In the syrupy light of dawn, the moose lock antlers like musketeers. Skulls crash together and clouds of dust explode around them. It has to be the most fitting and fortuitous of starts to a day in which we're driving to a place named Moose.
One of three entrances into Grand Teton National Park at Wyoming's western edge, Moose sits at the foot of the Teton Range, which spears straight out of the Jackson Hole valley – foothills be damned – like a row of shark teeth.
The youngest mountain range in North America, but conversely containing some of the oldest rocks on the continent, Teton is a compact range that defies the human obsession with mountain numbers.
People climb, hike to or simply aspire to see the likes of Everest, Mont Blanc or even Mount Kosciuszko because they have the biggest numbers of all, but stand here in Moose and numbers suddenly seem irrelevant.
Though grand in name and grand by sight, no peak in the Tetons is among even the highest 100 mountains in the United States, and yet former US President Theodore Roosevelt once described them as "how mountains are supposed to look".
An Ansel Adams photograph of the range was one of 115 images shot into space aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 as a record of the Earth's beauty. Today, Grand Teton is one of the 10 busiest national parks in the United States, with almost 3 million visitors a year.
To reach Moose, we've driven for 30 minutes – plus moose stops – from the self-styled "cow town" of Jackson. Though little more than 10 kilometres from the Teton Range, Jackson is a town where the mountains are out of sight and, at times, even out of mind.
A favourite among Western filmmakers, Jackson has retained a streetscape of wooden boardwalks and Wild West storefronts. The famed Million Dollar Cowboy Bar on the town square – the first bar in Wyoming to get a liquor licence after the repeal of Prohibition – employs horse saddles as barstools, and there's an almost religious fervour about steak. Elk antlers form archways over footpaths.
Harrison Ford and Dick Cheney famously reside near the town, but the real stars here are the mountains and the wildlife within and around the national park.
In Moose, as in so much of the park, history rides shotgun with the mountains. In the 1890s the area around Moose was the site of the only homestead in the region west of the Snake River. A pontoon ferry, propelled by the river's flow, operated here, along with a store, now converted into a period museum.
But the real visual treasure at Moose is the Chapel of the Transfiguration, a small log church built in 1925. The mountains frame the chapel, but step inside and a wall-length window behind the altar frames the mountains.
"I was married here 25 years ago," Alltrans guide Jesse O'Connor tells me as we pull up outside the chapel. On that day, Jesse and his bride had dressed in period costume for their big day before the mountains. Today, a Christian tour group wanders in ahead of us, filling the pews.
The group begins to sing Amazing Grace before the natural wide-screen TV of the church window. It's a soft, almost timid, sound until Jesse strides forward.
"May I?" he asks the tour leader before taking command, his voice rising as magnificently as the Grand Teton, the range's highest peak, behind him. As the song finishes, Jesse strides from the chapel with all the strut of a rock star leaving a stage. These cowboys can be a surprising lot.
Just a few kilometres from Moose, the religion changes but the views don't. In a short line running parallel to the range, a community of Mormon settlers was established in the 1890s. Today, the barns of Mormon Row, with their roofs peaked as if in imitation of the mountains, are said to be the most photographed barns in America.
If Mormon Row is now a set tourist piece, so much else across the foot of these mountains is more like a living museum. Grand Teton is an unusual national park. Created to protect the mountain range in 1929, it expanded across Jackson Hole in the 1930s after a group of locals schemed to secretly buy up and protect the land from development.
Seeking a philanthropist to back them, they found John D. Rockefeller jnr, who bought 140 square kilometres of land, which now represents about 11 per cent of the national park.
The expansion of the park was strongly fought by ranchers, who were placated with concessions. Private land holdings were allowed inside the park, so that the Tetons are now a place where range meets ranch. Wild bison graze among cattle in the sagebrush grasslands, and dude ranches and settler homesteads abound. The largest airport in Wyoming – Jackson Hole Airport – sits inside the national park.
More naturally, there's a chain of seven lakes pooled along the foot of the Teton Range, and it's to tiny String Lake that we head next, driving along the Teton Park Road at the very foot of the mountains.
Beside the road, the sagebrush grasslands are dotted with pronghorn antelopes and bison – North America's fastest animal grazing side by side with its heaviest. It's like watching an elephant take lunch with a cheetah.
Arriving at String Lake is like entering a scene from a storybook: clear green water, bare rocky peaks, pine forest climbing up the slopes. Canoes drift by, and as the short lakeside hiking trail pops out at adjoining Jenny Lake, the main Tetons peaks rear straight up from the shores.
Most prominent is the Grand Teton, the so-called American Matterhorn, standing more than 250 metres higher than any other summit along the compact range. Glaciers cling to its high slopes like shoulder pads, and about a dozen waterfalls pour unseen from the range towards the lakes.
The biggest of the lakes is 30-kilometre-long Jackson Lake, a body of water larger than all the other lakes combined. Its northern end abuts the park boundary, near the point where Grand Teton National Park almost merges with Yellowstone National Park, just 10 kilometres to the north.
We park up at a pullout beside Jackson Lake and I climb down to its pebbly shores, where fallen trees angle like pointers towards the Tetons on the opposite, distant shore. On this still, blue day, the surface of the lake is ironed flat, creating flawless reflections – bald mountains reaching into the sky and seemingly down into the depths of the lake.
It was on these shores, in 1989, that US Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze came together for an outdoor meeting that would lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall six weeks later.
The so-called "Peace Table" around which they sat is now displayed inside the ostentatious Jackson Lake Lodge, where the spectacular lobby culminates in 20-metre-high windows that stare out across the lake to the Teton Range.
It's a view that beckons us back south along the mountains, past the Snake River Overlook where Ansel Adams took his famous photo in 1942.
A few kilometres on, Jesse turns off the highway again towards Moose, heading for a faint dirt road etched along the western bank of the Snake River. The previous day he'd seen a grizzly bear fishing from the bank beside the road.
As we cross the Snake River back into Moose, however, there's already activity. A queue of vehicles is parked along the road, and a crowd of people lean over the railings of the bridge, staring down at something below.
"We have a moose jam," Jesse says. The moose have come home to Moose.
STAYING & EATING THERE
In the Teton Village ski resort, at the range's southern end, Hotel Terra has a sprawling range of contemporary, apartment-style rooms at the foot of the four-kilometre-long aerial tramway onto the Tetons. Its superb Spur Restaurant is overseen by a chef who was named the best in Jackson Hole seven years running. In Jackson, the Hampton Inn provides a quality stay. hotelterrajacksonhole.com; jacksonhole.hamptoninn.com
Alltrans operates full-day tours of the national park from Jackson between June and September. The day trip costs $124. jacksonholealltrans.com/GrandTetonParkTour.html
Andrew Bain was a guest of Visit the USA and The Real America.
FIVE OTHER US MOOSE-SPOTTING LOCATIONS
From the town of Pittsburg, New Hampshire, Route 3 heads north towards the Canadian border and has a reputation for being so prolific with moose, it's been coined Moose Alley.
The state of Maine prides itself on moose sightings, but why not begin at the obvious place? Moosehead Lake is claimed to have three moose for every person.
You don't have to go far anywhere in Alaska to expect a moose on the loose – there are an estimated 200,000 moose in the northernmost state. In winter, up to 1000 moose wander the streets of Anchorage alone.
Take a three-hour dedicated moose-spotting tour; a success rate of 93 per cent is claimed. gorhammoosetours.org
On this isolated Lake Superior island, in Michigan, about 500 moose and a handful of wolves have their own private food chain going.