Saturday, June 09, 2012

Why WY?!

“ In some strange, difficult to explain fashion, most normal Americans seeing these far Western states for the first time find themselves curiously comfortable, feel somehow that spiritually, if not physically, they have come home.” (Dude Rancher Struthers Burt – quote from a Jackson Hole Museum exhibit)

The hardest question to answer someone right before or after I travel is : “Why do you go there?!”. As in:

“What are you doing this weekend?
I am going to Jackson, WY.
Why?!” – with the most puzzled look and an almost disgusted frown.

I am forever mystified by such questions. How do you answer that without being pretentious and also being relevant, at the same time? If they can’t see the why … what is there for you to teach?!  

So, I thought, for the sake of those who will wonder why we would pick up and drive for 6 hours on a cold, wet Saturday to a place that is even colder and wetter than Utah at that time (Memorial Day Weekend this year), in the middle of the mountains, with nothing but woods and prairie grass all around, I would make a list of why you should pick Wyoming for your next trip, too.  

I’ll tell you why we picked it in the first place but then, as we were there, we discovered why we were so right in doing so. Jackson, WY is a rich, happening place, stewing in history, with tons of stuff to do, and beautiful, breathtaking country, even at 33F in a light and chilly drizzle, mixed with snow!

We picked Jackson, first, because we stumbled upon the small town on our way back from Yellowstone last year. Ever since we glanced at it, over a short lunch break, we wanted to come back. Once we were back, we never, for one second regretted the choice we made to spend our long weekend there.

The town is fairly new (120 years young), but looks like a Western movie set. The sidewalks are paved with wooden planks, and your shoes resound as if you were wearing spurred boots. The buildings are old, and most of them original, 50+ year old buildings. Everything is preserved in such a manner, to remind you of the past – the two story buildings, the colorful paints, the wood siding on most of them, the compact wall-to-wall proximity of each building.

Everything reminds you of the days gone of the olden times of the first sheriffs and saloons, of a time when these lands were just being laid out and parceled up, divided into counties for the first time at the will of the gun and of the fist. A time of “dudes” and “dudines”, a time of madams, a time of passionate fights for what everyone believed was their own, when only in fact it belonged to the one who fought the hardest. It’s another page in the American history, much different than the rich Eastern one, but nonetheless important and revered.  

Aside from tracing the footsteps of settlers, these are some other things that you might consider when you pick your next destination to be Jackson:

This town is brimming with art. According to the wiki, Jackson is home to several world class art organizations. But you don’t need the online resource to realize this truism! There is an art store at every corner – and for a pretty popular tourist destination, this town has almost no “cheese”. Even the t-shirt stores are clean, elegant and, yes, artsy. One of the free magazines you can pick up in a box in the street is the “Art Association of Jackson Hole” newspaper – the community is so strong, they have their own paper, which speaks of exhibits, what artist is in town that month, and they offer the most art classes in any medium you can imagine, all over town.
I wanted to leave with a token of that, but everything, and I mean, even a small tiny wooden box costs a fortune there. Everything is one of a kind, too, so it’s understandable. 

 Indian art at a furnishing store

The art is inspired by the beautiful mountain surrounds, and rich wild life, as well as by the ancient Indian heritage, which is strong in these parts, as you would expect from any Western place.

We also went to Jackson to just be close to the mountains, and live in a cabin for a weekend! There is nothing like the touch, the feel, the smell of wood and the quiet that it envelops you in.

The food is delicious! Everything is fresh and local – and everyone takes pride in that. The Snake River brewery is considered a small brewery but they won the most awards I have ever seen in one place. Not only do they serve buffalo and local trout, but they even take pride in using the Snake River water for their beer: their slogan is “Run our river through your liver”. A bit graphic and cheeky, but that’s Jackson.

You come across foods you don’t get to eat in other places, like fresh elk, bison or trout. I strongly encourage ordering these – they taste like nothing else – fresh, tender, with tons of natural flavor -   the flavor of the mountain.

The names of some of the food establishments are unique (and again, cheeky), and add flavor to the environment, like the two Thai places “Bon Appe Thai” and “Thai Me Up”.  Nothing is boring in this small town – at least at first glance. Everything is just a little bit “twisted”.

Another reason why you should come to Jackson is – the best Spanish omelet in the world, hands down! OK! I have not been to Spain, so, maybe not in the world, but the best that I have ever tried – the salsa makes the dish here – delicious, fresh, spicy without being too much, on a bed of egg, cheese and sour cream.

