The last time I felt like I needed an escape for my sanity, and fast, I jumped out of an airplane…which I wholeheartedly recommend from the standpoint of gaining instant awakening, though not in a strictly religious sense. It is more like jumping in into a lake of frosty water.
This time, my girlfriend, Angela, had invited me to go to Jackson, Wyoming with her and her parents for a couple of days. Since I have basically promised my own mother I won’t go skydiving again until after her demise, lest I cause it prematurely from mind boggling worry, I quickly accepted Angela’s invitation.
What I found in Jackson was a place of unique beauty, friendliness, and under merely a thin layer of glitz…rugged and real people who are clearly passionate about where they live (albeit with a little griping about the early dawning winter). Coming from Dallas, where we were in the 90’s last week, seeing snow and feeling cold weather on my skin was like jumping out of an airplane in its own way. It woke me up. It made me smile. It rang in a fresh, new adventure.
I made this trip without my family. I love my family beyond description, but when one devotes themselves entirely to family pursuits, it is very easy to forget who one is without them. Being in an airport without children is something one can only appreciate fully after years of traveling only with children. It is a no-win situation, done correctly on pins and needles to cause minimal upset to all parties concerned. Mothers with kids are treated like lepers in an airport. You are simultaneously invisible and the cause of all of the world’s troubles. Certainly, no one wants to be seated anywhere near you. Yet, the airlines have a nasty habit of not allowing you to reserve seats next to your kids ahead of time unless you “get lucky” at the gate. Somehow everyone forgets that they, too, were once small, insufferable, irritated, cramped ticking time bombs with beleaguered mothers. I am grateful to be a mother of semi-rational humans now, who can be glared into relative submission and who are quite happy to spend three hours playing Nintendo. However, I never forget the emotionally and physically draining marathon that air travel with small kids can be.
So being in an airport alone, save one good friend, was a vacation in itself. I got to go to the bathroom alone, and only when I needed to go. I only had to keep track of my own things. I only had one pair of shoes to contend with at security. Joy. Bliss. We two mothers on the loose smiled like the Cheshire Cat for three days straight. We stepped off the airplane in Jackson to a snow covered earth and I nearly hit the tarmac to offer kisses to the ground. Cold, wet, joy! Everything is relative, yes? In the pitch dark of a Wyoming night, I failed to see the miracle that was all around me at that moment. A family trip to Jackson in the 80’s had left a familiar impression in my mind, and I knew I was surrounded by beautiful, jagged mountains, but I couldn’t see them.
I awoke to a world that was still curiously green, and decorated with oranges and yellows and drab browns. The Aspen leaves were bright yellow, and starting to fall. The mountains were capped with snow. It was as if the full span of the seasons was laid out for me to appraise. As you can see, I have a small obsession with the eyes on Aspen trees. And, because of the snow, every leaf and every flower was covered with a spray of beautiful dewy drops of water. I was overwhelmed by my desire to look only at the tiny little details of everything, dew on petals, rock patterns and colors, peeling paint on doorjambs, brush strokes on paintings. Looking up, there was almost too much sky and too much expanse, dare I say too much beauty to absorb into my tired but rallying brain. The esteemed father of my host continually exclaimed his wish that the ever present clouds would lift so that I could see the grandeur of the exposed and vast Teton Mountain range. I kept finding myself thankful for the gauzy covering on one end of the horizon or the other, hiding this apex, or filling that valley. I think I might have combusted had I seen it all at once.
Oddly, I always assumed Jackson was at the top of the world. Photos of the Tetons would have you believe that there could be nothing higher, and I would have assumed that Jackson had any town in the Rockies beat for elevation. But Jackson is at a mere 6,237 feet of elevation. Denver is in the low 5,000’s and Aspen is, at its base, at a literally breathtaking 7,890. It was explained to me that this is actually one of Jackson’s great draws. It sits in a flat valley, with straight roads, and at a reasonable altitude, yet surrounded by towering mountains. Therefore, those who are sensitive to altitude and perhaps a little prone to car sickness in winding mountain roads, can live and play quite happily in Jackson. I was smitten with the landscape.
