It was the late summer of 1997, I had just taken the bar exam and I had packed nearly everything I owned into my little white 1992 Honda Civic. I pulled out of my sister's driveway in Newton, MA and headed west. I had no plan, no itinerary, no company. It was just me and the road and I was running.
I had separated from my first wife in the last few weeks of law school, a public and painful process that left me bruised, angry and feeling more than a little isolated. She had been a large part of the reason I went to law school and our dissolution raised profound questions for me about whether the trajectory of my new career and the job that waited for me in Los Angeles were the right ones. So when I hit the road that August, my tentative destination was California but it wasn't set in stone. Everything was up for grabs, everything was negotiable in the heart-to-heart conversation I was about to have with myself on the two-lane roads of America.
I wandered for awhile, but eventually wound up in Jackson Hole. I thought I might do some backcountry hiking so I had purchased some basic gear at LL Bean in Freeport before I headed west. This seemed like as good a place as any to give it a shot, so I stopped into the ranger station in Teton National Park and asked if they could recommend a hike that could take me well into the mountains for a 3 or 4 night stay. The ranger drew some lines on the map in yellow highlighter and I picked one, drove to the trailhead and started hiking.
I hiked all day on a trail through a canyon that eventually broke into the high country just below the treeline. I set up my camp on a beautiful outcrop of rock that overlooked a 1,000 foot drop to a small river with a gorgeous view of the opposite side of the canyon. I stayed for three days and spent most of the time trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I looked across that canyon with the proverbial angel on my shoulder and considered it all. As the wind blew down that mountain, I decided to go forward, go to California and create a life out of what seemed to be a valley of dry bones.
I've reimagined those three days on the mountain in the Tetons many times. I've looked for that spot on Google Earth and as time has erased the certainty of exactly where the spot was, its significance has only grown. I've always known I would visit that spot again someday, and on this trip, with the future once again cloudy, the time seemed right. So on Sunday afternoon, Quimby and I and the kids set off up the mountain in search of a spot now more imagined than real.
I made an educated guess that the place was Granite Canyon mostly because it looked right on the map. I remembered the lake at the top after the trees fell away and the map showed a little blue dot called Marion Lake. I recalled it being a strenuous hike but I attributed much of that to the gear I was carrying that day 18 years ago. But sure enough, after the first two miles, the trail curved to the left into the canyon and started a serious climb. As we walked, enough views looked familiar that I knew we were on the right trail but the kids were beginning to tire and it was already a five mile round trip for them, so Quimby agreed to play with them in the river while I forged ahead in search of my dream.
Freed from the pace of the kids, I ran up that mountain. As the shadows lengthened, the river fell away below me and the path narrowed, while my eyes scanned the contour of the opposite canyon wall until it seemed to match a picture I had taken on that trip. Finally, just by chance, two hours later, I saw what looked like the remains of a trail veering out to the edge and on a gamble that perhaps the trail had reworked itself in the intervening years, I scrambled through the brush.
I could have so easily walked right past it but I didn't. Here I was, my 43-year-old self in search of my 25-year-old self based on an artist's sketch by an unreliable witness. It was the spot, but it wasn't how I had remembered it. The underbrush had overtaken the little clearing where my tent had stood and the trees were bigger. Erosion had exposed countless rocks that were buried in the soil. As I stood there taking in the view, it suddenly seemed like a foolish idea, the significance I had attached to this place. And yet, sweating and dehydrated with no water, eight and a half miles in and four thousand feet of elevation up, and facing at least a two and a half hour hike out if I did it at the limit of my physical abilities, I suddenly realized that both my younger self and the mountain were speaking to me again. The answers, they said, weren't here anymore.
Somewhere down in that valley, my wife and kids were waiting for me and the thought that the last time I sat on this spot I couldn't have conceived of them brought a smile to my face. Still smiling, I said a quiet goodbye to my ghost and the mountain and turned back towards the valley. I still had eight and a half hard miles ahead of me but I was also half way there.