It’s funny how much one little decision can change your life. Ten years ago, I was offered an internship at a newspaper in Pennsylvania. I wanted to be a sports photographer, and this was the gig of my dreams. I had also applied to a tiny little weekly newspaper in Jackson, Wyoming. While it was obvious which one I should go for – the daily, with a bigger circulation, higher pay, longer term, and more connections (not to mention all the NCAA sports I could dream of) – something, I don’t know what, started nudging me the other way. On a deadline to formally accept, I called the tiny little paper in Wyoming and told them I’d been offered the gig in Pennsylvania, but that if they’d have me, I’d like to go to Wyoming instead. There was really no logical reasoning behind this decision, it was just something I felt like I had to do. They offered me the job, and I called the editor in Pennsylvania back. She was disappointed, but terribly kind and told me it was a good choice, that she might have made the same decision herself.
It’s been nine years now since I lived there, and six since my last visit back. As one of the closest parks to Salt Lake City, there’s really no excuse for Jim and I not to go to Grand Teton, other than the fact that I’ve been afraid. That corner of Wyoming is very special to me, a place I credit with making me who I am today, and a place I wasn’t yet ready to go back to. It’s a place full of memories I wasn’t ready to overwrite. I wasn’t ready for new ones with Jim and Ceci, because my memories there are with someone else.
The reason we finally made a trip there happen wasn’t because I was ready, or brave. It’s because one of my best friends (who I hadn’t seen since my wedding four years earlier, practically to the day) would be running the Yellowstone Half Marathon. She’s been living all over the world, in Thailand, France, and Costa Rica the past several years, and although she’s now living stateside again, she’s way over on the east coast. There was no way I could find out she’d be a mere five hours away and not go visit her.
So Jim and I finally plotted a trip to Grand Teton together, for our 4th wedding anniversary and to see our old friend Amanda in Yellowstone. We originally planned to camp in and around each park, but when we were in Denver for my birthday two weeks before, we found out some friends have a family cabin in Tetonia, Idaho that we could stay in for free. While it would entail more driving each day than camping around the parks, we’ll always say yes to a free bed when traveling with the toddler. With things shaping up, I started pushing away my fears and getting excited about showing Jim and Ceci places that played such a pivotal role in turning me into the person I am today. Maybe I am who I’ve always been, who I’d always be, but I honestly believe my time living up there changed everything.
Being back wasn’t as scary as I expected. I thought I might be too distracted by old memories of my first love to be able to make new ones. I somehow thought creating new memories here would disrespect my old ones, make them less important, downgraded because they aren’t with Jim or Ceci. I didn’t realize that the two sets of memories could coexist, both being equally precious to me. Yes, those were then, and these are now, but they are all a part of me and my story and I refuse to pretend that they aren’t.
So I let them in, those memories of glaciers, and dirt roads, and backcountry campsites; of gas stations, ponds, and grocery stores. Being there felt as close to the memories as I’d been since they happened, and that felt really special. It felt like honor, and nothing like disrespect.
Those weren’t the only memories I brought back, though. Driving through the area, I was reminded of so many I’d forgotten about that are purely my own. That’s the funny thing about memories. You hold on to the big ones, the beautiful ones, the melancholy ones, and you let the day-to-day, arguably the real essence of life, fade to the forgotten corners of your mind. But being back in this town brought so many of them back to me, and it made me realize that maybe I actually played a bigger part than I thought in making this place so special to me. Not him, me. Just me.
I showed Jim the first mountain I ever hiked up, alone and my first week of living there. I told him about all the times I hiked it, including one time when a rainstorm came over on my descent. Instead of fighting it (which is hard to do half way up a mountain), I embraced the rain and actually enjoyed hiking in a downpour. I got down to my car and sat in the trunk of my hatchback furiously writing down all the thoughts (some of the clearest I’ve ever had) that had come to me while I was walking in the rain, before the everyday sounds of life and people and background noise pushed them away.
