We sold our car back to the dealership in March. Living in Southern California without owning a car has been much easier than we had anticipated. We’re leveling up our skills by setting out on a backpacking expedition without organizing transportation from the airport to the park. Yes, it’s those crazy Denhams doing the wing-it method again.
My husband and I are very efficient with our travel anxiety. That is to say, we worry about completely different things. My major area of worry is cleaning our place top to bottom before we leave. His is wanting to be at the airport three hours early. My second worry is what we’re going to eat, and his is figuring out how to find our destination on the map.
On this trip, we have a couple of extra complications. None of the campgrounds accept reservations, and we haven’t booked a way to cover the 45 miles from our hotel in Jackson Hole to our desired campsite in the Grand Tetons, Colter Bay. I think we’ll be fine because if the campsite is full, we can always just get a backcountry permit. He thinks we’ll be fine because we can just take a Lyft.
We’re both wrong.
We have no trouble getting a shuttle from the airport to our hotel. There’s one waiting outside. We inquire whether the shuttle service might take us to Colter Bay the next day, and take their business card just in case our ride-sharing plan doesn’t work out. Prescient.
When we check in, almost two hours late due to our plane being stuck on the tarmac, we find that we’re only about a mile from a natural foods store. We’re able to walk there and pick up the next day’s lunch and some tea and trail mix before they close for the night. We’ve brought oatmeal packets for breakfast and freeze-dried meals for lunches and dinners. If all else fails, we have enough calories for the week, but we’re hoping to supplement our meals with fresh produce from the campsite general store.
The next day I am exhausted and refuse to follow the plan of waking up at 6 AM to get to the campsite as early as possible. Whether this is a disastrous mistake or not would be hard to say.
For all my skill with travel logistics, I’m so useless, slow, and dopey in the morning that I’m surprised nobody has left me behind yet.
We dress quickly and haul our forty-pound hockey bags down the hotel stairs. No Lyfts answer our call. This makes sense, because a Lyft driver would be stuck with a 45-mile return trip and basically zero chance of picking up fresh passengers. We’re left with the shuttle service we used the previous night. They quote us $120, which is fine.
We could have rented an economy car for as low as $108 a week, assuming no surge pricing, but we would have had to pay insurance and gas as well. Since we got rid of our car, we also got rid of our car insurance. I once paid for supplemental insurance on a rental car, and it cost equally as much as the daily rate for the car. That’s when I actually carried my own car insurance. We don’t have roadside assistance anymore, either. We’re heading into bear country, probably on non-sanctioned terrain, so who knows what fine print we might be activating. We have basically no trust when it comes to businesses that make so much of their revenue off the dingers and add-ons and surcharges.
There are externalities to renting a car, just as there are to owning one:
Picking it up and dropping it off
Gassing it up before drop-off, which in this case would mean an extra 16-mile round trip, or paying a surcharge
Risk of collision. Greater than zero probability, non-trivial amount of hassle for out-of-state travelers
In comparison, there are side benefits to hiring a driver:
More experienced driver operates the vehicle
Knows where everything is in the area
Can offer advice and recommendations
Points out wildlife and scenic attractions
Shares local gossip and cultural context
In case of collision, driver does the paperwork
Ditto traffic citations
(I have a thing about jobs that allow the employee at least some agency, like having control over their schedule or not having a dress code).
We need to pick up some bear spray, and the driver obligingly swings by the outdoor store (which would not have been open if we had woken up on schedule, just saying…) It’s a breathtaking $40, but it costs $50 inside the park, and that’s still a lot cheaper than a new cranium or a skin graft.
When we arrive at the entrance to the National Park, there’s a $30 fee, which we pay. A short time later, we arrive at the Colter Bay campground, only to find a sign that says FULL. Uh-oh. There are two men in uniform blocking the road and waving people on. The shuttle driver is understandably nervous.
WELCOME TO THE PLACE OF UNCERTAINTY!
We ask the driver to wait while we go to the campsite office. Not only is Colter Bay full, but… every campground for forty miles is full. In other words, the entire National Park is full. Yay. We ask about backcountry permits, my hole card. It turns out that I have completely misunderstood how this works. My impression has been that if you are backpacking, and you have a permit, you can put your tent down anywhere that makes sense. The purpose of the permit is to limit the number of people inside the park at any one time, while also providing a record of your presence in case you fall into a crevasse or something.
Ignore everything I just said, because I am ignorant and my brain is full of… soggy bow tie pasta.
