What I wanted was a break from my search locations in Montana and Colorado. I’d been on a fairly consuming search for eight straight days. Beating brush, poking into rock piles, crawling into small openings and wading across half a dozen trout streams. So here I was in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park headed up a trail I’d never heard of, just for the sheer pleasure of the walk. My goal was to ignore all things “treasure chest” for a few hours. Clear my head. Then start fresh.
The trail started across an open glacial moraine, flat, gravelly, hot. It was 92 degrees in the parking lot. But soon I was walking through a cool, boulder strewn, lodgepole forest, crossing rushing creeks and listening to the sounds of Tanagers and Ravens.
Wildflowers hedged the path making the walk seem like Dorothy’s yellow brick road. I could not help but admire a colony of Calypso Orchids, in perfect bloom, astonished at how something purple and yellow can blend into the green forest floor so well. There was also Bitterroot, Balsam Root, Bistort, Strawberry, Camas, Larkspur, Lupine, Paintbrush. Stunning!
At about the one mile point I decided to sit and watch the creek roar by. I pulled up a good sized, comfortable rock and stared at the icy whitewater rushing to somewhere important downhill. While I was admiring the cool, blue mountain freshet a long legged young woman dressed in brief pink shorts and a black, very edgy sports bra came up the hill running in a long sensual gate unconcerned about rocks and trenches in the trail. She was as graceful as an antelope. Not a bead of sweat on her anywhere I could see. I carefully observed her come and closely watched until she disappeared up the hill. I never once thought about the treasure chest. I waited, hoping she might be the leader of a bevy of inappropriately attired young women from a nearby resort. Disappointingly, none others came behind her.
Overall, the trail is not steep but it is stubborn about being an uphill trail all the way to the lake. It passes by several different landscapes so that every few hundred feet the scenery is completely different. At the top of the trail, Taggart Lake. A lovely subalpine body of water surrounded by young lodgepole pine. A fire in ’85 raised about a thousand acres of the old trees nearby. Those here now, at 25 years old are even growth and immature enough to permit a wonderful green frame for the brown and purple Teton peaks in the distance. A lone fisherman was staying dry by standing on one of the numerous flat boulders around the perimeter and casting out into the clear, still water. I couldn’t tell if there were any fish in his creel.
Ignoring me as I doddered up the trail was a well dressed fellow, sitting on a flat, tan boulder on the edge of the lake. I said “Hi.” as I approached. I guess he could tell my lungs were objecting to the minor uphill walk at 6,900 feet.
“It’s mostly downhill from here”, he said.
“That’ll help”, I responded and took a seat on an adjoining boulder.
His face was weathered by years in the sun. His eyes were squinty from staring into the bright sky most of his life. He had that “monied” look. I wasn’t sure we should be in the same National Park together. He was First Class to my Cattle Car Class. He had a large sketch pad and was using a yellow pencil to draw something out in front of him. He looked to be mid-seventies and dressed nicely in a maroon knit shirt and khaki trousers. The shirt looked perfect against his tanned arms and tight stomach. His feet were protected by spendy Pikolinos chukka boots and a well worn, grey Stetson was resting beside him. It had a low crown encircled by an intricately beaded, blue and green, narrow hatband. A small fuzzy dry fly was stuck in the crown. A brownish shirt/jacket with lots of pocket flaps was neatly folded under the hat.
“Are you from around here?”, I asked.
“Down near Wilson.”, he said. I could see a Flicker jumping from pine to pine behind him, probably looking for a trail of ants working the warm pine sap.
“I don’t think you’re from near here.”, he said as he shifted his position on the rock so he could see me better.
“I’m not.”, I said. “What gave me away?”
“You know, I can’t put my finger on it, but you just don’t look like a local.”, he said.
“Probably the dirty jeans and beater ice axe I’m carrying. But you’re right about that.”, I admitted. “I’m from around the San Juan Islands up in Washington State.”
He put his sketchpad and pencil down on the boulder and looked me in the eye for the first time.
“No kidding.” He said. “I know those islands. Had a great time there. I’ve been up in Friday Harbor, Lonesome Cove, Rosario and took a kayak over to Waldron Island once with my wife. Every time it gets to be about a hundred and ten around here I think fondly of those cool coastal waters.”
“Yeah, a hundred and ten is more warmth than a body needs.”, I agreed.
There was a token bit of silence while we both focused on the lone fisherman across the way as he jerked upward with his rod to quickly set the hook. All three of us watched to see what would happen next. Nothing happened. The fish had escaped.
“What do people catch here?” I asked.
“Most come after native Cutthroat. There are a few others in here too but the natives are the prize.”
A Raven came swooping down to the big boulder nearer the hat than either of us and squawked in our direction, feigned menicingly toward the hat then took off quickly. We both chuckled at his boldness.
