“Have you ever driven in snow?”
I look at my speed. Pushing sixty. The rental is an SUV. It’s probably okay. Then again…
Outside it is white as far as the eye can see. This isn’t a storm but it is difficult to tell where the world ends and the sky begins.
“Of course I’ve driven in snow.”
Busy instagramming, Kati gives me her side eye. “When?”
I can’t remember, but I’m not about to tell her that. There was that one time back in high school, right? I shrug. We should be absolutely fine barreling down the highway in frigid conditions.
We had just landed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This was our first time, both Kati and I, and I had zero expectations. I knew Yellowstone was up north and that we’d need to figure out how to get up there (closed roads and the longest government shutdown were just two obstacles) and we were supposed to be in the middle of another national park.
“Hey, where are the Tetons?”
We were technically inside Grand Teton National Park, a place known for its striking beauty and abundant wildlife. So far, neither were on display.
My phone pings. An electronic female voice helpfully barks out commands, “In 600 feet, turn right.”
The big SUV in front of us starts to slow. Blinker flips on. They must also be going to Triangle X Ranch.
Kati points. “Look, there it is!” Sure enough, there’s a turn off and a long road going up to a cluster of buildings near the tree line. The big SUV passes under an arch announcing the entrance to the ranch, powering through snow. It looks bumpy.
We reach the arch and a new voice, still electronic and female but clearly different, erupts from the car stereo, “WARNING, THIS IS AN UNPAVED ROAD!”
“Holy shit!” I look around the car, more amused then anything else. I haven’t owned a car in a long time. I’m sure they’ve improved since I was tooling around in a 2001 Honda Element. “I guess it has GPS.”
Kati is squinting outside. “What about the road?” There’s really only one thing I can do. I hit the gas and we bump along, praying not to get stuck.
I park next to the big SUV. A couple is just getting out. So is a dog. “DOGGIE!!!” Kati squeals.
We step out and the guy looks at me. “You here for the party tonight?” Uh. “We’re staying here.” The guy seems to dig it, smiles and walks away with his girlfriend. Kati and I share a look. Party?
The girl from the front office is showing us around the premises. Our feet crunch through snow. It’s cold. Kati is taking photos of the two old dogs that live on the ranch and currently tailing us.
The girl points to a two story building. “That’s the main house. You’ll get breakfast, lunch and dinner there. It’s always open. You can find tea and hot chocolate. Also there’s a hot tub.”
We continue. Now she points to a string of cabins up against the tree line.
“That first one is yours. You’re in #1.”
I’m nodding. Cool.
“Dinner starts at 6:30. So I’ll see you there soon!”
She starts tramping away. Something isn’t right.
“Hey, uh, what about keys?”
She turns and looks at me for a beat too long.
“There are no keys in this place.”
She walks away.
“What does she mean, no keys?” Kati blusters, “What happens if something is stolen?” I cross my arms, trying to warm up. “I guess they’ll know who it is if something goes missing…I mean it’s a small place.” This does nothing to assuage Kati’s fears. No keys. What kind of blasphemy is this?
“C’mon, let’s check it out.”
The cabin is cozy. And a bit worse for wear. One might call it ‘rustic.’ As I listen to the humming drone of the heater stuck into the wall, I wonder just how old this cabin is. Outside, the roof had looked new-ish. Everything else though… Well, it would do.
I throw myself on the bed and strike a pose. “So you want sex now or after dinner?” Kati ignores me and goes into the bathroom. Married life.
I flip on my phone. “Hey, I kinda have 4G!” I scroll for a while, but nothing loads. “Nevermind. 4G is a lie.”
I peak through the ancient curtains – Kati always calls me a paranoid old lady – and note the main house. Warm orange light spills out of the huge windows. There are a bunch of people in there. It looks halfway inviting. Everyone sips drinks and make awkward small talk. Some party.
“Hey you want to get dinner?” Kati comes out and sees me looking. “Will you stop that?”
I point at the door. “You see there’s a lock on the door?”
“If there are no keys…”
“Let’s make sure we don’t lock ourselves out when we leave.”
I catch her eye and try to wink. I can’t wink. It’s really just a sexy blink. “So…?”
Kati’s already pulling her boots on for dinner.
“So wait, can we order now?”
Kati and I are talking to two girls who work at the ranch. They both have shocks of red hair.
“You can order a glass or a bottle.”
“Okay, but what’s this wine for?” I’m talking about the four bottles of wine lined up on the table in front of us. All I want is a drink and it’s all very confusing.