Evidently, in Grand Teton National Park, a backcountry permit allows a limited number of people to camp within the confines of a primitive campsite, many miles away from where we are currently standing. We could get the permit, we could go, but we’d have to hike ten miles in (and out), and we’d be on our own in grizzly territory. The other option is to drive 25 miles and camp in the nearby National Forest, where the rules are different.
My husband turns to me. “We’re screwed.”
This is totally, 100% my fault. I’m the one who did the “research” on this. At this point, I’m the one with more backpacking experience in multiple states (and countries). I’m the one who insisted on lounging around like a primadonna when we should have gotten up early like we planned. This is the moment in the Place of Uncertainty when I start the internal wail, “I WANT MY DAAA-AAAA-AAAAAD!” (A dad who would have exactly no sympathy for a problem created by my sleeping in and lack of punctuality).
We trudge back to the van, preparing to negotiate with our mostly-patient shuttle driver.
One of the three women from the information booth runs out after us. She wants to brainstorm with us a bit more. Once we put it out there that we are backpackers who arrived in a taxi, we have buy-in. We’re morons, but we’re sympathetic morons. At least we have novelty value.
It turns out that we’ve all been speaking at cross purposes. What we want is known as a “hiker-biker” spot, which is available to us because we don’t need to park a car. This is a totally different beast from the “backcountry permit” we were requesting. Somehow the part about “it’s just us and these backpacks” fell through the cracks. Jargon. The website also uses the term “walk-in,” which I assume means the same as “hiker-biker” rather than the occult meaning of a spirit taking over someone’s body. Which, hold that thought while I take notes, because that would make a rad horror film. “Walk-In of the Woods.”
We go back to the driver to keep him updated, and my husband trots off to talk to the campsite road block crew. I run after him, struggling to keep up in my new boots.
THE SIGN IS GONE.
Check-out time is 11 AM, and some of the campsites that were full when we arrived are now available.
We’ll never know now whether we would have had a simpler time by arriving an hour earlier or arriving half an hour later.
We merrily book our campsite for six days, planning to check out the morning after the eclipse. Campsites can be booked for 14 days. We can’t know for sure, but it’s highly likely that if we had waited even one more day, we wouldn’t have been able to get in. We pay $30 a day, which is pretty darn cheap for a vacation.
We send the driver home. He’s added an extra $20 for the side trip to the outdoor store and the half-hour wait at the campsite. We tip him an additional $20, for a total of $160. We confirm that we can call someone to drive back and pick us up on Tuesday.
The campsite at Colter Bay! We have wi-fi. We have electrical outlets. We have showers with no shower timers. We have laundry facilities. We have campfires. The general store has actual fresh cruciferous vegetables - and guacamole - and cashew ice cream. The only thing that qualifies this trip as “camping,” besides sleeping in a tent, is that a mosquito bites me on the butt the minute we walk into our campsite.
We have a magnificent time, a topic for another post. We see the eclipse in a cloud-free sky. We pack up to go home. We give the unused $40 bear spray to a lucky contestant who is checking in. We try to pay a couple of guys $100 to ride back to town with them, but one is going the wrong way and the other only has two seats. The shuttle driver shows up about two hours after we call. The trip back costs $150. Total: $310.
Would we have saved money by renting a car rather than paying a shuttle service? Probably. It depends on the insurance question and the gas mileage. Would there have been any rental cars available? Who knows? Would we have been able to get a campsite at Colter Bay if we had brought a car? No, definitely not. I’m going to claim that we broke even. Considering that the hotel and the plane tickets only cost us reward points, we’d rather splurge and not have to bother with the rental car hassle. Oh, and there’s that whole thing about no longer paying $600/month to own our own vehicle…
We were able to do this trip for a bunch of serendipitous reasons. I stumbled across an article about the eclipse about a year in advance, and since my husband happened to be sitting right there, I asked him what he thought about it. The date fell near our wedding anniversary, so we agreed that a trip to see the totality would be fun. It was too soon to book tickets, so I set a reminder to buy them in January. On New Year’s Day, we spent about an hour planning the trip. We were able to book plane tickets AND the bookend hotel dates using reward points. Get this. I got THE LAST available room at the Hampton Inn. That was how we determined the start date of our trip. We had no idea that Jackson Hole, Wyoming in general and the Grand Tetons in particular would be such a popular viewing location for the totality. It’s basically unfair that we were able to get in. That we paid for it with points is… well, that part is gloat-worthy.
So, we did it. We took a taxi to the wilderness and back again. We’ve been car-free for six months. We have no plans to buy a replacement vehicle at this time. It’s unlikely we’ll rent a car, either. Now that we’ve pulled off this caper, we’re broadening our expectations of what we can do and where we can go, leaving the driving to someone else.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.