“Counting coup.”, I said. “Are you an artist?” I asked, motioning at his sketch pad.
“I draw a thing or two around here.” He said and passed the pad to me for a look.
It was excellent, really beautiful. It was clear this fellow knew more about capturing a mountain landscape than I knew about anything. His work looked across the lake toward the Tetons. But it was different than my actual view. It was from a higher angle and there were old growth snags in the forrest below the mountain peaks. By comparison, my view across the lake included no old growth trees. The fire more than twenty-five years ago had erased them all. There was also more snow on the peaks in his vision than in mine. The focal point of the sketch was not the mountains though, but a fisherman in action, large in the foreground wearing a Stetson much like the artist’s. He was standing on the very rocks where we were sitting and was casting out into the placid lake. His line making a graceful arc behind him toward the viewer. A fly on the end of his line frozen on paper and drawn with loving detail just microseconds before it whipped out of the viewers sight. The scene evoked those gorgeous early railroad travel posters for Northern Pacific and Canadian Pacific. It was a rich, romantic stylization of Taggart Lake, beckoning me to come visit this marvelous western vista and relax with a rod and a cool mountain lake full of native trout. I could visualize the greens, browns, purples and blues that would eventually be added.
“It’s like a travel poster.”. I said
“Well good!.”, he said. “That’s what I have in mind. It’s an illustration for a magazine cover,”
“You’re Norman Rockwell.”, I said…and then laughed.
He laughed too and stuck out his hand and told me his name.
“Dal Neitzel.” I said. “It reminds me of those Art Deco travel posters from the first half of the twentieth century.”
“Perfect.”, he replied. “You seem to know a little about art. Do you own a gallery back in the San Juans?”
“Not at all.”, I said. “I’m lucky to own a pair of shoes.”
He laughed again. “How come you know those old travel posters?”, he asked.
“When I was growing up in Detroit those posters were still around in a lot of places. I remember being able to lock my little brain onto a poster of Banff National Park that hung on a wall where my mom worked. In about 5 minutes I could create a whole adventure there while I was fixated on the trees and mountains and river. They were wonderful.”
“That’s interesting.”, said the artist. “This is an image from when I was young. That’s my dad fishing. I’m watching from up in a tall tree that used to be back there. We came up here a lot. My mom, dad, sister and grandpa too. We would fish and picnic and swim and pick flowers and watch the animals and have a grand old time.”
“You were living the life I dreamed.”, I said.
“I was living the life I dreamed too.”, he replied. “This was our family’s secret place. My grandpa took dudes up here on horseback all through the first half of the century. He proposed to his wife up here in 1910. My dad proposed to my mom up here in 1933. Both my sister and myself were conceived up here. I proposed to my wife up here in 1956.”
“That’s pretty fun that you know where your life began.”, I said.
“Yeah..I loved my mom. She was a pretty down to earth woman. She revealed all that over a thanksgiving dinner one year. About a dozen relatives were enjoying their turkey and mom just blurted it out. Wide eyes all around. My dad couldn’t find a plate big enough to hide under but mom thought everybody should know. My sister ran to her room. I don’t think she spoke to mom for a month. I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn’t even know what ‘conceived’ meant.
We both laughed.
“I’ll tell you.”, he said. “This place is part of the fabric of my life but this is the first time I’ve been up here since the fire in ’85. That fire burned out this place. Killed it. My dad died from a heart attack trying to move his stock. My mom was so disturbed after dad died and the fire that she was just a shell of the wonderful, fun-loving lady she used to be. She just quit living a few months later. I couldn’t bring myself up here any more. The place I knew was simply gone, evaporated.”
I could see redness in his eyes.
“I’m sorry.”, I said. “What made you decide to come back now?”
He looked me in the eyes and took a kind of deep breath like he was trying to decide if he should tell me.
“When I was eight”, he began. “We were all up here goofing around. Right here. On this very rock. Mom was wading out there in the sandy bottom. Dad was fishing over there from the point. My sister and I were running around trying to get warm after playing in the cold water or we might be sitting on this rock playing old maid or go fish. We all loved it up here. I wish you could have seen it. Cool, tall old growth. Wildlife everywhere.