The two girls look at each other. “Um…I don’t think you can drink that yet.” A third girl comes out – they all look the same, must be a family business – and they confer briefly. “No, you can’t have this wine.”
I look at Kati. She is just as bewildered as me. “Should we just get a bottle?” Let’s make this conversation stop please. She nods.
One of the girls hands me a menu. There are five options. None of them match what’s on the table. I point at something and the girls vanish into the back.
Kati and I take a seat in two massive chairs near the window. On the opposite side is a couch and a guy reading a book. He looks up briefly, then goes back to his book. There are clusters of people talking throughout the place.
A fourth girl comes out with a bottle and two glasses. The wine is not what I ordered. I say nothing. She pours and disappears.
Kati leans over to me and whispers, “What the fuck is going on?”
“You must be the new couple!”
We both turn and gaze at the friendly face standing over us. He looks like the girls. He introduces himself as Richard – or maybe it was Patrick? – and we start a conversation. Where are we from? What do we do? Who the hell are you? The guy on the couch never looks up.
All of a sudden dinner is announced, literally announced. I wonder briefly if I’ve ever been to a place that announces dinner. I look down at my wine. How many glasses have I had already? Two? I need to eat something.
The tables fill up. You know that classic high school trope of looking for a seat at lunch? For a second that’s all I can think about. Kati and I are following Richard/Patrick toward a table. There is another young couple already there. I see them see us coming.
“Hey uh, can we join you guys?”
The other couple knows Richard/Patrick. They graciously agree and more introductions are made.
“Is every dinner like this?”
Richard/Patrick is opposite me. He gives me a smile, like, oh this guy is dim. It won’t be the last time he uses that smile on me, but then I do ask some dumb questions when I try to keep a conversation going.
“It’s our 93rd anniversary tonight.”
Someone has stood up and is explaining the five course meal prepared for tonight. Each course has a wine pairing.
I lean over to Richard/Patrick. “Do we have to pay for the wine?” That smile again. “No, it’s included with dinner.” I look at my current glass of wine. That I paid for.
The lookalike girls bring the first wine pairing. These are full glasses. Not tastings. Dionysus would be proud. If there are five of these things, we are going to be shitfaced. I look to Kati. She is alarmed.
Richard/Patrick is telling us all about the history of his ranch. How it was started before the national park was made. That the park and his family has been at each other’s throats until recently. That most of the staff is family.
A new girl has started to set down bowls of soup at our table. Odd, she has brown hair. She gets to Kati and—
“Oh, I’m so sorry!”
I look and there’s green pea soup all over Kati’s pullover. A white pullover that she adores. It’s loud in there and a lot of stuff is going on and I think I’m four drinks in so everything is moving fast. Kati stands up and disappears without a word.
I look at Richard/Patrick. He’s seen the whole thing. If looks could kill.
Someone sets the next wine pairing down. I somehow now have three full glasses of wine, all graciously over-poured. My god. I’m going to die in this place.
Kati returns. She doesn’t mention the soup. Nor does Richard/Patrick.
The other couple is telling us about their work. They both work in different lodges and do we want to go snowmobiling? They know the best travel group to rent from. I find myself nodding. Sure, yeah, snowmobiling.
“No, it’s a snow machine.”
“That’s what we call it up here. Snowmobiling. It’s a snow machine!”
I’m nodding again. I look to my right. I somehow now have four full glasses of wine.
The food comes. I have no memory of it.
Later, Richard/Patrick is telling us about hunting. No one has brought up how my name is Hunter and that I don’t hunt. This is good.
“Do you see a lot of bears?” Inquiring minds want to know.
Oh sure, lotsa bears. We see them all the time. We can even kill ‘em if we have the right permit.
I take a sip of wine. I have somehow gone through two of the four glasses. I take another gulp. Good lord I need to hurry up.
Somehow I’m asking another question. “What happens when you see one?”
There’s that smile again. “You chase it off.”
“Are you crazy?!”
“No, we get on our horses and chase them.”
I almost spit up my wine.
“You hunt on HORSES?!”
We’ve made it to dessert. The girls are passing out the last wine pairing. But it’s not wine. It’s sherry. And it’s a full glass.
By this point, Richard/Patrick has disappeared. It’s just Kati and I and the young couple. They’re fun.
“What even is this?!”
The next morning we will tell each other that it was never explicitly said but that we all assumed we had to drink every glass to the end. Some synchronized madness was going on in that room.
The guy – I later remember his name is Joe – is talking about the hot tub. His girlfriend Emily is so down. Kati and I are of course in. For whatever reason, Joe and I order beers.
