It was thirty minutes before my friend Madison and I were about to make the thousand mile, fifteen hour drive to Grand Teton National Park, and I still hadn’t packed. We’d just decided, fully committed, that morning, to making this trip happen. And now I was staring at what I’d thrown out on my bedroom floor; a few items I knew I needed—sleeping bag, tent, socks. What else? And why were we doing this?
I didn’t even really know about the solar eclipse until Madison told me about it. I’d seen partial eclipses before, and I didn’t quite get why he was so hell bent on driving across the country to see this one. But camping under The Tetons had piqued my interest. Neither Madison or I hold “regular” jobs. Along with the amazing freedom that this provides, it also has its handcuffs; it’s near impossible to make future plans because a gig might pop up. In fact, it usually does.
As much as I wanted to make the trip to Jackson, I didn’t get my hopes up. I assumed something would come up and the trip would fall apart last minute. Not to mention, I didn’t want to be the point person for making this trip happen. (Later, Madison confessed to me he’d felt the same way.)
Regardless, we decided we were going to go for it. I had a couple of friends in Jackson who told me the word “armageddon” was getting thrown around by the locals, and that they expected an influx of people that the town wasn’t really prepared to handle. I hate crowds. As I was rushing to throw the things into my big North Face duffel, I couldn’t stop thinking about what we’d have to do if we got to the park and found no campsites available. But I’d also just listened to a Ted Talk about why everyone needs to experience the eclipse, and I made the decision that if we experienced any negativity during the trip, it wasn’t going to come from me. Honestly, If either one of us had mentioned our reservations out loud, or said, “Forget it dude. it’s going to be a shit show up there,” I think we’d have called the whole thing off and watched the entire thing through our glasses from Venice. And so, we left at 10:30pm, with me taking the first shift.
We had in our minds that we were going to camp at Jenny Lake, the smallest and most sought after campground in The Park. Sites in Jenny Lake are first come, first serve. Around 11am, Madison called GTNP from the road to see what the camping situation was.. Full. Completely. They said people had been lining up for sites that morning at 6am. Well, that was out. We were stuck having to find other accommodations, at least for the first night.
I reached back out to my Jackson friends, who offered two options: one, a teepee on their property, or two, another campground close to The Park, on Shadow Mountain, with great views of the Tetons. We decided to go for the campground. We even went so far as to reach out to some people on Instagram through location tags to see if we could share their campsite. (No one responded.)
Traffic in and around Jackson was heavy, and the campground was a bit of a drive off the main road, but we were equipped with a jeep and were up to the challenge. We even decided to forgo groceries and supplies until we found our spot. We forged forward. The views were stunning, and as we climbed higher, our hopes kept rising. We felt confident we’d find the perfect spot, out on an overlook with an outrageous view. As we drove up the mountain, we passed site after site, sign after handwritten sign stating “FULL” in block letters on ripped out and repurposed pages. It didn’t look good. We went back and forth over the pros and cons of pulling out a no camping stake somewhere and just feigning ignorance. But, in the end, we both decided that it wasn’t worth the bad nature karma.
We thought: Why not go to Jenny Lake campground, and just drive through? Maybe we’d find another twosome who’d be willing to share their site. We’d offer to pay for it and make some new friends! Brilliant plan, clearly.
We made our way to Jenny Lake campground, and marveled at The Tetons. We slowly idled through, passing occupied site after occupied site. When we reached site 13, it had all the same “occupied” signs as the others, but was oddly missing any signs of occupation. No tent, no gear. Nothing. We stopped, stared, and decided that maybe, just maybe, we had been rewarded for our efforts. Madison jumped out to investigate, while I continued around the loop looking for anything that didn’t show, “Occupied”. We met back at the entrance. The documentation stated the site had been paid for until the following day. Madison had a photo of the tag, and some additional intel: the people at the neighboring site thought the occupants of 13 had vacated early. I mean, who takes their tent down in the middle of a stay? No one.
We hustled back to the rangers at the main Jenny Lake parking area. We breathlessly explained our situation and asked if it was possible for us to take over the site. They calmly explained that that wasn’t anything they could grant us and explained that we’d need to talk to the Camp Host, and told us how to find him.
Dave was a gruff guy. He’d clearly been dealing with would-be campers all day long, probably in many not-so-happy interactions, as he turned hopeful people away from a full park. When we knocked on his door he recognized us as people he hadn’t yet checked into a site, and immediately put up his defenses. We explained the situation, barely able to contain our hopes.
“Does it say, ‘Occupied’?” was his response.
We told him yes, but that the campers at the site over had told us they’d packed up and left. Dave explained that he’d have to come and “check it out.” He made no indication that this was something he was going to do soon. Or ever.
“Well…. Is that something you’d be willing to do?” I asked, with just the right amount of force behind it. We weren’t leaving until he inspected, and gave us an answer.
He looked me in the eye. “I need a minute,” he said, and closed his trailer door.
When we got to the site, I could tell he was prepared to give me the same bad news he’d given everyone all day long. But when he stopped and got out to view the documents, he slowed down. His whole demeanor changed as he realized he knew exactly who had been here, and he also knew they’d already left.
“I guess I have to let you have it.” My hands shot into the air in celebration. 5pm, four days before the eclipse, in the most desired campground in the area, and one of the highest traffic days to Jackson, a city in The Path of Totality. A short walk to a crystal clear, cold lake, right underneath the most stunning mountains in the Lower 48. It was ours. Lucky number 13.
As we sat around our fire that night we listened to the bluegrass music floating over from the campsite next door, we marveled at how things had worked out. We’d never let ourselves lose sight of what our ideal trip was going to be, and things had fallen into place exactly as we’d hoped.
We didn’t dismiss the lesson lightly. We applied positivity and a “go with it” attitude to every decision and situation for the rest of the trip. Things continued to fall into place and we had amazing experiences at every turn. The trip that almost didn’t happen turned into one of the greatest experiences of my life. Ten years after we’d hiked Macchu Picchu together, Madison and I were adventuring again, in one of the most magical places on earth, witnessing a wonder of the world that we may very well never have the opportunity revisit.
If you’ve never witnessed a Total Solar Eclipse, I cannot emphasize enough the magic of the experience. There’s only one way to experience it, and no way to replay it. The effort involved in getting yourself to the path of totality will never not be worth it. I don’t necessarily suggest not having a plan; I’m just saying that when you’ve got an open mind and a good friend, all things are possible.
Also, the next Total Solar Eclipse is going through Argentina in 2019. I’ll see you there.
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