“In an effort to preserve the pristine quality of his White Paintings, Rauschenberg frequently repainted them or had them repainted by other artists....”

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s description of Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Painting [four panels],” 1951


The view atop Paintbrush Divide is repainted each day by the presence of the sun and the elements. Or by their absence. Clouds. Rain. Sleet. Snow. Lightning. Wind. As the volume of each varies, so does their imprint and interplay. Nothing is the same ever.

The imagination can conjure a day, a moment at least, when the sun alone owns the scene, and in that instant a panorama of the great, jagged majesty of the Tetons is unveiled. The slump of the divide, like the wrinkle in a blanket, would be behind. A shoulder of lose boulders and scree would be off to the side − the very definition of potential energy as they rest in stillness, an avalanche waiting to happen. The peaks of the adjacent mountains would be a towering crown, presiding over basilicas of stone that demand awe if not worship. Beyond the immediate surroundings would be the vast eternity of the range, carved by time’s forces, quiet now except for the distant sound of a tumbling river and a wind as faint as breath.

There are days for seeing all of this. This was not the one of those days. This day belonged to the elements that shroud. Snow blended seamlessly with wispy clouds, lowered by whatever forces of weather brought them down from the atmosphere above. We, the interlopers, walked through a canvas painted in an acrhomic continuum varying in shades and translucence, as the whites might on a modernist’s canvas of oils from titanium to cremnitz.

There is beauty even when so little can be seen. It is the beauty of an intimate, wild place where the Tetons loom large but oh so proximate. The soul wants to be in a place like this. It is a womb for the soul, as timeless and as inscrutable as any womb nourishing its charge during the finite time it has to do so. No one is meant to stay here beyond whatever period of gestation is allotted. A day. Two or three. A week. Everyone leaves less fetal, more formed.

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What you have read to this point is honest. It describes what I saw and felt. But my hiking companions like to laugh and tell me after reading one of my accounts that they wish they’ve been on that hike. That is, my account isn’t how they would tell the story. They don't dispute the facts of the trip. The distance. The elevation. The destinations. On those, we agree.They question the subjective, not the objective: context, perspective, interpretation, emphasis.

The difference in point of view on this trip had to do with the degree to which each of us perceived danger, or didn't, as we climbed up and then over the divide.

So read on, but know that if the storyteller were, in alphabetical order, Dave Heidrich, John Hennessey, Colin Jennings, Eric Krosnes, Kate Neikirk or Mac Riley, it would be told differently, for those were my six companions ‒ each a lens unto themselves.

This hike, in a literal sense, began around 11 a.m., Mountain Savings Time, on September 10, 2019, when we stepped off the ferry at Jenny Lake inside the Grand Tetons National Park and stepped onto the Cascade Canyon Trail. We would walk west, camp and then loop north and east to climb to the Paintbrush Divide before descending through Paintbrush Canyon where we would camp a second night before hiking out at String Lake. We would cover 19 miles and 3,900 feet of elevation gain over three days and two nights. Our highest point was the divide itself at 10,700 feet.

Truth is, this hike began a year earlier when some of the people in this group, namely Dave, John, Mac and me, were near Lake Solitude after three nights on the Grand Teton Trail. With us were Derek Goodson, Mark Goetz, Rob Seddon and John Stratton. We had planned a fourth night that would include climbing Paintbrush and coming out at String Lake. But there were complications. Bunions. Failing knees. Failing nerves. A minor case of pneumonia. A forecast for the next morning sealed a majority vote in favor of an early departure.

Sometime during the ensuing winter, I asked Mac about retuning. He had been one of the votes to keep going in 2018, when he said of the outvoted minority, “We finish things.” In truth, I don’t always, otherwise I would have a master’s degree in history, I would have put Phil Saunders in checkmate in 1974 rather than stalemate after chasing his lonely king around the board, and I would have completed the redwood strip canoe in my garage. But this I would finish. Mac, Dave, John and Colin signed on. My wife, Kate, and friend Eric Krosnes did as well. So for the 2019 return to the Tetons, we were seven people, average age of 56, ages ranging from 28 to 65.

The trip got off on the wrong foot. Our permits were for a Wednesday entry and Friday exit. We needed it all moved back a day. Derek, who lives in Jackson Hole and knows everyone and everything about the place, straightened that out for us before leaving on a 200-mile bicycle race – which would keep him from hiking with us this year.