We came up just about every sunday while the weather was good. When it was time to leave I would often run ahead of everyone else. Sometimes my sister and I would see who could get back to the truck first. Sometimes I just ran ahead by myself for the sheer joy of it. That’s what I was doing that day. I was way down the trail ahead of everyone when I saw a bear cub just ahead of me on the trail. He saw me at just about the same moment and we locked eyes for about three seconds before he ran off the trail. He was just a cub so I walked up to where he was and looked around. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t want to go looking too close in case his mama was around. I knew enough about bears at that age to know that where there was a cub there was a mom. This was a cub, and a young one at that. Smaller than me and I was only eight. But mom had to be nearby and that scared the heck out of me. I knew running might attract her so I just tried to keep calm and walked down toward the truck. When I looked back to see if anything was following me…frighteningly, there was the cub again. That spooked me and I started yelling ‘mommy…daddy…help me” as loud as I was able and I couldn’t help myself…I just started running for the truck. When I ran, so did the cub. He was keeping about 30 feet behind me but I knew his mom was going to be after me too and she could run me down in a heartbeat.
Now my folks heard me yell and my dad thought it could be a bear because there are a lot of them around but they usually don’t bother anyone. He threw his pack on the trail and ran to help me. So off we all go. Me screaming my head off. The bears, both unseen mom and young cub close on my heels. My folks somewhere behind the bear chasing my screams. My sister petrified about finding a pile of bones with my shirt somewhere down the trail.
My dad follows my screams all the way to the truck. When he reaches the parking lot, there I am up on the roof of the cab still screaming and this cub..maybe just a few months old, patiently watching me from down on the ground. My dad looks around. No mama bear in sight. So he takes off his hat and walks toward the cub trying to shoo it away. But the cub won’t go. He moves a little to get away from the hat but he won’t leave the truck. Next comes my mom and sister. They see me on the roof and dad playing with a bear cub next to the truck. My dad swats at the bear and the bear swats at the hat but doesn’t really move. Mom and my sister start laughing. Partly because they know everyone is okay and partly because It’s the funniest thing they ever saw.
After awhile my dad tells me to get down on the opposite side and get into the truck. I do that. The bear follows me around and sit’s there watching up at me. Mom and sis come down and they pile into the truck on the side opposite of the bear. Then my dad gets in and starts the rig up and begins to pull out. The bear follows us. When dad speeds up the bear speeds up. When dad stops the bear stops and sits down and watches us.
We cannot figure out what’s going on in his fuzzy brown head.
Mom figures we have to do something or that poor little bear will get out on the road and some car will run him over. Dad can’t figure out why there isn’t a mama bear around.
Now dad was moving horses around to the ranch on saturday so the horse trailer is still behind the truck. Dad has an idea. He grabs an apple from the glove box and gets out of the truck and opens up the back of the horse trailer, puts the apple on the floor of the open trailer and walks away a little bit. That bear goes to the back and just climbs right in the trailer, grabs the apple and makes himself at home in some hay. So now we are the proud owners of a bear.
We take him home and put the back end of the trailer by the horse barn, open the trailer doors and that bear hops out of the trailer, strolls into the barn and makes himself at home in a horse stall. Just like he owns the place. It was the pivotal moment in my life.
That bear was my best buddy for 28 years. He lived in that horse barn and had the run of the ranch. His name was Dick. My mother named him. Enough said. But he was a great companion. It took awhile for the horses to get used to him. We made an insulated hut for him to hibernate in. Sometimes he’d use it. Sometimes he just slept a lot and stayed in the barn with the horses. A few years he’d disappear in spring. I figured he was out doing what bears do in the spring. He always came back. When we needed to go somewhere we piled him into the horse trailer or the back of the pick-up and took him along. He was even the Best Man at my wedding. I’m not kidding. My wife and I got married on the ranch. Mom made a tux for Dick. He was the darndest bear you ever saw. He loved the county fair. He liked the kids and it was pretty funny to watch him eat cotton candy. Dogs bothered him some. He didn’t like getting his feet wet so he wouldn’t fish. He didn’t like fish anyway unless I cooked it. His favorite food was Purina Horse Chow and watermelon. He never hurt anything or anybody…never.”
“Holy cow!”, was all that I could say.
“Dick died on this day in 1973, Forty years ago today, and I needed to be at this spot. So today I am celebrating two important things in my life…an important place and an important friend. I miss them both.”
There was more to the story of course. Like the first time Dick tasted ice cream and decided all of it was his and started raiding refrigerators at various dude ranches up and down the valley. Not everyone thought it was funny. When the artist turned twenty-one he celebrated by taking Dick to a bar in Jackson and both of them got pretty sloshed. The joke was that Dick was the the most sober so he had to drive home. For years there was a bar in Jackson called Dick’s Bar. Named after…you guessed it. Dick tried skiing one spring and up at Jackson Hole there used to be a bunny run named after him. He was legend.
It was dark with a decent full moon as I walked back toward the van that evening. I was more alert for bears than I had been on the way up. I was thinking about a young orphaned bear with amazing insight and a strong will to survive. How he understood what needed to be done in order to live on and how sometimes bears are smarter than me…
I was also thinking about where warm water’s halt….
Montana…here I come…