The party breaks up. Everyone is smashed. At some point I wander off outside and pee in the snow. When I finish I get paranoid and cover the yellow with fresh snow. What a weird thing to do.
I come back in and there’s another young couple at our table. The others have cleared out. We are now the only table left.
Time jumps and we’re in the hot tub. It’s huge. I’ve never seen a tub that big. Snow falls. We are merry. The new guy – his name lost in fog – passes me a bottle of Fireball.
Now let me stop right here and state that I loath, I despise, I hate Fireball. Whoever came up with that concoction should burn in fucking hell and —
“Oh yeah I love Fireball!” I take a long swig without batting an eye. Seriously what is wrong with me?
We talk a lot about what it’s like to live and work in Jackson. They’re locals but they’re all from somewhere else. Jackson is a difficult place to live. Rent is going up but salaries are not. Gentrification has set in.
More surprising, Jackson is ultra liberal.
“—A sea of Republicans? Yeah. Jackson is the third most liberal place after San Francisco and New York.”
I don’t think much about how long we’ve been in the water. At some point the words “two hours in here” flit by and I have a vague understanding that that can’t be good.
Kati is done. She pulls a towel around her and heads toward our cabin.
I blink and she’s back. Distressed.
“The door is locked!”
We all laugh. What do you mean the door is locked? There aren’t any keys in this place!
“I’m serious, I can’t get in and I don’t want to freeze my toes off!”
I stand up. “Well everyone, looks like I have to open the door.” I really play this up. It’s probably just jammed. I can totally fix this!
I slip my flip flops on and grab a towel, sprinting across the snow. I reach the door and try to turn the knob.
Uh oh. Slowly our predicament sloshes over me. I start shivering.
Kati is still back in the main house. If she had been there, I would never hear the end of it.
A voice in the back of my brain kicks into overdrive. It states in no uncertain terms: “IF YOU DO NOT GET INSIDE, YOU WILL DIE!”
I step back, taking the cabin in. Okay, well, if the door is locked. What about the windows?
I tear off the screen from a nearby window and try to open it. Doesn’t budge.
Around the side of the cabin are two other windows. They’re small, but I can probably squeeze through. Only one problem: the giant snowbank directly underneath.
That voice is really booming now. “YOU WILL DIE YOU WILL DIE YOU WILL—“
Fuck this. I wade into the snow. Powder up to my waist. I reach the first window. Locked. I get to the second.
It snaps up. Dry warm air hits me full in the face.
I climb inside and collapse on the bed. I take stock of the room. I only see one of my flip flops. “Oh shit. I lost a flip flop in the snow!” I say, not seeing the flip flop in the corner.
I stumble to the door and open it. Kati is there. “How’d you get in?”
I point at the destroyed window screen. “That was me.”
A sound makes me jump. I’ve been sleeping, or passed out. Whatever. It’s 5 am and my head is pounding.
“Did you hear that?”
We both sit up in bed.
“Something’s on the roof!”
I try to ignore my head. Where’s the advil?
“Shit. What is that?”
“Maybe it’s a… maybe it’s an animal?”
The sound changes somewhat. Like it’s scratching the roof.
Kati gets serious. “Why don’t you go see what it is?”
I see myself walking outside and coming face to face with a moose on the top of the house and this sends me into hysterics.
She just stares at me. Nothing can be that funny.
“Can you even imagine me going outside and actually finding something out there, and just being like, oh hello?”
This sends us both into hysterics.
We laugh ourselves to sleep.
“Are you serious?”
It’s breakfast. Joe and Emily are there. We all look like absolute dog shit.
I point at our cabin. You can see the screen hanging off the window.
They crack up.
“Why didn’t you just get one of the ranch hands? They always have a master key.”
Kati is talking about the foal. Foal?
I’m lost. “What’s a foal?”
“It’s the baby horse Robert was telling us about last night. The one that was born and they had no idea her mom was even pregnant. Don’t you remember?”
My look of utter confusion must tip her off, because she says, “You don’t remember Robert?”
“What’s a Robert?”
“Robert. The guy who runs this place.”
Ohhh! Richard/Patrick. Man, I was way off.
Kati segues to the wild animal on our roof last night. Joe and Emily laugh.
“That’s just snow. When it warms, it shifts. Sounds like someone is up there.”
I mutter something about a moose under my breath.
Emily stares out the window behind me. She asks Joe, “Is that the summit?” He shakes his head. “No, I think that’s Disappointment Peak.”
I follow their eye line.
My jaw drops.
The fog has lifted to reveal the Grand Teton mountain range. Stunning is just a word. You need to see to believe it.
Emily nods and smiles.
February 12, 2019