JACKSON, Wyo. —
There I was, dangling 4,000 feet in the air above Teton Village, nothing beneath my feet but clouds and (beyond the underside of those white vapors) solid ground.
My first experience paragliding — essentially parachuting from a mountainside rather than an airplane — had me gasping with a combination of excitement, anxiety and altitude.
Accompanied by my tandem partner, I departed the top of the Rendezvous Mountain aerial tramway, 10,450 feet above sea level, early one morning about a month ago with little idea of what I was doing. I knew only that paragliding was one of those “bucket list” activities that might not again present itself before I was too fragile to attempt it.
At the foot of the lofty Teton Range, just inside Wyoming's western boundary with Idaho, there's an outfit called Jackson Hole Paragliding that will take aging, underachieving athletes such as myself and offer them an experience of a lifetime.
An inquiry in the nearby town of Jackson, a shuttle ride to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and I found myself on an 8:30 a.m. tram to the mountaintop — after paying for the privilege, of course, and signing a hold-harmless agreement.
Fortunately for me, instructor Dan Roof had done this dozens of times before, and he breathed a contagious confidence. Toting a 90-pound pack that contained his chute and harness, he led me off the tram atop Corbet's Couloir, an infamous slope that challenges even expert skiers, and paraded a few dozen yards into Rendezvous Bowl.
There he carefully spread our “wings,” inspected the more than two dozen cords that would be our lifelines, and helped to strap me into the buckles that would support us both as we went soaring through the atmosphere.
“I just want you to jog down the hill,” he said, once we were ready to go. “Just a few easy steps to start, then I'll tell you when to pick up the pace. Before you know it, you'll be off the ground and airborne.”
In the brisk morning air, the takeoff was as easy as Roof had predicted. I found myself soaring over the craggy, pine-cloaked canyons of Bridger-Teton National Forest. I lost track of time, and with my instructor in control of the chute, I dreamed I was lost in the clouds below us.
As we descended, the morning sun painted an aura around our shadow on the clouds. Roof called the phenomenon “our glory.” Then we found a crease in the mists, avoiding a disorienting “white room” and corkscrewing to where we could view the greenery of golf courses and stream beds beneath.
All that remained to worry about was a soft landing.
I had learned about the paragliding opportunity from a concierge during a four-night stay at the Snow King Resort. The full-service resort, which nestles at the foot of Snow King Mountain less than a mile from downtown Jackson, is now completing a major refurbishment that has elevated it into the upper echelon of lodging properties in the valley.
Snow King has been there a lot longer than most hotels. The 400-acre Snow King Ski Area, in fact, was one of the oldest in the United States, having opened in 1939. (The larger and better-known Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, across the valley, didn't begin operating until 1966.) The 204-room hotel was built at the foot of the slopes in 1976; since its purchase in 2012 by a San Diego-based firm, it has undergone a wall-to-wall remodel extending from its guest rooms to privately owned condominium units.
For casual visitors such as myself, that includes a completely reinvented loft restaurant and lounge, Hayden's Post, that serves exquisite cuisine while taking its place among the most frequented night spots in a town with plenty of them. It is approached by stairs from a lobby carpeted with a map of Wyoming. This is where I met the concierge who, over the course of my stay, also pointed me to Hoback Sports, which offers bicycle and other rentals, and to Olga's Day Spa, where a Russian woman gave me one of the best massages of my life.
Jackson Hole was named for early-19th-century mountain man Davey Jackson, who had staked out this lush, mountain-ringed valley as a trapping ground. When trade rendezvouses were held, “Jackson's Hole” was a favorite location. The designation was one of the more sensitive offered up by the often-coarse intruders: French-Canadian fur trappers dubbed the three prominent peaks on the northwest side of the valley as “Les Grands Tetons” — the big breasts.
