One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to arrive someplace new at night, wake up early, and let the sunrise paint a whole new world before my eyes. First, you see your horizons form, then some hills or mountains, then the ghostly shapes of buildings, and then the details — windows, trees, coastlines, vehicles — all pulled from the blackness as though rendered via the slowest dial-up modem on Earth.
Sometimes the same is true with weather; it lifts, and the clouds float away to reveal spectacular surroundings. But sometimes, it doesn’t. The fog may not lift after you’ve journeyed to someplace special; the rain may not actually stop pouring from the sky. That’s how my two most recent adventures transpired: an 18-mile hike through Utah’s Bryce Canyon with guides from REI Adventures, and a visit to Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. In each case, I searched out epic golden-hour vistas online to prepare for my visit, hoping for world-class photos opps. Instead, I met thick, gloomy clouds. I admired the crazy hoodoos in Bryce on Instagram and instead found walls of mud. The jagged sawtooth mountains of Teton I hoped to view firsthand presented as low clouds truncating the peaks barely 200 feet from their bases.
I humped my 35-pound pack through the canyon, mud clinging to my boots, and my camera stayed packed tight in a dry-bag the entire time.
Bryce was uniquely excruciating. I humped my 35-pound pack through the canyon, mud clinging to my boots, and my camera stayed packed tight in a dry-bag the entire time. I could see what was right around me — hints of sandstone cliffs, ghostly evergreens emerging from the gray muck — but that only made me feel I was trapped in a diorama at the National Museum of Natural History, with faux boulders and trees in arm’s reach and giant, bland matte paintings standing in for the landscape beyond.
I’d love to be able to deliver a clever coda to my two-day slog through the miserably wet canyon — “a bad day in Bryce Canyon is still better than a good day at the office” — but I’m not that guy. I don’t commune with nature by rolling around in the slop and finding enlightenment no matter the circumstances. I need better weather for that. But nor am I some cranky curmudgeon. I love the outdoors, have spent countless hours exploring it, including a five-day descent through the Grand Canyon and a nine-day climb up Kilimanjaro (both equally hit-and-miss, weather-wise), and would travel to the ends of the earth if I thought for one second I’d see something amazing and perhaps snag a great image of it. I just don’t like doing it when there’s little hope of reward, wearing the psychological equivalent of a complete blindfold, with cement blocks anchored to my feet.
I would travel to the ends of the earth if I thought for one second I’d see something amazing and perhaps snag a great image of it.
But that is part of the game. You could indeed travel 12,000 miles to surf and be met with seas as calm as koi pond. You could travel to the Arctic Circle to see the aurora borealis and come away with aurora bupkus. And therein lies the consolation — and the motivation. The more you travel, the more your inventory of successes and failures stacks up into something approaching a great overarching narrative.
The crew I hiked with through Bryce — unwaveringly chipper and talented hikers — made the experience far greater than it had any right to be, and the physical exhaustion of the daily high-altitude hike flipped, as it tends to do, into physical exhilaration the next day, soreness be damned. We ate great food, laughed at the miserable conditions, and hunkered down in a dinner tent after 70+ mph winds completely flattened the camp’s kitchen tent next door. The following morning, the sun rose spectacularly, but a return to Bryce to capture the canyon in its bright glory simply wasn’t in the cards. We had flights, and a five-hour van ride to the airport.
My trip to the Tetons a week later, however, ended on a decidedly different note. I was there to test the Audi A4 Allroad, and spent two days driving around the Jackson Hole area, through muddy roads and driving rain, with all but the closest scenery erased by low clouds. Of course, I was sitting comfortably in the leather-clad cabin the whole time, but I was still wildly bummed by the conditions. I snuck out every chance I could in the hopes that the clouds would break and I could see the park in all its glory. I woke up before dawn to see if a sunrise was in the cards. No dice. I called the airlines to try to add a day to my trip, but the flights out were booked solid for several days. Then, on the last morning, I made my way to the airport well before sunrise. When I got there, I noticed stars flickering above. I could see a dark-blue dome clearing in the east, free of clouds.
I went in to check in for my flight at the kiosk, dejected from the second missed opportunity in a row. As I started through United Airlines’ screens, I noticed a button at the bottom: “Flight Options.” I pressed it. Sure enough, there was a flight later in the day that had a few available seats. I tallied up my obligations at home — minimal, thankfully — and rebooked my flight.
One hour later, I had my vistas, and my photos. It was, without a doubt, the greatest half-second decision of my life. With a degree of flexibility and a ton of commitment to my mission, I pulled it out of a hat. I wasn’t able to at Bryce, but I certainly made some magic happen in the Tetons. The takeaway? You can’t change the weather. But when you can change your schedule, do. And if you still don’t get the photo, you’ll get the story. That said, I still gotta get back to Bryce.