U.S. Highway 191 winds its way northwest through the rolling Gros Ventre wilderness, toward Jackson Hole and the sharp peaks of the Teton range. It’s punctuated by turnoffs to ranches with names like Bourbon Whiskey and Broken Arrow, but a 120-acre plot of land just below Mt. Anne serves a different purpose: it's a geological station for University of Michigan students called Camp Davis.
From above, the driveway toward Camp Davis looks like someone draped a ribbon across the land—it’s a full mile of packed dirt and gravel that crisscrosses the Hoback River with a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit. Groups of college students make the trip from Ann Arbor over a three-day span, strangers grouped in fives by a fleet of university minivans.
The camp operates on a rolling basis with classes constantly filtering in and out of the place. The professors, many of whom have been making the trek for years, bring their families and dogs, and every so often a graduate student instructor's significant other will turn up for a weekend.
I called the camp home for two summers, starting one month after graduating high school. I joined the kitchen staff, looking for any excuse to trade hometown stifle for unsupervised days in the mountains. I'd never been to Wyoming before, nor worked in a kitchen, but a small Google Form link at the bottom of a U-of-M email teased the idea that with high school behind me, I was a free bird.
When I arrived, the camp, built in 1929, looked about how I'd expected it to. On one side, dozens of the original tin cabins sat in neat rows, connected by clotheslines and colorful hammocks and overgrown prairie grass, forming the student side. Each one of the uninsulated cabins housed the same spare furnishings: thin metal bunk beds, cracked concrete floors, a few wooden shelves, and a small white sink that only sometimes worked.
The other side of camp beared the professor's cabins, an array of IKEA-esque prefab tiny houses decked out with front porches, actual bathrooms, and vinyl flooring. Dogs roamed between the structures, keeping watch over the compound while the students burrowed away in their classrooms.
Between the two sides of camp sat the Lineup, a small patio with two wooden benches, separated by an industrial-sized tomato can-turned-ashtray, where the camp staff took up residence. This was our space—for reading The Beautiful And Damned after the breakfast shift, for watching the students plod across the open field, dodging ankle-breaking chizzler holes while packing their vans with sleeping bags and the occasional swim floatie, and for conducting long, awkward talks as we, a jumbled mix of college kids and wandering adults, came to know one another.
Over the coming weeks, I slowly adjusted to camp life. There were two rules for staff: don't be late to work, and be discreet with the beer. It turned out my job as a food service assistant meant doing anything Aaron, the chef, needed: chopping vegetables, washing dishes, organizing food deliveries, inventing salad dressings, deboning salmon, adding salt, staying out of the way. Our hours in the kitchen were hot, quick, and crowded, but I liked the teamwork, the deadline of hungry geology students returning from the field, and the freedom to make the menu whatever we wanted.
The work varied according to the ever-changing pulse of the camp. On one July evening, over one hundred people showed up to dinner—more than the mess hall could hold—so we propped open the kitchen door and ran laps out to the yard, ferrying bowls of summer salad and trays of homemade veggie burgers. A few weeks later, at the end of the season, only half of one class remained at camp so we donned freshly-cleaned aprons and cooked a three-course French dinner.
At the end of each dinner shift, we’d pour PBR into red diner cups, microwave leftovers that had gone cold hours ago, and traipse out to the Lineup to watch the sun set into Teton National Forest. My favorite evening sight was Cream Puff, a nearby peak that watched over us from across 191. She boasted 4,000 vertical feet in a span of two miles, and always seemed delighted to spit tired hikers back toward camp. And yet, we felt a sense of duty to go pay our respects.
"Why do Cream Puff when you can just gouge your eyes out with a spoon and it'd be the same thing?" one of the staff mumbled as we sunk into the wooden benches the day we finally took our turn. On those nights when we basked in the stillness that follows a good dinner rush, I’d savor the sun’s glow as it slunk lower and lower to the base of the mountain.
"Camp Davis, I learned, was an unexplainable place."
Working split shifts gave us eight hours to do whatever we wanted, and getting far away from Camp Davis was most days' priority. I'd traded my first love, Lake Michigan, for windows-down drives through Grand Teton National Park, icy alpine lakes, and warnings from a backcountry ranger: "I'll be here to call a search and rescue helicopter if you fall, it's your choice."
It was my first time living in proximity to such demanding mountains, and I made every mistake that comes with the territory. When afternoon storms rolled into the high alpine and the rocky trails became rivers of mud, I ran through boulder fields and tight switchbacks with only a thin raincoat protecting my skin from the hail. When a lightning storm shut down Jackson Hole's tram, our only return to the parking lot from Rendezvous Mountain's 10,450-foot summit, we huddled in Corbet's Cabin under layers of wet cotton and adrenaline. And on days when even rivers of coffee couldn't shake the 5 AM wake-ups and the mountains felt too far away, we steeped ourselves in the frigid waters of the Hoback for a reminder of why we came out west.
Camp Davis, I learned, is an unexplainable place. It offered a freedom I hadn't yet known—that fresh-out-of-your-parent's house feeling, coupled with an escape from cell service and hardly any supervision—resulting in a liminal space that the wild American West, it appears, can still provide. My 18-year-old self was taken aback by how I could be simultaneously unprepared for such an environment and also wholeheartedly accepting of it.
I returned to Camp Davis for a second summer, driving west with a friend of a friend on a mission of our own indulgence. Together we backpacked to the base of the Grand Teton and drank Wyoming beer on the shores of Phelps Lake, though we mostly scrubbed classrooms and chopped vegetables, our cutting boards side by side. Through it all, we reveled in the knowledge that although one summer we'd eventually have to grow up, it wouldn't be this one.