Travel Is a Learning Experience
Yes, folks, they say experience is the best teacher. On certain days of this trip, we’ve definitely had an experience that taught us something we’ll never forget. Back in South Dakota, we learned that it’s really nice to have a contingency plan if a thunderstorm rolls through when we’re camping on the Great Plains. Just a couple of days ago, I learned that my lack of planning can easily result in an overtired and unhappy Becky. And this morning, I learned something about spending time at altitude that I will never ever forget. I suppose the “they” who said that experience is the best teacher could also say that travel is the best way to gain experience.
Today’s lesson culminated this afternoon. I say culminated, because the lesson had actually started way back when we arrived in Yellowstone—I just didn’t know. Remember those headaches I’d mentioned over the last two days or so? Yeah, well I went to sleep last night with one, and it was still lingering when I woke up this morning. I’ll explain the connection in a bit…
Yesterday we left Yellowstone National Park and set up camp in Colter Bay Campground in Grand Teton National Park. It was a smooth and uneventful day beyond a little sightseeing. We spent most of the day relaxing and just setting up camp for the next couple of days. We even got to bed at a good time, about 10pm. Aside from the headache I went to bed with, I felt pretty good, and just chalked it up to our altitude at 6,800 feet. Becky too wasn’t feeling 100% herself. Either way, I thought a good night’s sleep would have us feeling better this morning, and we’d get an early start.
Well, we didn’t. I could have felt better, but I felt mostly OK. Becky wasn’t feeling all that great. So rather than arriving bright and early at Jenny Lake to take a shuttle boat across to hike Cascade Canyon, we slept in. This sounds nicer than it felt, since our air mattress was almost completely flat. Becky suspected a slow leak, but I thought tired batteries could also be the culprit. I think we finally got on the road around 10am.
The views of the Tetons along the way were incredible! The morning sun lit Mount Moran and Grand Teton in a totally spectacular and yet totally different way than we saw near dusk the night before. At this point I was totally engaged in the scenery and my photography, as usual…and my morning meh feeling was no longer on my mind.
Arriving at Jenny Lake…Sort Of
We arrived at the parking area near the Jenny Lake Visitor Center and the place was completely packed. I knew this was a popular area, but I had no idea how much demand exceeded supply. As Becky drove around the parking lot hunting for a space, I began feeling more and more woozy. I’m sure winding around wasn’t helping, but my heart was starting to beat faster now too. After we passed Willow Flats I noticed I felt a little short of breath and used my albuterol inhaler which helps with my asthma. That can raise my heartbeat, but not usually this much. Things did not feel right and seemed to be getting worse. I told Becky that she had to stop the car. Since there were no parking spaces anywhere in sight, she was a little confused. I told her to just stop somewhere that cars could still pass, because I felt terrible and needed to stop moving.
Now have I mentioned that I have anxiety issues? Well, I do…and I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say I’m a hypochondriac—OK maybe I am a little—but I am certainly aware that reading about the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness on Wikipedia the night before probably increased my anxiety over the symptoms I had! Anyway, I kept thinking of how this could develop, while at the same time trying to calm down by reminding myself that I’d been at altitude for days now, so whatever is going on can’t be that bad. Either way, I felt really nauseated and my heart seemed to be racing, and I had no idea why.
After trying unsuccessfully for several minutes to just relax and feel better, I told Becky to go in and see if they could send out a medic. I wanted help determining if this was a big deal or not, and what to do about it. So Becky ran up to the visitor center and brought a ranger back. While she was gone, the thought crossed my mind about how I’d bought trip insurance. My original purpose in buying it was to save money on protecting the rental car—but it covers medical emergencies too. Right now I was glad that I had this!
Well, a ranger came and began asking me questions and taking my vitals. He was trained in basic emergency medical care, but I could tell he was pretty nervous. I could also tell he was just getting baseline vitals in case I got worse. He actually did great, and calmed down quite a bit when a second ranger arrived, who was a paramedic. The second ranger figured that the albuterol was responsible for my heart rate, but he radioed a doctor at the hospital in Jackson to get his opinion too. Both of them thought I should probably come down to the emergency room to get checked out. An ambulance had arrived by now, but they thought I was probably well enough that Becky could just drive me.
