GET OUT: Midwinter Crisis

By on March 8, 2016

Caves and crowds lead back home.

Left: The Lehman Caves, one of the few caves in the U.S. with electric lighting. Right: The soaring rock walls that look down on the Merced River. Bottom: A quintessential shot of the Half Dome. (Photo: ELIZABETH KOUTRELAKOS)

Left: The Lehman Caves, one of the few caves in the U.S. with electric lighting. Right: The soaring rock walls that look down on the Merced River. Bottom: A quintessential shot of the Half Dome. (Photos: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Warm sunny weather has granted us our first scent of spring. During a brief, yet wonderful set of sunrises I was able to smell that sweet scent of decomposing pine needles. Snow enthusiasts sometimes complain of the lack of powder during these now early March heat smells (remember when this didn’t occur until April?). Around this time other outdoor recreationists enter the period that I call “the midwinter crisis.” Similar to the midlife crisis, this stage of the season could be characterized by intense periods of self-reflection, panicking and drastic life choices such as breakups with a significant other. Others report a desire to quit their seasonal job, feelings of being overwhelmed by fiscal responsibilities, and general desire to just up and go.

With these thoughts, some continue through the winter rehearsal, dawning their ski gear in feeble attempts to find happiness in the mountains. Others choose to simply take a break from the real world by living out of their vehicles somewhere else on the continent. One winter, long before my plunge into middle adulthood, I experienced what may be described as a midwinter crisis and decided to partake in the latter. No, I did not quit my job or drastically change my life course. It just so happened that the specific flow of life allowed me a mere chunk of free time. Given the desperate need for a quick recharge, I motivated someone else to take part in the racket.

The back of the overloaded Nissan Frontier sagged and the true journey began as we drove towards where it was supposed to be warm this time of year. We passed through the Utah dessert and spent a few days getting into the groove of the car camping lifestyle. Activities throughout the day consisted primarily of climbing, eating and sleeping, but these things were exceedingly more pleasant than they may sound.

After the sand crept into every wrinkle of our bodies, a stop in Great Basin National Park offered a different perspective on things to explore. Like all the typical parks within American’s protected lands, hiking trails abound, but so did caves. A paid tour through the Lehman Caves offered a unique perspective of the park’s attempt to preserve. A paved asphalt walkway to ease passage kept visitors herded on the path. The eight-dollar fee seemed uniquely ironic considering this was once a place where Native Americans were put to rest and now the federal government is making money off of visitors to visit the place. Needless to say, the park wore out its welcome pretty quickly.

From there, we zipped over to Yosemite National Park and planted roots at the infamous Camp Four. If you think there’s a lot of rules in GTNP, consider this: The rules in Yosemite National Park makes Grand Teton National Park look like Woodstock. Due to bear problems, all visitors are required to remove all food from their vehicles and place them in bear boxes at night. (During daylight hours, food may be stored in vehicles, but out of sight). While I understand that this ensures public safety and keeps black bears from ruining cars, placing anything remotely valuable in a public box in California is simply a terrible idea. I witnessed an innocent family return from a backpacking trip only to realize nameless vagabonds had filched their nourishment.

The camping scene at Camp Four reminded me of a music festival run by police officers. After you wait in line, pitch the cash and display your license to retrieve the required camping permit, the night offered an unexpected structure not typically native to camping. At around nine in the evening, I was awoken by a ranger’s bright flashlight shining on my tent. Apparently, this was a tent check to ensure I wasn’t harboring any unregistered campers (!).

So, yes, Camp Four was a little rough but the topography rippled into what dreams are made of. Long trail runs offered views of rainbows and waterfalls and the climbs were, well, actually climbs. Real life, humbling, difficult, large slabs of rock! I realized here that I’m significantly better at walking than climbing, which is probably why I continue to live in the Tetons. After a bit of time bustling around in this crowded California national park, I was ready to go home.

The prospect of settling back into my full-time job and reentering the world of toilets and cooking at home no longer seemed overwhelming. We hightailed it back, stopping only briefly to soak in some hot springs along the way. Upon reentering Jackson, feelings of refreshment and newness trickled back into my psyche. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “The object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” PJH

About Elizabeth Koutrelakos

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