Café Genevieve was the first restaurant we tried. It was recommended to me by Hannah Hinchman, a PIE Facebook friend. Angela was singing the same tune. We happily found the warm little spot to be serving a late brunch and we dove in headfirst with Eggs Benedict, and we split a waffle. I find that I learn a lot about a restaurant from its pancakes and waffles…so I order them often. That is a nice excuse, isn’t it? Suffice to say that I had the very best Eggs Benedict of my entire existence on Friday, October 7, 2011, thanks to Café Genevieve. And the waffle was superb. Also, I can usually take or leave breakfast potatoes but theirs were hot and crisp little potato nuggets that were not to be left behind. It was absolutely, positively, a perfect meal, including good and free-flowing coffee.
We picked up coffee at the Jackson Hole Roasters for the house. It was a sweet little cottage and they had the neatest coffee bar stocked with Chemex decanters and lots of other nifty treats.
Souvenirs for the kids were found all over the place, but purchased at the Jackson Mercantile. They also have you covered if you need a flying jackalope, or a paddling squirrel with a canoe included, or a badger. They also have an impressive stuffed grizzly that gave me the creeps. It is a fun store. And there is a great little candy shop right behind it, with about 100 million flavors of fudge.
That evening we travelled into the Grand Teton National Park and drove up to Jenny Lake, one of the most picturesque locations I’ve ever seen. On the way, we passed both a herd of buffalo and a herd of elk. The setting sun put on an exquisite show on the drive and the settling clouds at Jenny Lake were cool and dark. Scattered raindrops made the lights of the Jenny Lake Lodge shine and we stepped back 50 years into a traditional lodge with a classical guitarist in the living room and a fire in the fireplace. For dinner there, I had potato gnocchi with apples, buffalo carpaccio and buffalo short ribs. Coffee and cinnamon roll bread pudding finished me off and I was nodding by the time we made it back to the house.
We awoke on Saturday and decided to take a leisurely drive back into the park. We dawdled in the information center which has an incredible gift shop and is simply a lovely building. We told ourselves we would go for a short walk…a little jaunt just to wake up our lazy bones. But the colors were so wonderful and the path so compelling that we kept going and going and going, all the way up to Taggart Lake, and then up past Taggart Lake, and down the backside of the Mountain. We hadn’t started on the backside because Angela’s hiking guide said it was bearish…so why we thought it wouldn’t be bearish on the down hill run is beyond me. Lack of oxygen, perhaps. And, it was bearish. I saw imaginary bears around every corner, and trees that looked like they had been scratching posts for less-than-imaginary bears. But, up there in the unparalleled beauty, amongst the grouse and the waterfalls and the brooks and the chipmunks, I felt alive and well and free and strong. So we kept on walking. It was the high point of the trip.
Here is the funny part. Do you know that moment when you walk around a corner in the woods and the trees open up and a mountain lake comes into view, and the clouds part and the mountains rise up to pierce the sky? Do you know that moment when in spite of any actual musical talent in reality, your heart and your mind hit a high note and the angels in your own brain sing to the Heavens? Well, Angela is a Soprano of great repute and she literally and truly hit that note a few times as we would come around the bend and it was so surreal and so awesome. All my brain was coming up with as we walked was a song Ford had left in my head two days before, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart!” Pretty campy stuff! Angela was singing from the Phantom of the Opera, and “Stamp Thine own image deep in my heart,” from Oh, To Be Like Thee. She knows the language of the music that fit the moment on the mountain. I would have liked for her to sing the whole way. It might have been good for scaring off bears, too…as though a real angel had split the sky and descended to protect the frady cat down the mountain. It turns out that the other side of the park had been closed that previous evening because a momma grizzy and her two adolescent cubs had been a little aggressive with some sightseers. So my bear radar was perhaps a little off geographically, but not totally haywire.
We returned to Jackson vitalized and starved. We popped in the Sweetwater Restaurant for a late lunch. They also served free-flowing and delicious hot coffee. Ice water was served in canning jars and the walls were covered with local photography. The place had a cuteness and warmth about it, but the food was dead serious. Angela had a Fried Green Tomato BLT that was a show stopper. I had a bite of one of the tomatoes and while I’m no expert on FGT, it was one of the best bites of food I’ve had in ages. It was simply spot on perfect. I had a large and impressive Reuben, which I enjoyed. But Angela’s sammie was the winner, running away. For dessert we had a piece of butterscotch bread pudding that was as large as a brick. It was huge and I was grateful that we had decided to share it because I would have eaten the whole thing and messed up my dinner at the Snake River Grill that evening.