At this point I felt better than I did when I told Becky to stop the car and get the ranger, but I still felt awful. I really wanted to go hiking, and I really didn’t want to go to an emergency room…but I still didn’t know what was wrong, and I didn’t want to find out the hard way that it was way worse than anybody thought. So, we started off on the hour-long drive to Jackson.
The Emergency Room
St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson was small but seemed modern and up-to-date. Getting in and registered was rather painless. A woman named Mack was the nurse. She took my vitals again and a few minutes later, the doctor that the ranger had radioed back at Jenny Lake came in to see me.
He told me that I was dehydrated…
I mean, I know dehydration is pretty serious if it goes on for too long, but I felt pretty dumb that it was something so easily prevented and one that Becky had already suggested. I had no idea that the weird headache I’d been getting was because of my paltry fluid intake. Given the choice, I’d have saved myself the trip to the hospital—and the expense—by drinking a bunch of water first.
After the diagnosis, all they did was give me a pill for nausea and a bottle of Gatorade to drink. They advised me to drink a lot more water and avoid alcohol, and everything would be fine real quick.
So learn from my mistakes folks…the higher your altitude, the thinner the air (especially above 5,000 feet), and the lower the temperature at which your sweat evaporates. You probably won’t even notice it. Your body can adjust to it so you don’t lose so much moisture, but it can take weeks for that to happen. So for us lowlanders in the Midwest and on the coasts, don’t forsake hydration so you don’t have to carry water or make as many trips to the restroom. Know that a headache isn’t because you’re thin on oxygen—it’s because you’re thin on water. Drink more than you think you’ll need, or you’ll wind up feeling awful and then awful stupid like me!
Resupplying and Recovering in Jackson
Now out of the hospital and feeling more human again, our attention turned to resupplying. This was our first time outside of a national park since we left Cody, four days ago. We topped off on gas back then in order to avoid the crazy high gas prices inside the parks. Our first stop in town was a gas station where we could restock our ice and buy some Gatorade. Although gas station cuisine isn’t my favorite, I grabbed a couple of pizza slices since I finally felt well enough to eat.
I still didn’t feel all that awesome though. I suggested to Becky that we chill out at the lower elevation in Jackson for a while before we headed back into Teton. Becky was interested in checking out the shops downtown and getting some Starbucks, so that worked for her. Even though downtown was pretty busy, we found a lucky parking space right on the square. Becky went exploring while I pulled my camping chair out of the trunk and sat in the park to write and drink Gatorade.
Jackson Town Square
Jackson is a beautiful little town surrounded by mountains, one of which has a ski resort. You could tell that a lot of money passed through here, as the architecture and branding on everything was impeccable, and most of the hotel rates advertised were not of the budget variety. Even with the strong corporate retail presence, Downtown Jackson still managed to maintain a modern-authentic Western vibe with wooden sidewalks and plenty of local leather and hat shops. Tourism was obviously the bread and butter here, with plenty of gift shops, bed & breakfasts, restaurants, and coffee shops to go around. Jackson also sports bicycle lanes all over town, with trails connecting directly into Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Jackson Town Square, right in the center, was the cherry on top of everything. All four corners have gateways made of densely stacked antlers. People were everywhere, mingling, relaxing, and getting their pictures taken in front of the antlers. If you come through this way, Downtown Jackson is definitely worth a stop and a look!
Still Not Quite Feeling It
Becky took a couple of breaks from exploring to check on me. I felt better the longer I sat, but I was not improving remarkably fast. Around 4 o’clock we finally decided to head out anyway, as Becky wanted to go back to Jenny Lake before everything closed. She wanted to pick up a souvenir for her best friend, Jenny. She also hoped that we could at least walk around for a bit.