We drove by the high school and I told him about the photo essay I shot on the graduation of the class of 2006. Boring, mundane stuff but of which I got some seriously epic photos that resonated not only with local residents, but also with the National Press Photographers Association. I got my first award for that photo essay. I told him about lots of other things I witnessed and photographed while working there, like dragonflies having sex, and how that made the front page and cracked up a gas station attendant as I was paying for my fuel one day. I told him all these stories that only being in that town again, for the first time in years, brought back to me.
We drove through Jackson quickly, me spewing memories left and right, so that we’d have enough time to spend a couple hours outside in Grand Teton before we had to get back in the car and head to our cabin. I knew for a long time that the first place I wanted to take Ceci is a spot on Jenny Lake that was always overflowing with butterflies. She loves them, but had yet to see one in real life. Despite its length, “butterfly” was actually one of her first words, and I’d argue it’s still one of her favorites. I couldn’t wait to show her that these magical creatures from the pages of her books are even more spectacular in real life (especially when you’re seeing them by the hundreds). Sadly, the access trail down to that area was closed, and I’m not even sure if it was butterfly season, or if they even still hang out there.
Instead, we wandered a trail along String Lake between Jenny and Leigh Lakes. Not five minutes on the trail and we saw an elk. Ceci loved the roar of water, and mostly insisted on hiking by herself. She’s definitely my kid.
We decided to head over to the cabin, and come back to hike more the next day. Driving through the park brought back more memories, but I was already in awe of the new ones I was creating.
Over in Idaho, our cabin had the most spectacular view of the backside of the Tetons, and I told Jim about assignments I’d done on this side of the range. Of camping with my drum circle landlords, hot air balloon festivals, and trying (unsuccessfully) to get in a tiny plane piloted by Harrison Ford. Wait, didn’t he crash recently? Maybe it’s a good thing I got put in another plane.
In the morning, we headed back to Grand Teton to do some proper exploring. We decided to hike into Death Canyon, which is a place I’d never actually hiked to before. It was alarmingly beautiful, and the trail (which I had taken to another destination once upon a time) smelled exactly as I remembered. It’s that standard alpine smell of pine and wildflowers, but it’s a smell that no matter where I am in the world when I get a whiff of it, I am always, every time, instantly transported back to my first hike on that trail. Memories. They get triggered by the strangest things.
We did about five miles before we were ready to continue exploring other parts of the park. By then, we’d seen a pika, a marmot, and quite a few butterflies too. Ceci was thrilled, and tried to follow them with her eyes as they zig-zagged around.
After our hike, we headed north to Jackson Lake and had a little picnic on the shore. It sounds lovely, but it really wasn’t. We just had to get a now-crying baby out of the car, stat! Baby settled and bellies full, we took a quick drive over to Colter Bay, where we walked a path around the marina. Ceci tried her legs at running, and picked up pinecones like she always does. Past the marina, the view opened up at another little bay, and we took off our shoes and splashed in the water. Before long, we were venturing a few feet out, and Ceci, being used to playing in water only at bath time, tried to take off her clothes.
Words can’t describe the memories we made that day, so I won’t even try. I’ll just say that they’re the kind of memories that you don’t just recall, but you feel. Butterflies fill your chest and you feel like you’re going to burst with love. Maybe you actually do a little bit, because the sides of your throat and cheeks tickle, almost like when you’re going to puke (but way more pleasant, I promise). I have old memories from this place like that too, and I’m at peace knowing they can all live in my mind together. I cherish them all.
It’s times like these that I can’t even begin to fathom how different my life would be had I not made that phone call to Wyoming. My whole adult life branched off from that moment, and while I have no doubt that I could still be living a great, albeit different life than the one I’m currently living, it’s a terrifying thought to imagine life without the people you’ve come to love. That one phone call brought me to Wyoming, which brought me to every single place I’ve been since. To Utah, to my job, to Jim, and most importantly, to Ceci. All that, from one little decision I still can’t quite explain.