An easy hour's drive south of Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole sits at an elevation of about 6,200 feet. About 30 miles long, 10 miles wide and drained by the Snake River, it is home to a rich wildlife that includes moose, bison and bears — both grizzlies and black bears. The 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge, more than 100 years old, extends northeast of Jackson and provides winter haven for more than 7,000 elk, the world's largest herd. Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris can almost guarantee large-animal sightings in any season.
The town of Jackson, whose year-round population of 9,500 is similar to that of Prineville, was established in 1894 as a cattle-ranching center. It was formally platted in 1900 around a central town square, at whose four corners stand imposing arches of bleached elk antlers collected by local Boy Scouts.
During the peak summer season, costumed locals participate in staged holdups of stagecoaches that carry tourists around the square. Any time of year, wooden sidewalks tempt visitors to enter such notorious and historic saloons as the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where tipplers mount saddles when they belly up, and the Wort Hotel's Silver Dollar Bar & Grill, its bar embedded from one end to the other with — you guessed it — antique silver dollars.
In recent years, Jackson has also developed a solid reputation as a center for the arts. The National Museum of Wildlife Art is a case in point. Mimicking Scottish castle ruins on a hillside north of town, it displays masters like Carl Rungius, John Clymer, Bob Kuhn and Robert Bateman, but also devotes ample space to up-and-coming artists, 145 of whom were presented in its juried Western Visions show last month.
“It's sort of the anti-establishment Western art approach,” said Anna Olson, the brand director at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. “A lot of the artists who live here are young — many of them 30 and under — and they're doing it their own way.”
My visit coincided with Jackson's annual Fall Arts Festival, an 11-day post-Labor Day extravaganza that included everything from gallery walks to sidewalk sculpting demonstrations, fashion shows to home-and-design tours, accompanied by plenty of great music. A highlight of the festival was the QuickDraw Art Sale and Auction, during which 30 leading local artists are given 90 minutes to create one-of-a-kind works for charity.
Acrylic artist Carrie Wild was one of the participants, crafting an intense and colorful depiction of horses with her time allotment. A year earlier, she had created a scene with bison.
“If you're a wildlife artist, this is the place to be,” said Wild, who grew up on an Arabian horse farm in Michigan and found her way to Wyoming via Saskatchewan three years ago. “I came here for the wildlife photography and inspiration for my art. I found a community that supports aspiring artists as much as those who are already established.”
Wild's work is distinguished by its vivid colors and its bold brush strokes. “I'm trying to push the limits of wildlife art,” she said. “A lot of it is based on traditional subjects, but I tend toward more contemporary. My art is meant to be inspiring and colorful, and make you happy.”
Wild's boyfriend, Jason Williams, the founder and owner of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, said that wildlife art “promotes a love of the resource. In supporting this art, Jackson Hole is promoting a passion for the place, a connection with the now — not just with history.”
Fashion and food
The kickoff event for the Fall Arts Festival was the Western Design Conference Fashion and Jewelry Show. Held in the town's chic Center for the Arts, it drew several hundred supporters of the wearable arts, most of whom were themselves decked out in contemporary Western style. The fashion purveyors came from as far away as New York, and price tags ranged as high as $39,200 for a silver-and-gold concha belt with 2 1/2 carats of inset diamonds.
My budget doesn't allow me such extravagance. I'm more inclined to spend my dollars on good food and drink, as at Bin 22, the latest venture of local restaurateur Gavin Fine, partner in a half-dozen Jackson-area businesses since he established the Rendezvous Bistro in 2001.
“Cooking has become very sexy,” said Fine, who admitted that when he started his business more than a decade ago, “I used to grab cooks off the street.” Now that cooking is regarded as an art in its own right, those days are far behind him.
Bin 22, which opened early this year, couples a rustic Italian kitchen with a wine shop. Fine's chefs showcase Spanish-style tapas as well as regionally produced Wyoming Whiskey, poured straight from a cask behind the marble bar.