Along the way, Becky handed me this huge bottle she’d filled with water and told me to drink a quarter of it in the next 10 minutes, even if I had to force myself. This was when I finally started to really feel better. Even after I left the hospital, I still hadn’t been drinking enough to replenish my body…but at least now I was on the right track. Oh well…
By the time we’d reached Jenny Lake, I’d finished the bottle. I sat in the car while Becky ran to the gift shop and walked up to the lake. While she was gone, foreboding clouds came over the mountains and brought wind and rain. By the time the storm calmed down and Becky came back, I felt confident that I could get out and walk around and still feel OK. I finally felt human again!
Back at Colter Bay
After twelve days on the road, it was time to do some laundry. Campsites at Colter Bay don’t come with free showers like we had in Yellowstone. There are pay showers at Colter Bay Village though, inside the same building as the laundromat.
Since it wouldn’t be long before dark, we stopped at our tent to see if the storm had gotten anything wet inside, and it had. Becky dried off the front of the tent to prevent water from getting in from unzipping the door, and she dried out a few spots inside.
Plotting Our Course to Colorado
As we drove back to the showers and laundry, Becky and I talked about leaving Teton a little later tomorrow. We both wanted to get at least part of today’s scrubbed hike in at Jenny Lake before heading to Colorado. This not only meant cutting down our time at Rocky Mountain National Park, but possibly breaking up our 8-hour drive there as well.
This was a tough nut to crack… As Becky got the laundry going and waited for her shower, I began poring over the maps looking at our options. A man sitting at the table with us overheard our conversation as we deliberated over three possible routes, some of which were marked scenic, and others that weren’t. When Becky went in for her shower, he spoke up and told me that he was from Nebraska and had been on most of the roads across Wyoming, and that a lot of them were really scenic. He told me his name was Dave, and shared how he loves getting out to all the parks. Unfortunately, a pretty nasty work accident had forced him into retirement and now he can’t hike like he used to. He spent a lot of years in the Army Special Forces, and had been all over the world for different conflicts. Dave was super interesting to talk to, and helped me talk through our options a bit.
By the time Becky returned, I’d figured out that we could stick to the original scenic route I’d planned, finding a place to stay tomorrow night in Craig, Colorado. From Craig, we’d head out early for Rocky Mountain National Park. We’d miss out on camping inside the park, but we would still get to drive across on the Trail Ridge Road and make it to my Aunt Pat’s house in Denver in time for dinner.
My next mission was to find somewhere to camp in Craig. Googling revealed that the town must not be a big tourist destination—only one campground popped up. Seeing that the weather looked free of rain, I stepped outside and called to put down a reservation for a primitive campsite. Mission accomplished!
Before I went back inside, however, I looked up at the mountain as the sun set beyond. A low cloud from the late afternoon thunderstorms lingered, and the setting sun had turned the cloud and parts of the mountain pink—it was breathtaking! I wanted to photograph it, but knew it would change in just seconds. I ran in and sent Becky out while I continued folding the laundry. I wanted her to see that magnificent sight for herself, and she was thankful! When she came back in, I ran to retrieve my camera from the trunk of our car. By the time I got it out, it was nowhere near as stunning. The pink color had faded and mostly there was just a gray cloud across the top of the mountain.
Dinner and a Fire
With our laundry packed up, we headed back to camp. Becky put the clothes away and re-inflated the bed while I got a dinner fire started. Since I felt so much better now, this was no problem. All of our wood was still dry in spite of the storm, since I’d stashed it either under the bear box or the picnic table the night before. I noticed, however, that there was now an extra box of wood under our table…how cool! Someone must have left it for us when they checked out earlier. Maybe they saw me fighting that stubborn big log that wouldn’t split last night and left it as consolation!
Either way, we had tons more wood than we needed…so I decided tonight’s fire would be big, bright, and hot! A great way to go out with the night after a rough day…a hot fire and a hot meal with the sausages we bought the day before.
I drank water like a fish that night. I ran to the restroom more than I preferred to, but I had no headache and I felt better than I’d felt in a couple of days. We ate and enjoyed ourselves, looking forward to packing up camp early tomorrow so we could hit the trail at Jenny Lake. Afterward, we’d cross Wyoming and head into Colorado. In spite of winding up at the hospital that day, the night ended well and I hoped to get a good rest.