The next morning we surveyed our surroundings. We were in high desert country, the landscape dry and brown, a monotony broken only occasionally by stunted vegetation and spare foliage. In the clear blue sky, the sun was hot and intense; all traces of morning drew had evaporated. The motel consisted of modestly furnished rooms, but our choices were limited when traveling with Abby. Adjoining the building was a Mexican restaurant and, since this was Nevada, a small casino filled with slot machines. We took advantage of the complimentary breakfast, filled the gas tank, expressed our shock at the soaring prices and resumed our journey. But we had many miles to go; Winnemucka is less than halfway to Jackson and our planned visit with Mair and Sior, in all a drive of fourteen hours.
Leaving Idaho Falls, State Highway 22 turns toward the southeast and enters Wyoming through Teton Pass, a narrow river gorge bordered by steep mountains and evergreen forests. At the end of the rugged canyon, it emerges into the panorama of Jackson Hole, an enormous depression framed on the west by the glaciated Teton Range and on the east by the Bridger-Teton National Forest; further to the north lies the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.The valley is bisected on a north-south axis by the meandering Snake River, an historic waterway of contrasting environments, from quiet flows past wildlife views to daunting class three and four rapids amid shear cliffs.
Dominating the landscape from every turn is the Tetons, a mountainous chain containing some of the most beautiful peaks in North America. Above the fixed glacier fields, snow often remains throughout the summer on the higher summits of Teewinot, Owen, South Teton, on the massive face of Mount Moran. But rising above its neighbors stands the jagged pinnacle of the Grand Teton, probably the most challenging climb south of the Canadian Rockies. At 13,770 feet, the Grand is lower than Ranier, Shasta and Whitney; lower than many summits in the Cascades, Sierra Nevada and Colorado Rockies, but an ascent up the steep cone can require technical expertise; it's physically demanding and always dangerous Indeed, prudence dictates that the mountain be descended by several aerial repels, each exceeding a hundred feet in length; the upper slopes are simply too precipitous to down-climb safely carrying heavy loads.
Jackson Hole was once home to bison and Native American, but more recently it's become a center of recreational facilities and vacation lodges spread over the long valley. Teton National Park with an extensive system of hiking trails provides access to the higher peaks and backcountry; Jackson Lake at the northern reaches of the Snake is a boater's destination; Teton Village is a popular ski resort. Many celebrities maintain vacation homes in the vicinity. Its most famous permanent resident is Vice President Cheney. But the principal settlement in the area is the town of Jackson itself, situated near the southern end of the valley, next to the National Elk Reserve.
With a population of only 9,000, Jackson has limited diversity, but the community struggles with self discovery. Is it ski resort, outdoors portal, an intellectual oasis or a western theme park? On downtown streets, backpacking and winter sport outfitters compete for attention with tourist souvenir shops; the community hosts local theater and symphony while a replica stagecoach conveys sightseers through the commercial district; a mock cowboy gunfight is staged every evening at 6:00 in the town center for those preferring fantasy rather than visits to a superb wildlife museum. At night, vacationers pack music and dance clubs as others browse bookstores and galleries or view the latest offerings at local art houses. Expensive trendy restaurants are plentiful and crowded with diners in sandals and hiking shorts, but they serve standard American food; the closest Indian or Mediterranean menus can be found only on the West Coast. Yes, Jackson is a mosaic of contrasting images, a tossed salad of divergent ingredients.
Mair and Sior Bythell settled here permanently several years ago by choice after following a succession of employment transfers from New York, New Jersey, San Francisco, Newport Beach and finally Chicago. Originally, Sior was trained as a chemist but eventually became the manager of a processing plant for a food conglomerate, a well-paid career that permitted early retirement; Mair continued to work as a staff nurse for a time but decided to retire as well during the past year. They have three children: Kevyn, the oldest, is an officer in the Sheriff's Department in Albuquerque; young Mair is a nurse in the Jackson Hospital and lives only a short distance from her parents; Mihangel is a physical therapist with a practice in Driggs, Idaho, only forty minutes away. All three have married; Kevyn and Mihangel have children of their own.
Bev and Mair worked together at Bayshore Hospital in New Jersey, a professional relationship that grew into real friendship despite the differences in their status and ages. I knew the Bythells less well when I first arrived alone in San Francisco, but they welcomed me warmly into the local Welsh community and represented the familiar in a strange place. Our friendship hasn't been based on common beliefs; both Mair and Sior are staunch Catholics and attend mass daily. They vote Republican and profess conservative values. Usually, but not always, we avoid conflict by excluding religion and politics from our conversations. But our differences are balanced by other qualities: Mair, beneath her gruff exterior, has a generous heart; Sior loves the outdoors and has always been eager for physical challenges. While younger, he ran marathons, competed in triathlons, rode a bike up Mount Diablo, and skied on the most demanding slopes. The intervening years have brought additional interests. He's become an enthusiastic hiker, golfer, cross country skier, more graceful on snow shoes than the dance floor--in other words, Sior remains a fitness fanatic, a conclusion that renders his acrophobia even more incongruous; it's a mild condition, but one that has limited his mountaineering experiences.
We drove through Jackson slowly, enjoying the grandeur of the scenery. It was easy to understand why Mair and Sior had chosen this location. Residents are surrounded by a canvas of unsurpassed natural beauty. Both of us love the purity of the mountains, the quiet mornings along a forest trail, but our choices would have been different, for we have always been drawn to the sea. Between mountain, forest and ocean the choice is difficult, but not one over which we would long hesitate. Nor would we be entirely comfortable at an altitude of 6,000 feet. The air is thin and dries both mouth and skin. No, we much prefer moist coastal air, cool ocean breezes, the richness of air at sea level; but most of all, we prefer the city. Our lives began in Brooklyn, and we've planted roots in San Francisco; a city will always be our home.
After an animated exchange of greetings and hugs, Sior and I carried our luggage into the basement apartment while Mair ushered Bev into the upstairs kitchen for wine and cheese. Much later, after dinner, Bev and I flipped for the bed; she won and I was relegated to the futon in the living room; her smug smile of victory, however, soon faded. The futon was lumpy and hard, but the mattress was soft and mushy. Naturally, I ignored her entreaties and refused to switch. Neither of us slept very well during our visit, although Abby never stirred at night whether buried beneath Bev's covers or my comforter. We had scheduled a visit of six or seven days; the usual crowd of guests were expected at Sea Ranch during the Labor Day weekend. But by week's end, we had called Megan and Patty to organize things until we returned and had extended our stay an additional five days to accommodate all the activities that had been planned for us.