• 11/15/21
  • WORDS BY Matt McDonald
  • PHOTOS BY Dylan Gordon

Regardless of your feelings on the current state of the world, one thing we all share is that life has changed lately, sometimes in big ways. Jeff Johnson realized a big shift had occurred, sometime around his 92nd morning in a row of sipping the same coffee sitting in the same chair staring out of the same window. “I realized that this was the first time in 30 years I’d been in one place for more than two or three months,” he said. “I was a flight attendant through the 90s and have been shooting photos since 2000... just constantly on the go. This was the first time I’ve been forced to just hang out.”

While pandemic down time is certainly a cherished luxury, Jeff was itching to pack his bags when Roark announced the Continental Divide trip, the first domestic adventure in Roark’s modern history. Perhaps this journey, tracing the artery dividing our country, would let us fall back in love with America… to find common connections in small towns, and make our own backyard feel great again.

Open lands can inspire an opening of the mind, and what better land to roam than Wyoming, the least populous state in the entire U.S.

But when Jeff got to Wyoming he noticed that its small outdoor towns, normally desolate during the fall off-season, were, well, busy. “The big change is everyone is outside doing stuff now, which is mostly great. But in some sense there’s less freedom being outdoors because there’s so many more people,” Jeff said. “There’s been a migration, almost a modern version of the Dust Bowl, people flocking to these outdoor towns because of the ability to work from anywhere.” As the crew refueled their provisions and grabbed coffees in these towns, there was a palpable sense of unease – service workers needing a break before the winter ski season, and locals rolling their eyes (or even flipping the birdie) to an influx of out-of-state plates passing down Main Street.

But just a few miles out of town, on the approach to Mount Moran – a 12,610 foot imposing monolith – all that tension faded into the lakes and pines and majesty of towering rock faces. “Only a few miles out of town and we were in the middle of nowhere. It was good to remember that off-season or on-season that solitude is always available if you can put in the work,” Jeff said.

It was only Jeff’s second time in the Tetons and his first time climbing them. He found himself in awe of the storied climbing history of the range and excited about the novel method of approach to the mountain… by canoe. They paddled one mile through the first waterway, carried all their gear and boats over land for another half mile, then finished with a three mile paddle to the base of the mountain. Certainly a noteworthy approach for a rock climb.

The climb itself, a classic in the Teton range, turned even more dramatic when a strong autumn wind turned on and the notoriously chossy (loose) Teton rock began raining down upon their helmets. But even so, Jeff and Drew found some comfort up high, looking into the distance east and west, knowing they straddled the geographic, if not the ideological, divide of our country. Taking in this moment, they couldn’t know that the true adventure was still to come.

Early the next morning, as the crew packed up their gear, they noticed a light headwind on the lake and hurried to get going, fearing that a stronger wind could make progress difficult in the canoes. “We got out of the first lake and did our portage to the second lake, and man, the wind turned so strong we couldn’t make any progress. We had to paddle to shore and shuttle our gear to the load out spot,” Jeff said. “We all looked at each other like, wow that was lucky. If we had broken camp half an hour later we would’ve been out there another couple nights that we didn’t plan for and didn’t have provisions for.” Nature let the crew off with just a warning this time – not only can you be in the middle of nowhere a couple miles from the trailhead, you can also be in trouble a couple miles from the trailhead. Still in high spirits over a unique (and lucky) jaunt in the backcountry, they hunted for a beer back in town. Jeff recalls, “I remember we walked into this bar, masked up, and immediately this old man yelled at us, ‘I’d rather get arrested than wear a fucking mask!’ A moment of reckoning it seemed for an ideological divide. “We just laughed,” Jeff said. “Yeah, we laughed and took off our masks and got a beer.” Perhaps laughter is still (and maybe the only) universal language… the true bridge of all divides. “Things are getting so crazy, now is the time to be open-minded and listen to people, rather than shut them down because of their beliefs.” Sounds like wisdom we could all take to heart, from a man who’s spent the last 30 years on the trail.

“Things are getting so crazy, now is the time to be open-minded and listen to people, rather than shut them down because of their beliefs.”

Jeff Johnson