One of our must do missions for the trip was to secure a new coffee mug for Angela. I assumed she meant a cheesy coffee mug, but she led me into a great little shop where a darling woman emerged from the back covered up in chocolate. This was Mursell McLaughlin. She is the potter-in-chief and chocolate maker extraordinaire. She and a nice gentleman working the front chatted with us and talked weather and life for a bit. I asked Mursell about tempering chocolate and she said that back when she started she had to mess up an awful lot of chocolate because there was no computer and there were no chocolate making guides handy and she had no one to teach her. I often take this wonderful medium for granted, where instructions for every sort of project or recipe are just one click away. I now have a new favorite coffee mug.
After a long shower and a short nap, we readied ourselves for another feast, this time at the Snake River Grill. It was a white table cloth meets cowboy sort of a joint, and by that I mean I was able to wear jeans to a white table cloth sort of place. We feasted on tuna tartare, and truffled shoe string potatoes and out-of-this-world tempura-fried green beans served with Srirachi ketchup. Because I felt I needed to take it a bit easy after our massive lunch, I ordered the vegetarian entrée (are you groaning and giving me an incredulous look due to the silliness of this statement?) which was butternut squash wrapped in wide pasta and served with a cream sauce and basil pesto. It was excellent. I never would have thought to pair pesto with squash and it was lovely. Bravo, chef. OK, the dessert was boring. If I don’t say something was merely terrestrial, as opposed to heavenly, you might not take me seriously. But, this town is big on good food.
And to cap the point, on Sunday before our flights (plural) back to Dallas, we ate breakfast at the Bunnery. Thanks to my friend Milisa of Miss in the Kitchen for that tip. Holy cinnamon roll! It was so good, that I forgave them for having raisins in them. And, they had pretty darn good chilaquiles and delicious grainy bread.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all of the wonderful galleries we visited. Several were quite familiar as I have visited them in Scottsdale or on-line in the past…Legacy Galleries and Trailside Gallery. I was pleased to see some wonderful paintings by local (Oklahoma) painter Kenny McKenna and a new favorite, John Poon at Legacy. However, we also enjoyed several that I had not yet encountered. Turpin Galleries represented an artist named Mitch Baird who I found to paint pleasing little landscapes that are just my style. I love the work of Clyde Aspevig, Matt Smith, and Scott Christensen, and Mitch seemed to be moving in that direction. Another interesting gallery right on the square, recommended by Angela’s lovely mother, was Astoria. They had a few favorites in stock, as well as some artists with whom I was not as familiar such as Greg Scheibel. I love the window shopping for great paintings. Of course, I usually come home and talk to Bubba at Collector’s Covey in Dallas about these wonderful paintings, as he is my trusted art adviser. He keeps me out of trouble.
We also enjoyed looking at contemporary Western art at Altamira Fine Art. Contemporary is less often my genre of choice, but Altamira was a well curated collection of work. I loved learning about John Nieto and saw a piece by one of my favorite artists, Louisa McElwain. She paints giant canvases that she works on out in the elements, with big bold palette knives full of sage and gray and sky and dirt. I’ve never bought one of her pieces but every time I see one in a gallery, I feel like I’m bumping into an old friend.
We left as quickly as we arrived. It was a bullet train of a vacation, but every single moment of it was a joy. Jackson is a place I hope to return to often. Next time I might even let my family come with me. But, the excellent squealing joy of our reunion was one of the very best parts of the trip.
Now, if you don’t have time to go to Jackson, or you are looking for a cheaper route to take a break from your everyday life, you could consider jumping out of an airplane. See, you probably thought I was joking. I was not. Look how my nose is all inflated and my skin is flapping in the wind…that is real! That is looking down over Whitewright, Texas, about 50 miles north of Dallas. Skydive Dallas is a quaint and charming little drop zone that can take care of all of your “I need a break from reality” needs. Just this, tell your mother after…not before…for her sake.