descent and the detour to the third lake, Delta Lake, and we don't have enough drinking water. We filter the water from the lake now, before we begin.
When I arrive at the lake’s shore, the Grand Teton itself stretches skyward in a reddish-yellow light, jutting up into the pale blue sky. And at the same time, it stretches downward in the exact same way into the water of the lake.
A reflection that could not be more perfect. So surreal that I feel compelled to throw a small pebble into the water to see if the lake has not secretly turned into a glass surface. Like a painting, Surprise Lake lies in a natural hollow, adorned with a tiara of trees. Large, fallen boulders are scattered across a soft, bright green meadow, overlain with golden morning light that seems to flow silently into the stillness of the water.
It's a moment when you never want to breathe again for fear that the landscape before you will shatter into a thousand shards.
That is why I am out here. That is why I chose this life. For moments like these. Moments that no one can ever take away from you. And even if death should soon follow, it would not matter. Because you have truly lived before that time.
The offshoot to Delta Lake from the main trail is supposed to be a mere half-mile. However, we are forewarned that the route will be very steep, rough, strenuous, and indistinct.
And that's exactly how it is. Loaded with our sandbag-laden backpacks, we crawl tenuously over huge boulders that someone has stuck vertically onto the side of the mountain. And the pulsar is back, too. I'm sweating so much that any bear within 100 miles could smell me. Not even a triple-sealed bear box would save me. Evil Delta Lake!
Unfortunately, I've seen photos of the lake on the internet. Turquoise. With a mountain backdrop that will freak you out. This simply must work now. There is NO going back before we get there and see it up close and personal.I keep trying to tell that to my knees, which are turning more and more into pudding with each footstep.
After just under an hour (for a half-mile—just sayin’!) we reach a ledge. Looking over it, I can hardly believe what I see. Directly in front of us at eye level is an opalescent blue-green glacial lake, framed by the magnificent mountains of the Grand Teton Range. I toss my backpack—okay, I kind of whine as I ease the pack off my ruined shoulders—and run—okay, I crawl—onto a rock right next to the water. Then I throw off my shoes and take a few steps into the freezing water. This is truly what life is all about.
"Oh my God, it’s so incredibly beautiful here! This can't be real!", I shout to my boyfriend, waving my arms up and down like a penguin.
Three lakes, three days—we spend another night at the base of the mountain—and 11-plus miles. Eleven hours I sleep the next day when we get back home. And I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. In this nature, with my favorite person, in this life.