And then there were issues with two back country necessities, fire and water. Our stove failed on the first night, producing an anemic flame intent on proving the adage that a watched pot never boils. Campfires are illegal in the park but I hope the government of the United States will forgive us a stick fire between two rocks for simmering our supper. Our filters were working fine. We just forgot to bring them. Three made it to Jackson Hole but in our zest to cut pack weights we left all of them there. he following dialogue occurred: “Oh, I thought you brought yours.” “I didn’t bring mine because I thought you brought yours.” Note to self: Confirm equipment at the trailhead next time.

The little stick fire worked fine, and Eric fixed the stove that evening using a multi-tool and his wits. To purify water, I had iodine pills. They were so old that the lid was rusted shut, which became another job for the multi-tool. We had giardia-free water even if it had a bitter taste and a brownish tint.

The cloud we could not get out from under was an actual cloud. The forecast called for drizzle and downpours nonstop until 6 a.m. Thursday, which pretty much nailed it. We did start out under sunny skies aboard the pontoon shuttle over Jenny Lake to reach our trailhead. And there was one break in the clouds during Tuesday dinner. Then, by bedtime, there was thunder, lightning and a deluge.

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Jenny Lake is a barrier between the edge of civilization that extends from Jackson Hole to the national park entrance, where it is still possible to look upon the Tetons as you might look upon a menacing animal at the zoo. Once over the lake and on the trail, the barrier is gone. Hikers are advised to carry bear spray “and know how to use it,” as this is grizzly country. It's hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.

But like Holly from Miami F.L.A., the walk toward the wild side is a transition. You don't pluck your eyebrows and shave your legs all at once. So to speak. The early miles are shared by those who walk an hour or so, including many whose age or weight or health won’t permit much more. To their credit, they have chosen to use what mobility they can muster to be in a place like this. To their discredit, many are dressed in a ridiculous array of T-shirts and sweatshirts that advertise where they have been which is often where they are now. Jackson Hole says one shirt. Tetons says another. Very odd that in this age of Waze and Siri and Google Earth people could be so insecure about where their whereabouts as to label themselves. Those not dressed this way were instead overdressed in backcountry drag, as if going to an REI catalog shoot.

We were with these billboard folks when we saw a bull moose off to the side the trail, grazing. A moose is the SUV of the forest mammals — large and in charge and capable of actually charging. Somehow, a full-size male with a rack of antlers can still blend into the trees and bushes. No telling how many people walked by this moose without seeing him. However, once spotted the moose's presence was announced in hushed tones to each subsequent hiker ‒ "Moose over there ... shhh!" This particular moose now exists in perpetuity in the Apple cloud, as dozens of iPhones were recording its every munch.

With each mile and each significant increase in elevation, the crowd thinned. The upper trail belonged to those of ambitious intentions. A few miles in, the rain began and we had the trail almost to ourselves. Our rain suits would not come off except to sleep until Thursday morning, when, as predicted, rain quit and, little darling, the sun had its George Harrison moment.

Much of a hike is the monotony of one step after another, although in the Tetons, as in many places in America, each step is through an Eden. At camp, you unpack. Set up tents. Blow up the air mattresses. Start dinner. Do the dishes. Converse. Tell a joke or two. Pee. Go to bed. Get up. Pee. Pack up. Walk.

It can get eventful during the night, as it did our first night. A low growl emanated from the vicinity of the bear box, where the food was stored overnight. Hearing it, Eric unzipped his tent's door as quietly as he could to access his bear spray. He also got his knife, unfolding the blade with visions of that scene from "The Revenant" in his head, in which Leonardo DiCaprio stabs an Ungentle Ben in the throat, severing an artery. We woke that morning to some large mammals in camp. Not bears. Mule deer.

That morning we hiked four miles to Lake Solitude, the terminus of last year's shortened hike. We arrived at noon. It was still raining but the mountains above us were now dusted with snow.

This is where this story bifurcates. My version versus theirs. Mine is this: The weather wasn’t that bad. Snow? So what. Theirs: Terrifying. Stupid dangerous.

I find solace in the mountains, whether in my native Appalachians or in these ranges of the Rockies, still forming and naked to the elements. They are a Psalm to me. Every step is a grace. For others, this hike went too far, too high and too negligently past the margins of safety. I don't dispute their perception. But it is theirs, not mine.

Having hiked in snow many times, I am fine with it. However, it should be pointed out that I’ve hiked in snow at home in Kentucky, where the elevation is minimal and, by Wyoming standards, the fluctuations in the weather minimal, too. There is a saying in Kentucky, “If you don’t like the weather just wait a minute. It will change.” Let’s fact check that. For the past several weeks it had been, although it is mid-September, nearly 90 degrees every day in Kentucky. You could hike to highest point in Kentucky, about 4,000 feet, and it would still be hot. In contrast, we arrived in Wyoming to the kind of heat that could fry an egg on the sidewalk. We would arrive atop Paintbrush Divide with temperatures in the 20s. Maybe Wyoming’s weather joke should be, “If you don’t like the weather, climb another 1,000 feet.”

