The trail was in a little rougher shape than we thought it would be.

The snow hadn't fully melted yet, especially on the north-facing side of the lake and in the deep shade of the alpine forest.

Fortunately, previous hikers had packed some of the snow down and left treads of dirt along the surface, making the packed ice less slippery than it would have otherwise been. There was only one really dangerous point on the trail where a slip would have led to serious injury and we managed to cross it without sliding down the hillside and into the lake.

But the snow wasn't really too deep, or as irritating as the snowmelt mud, a mushy mess that made hiking more sloppy than slippery. Alex's tennis shoes were the only casualty of the day, left in a trash can, soiled beyond cleaning. She now sports a new pair from a local TJ Maxx.

Despite all of that, it was a glorious day.

There's nothing quite like being out in the cool morning air at over 7,000-foot altitude on a beautiful alpine lake at the base of the Tetons.

There are few places in the world where the mountains are so dramatic, rising steeply from an otherwise flat valley of craggy sagebrush.

And in mid-May, the air is still clear and the peaks aren't covered in clouds as they will be in another month or so as summer humidity changes the high elevation weather and brings in afternoon thunderstorms.

We flew to Jackson, Wyoming, recently to take care of some details for an upcoming family wedding. Located at the edge of Tetons National Park and only a short drive from Yellowstone National Park, the small town of Jackson is a tourist hotspot, a well-trod path where some 2.6 million people visit each year.

That's a lot of people for a town about the size of Commerce in a county with the population just slightly larger than Banks County. (But Teton County is a lot bigger geographically, covering an area three times the size of Rhode Island.)

The brief trip was the first time we'd gotten on a plane, or did much travel at all, since the pandemic began.

A few musings.

•••

First, the world seems to be waking up from its pandemic slumber.

The airports — Atlanta, Salt Lake, Jackson — were all crowded, a stark contrast to a year ago when the virus was new and most people didn't want to sit with strangers in a small tube breathing the same air.

We didn't witness any of the rude flight fights you see on social media during our trip — no anti-maskers raising hell with airline workers, no Karen busy-bodies stirring ethnic animosity. 

What we saw was around 100% compliance for wearing a mask in the airports and on the airplanes. People seemed happy to just be traveling again, even with the usual travel problems and delays (one of our flights had to turn around on the taxiway and return to the gate for more gas — nobody got angry and shouted at the flight attendants.)

There were other small differences in the airports — plastic barriers in front of gate agents, no food service on flights — but for the most part, there were no major changes to the way air travel was before the pandemic.

The profile of those traveling was also noteworthy in that it didn't fit any particular niche. There were older, retired people traveling, young families, middle-age couples and college-age singles. The only thing we didn't see were groups of teens from traveling sports teams that often hit airports in the spring, a reflection perhaps of inconsistent school closures across the country.

One would hope that most of those traveling had been vaccinated for the virus. The vaccine may have been the deciding factor in the current uptick in air travel; it was for us, our having delayed this trip until we had been fully-vaccinated.

•••

Beyond the travel itself, Jackson's tourist-based economy also seems to have mostly survived, albeit with some casualties among restaurants. 

When the pandemic hit, the local ski resorts in Jackson closed down early and the national parks were closed for a time. The community impact, however, seems to have been uneven.

Teton County, Wyoming, Jackson's home, is the wealthiest county in the nation on a per-capita basis. The average yearly income is over $250,000 per person, an astounding amount bolstered by uber-wealthy movie stars and corporate titans who have homes in the valley surrounding Jackson. Home prices start around $1 million and quickly go up from there. One current listing tops $17 million.

That level of wealth has pushed out the workers who wait the tables in Jackson's bars and restaurants, the staff of its hotels, the clerks at its ski resorts and the cashiers in the town's many tourist shops.

Most average workers in Jackson have to commute to the town from distant communities, including across a mountain pass into Idaho that has 16 avalanche slide zones. The weather can literally close business in Jackson because of a lack of staffing.

In the early days of the pandemic, Jackson's wealthy flew in to escape their urban homes, thinking that they would be safer in rural Jackson than in Manhattan or Los Angeles. One wealthy resident reportedly even brought his own ventilator, just in case he got sick.

But many full-time Jackson residents didn't want the urban elites to invade their county, perhaps bringing the virus with them. There was pushback, at least for a while.

That disparity of rich vs. poor in Jackson is perhaps an extreme example of what's happening across the nation as the pandemic has further cleaved upper-income workers from the lower wage earners. (Teton County also has the nation's widest economic disparity with the top 1% making 142 times more than the bottom 99%.)

Across the rest of the nation, those who could work from home by computer and telephone were able to adapt to the pandemic economy easier, and safer, than those who were frontline workers in agriculture, health care and service jobs. Those who could work from home also didn't have the kind of childcare issues that frontline workers had.

The pandemic magnified and exacerbated economic and social divisions that were already happening in our modern economy, laying bare stark differences between those who "have" and those who don't.

•••

Despite the pandemic, people flocked to Jackson last summer, some perhaps to escape more urban communities and to spend time outdoors. Local reports indicate that visitation to Jackson set new records last summer with campgrounds especially full. Some were reportedly camping in their cars on city streets, unable to find hotel rooms or space in campgrounds. Illegal camping in the local national parks was reportedly a problem, too.

Which brings me to another observation: The nation needs to invest more in the infrastructure of its national parks and in keeping experiences there affordable.

Nearby Yellowstone NP is the nation's oldest and one of its best. It is an icon of America. As we sat before Old Faithful one morning last week, I wondered how many millions of Americans had been in that same place, looking at that same landscape and witnessing one of our country's signature events.

Yet, the lack of funding to maintain park facilities was evident. The weather in many Western parks is brutal and facilities and roads require a lot of maintenance and upkeep. That isn't happening now and hasn't happened for decades.

And there's this reality: Many of our national parks are overcrowded. 

That creates a difficult problem for park managers and the political system that oversees them. With funding, park services could be expanded to accommodate more people, but at some point, that would also make many of our natural lands little more than Disneyesque theme parks.

Build more roads in Yellowstone? Expand lodging?

Probably not, but existing services can't handle the waves of summer travelers that are about to descend on them in a few weeks.

Ration access to our national parks? How? Who gets priority? 

•••

All of those rambling thoughts come from sleepy musings on the flight home from Wyoming to Georgia.

Back on the trail beneath the Tetons earlier in the week, the problems of a pandemic and increasing social, political and economic divides were invisible. 

There was only the muddy trail underneath our feet, the feel of the sun rising on our face, the sound of another waterfall rushing down the mountain into the lake, the sight of an eagle feeding its young, the taste of spruce, fir and pine trees in the air.

For a moment, there was only the moment, and it embraced us.

In a few months when Alex and I come back for the wedding, I hope we can again walk that path of solitude.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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