Early explorers described the steep decent into Jackson, Wyoming as a climb into a hole. We arrived into the consequently named Jackson Hole by air, giving us a broader perspective of the landscape; however, the sense of being swallowed up upon entering the area remains. The spectacular landscape we saw from the air surrounded and dwarfed us as we drove toward the Teton mountain range and our hotel. I took it in, awestruck and humbled, determined to embrace my inner cowgirl.
We stayed in Teton Village, an alpine resort village virtually indistinguishable from any other, except for its location at the base of the fantastic Teton mountain range. A common explanation for the name of these mountains is their resemblance to breasts. You get a sense of the hearty and not-so-gentle folk that first explored this area; instead of coming up with a euphemism such as “mother’s milk”, they just named the range “tits”. But perhaps it was a reference to the wholly non-nurturing nature of these mountains. They seem more likely to eat you alive than shelter you. Unhindered by foothills, the Tetons rise nearly seven thousand feet straight up from the valley floor, a wall of nature vaguely reminiscent of a gate to an evil empire.
These foreboding peaks loom in sharp contrast to cheery downtown Jackson, where one finds plenty of opportunities to buy cowboy hats, bearskin rugs, and tee shirts proclaiming “This Ain’t My First Rodeo”. If you have ever had a hankering for elk meatballs, this is your town. My first coherent thought after walking around for half an hour was “this is like Frontier Land at Disneyland but way better!” I spent most of lunch (at Cafe Genevieve, delicious and charming; specialty “pig!”) trying to figure out whether this was a compliment or a complaint. As we left town, I remained unsure.
To be fair, travelers do not come to Wyoming for its town squares, and human habitation has never been this area’s strong suit. Native Americans came during the warmer months but did not live in the valley year-round. In the 1820’s, a man named Davy Jackson became one of the first white people to spend the winter in what later became the town of Jackson. He did not stay long. Crops do not grow well in the high arid terrain, and the weather is somewhat brutal, so settlers remained sparse until the transcontinental railroad came through in the late 1860’s. At that point, thousands of Texas longhorn cattle were driven into Wyoming, taking advantage of the open space and free grass. The “cowboy culture” was born. This open range lifestyle lasted only until the end of the 1880’s, when an especially harsh winter and declining beef prices decimated the industry and fences were built. This cowboy heritage is extremely important to the identity and mystique of this area, and cattle ranches still exist, but the “locals” I met in Jackson Hole seemed to be newly arrived twenty-somethings working in the tourism industry or rich people avoiding state income tax.
Still, behind cowboys real and imagined, the backdrop remains, some of the most beautiful country on earth, preserved by a few visionaries. We left the area by way of the most famous of these preservations, Yellowstone National Park. After the main tourist attractions and an infuriating parade of RVs were behind us (“Old Faithful! She’s a-gonna blow!”), we drove for hours through the park’s breathtaking vastness. At some point, we crossed into Montana, without so much as “Come Back Soon!” sign to indicate our departure from Wyoming. Somehow, I was not surprised. Such a gesture would have been incongruous with a landscape essentially unimpressed by human habitation. Wyoming remains the least populous of all the fifty states, with barely half a million residents. I felt tolerated, mostly ignored, by this place; even my insignificance was hardly worth noting.
Checking my email as the sun set on our last day in Jackson Hole, I glanced through the news, full, for the umpteenth time that summer, of terrorism, gun violence, and politics. The mountains in front of me were suddenly thrown into golden relief by the alpenglow in the distance, but their eternalness provided cold comfort. I am no cowgirl, and this landscape silently reminded me how ridiculous my urban illusions of control are. Night in Wyoming seems to take forever to fall, and I felt something inside me slip into the approaching darkness.
And after that ringing endorsement, I know you want to!
Where to Stay: Outside the national parks, the two most obvious choices are downtown Jackson and Teton Village. We stayed in Teton Village, which provides your standard alpine village set-up with the obligatory shops for outdoor enthusiasts, high-end bar food, bungee jumps, and outdoor music venues. Its best feature is location; the village is just a few miles away from Grand Teton National Park. Gondolas load in the village and lead up to stunning views, hiking trails, and a restaurant. This area is an excellent choice for families with small children. Ski lifts come directly into the village, which is probably fantastic in the winter, but gives the area a slightly junky look in the summer. The village was a little generic for me (Am I in Tahoe? Am in Vail? Who knows?), but I understand the appeal. Next time, I would stay at a hotel or resort set off by itself; openness is what Wyoming does best.
Where to Eat: The restaurant scene in Jackson, at least what we experienced, was charming but uninspiring. We did have an utterly fantastic meal at Snake River Grill (make reservations in advance and order steak tartare pizza). As I mentioned above, Cafe Genevieve in downtown Jackson is a wonderful spot for breakfast or lunch. Rendezvous Bistro, a little out of downtown, is a cute riff on an American west bistro, with totally acceptable food. The Handle Bar at the Four Seasons in Teton Village is well done with great outdoor seating and a menu that looks fantastic but is not quite. Service was good everywhere, with a friendly group of twenty-somethings just happy to be living in Jackson.
What to Do: We accessed Teton National Park as a day trip from Jackson, which is easy to do. The Visitors’ Center in Moose, which includes a little museum depicting the history of the park, is worth a stop. Jenny Lake, the classic site, was so busy we could not find parking (there was construction in the area, so this may not normally be a problem). The amazing thing about this park is the views of the Tetons, which are accessible pretty much everywhere. It makes for stunning hikes, drives, and camp-outs, whatever your idea of an encounter with nature is.
Yellowstone is a little different. First, it is massive (the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined). Second, in order to see some of the key sites, you have to drive to them (some are literally hours from Jackson), find parking, take a walk, and, in the case of Old Faithful, wait for something to happen. So, it ends up being a very long day. We started in Jackson and ended the day in Deer Lodge, Montana, doing Yellowstone on the way, and it ended up taking us eleven hours to go 300 miles. As brutal a plan as that was, exploring Yellowstone as a day trip from Jackson would be no picnic either. The smart move would be to plan far enough in advance to stay overnight somewhere in the park. However, rooms and camp sites fill up a year in advance, so you have to be almost magically organized.