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Family grows and life changes at heartbreaking speed, but the mountains remain
Amy Choate-Nielsen's kids sit on the wooden fence where she used to stand to look at the mountains on Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park. - photo by Amy Choate-Nielsen

The first time I saw the Grand Teton range, I felt a stirring in my bones.

I couldn’t explain it. There, before me, were the jagged edges of mountains towering over my head like a wave. The one in the middle — called the Grand — was the highest of all, an apex of craggy stone, snow and inspiration.

Looking at that peak, I felt small, yet transcendent. I felt the wild power of the universe, the call of the wilderness and the desire to become lost for a time. I felt like I was being challenged, and anything was possible. It brought into perspective the words from the hymn "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty": “Ponder anew, What the Almighty can do, who with his love doth befriend thee.”

My husband first brought me to Jackson, Wyoming, on our honeymoon. Those were his beloved mountains, and he shared them with me. I loved them so immediately, I wondered if my ancestors had left a genetic imprint for the West in my DNA. They were Texas rangers, they were Oklahoma Sooners, they were riding the range on prairies and meadows before there were highways and cars. The untamed landscape was their home.

We came back to the Tetons the next year, to a little place my husband discovered one summer when he worked in Grand Teton National Park as an architecture student. It was just steps down the road from the frequently photographed Moulton Barn. There were five rustic cabins centered around a grassy lawn, with swaying wheat grass, meandering buffalo, and the majestic mountains framing a perfect picture any time of day. At night, you could hear coyotes yipping in the distance, and you could see flashlights flickering on the mountain, as climbers stopped midway en route to the peak of the Grand. The stars were so bright, it felt like they were just within reach, as my naked eye could see the bands of our galaxy just over my head spinning around our planet.

Hal and Iola Blake ran the Moulton Ranch Cabins like everyone who came was family. The property had been in their family for generations, and they kept it clean but simple, so it didn’t distract from the surroundings. There was no internet, hardly any cellphone service, and no television — just the skyline of those soaring mountains that I stared at as much as I could for the few days we were there.

The next year we went back, I was nine months pregnant with my first child, visiting the mountains before my life changed forever. I couldn’t hike very far, but I could stand at the little wooden fence at the edge of the grassy lawn and gaze at the meadows before me. I wrote about the experience in my journal.

“The sky was piercingly blue, the air was cool and clean, and I stood there trying to memorize the feeling of space — sky and plains — and the exhilaration of hearing birds not bothered by deadlines and mortgages,” I wrote. “It’s hard not to feel a little sad on the drive back home. But there’s always next year!”

The next year, we introduced our 1-year-old daughter to the Tetons. We plopped her into our hiking backpack and hauled her around. We fed her goldfish crackers and cereal while we hiked, and she was a good sport. She hated to be still, but she loved to move. At night, we put her to bed in the cabin and slipped out to the lawn to build a bonfire, and then, when the frost started to cover the grass with a sparkle, we stared up at the stars.

Every day, the Tetons were in the distance, with the same lure, the same mystery, the same magnificence. That year, I wrote in my journal, “It’s sad, every time we go to Jackson, it is so elating to arrive, to see the Grand Tetons reaching for the sky, to breathe the air, to watch the buffalo make their way across the plains. And we are never there long enough. Every time we leave, I feel like I’ve left some of my heart behind. It’s a sad goodbye. Isn’t that silly? It’s just a place, and I know I’ll be back, but still.”

We went almost every year for 11 years, and every time, my heart soared when the Tetons came into view, and every time, I cried when I left them behind. This year was our last. The Blakes, moving on to their next phase in life, sold the land and it will eventually belong to the National Park Service. This year, knowing it would be our last, I stood at that same wooden pioneer fence by the grass and cried my goodbyes. Growing up, I never lived in one house for as long as I had been coming here, and everywhere I looked, I saw memories of my babies playing in the brook, toddling around the yard, swinging on that old-fashioned swing, and that all-great mountain range rising behind them all the time. My life was changing, my children were growing, and it was all happening with the speed of light, but that resolute range was there all along, steady and consistent — the evidence of a love that befriended me in my darkest hours.

I may not be able to return to Moulton Ranch, and my heart still aches at the thought, but those mountains will still be there to welcome me home.

I am up for the challenge. And anything is possible.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.
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