Grand Teton National Park stands as a patch of land where the earth has struggled like an indecisive artist to create high plains that stretch themselves into harsh, jagged peaks. This is what endless streams of tourists come to see. One can only feel reverence, one can only feel a minute speck in the vast panorama; it makes you realize how tiny and inconsequential you are in the scheme of things. I am envious of those who are lucky enough to live there year-round compared to my two, comparatively brief stays each year. I hold in awe those who homesteaded this unforgiving country, and feel jealous that they were able to live here. This is a land that gives you a sense of history, a sense of destiny. It is a geography of hope, born of chaos, forged by nature and hard won by man.
One of the men who would put his mark on this country was J. Pierce Cunningham. A fellow New Yorker, he arrived in the Jackson Hole area of the Tetons around 1885, aged about twenty. A few years later, he and his wife staked a claim under the Homestead Act, and thereby laid the foundations for what would become the Bar Flying U Ranch. The cabin they built, which under the Act had to be at least 12 x 12, was what is commonly known as a dogtrot or double-pen cabin, encompassing two separate rooms with a dogtrot or breezeway in-between. Although a more substantial home was eventually built, along with sheds, barns and other outbuildings, it is the original cabin that still stands today.
When I first visited Cunningham’s cabin I was immediately struck by the isolation of this remote location, how lonely it must have been in the 1880s. Although more than four hundred claims were filed in Jackson Hole in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the vastness of the valley meant there could be little interaction, especially during the harsh winter months. And this was a hardscrabble life; rocky soil led to high operating costs as ranchers struggled to feed their cattle during the long winter. The infamous winter of 1886/87 put an end to much of the open range ranching.
One might think, why do it then? I can only answer for myself as to what I feel when I stand there, surrounded by a landscape so startling, so inspiring, I feel purified, whole, inconsequential and ephemeral. Not having been born there, I cannot fathom my own attachment to this place, why I feel the oft-repeated need to return there, but it somehow cleanses me, clears my head.
When I visit Cunningham's Cabin, either alone or with a friend, we are usually the only ones there. Tourists do not come to Grand Teton National Park to see historic buildings. Occasionally, someone drives up having seen the marker on the main road. They get out, give a quick glance to the information sheet and look off in the distance trying to spot the cabin before heading on. I wonder if they ever consider the lives that passed against this backdrop they now so briefly enjoy.
this post appeared as 'A Cunning Inspiration' on her blog. Born in New York, Andrea Downing returned in 2008 from the UK where she lived for most of her life. She now divides her time between NYC and the east end of Long Is., punctuated by frequent journeys out west---the area of the USA she loves best. Her first book, Loveland, was a finalist for the 2012 RONE Award for Best American Historical.