We ran into the most fun store we have ever seen – a drink and spice store called Vom Fass. They import wines, liqueurs, cognacs, brandies, whiskies, oils, vinegars and spices from all over the world and sell them under one roof. You get to sample everything before you buy. You get to buy everything in custom made glass bottles, of various sizes. It’s very personalized, and very chic. We just got into too much trouble there, for sure. Adult playing is highly encouraged.

Our "treasure hunt" findings at Vom Fass

At the Jackson Hole Museum, you find out about the first settlers and how mesmerized they were when they first got to Jackson, how and why they never left, although life was not always easy – especially in the long, harsh winters. It’s a short visit, as the museum is not very big, but I definitely recommend it if you like to learn more about the area, what’s unique about it, and its history.

The Elk Refuge is unique in its own right, in the country and even in the world, having the largest herd of elks anywhere on the planet. The scenery is beautiful, even on a foggy day: lush, green pastures, surrounded by green hills, and into the distance by the Teton mountains. And a creek running through it. I cannot even begin to imagine how much serenity you’d encounter living here. We didn’t see elk, if you’re not counting the ones lying dead and rotting, but it was a nice ride through a very peaceful scenery, on a quiet, rainy, brutally chilly day.

Probably the one most famous trademark of Jackson are the four elk antler arches around the town square park – each corner of the park is guarded by one huge arch, completely made of antlers that boy scouts collect every spring on The Refuge. They donated these arches to the city in one of their endeavors. They are raw, natural and blend into the surroundings organically beautifully.

There are a lot of dead creatures around town – all stuffed and on display. If you have issues with that sort of d├ęcor, maybe you need to bring an open mind on your visit. These speak of what people have done in these parts, for generations – hunting is a huge tradition around here. At the Gun Barrel Steak and Game, the kill is savored and the guns are respected and in display cases. Very Western, very American, in my own opinion.

You should also go to Wyoming, for the people. They are some of the friendliest people I have met. They are never rushed, and always polite and mindful. Curious, yes, without being intruders. They give good advice and directions for where to eat and where to have fun. They know their land, and they are proud of it. And where else in the country would you eavesdrop on a lazy conversation , on a cold, rainy spring day, at a local diner, that goes something like this:

“So, what are y’all doing today?
Oh, not much. Me and John will just sit in a saddle and have a coupla’ O’Douls.”

Yes, the Wyoming horseman is for real!

There was so much we still wanted to do! We never got to ride the tram up the mountain from The Teton Village, because of the fog. And we never got to go horse back riding, because of the rain and cold. So we are surely going back – hopefully on an obnoxiously hot summer day! But everything we did see and do was absolutely memorable!

When driving into Jackson, or away from it, you drive by beautiful farmland, hemmed by beautiful mountains. You spot cows, horses and an occasional antelope or pronghorn farm, too. Man and beasts live very closely here, and there is God plenty a room for both, for sure under the great Western sky.  

 A pronghorn deer, along the side of the road towards Jackson

Nothing describes these beautiful places and the life in them better than Grace Gallatin Seton –Thompson, “A Woman Tenderfoot”:

" It is three years since I first became a woman-who-goes-hunting-with-her husband. I have lived on jerked beef and alkali water ... I have been sung asleep a hundred times by the coyote's evening lullaby ... I have been nearly frozen eleven thousand feet in air in blinding snow, I have baked on the Dakota plains with the thermometer at 115 degrees, and I have met characters as diverse as the climate. I know what it is to be a miner and a cowboy, but best of all I have felt the charm of glorious freedom, the joy of the living and of the doing, of the mountain and of the plain."

And ultimately, isn’t it all about the freedom?! The freedom of seeing, and doing and just being. As my French teacher used to say: “Just go. Travel. It doesn’t matter where, it doesn’t matter how far. Even if you just go to a place just to find out that the air tastes differently there – that is all you need and it makes the going worthwhile”. Every place is a different thing to each of us. But we won’t know what it means to us, how it can enrich us, till we go and live the surprises.

So, next time people will ask me “why Wyoming” with a frown, I’ll simply say: “because the air tastes like buffalo and elk mixed in with a touch of fresh blueberry and Snake river Pilsner”. Just go! 

Under the elk antler arch, on the wooden sidewalk, in Jackson town square. Click here to see the whole album from this trip. Enjoy!