That was the approximate increment of change. At 7,000 feet, it was dry. At 8,000 feet, it rained. At 9,000 feet, it sleeted. At 10,000 feet it snowed. At 10,700 feet it snowed more.

There were some considerations that I should not gloss over. We lacked alpine experience. Heidrich had hiked Rainier and Kilimanjaro, each with guides. They probably would have advised against crossing the pass today. I’d hiked the Klondike Pass in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, but that was 20 years ago and, though alpine, very different. Kate grew up in Michigan in low-lying Grand Rapids, elevation 640 feet above sea level. Snow would not intimidate her but snow at altitude probably should. Sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Our intel was weak. We met a woman coming down who doing the trail counterclockwise, the opposite of us. She had crossed before any consequential snow but did report a rockslide over part of the trail. Two hikers going clockwise had started up but turned back once they hit snow, not wishing to risk it getting worse. Two others, one wearing shorts so he could keep his long pants dry, headed up ahead of us. That meant we would have, for all intents and purposes, scouts to reconnoiter on our behalf. If they turned back, we might do the same. If they did not, we could press on.

Kate and I took a position behind everyone else, knowing we would be walking slower given her asthma and leg strength. Dave stopped on the trail to speak with me one last time about the risk of proceeding. He came to the outdoors through the Boy Scouts, so “Be Prepared” is etched into his thinking. I quit the Boy Scouts because they told dirty jokes that offended my 12-year-old self and was left to learn outdoors by reading Daniel Boone stories and going to the creek every day, where the hobos slept beside the bend where the watercress grew thick and lush. To them, be prepared meant clean underwear. The rest of life was adaptation. Somewhere between the Boy Scouts and the hobos lies appropriate counsel on how best to prepare for Paintbrush Divide in the snow.

Ever the business thinker, David had just read marketing blogger Seth Godin’s piece on sunk costs, which includes this advice: “It's one of the most profound and difficult lessons every MBA is taught: Ignore sunk costs. Money and effort you spent yesterday should have nothing to do with decisions you make tomorrow, because each decision is a new one.” The decision needs to be about the future not the past.

We hail from the land of Procter and Gamble, a company that lives this rule and sells off low-performing brands with impunity. Comet cleanser. Sold. Folgers coffee. Sold. Hawaiian Punch. Sold. Noxzema skin cream. Sold. The list is long. P&G’s cropped hair and pressed polo practitioners are probably right. P&G stock was at $92 around Christmas. It’s was $122 while Dave was talking with me.

So yes, we had a year invested in planning the climb ahead, plus 2,000 miles of travel and, together, a few thousand dollars in plane tickets, car rentals and updated gear. Dave was asking me to disregard all of that and consider only the risks and rewards that lay ahead if we did not turn around before we were in the thick of the devolving weather at the top of the divide.

But I heard a voice: “We finish things.” I made a mental note to be aware of risk from here on, and deal with it with as little arrogance as my nature would permit.

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The trail to the divide ceases to be a gentle incline after Lake Solitude. As it steepened, Kate and I fell further and further behind. We had just over two miles to cover, normally a couple of hours of work on a grade like this. But Kate was taking as few as 10 steps at a time before stopping to catch her breath. She needed her inhaler to open her lungs. I kept trying to remind myself of what I am supposed to do in the event of a catastrophic asthma attack. The answer is call 911, a useless answer given our location. So the only thing to do was take it easy, go her pace and avoid an attack. At home, she became quite self-critical about how much she had struggled. Maybe she should have trained more, she said. But the other six on this trip were universally impressed. Other wives were invited. They chose spa days. Four of the nine men who came in 2018 elected not to return in 2019. And among those of us who came, Kate was third in order of age, which is to say she is not 65 but also well past 28. She also was the only one of us with asthma. "Your bad assary is off the charts," Eric told her when all was said and done.

Ahead, the others were making their way, wishing they had warmer gloves, crampons, maybe ice axes and, in Mac’s and Colin’s case, boots. They were hiking in trail runners. You might say of them ‒ as people said of Ginger Rogers that she did everything that Fred Astaire did except in heels ‒ that they did everything we did except in wet sneakers. Completing this hike without freezing their toes off was testimony to their tarsal tenacity. The sneakers worried Eric so much that he would end up sending Mac an REI gift certificate to buy boots.

