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Be sure to check out Death Canyon to Alaska Basin and Teton Creek to North Fork first!
Day 5: North Fork Cascade group site to String Lake Outlet trailhead, 12.3 miles, hot, cold, windy, rainy.
Alarm went off at 5:00a again but no one could quite manage it. Rough morning for everyone and our longest day yet.
We stopped at Lake Solitude (nicknamed Lake Multitude or Lack Solitude, you can guess why) so the boys could have a swim and we were actually the only ones there! All the boys stripped down to their undies and started their cold water hemming and hawing and while Sky was preparing himself at the edge, Jordan ran right past him and went in first, surprising us all and earning the new trail name ‘High Dive’. After Blake went in he earned the new trail name ‘Uhhhh is he okay? Seriously. He might be dead.’
From Lake Solitude it’s all uphill to Paintbrush Divide and like most passes, it was super windy and freezing cold. We piled our packs around Hambone to keep her alive and Blake fulfilled a life dream of peeing off a cliff. It’s a total scree (scary, loose rock) field down to the valley floor and Greg and I hung back from the group and watched with sick stomachs as they negotiated switchbacks on the rocks with other hikers trying to come up them. Everyone survived of course, although Blake nearly didn’t when traveling across a snow field he picked some up and threw it at Hambone. “Who THREW that at me?” Blake said that was the most scared he’d been the whole trip.
Hambone woke up with a scratch on her eye that progressively got worse throughout the death march and Merik fell off the trail (thankfully not on the scree) and busted his noggin. Spirits started to get low around lunchtime so we stopped for a snack and I doled out caffeine pills, which I’ll never hike without again. We played the Alphabet Body Part game, you know, where the first person in line says ‘Arm’ and the second person in line says ‘Arm’ ‘Brain’ and the third person says ‘Arm’ ‘Brain’ ‘Calf’ (that took me a long time to come up with a ‘c’ word that wasn’t vulgar). Slang was encouraged and Blake laughed every single time someone had to say ‘Dong’. We stopped to watch a bull moose lying right off the trail and Ryan tried to fashion an eye patch for Hambone, much to everyone’s delight. It didn’t last long.
After the Divide we were happy to get back into warm sunshine again, but the canyon was a long, hot, horrible downhill hike and I don’t think any of us care to ever see it again. I’m all for hiking for big views but save yourself the misery and go up Cascade Canyon instead. Hambone completely gave up on trying to use her eye by the end and hiked out far ahead of us with the scratched one closed. Greg and I tried to keep the subadults entertained with every alphabet game we could think of- celebrities, movies, songs, birds, and cravings (Anti-perspirant, Bologna sandwich, Cold shower…)- but nothing helped. Seriously hated that canyon by the end and fittingly it started raining on us as we came out of it and were rounding String Lake. Spotted another black bear high above the trail on our way out.
We left the group at the trailhead and Greg and I walked for the van, then I took Hambone, Ryan, and Merik and we went to get the other car while everyone else waited for us. Ryan opened the trunk to food crumbs and stuffing everywhere- a sure sign some effing rodent had gotten in the trunk while we were gone. Those three took the van to try and secure a campsite for the night while I drove the car back to get the boys where they were waiting in the rain. Due to being seriously short on space, Blake was forced to leave his ‘dong’ behind. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Greg told me later there wasn’t room and it had to go. I was just sick about it.
Naturally on a rainy Friday night in the Tetons every campground in the park was full, so we instead met at Dairy Queen in Jackson to discuss our options. Hambone’s eye was miserable and on the way to DQ mine started to get funky as well- red and watering nonstop. The longer we sat at DQ the worse it got until Ryan pointed out my eye was swelling. I went to check it out in the bathroom and my right eye had become so edematous it was pushing it straight left so I was newly cross-eyed. Greg admitted he had noticed it was getting worse, but didn’t want to say anything because “he had accused me of having a lazy eye before and I didn’t take it well”. I started googling eye fungi they ain’t identified yet, but I didn’t think mine had anything to do with Hambone’s. Blake, however, was sure we were both infected and highly contagious and moved out of our vicinity so he wouldn’t catch what we had. I went back for a second look and discovered two eyelashes poking into my eye, and I think it was a combination of those and five days of dirt, sweat, and sunscreen that swelled mine up. We took a closer look at Hambone’s and her scratch had become what looked like a blister- BLECH. We tried calling around for hotel rooms, but not one hotel in Jackson had vacancy for the night. We drove out of town and toward Curtis Canyon on the other side of the Elk Refuge where we set up tents on National Forest land for free.
Hambone’s eye continued to swell and around 3:00a Ryan drove her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with infected ulcers- DOUBLE BLECH. The ER doc told her if they were left untreated she could lose her eye, which was great since there is apparently only one ophthalmologist in town and he was on vacation. We learned an important life lesson that night: Always have a lodging plan when hiking out. It was a terrible end to a death march day.
Greg woke up to answer nature’s call the next morning and promptly came back and kicked me out of bed for a storm that was almost on us. We roused everyone else and within two minutes the rain, hail, and wind hit us as we tried to tear the tents down, some of the boys still in their undies. The wind nearly ripped a tent out of our hands and there were at least five people holding it down. We just threw everything inside the vehicles and went straight to McD’s to escape the weather. Hambone called me on the way to town and told me the hospital had mentioned patient lodging if she was going to stick around to try and see an optometrist after the weekend. $70/night for a two-bedroom cabin with a kitchenette. Scoreboard! Sorry about your eye, Hambone, but THANK YOU for that amazing hookup! We booked it for two nights, and got the boys a separate room to share (best decision ever). The rooms weren’t available yet so we enjoyed our McD’s coffee and wifi, then stocked up on groceries. If you like McDonald’s as much as we do (public restrooms, free wifi, and my favorite coffee) you’ll love the one in Jackson. It’s got a flat screen playing non-stop footage of the Tetons and Yellowstone, it’s decorated like someone’s home, and an older woman in an apron goes around refilling everyone’s coffee; it’s a real delight. It was still raining when we finally got to our rooms, but it was a perfect day to unpack, wash clothes and dishes, and organize. You wouldn’t believe how much laundry eight people can produce over a week of camping. Luckily the hospital resort had a few coin-operated machines (as well as free wifi, as well as a communal grill and outdoor fireplace, as well as a bball court) (Look, don’t tell them I sent you, but if you’ve already met your deductible for the year, a little visit to the ER in Jackson wouldn’t hurt, right? Best lodging deal in town.) We made spaghetti and a big salad and pan-fried brie for supper, and had popcorn and coffee for dessert and watched Hot Rod in our soft pants. It was the perfect end to an infected ulcer day.
p.s. Hambone would leave Jackson on Monday to see an ophthalmologist in Idaho, who dilated her eye, gave her a stronger antibiotic, and suggested she get to a specialist in Denver, who gave her another antibiotic and sent her on her way. Hambone couldn’t really remember what happened in Denver, said it was all a blur. Blur. Oh Hambone, she’s the one eye one eye one eye love. And she’s still got both.
All’s well that ends well, and this was the only backpacking trip I’ve ever done that as we were hiking out I wished we were just hiking in. It was that good.