The sun emerged from behind the Tetons, shedding light and warmth on the Laurence S. Rockefeller preserve. The Mountain Lions, a jolly group of adult learners, replaced school-bus wheels with eager feet, and headed into the woods. The day’s goals were simple: appreciate the peace of walking alongside a meandering creek, eat lunch beside a glacial lake, and revel in this ecosystem’s wonders. I began our hike with a woman from Manhattan. She was happily overwhelmed by the many autumn-tinted scents that greeted our nostrils. She giggled as her husband reached out his hand to befriend every passing conifer; he was putting to work a tree identification technique he had learned from his instructor the day prior. “It’s a friendly fir!” he shouted to the rest of the group.
The Great Outdoor Road Scholar Get-Together is a Teton Science Schools program that brings adult learners to the Tetons for a week of adventure, exploration, and community. Throughout the course of the week, these life-long learners explore the diverse plant communities of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, complete a stewardship project, learn about the legacy of Olaus and Mardy Murie, and appreciate the vibrant palette of Yellowstone’s geothermal murals. They merry-make at an old west cook-out, paddle canoes across String Lake, ride the aerial tram to the alpine ecosystem up at 10,000 feet, and make new friends against the grand Teton backdrop. Last week, 140 Road Scholars joined us in the Tetons; this week, we welcome another 130.
Through the week, as I shared the geologic, ecological, and cultural stories that shaped the Tetons, I also learned the stories of people who had traveled far to spend time in these mountains and on these lakes. I spoke with folks who were traveling above sea level and west of the Mississippi River for the first time. I hiked over a glacial moraine with a couple who was celebrating fifty years of marriage. I ate a chuck-wagon style dinner with a woman who taught me about an environmental crisis taking place in Nicaragua, enlightened by her emphatic, first-hand account of the controversy. I watched a black bear scavenge for berries with a man who was nearly four times my age. Each day, I was inspired by the Road Scholars’ immense wonder and enthrallment, their eagerness for things as simple as listening to the sound of wind play in a grove of Aspens, their ambition to bushwhack through sagebrush for a closer view of a squirrel midden, and their boundless energy to fully experience this place.
The Road Scholars’ enthusiasm was infectious. These people have raised children, worked for state legislatures, run marathons, performed orthopedic surgery, traveled to Mongolia and Morocco – and they are still awestruck and puzzled by the simplest miracles of nature. Interestingly, while many of them had lived in and traveled to exotic wildernesses and majestic landscapes before coming to the Tetons, they had never considered the biotic and abiotic forces at play in those places. Their experience with Teton Science Schools reminded me that a visual or recreational appreciation for nature becomes so much deeper when you can explain and understand its scientific story. They showed me that the magic offered by wild places and adventure is indiscriminate in its touch. More than anything, the Road Scholars showed me that the capacity to be curious and full of wonder lasts a lifetime.