It would be wrong to think about this hike solely in terms of danger and risk. It deserves to be considered far more fully, and that means recalling the magic kingdom through which we passed.

As the sleet turned to snow, it did so in phases. At first, a kind of snow pellet fell, the size of birdshot but as soft as cotton. Higher up, the pellets turned to small, fairy-ish flakes that fell gently, rather like the stage snow in a theater for “The Nutcracker.” It accumulated at the lower elevation as a dust over the rocks and, incongruently, over the summer’s last wildflowers. The purple petals of a musk thistle encased in a chrysalis of new snow was the beauty of the Tetons rendered in miniature, with all the contrary forces of the place contained in this one odd combination something left from summer encountering something from the coming winter.

Climbing higher, the snow deepened to an inch, then two and on up to maybe five or six inches at the pass, which was a long saddle between peaks and canyons that we could not see in this weather. We could barely see the trail, which is marked by stones now buried in the snow.

Up to now, the potential for danger seemed more hypothetical to me. If the temperature dropped, the moisture would quickly become ice and the rocks would be slick. If the snow picked up, the trail would become impassable. Ifs followed ifs, none of which was actually happening. But now, atop the pass, at 10,700 feet, the potential for danger was not hypothetical. A lost trail would leave us wandering through the monotonous white. With each misstep, we would lose time. We would lose body heat. We might lose our bearings.

Kate and I focused on the scant evidence before us, a lug sole imprint here, a trekking pole indentation there. The trail atop the pass was maybe a quarter mile long. If we could successfully cross that, I thought, we would be home free.

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What I remember most about the divide is how important a few things became. Not losing the trail. Not exceeding the capacity of Kate's lungs. Not slipping. Moving my fingers to keep them from freezing. Our world got smaller.

As I have said, a hike has context and part of my context on this hike was the recent passing of a Mike Farrell, who was my first city editor when I began what would become a 28-year run at The Cincinnati Post and its sister paper, The Kentucky Post. If you are old enough to remember The Lou Grant Show, you have some grasp of what a city editor is. He (and they were always a “he” in those days) is the newsroom's Supreme Being, equal parts boss, teacher, pastor, friend, mentor, conscience, father figure, critic, booster and guardian of grammar. Mike was all of those, and so he seemed immortal. He was not. When I visited him in hospice in late summer his son, David, told me in the hallway, "Dad's world has become much smaller." What mattered now was being with family and things like watching one more Cincinnati Reds game and having a Coca Cola and peanut M&M’s since diabetes didn't matter so much now that death did.

Mike had some practice living small during his newspaper years. Just editing a sentence requires thinking small. He absolutely hated to see the words at and about side by side. If you wrote "police found the body at about 8 a.m." you might just as well have scratched your fingernails across a chalkboard. The only thing he hated more was the word alleged (as a reminder of this word's uselessness, he often asked one of his reporters, "What's on your alleged mind?") He wasn't about to let such abominations pass into print. Those kind of details got all the more important as the clock ticked toward yet another deadline every day and twice on Fridays. Writing or editing under those circumstances, that is, knowing you have, say seven minutes until the presses start, draws you to the details not the big picture.

Knowing you are at death’s door is, I guess, the ultimate deadline.

Just as Mike's world got smaller as his life became finite, our world got smaller on the mountain, which closed in around us and made a few things matter more than the many things that bombard us in the day-to-day world of the 21st Century, where people curse and manipulate each other even as they add smiling emojis to their emails. It is, I admit, odd to assert a kinship between being as alive as possible atop a mountain in the Tetons and the final experiences of a dying man. But that was my old city editor's final lesson: It is sometimes the right thing to do to make your world small and focus on the present and on what matters most. Faith. Family. Sugar.

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One online trail guide tells you this about Paintbrush Divide: “Upon arriving at the wide, gentle plateau, you will be readily rewarded with stunning views of Paintbrush Canyon.” We felt a little cheated. Survival, not to be underrated, was nonetheless no substitute for the expectation of sitting down beside the brass elevation marker and taking it all in, perhaps with a nip of bourbon to toast the achievement.

In maybe 20 minutes time, we made it to the point where the trail turns downward, descending toward Holly Lake first, where we would camp past the point of the day's snowfall, and then to String Lake, where we would exit the next day.
After the turn, we could see the multi-colored jackets of Dave, John, Colin, Mac and Eric. We had caught up, not because we were going faster but because the descent had slowed them. I would learn later that Eric, Colin and Mac had nearly missed the turn to come down. Mac, moving fast to keep his feet warm, had hiked right past the turn and was, according to Eric, “headed right over the mountain until I called him back.” Ginger Rogers danced not only in heels but also backward. Mac, do you have some kind of Ginger fetish?