I sipped a snifter with the distiller himself, David DeFazio. With substantial support from Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead — younger brother of his business partner, Jackson resident Brad Mead — the bourbon, produced outside the Bighorn River town of Thermopolis, was introduced last December. “We sold all 3,000 cases online in 27 seconds,” DeFazio said. “So we're now planning to produce another 1,200 barrels (more than 15,000 cases) this December.” There may be art in distilling, but there's also art in marketing.
And then there's the art of enjoying yourself in the outdoors. Leading up to my big mountaintop adventure, I talked my friend Jim Goslin, a Jackson resident for many years, into joining me on excursions first by mountain bike, then on foot.
The mountain biking began just outside the door of my room at Snow King. Goslin led me up a graded gravel road into Cache Creek Canyon, where 19 miles of singletrack spread through forest and grassland after a moderate climb. We enjoyed a modest 7 miles or so, over rocks and around trees, skirting the rim of a precipitous slope.
This was a mere warm-up for a highly rewarding, five-hour hike the following day, into the backcountry of Grand Teton National Park.
Crossing deep, blue Jenny Lake on a park launch, we disembarked with a couple of dozen other day hikers at the foot of 12,325-foot Teewinot Mountain. Towering behind Teewinot was the stark 13,770-foot summit of the Grand Teton, its windblown face supporting glaciers even in late summer.
Goslin and I lost half of our fellow hikers at Hidden Falls, a pleasant cascade falling through pine woodland. We lost half of those who remained at Inspiration Point, a steep ¾ mile climb above the boat dock, with a view east across Jenny Lake toward aptly named Sleeping Indian Mountain. As we headed up Cascade Canyon, between 11,430-foot Mount St. John and 12,928-foot Mount Owen, we were practically on our own.
Our goal for the day was a simple one — the junction of Teton Crest Trail, 4.5 miles above the boat dock. After the initial steep ascent, we kept a steady pace as the westbound trail rose more gently to about 8,000 feet elevation. With sporadic stops to sip water, take a quick breather or take in the phenomenal view of cataracts streaming off Mount Owen, we reached our objective in about 2 1/2 hours.
As we finished a lunch stop, we could hear thunder echoing from Alaska Basin to our west. So we turned our toes back toward Jenny Lake, hoping to outpace the oncoming storm. Sun peering through the billowing cumulus clouds lent an eerie light to the scene around us, perhaps startling a fully grown cow moose, which we saw huddled in a thicket beside Cascade Creek, just off our trail.
We encountered another couple with binoculars trained on a black bear with two cubs on an elevation above us. We glanced, but were driven onward by a decision not to become living lightning rods.
We were aboard the boat, across the lake and back in Goslin's Jeep before the thunderstorm hit — barely. It was full force by the time we arrived at Dornan's, a family-owned resort complex that has been around for about 80 years. Settled at the bar with a beer and a burger, we took in a spectacular sound-and-light show upon the Grand Tetons, and were glad to be here instead of in Cascade Canyon.
Fortunately, there were no such pyrotechnics the following morning, when I undertook my paragliding adventure.
When I left readers hanging a couple of dozen paragraphs ago, I was suspended in mid-air above Teton Village, the resort community at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Dan Roof, my instructor, was navigating us through a hole in the cloud layer, and I had just begun to see solid ground again.
There were clouds, yes, but there was no rain. We coasted gently over Fish Creek and a couple of lush golf courses, and I could have sworn I saw actor Harrison Ford waving at me from his Jackson estate. (No, Roof said, it wasn't him — although he and wife Calista Flockhart live only a few miles from here.)
As must any aircraft, we circled to approach into the wind. I stretched my legs out in front of me for a seated landing, but as we neared a grassy meadow, Roof instructed me to stand. It was a perfect, two-step landing, and the parachute settled softly on the ground behind us.
Since that day, I've been asked several times by friends: Was it a rush? Would I do it again?
The answer to both questions is yes. But a bigger “rush” is just being in Jackson Hole, at the foot of some of the most dramatic mountains on the planet.