Moran, Wyo. — THE Grand Tetons held sway over me for 20 years -- before I set ever eyes on them.
The breathtaking backdrop for a mythic American landscape has been etched on my consciousness since, as a 10-year-old, I sat mesmerized by a Saturday matinee showing of "Shane," an archetypal little-guy-versus-bully story.
And the Jackson Hole, Wyo., landscape, personified by the overpowering Tetons, is as essential a character as any in the 1953 film. The homesteading Starretts (Jean Arthur, Van Heflin and Brandon de Wilde as Joey), helped by the loner Shane (Alan Ladd), had to battle that formidable country as desperately as they did the cattlemen, the Rykers and their gunman Jack Wilson (Jack Palance). So beautiful but so harsh, it is the sort of West that Wallace Stegner once described as "the native home of hope."
Teton Range and Jackson Hole, just south of Yellowstone in Wyoming's northwest corner, haven't changed much from the 1880s, when the story of "Shane" took place. Grand Teton National Park was designated in 1929 and expanded in 1950, in part through a donation of 35,000 acres from the Rockefeller family. It is dominated by the Teton Range, which has a dozen peaks more than 12,000 feet high, and the broad valley known as Jackson Hole.
Whenever I've visited Grand Teton, which has been as often as possible, I've tried to guess where "Shane" was filmed, but the valley is broad, and nobody I asked -- rangers or locals -- really knew.
Last August I decided to find out. It wasn't exactly a pilgrimage. I had other goals, including hanging out with my grown son Alex, who joined me on the trip; trying to photograph the perfect Teton sunrise; and reaching Lake Solitude, about 15 miles into the mountains through Cascade Canyon, a trail that had defeated me in the past.
There was lots of unfinished business. It was time to make good on some Teton daydreams and test myself a bit.
Driving north from Salt Lake City, we arrived in early afternoon. Just outside Jackson, Alex and I were rewarded with a broadside view of the Teton Range, a sight that never fails to take my breath away. It took only half an hour before we saw some of the charismatic fauna of the Greater Yellowstone Basin. As we approached our cabin at Coulter Bay Village on the north shore of Jackson Lake, we caught sight of two black bears and a moose. Good omens.
The next morning, we were up before dawn to check out sunrise at the Snake River Overlook, made famous by Ansel Adams' shot of the river curving toward the mountains.
The Tetons may be spectacular, but that doesn't mean they are easy to photograph. I am no pro and am as ignorant of f-stops as can be, so I'm willing to trust my camera's computer chip to augment my main job: framing the shot. Yet even that industrious chip can have trouble with the lighting in Jackson Hole.
The Tetons rise more than a mile so abruptly from the valley floor that they often appear washed out in landscape photos. If the mountains are captured well in the morning light, the foreground often can appear too dark because the contrast is difficult for the camera to balance.
The first rays of the sun kissed the tops of the peaks, but the river valley was still in darkness. By the time the light reached the riverbank and forest, we had only a few minutes before the full sunrise overwhelmed the mountains. But that was enough, especially in the mid-30s chill. We retreated to the Jackson Lake Lodge for breakfast and to plan our quest for the first "Shane" location: the Starrett Homestead.
Elusive film site
I had unearthed a CD-ROM book "The Making of Shane," by Walt Farmer, which provided detailed directions and even GPS coordinates to the film's sites. How could we go wrong?
Pretty easily, it turned out. We searched some back roads in the Antelope Flats area parallel to U.S. Highway 26 on the park's east side but never found the trail through the sagebrush that led to where the homestead set had been built in 1952. Rather than bushwhack, we satisfied ourselves with a long view of the area.
Not that we didn't have some success. We found the only "Shane" location still standing, a cluster of small log structures pre-dating the film that were used as the cabin of beleaguered homesteader Ernie Wright. Though abandoned and in disrepair, they were easily recognizable, bringing to mind a couple of dramatic scenes in which Rykers' men kill Ernie's sow, orphaning her piglets, and later stampede cattle through his crops.
The second morning built upon our previous success.
We first decamped to the Oxbow Bend Turnout, near Moran Junction, for another sunrise. The spot is deservedly one of the park's most popular photo destinations, but in the cold predawn dark, we had it to ourselves. We walked to the bank of the Snake River and studied the still waters, which barely reflected Mt. Moran and the clouds through the fog.