John and Dave were ahead, trying to decipher a snow bank that had buried the trail. They could see where the trail resumed about 50 yards ahead but it wasn’t clear where the trail crossed from Point A to Point B. In the space of that 50 yards might be any number of hazards, buried by the snow that the wind had piled high against an exposed edge of the mountain. Nothing yet encountered presented this degree of danger. One misstep and gravity could convert a living being into carrion.

Moving slowly and probing with their feet and their trekking poles, John and Dave found footing and blazed a path for the rest of us in what was this trip's most heroic episode. David took the lead and told John to watch his feet and his feet only. The mountain was against our shoulders to the right, a solid and secure wall with handholds to brace and steady each step. But to the left, the edge beside the trail dropped sharply into yet another steep field of scree and boulders. There was no barrier, nothing to arrest a tumble into the abyss. Don’t look either way, Dave told John. Look down. Live small.

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The rest of this story is not too exciting. The divide was slow going, but with each step we moved closer to the place where the snow turned back to rain and the grade of the trail moderated. From that point, we picked the season’s last raspberries and service berries from along the trail. They were tiny but powerfully sweet, what few we found. They bears must have arrived before us to forage most of them.

We came to our last camp, set up tents and I commenced boiling water for spaghetti. Eric climbed immediately into his zero degree sleeping bag to warm up. “I’m freezing,” he said from inside his tent. “I can’t get warm.” It was a little unnerving to hear that from Eric, as I’ve been in the wild with him many times – probably six months of nights if you add them all up – and he is about as resourceful and resilient as they come in the outdoors. If he was hypothermic or nearly so, then this must have really been more of a test than I thought it had been. He would tell me later that on the mountain he was tired almost at the point where he was willing to lay down in the snow and just fall asleep, maybe forever. Mac, just retrieved from nearly walking over the mountain, got him going. He and Colin couldn’t afford a rest, whether for a minute or for all eternity. Their feet were getting too cold too fast in those sneakers.

At camp, I worked on dinner, making the spaghetti in one pot over what was left of our fuel. The portions were perfect and the pasta satiating. I looked toward John, who smiled his wonderful Irish smile and asked, “What?” You know what, I told him. I knew he was thinking what he is always thinking at a moment like this, whether I’ve talked him into riding our bikes 70 miles instead of 35 or whatever. This time, I’d talked him into something above and beyond the usual, and so he said it, “Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” All was right with the world.

By 6 p.m., he, Kate and Dave retired to their respective tents. Eric, Colin Mac and I were determined to make it until at least 7 p.m., by god. But with dinner done, the dishes washed, the drizzle, which let up for dinner, was back. With no campfire to lubricate our storytelling, we were about to call it a night when there came a thunderous roar, as if a building were falling down. Rushing toward it, Mac (those damn running shoes finally showing their advantage) got there first with Eric a close second. They caught sight of the last rocks of a huge slide on the other side of the canyon, falling from about four or five hundred feet through a field of scree. After it fell, you could see a dark streak marking its path.

We stood in awe. Colin walked away and happened to turn toward our left, which took him to an unexpected benefit of this campsite. It was an overlook toward String Lake, five miles away but awesomely visible with clouds above it but below us. Great cathedrals of stone were in every direction leading toward the valley where the lake anchored this magnificent view, a semblance of what the Painted Divide might have offered.

And that is the Tetons at elevation. Gorgeous. Glorious. Unparalleled in beauty. We took time. We took pictures. And we went to bed. It was 6:50 p.m. We were no sooner tucked in than we heard a second rockslide, oddly calming as we thought about these mountains, still forming themselves. No bears growled. No more rocks slid. Thunder, which rattled and rumbled above us the night before, had moved on this night.

We left Paintbrush Divide with a photograph, taken by Eric, of Mac smiling joyfully in his bright yellow down jacket against a sea of white. He looks like he’s just conquered Everest, which in one sense he had and in another had done no such thing. Either way, the photograph perfectly captured our time the mountain, which, depending on who is telling the story ... well, let’s just put it like this: Another fine mess.


Dates: September 10-12, 2019
Location: Paintbrush Divide loop from Jenny Lake to String Lake, 19 miles, Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming
Hikers: Dave Heidrich, John Hennessey, Colin Jennings, Eric Krosnes, Kate Neikirk, Mark Neikirk, and Mac Riley