Reporting from Jackson, Wyo.—Within a few boardwalk blocks of the still-rowdy Million Dollar Cowboy Bar on the town square, you find more than 30 art galleries. Three miles north of town, on a slope overlooking the vast meadows of the National Elk Refuge, the National Museum of Wildlife Art stands sheathed in rugged red rocks, its galleries full of compelling paintings and sculptures. (This, by the way, is a great rainy-day option.)
A few miles farther north, Jackson Hole Airport (inside the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park) is in the final months of a two-year expansion project.
On Wednesday and Saturday nights from late May through early September, the Jackson Hole Rodeo takes over the Teton County Fairgrounds.
Meanwhile, in town, Jackson's Center for the Arts (completed in late 2004) hosts concerts in a 500-seat theater. Alongside all the cowboy ritz, a Ripley's Believe It or Not! gallery has stood near the town square for more than a decade — a reminder that plenty of middle-class families pass through this town too.
As long as you're in western Wyoming, step outside now and again. One place to start is the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's Teton Village, 12 miles north of Jackson, where they're working hard to attract summer travelers.
We rode the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram, which (since completion of a major upgrade in 2008) takes just nine minutes to whisk you from the valley floor (about 6,200 feet above sea level) to the top of Rendezvous Mountain (above 10,000 feet).
The round-trip costs $25 per adult. Here's how rich and generous some Jackson Hole tourists are: As we pulled into the parking lot, another family was getting ready to leave. Casually, the dad offered us two extra tram tickets free. Enjoy, he said.
From up top, we gazed down upon all creation (or so it seemed) and gorged (after a too-long wait) on waffles in Corbet's Cabin. Down below again, we rented bikes ($15 an hour).
Somewhere in there, we also strapped Grace into a bungee trampoline contraption ($12 for six minutes) and watched her giggle and bounce high into that big sky, making the same euphoric face as that boy on the bike. And then we came back later to the Teton Village stables for an hour-long trail ride ($35 per adult) on a tree-lined path used by cross-country skiers in winter.
The thing about the outdoors, though, is that you don't get that giddy, boy-on-bike result every time. While we were on top of Rendezvous Mountain, Jerry Moseley, a taxidermist from Georgia, decided to try a tandem paraglider ride. Somehow, his takeoff went haywire, and instead of running downhill and launching into the clear, blue yonder, the sixtyish Moseley and his guide staggered and bellyflopped onto the pebble-strewn snow.
It hurt just to be standing nearby. But give Moseley credit. He rose to his feet, scrambled back upslope, hollered, "Take 2!" and relaunched flawlessly with the same guide a few minutes later.
Once we were inside Grand Teton National Park, less than two miles north of Teton Village, we came across more staggering landscapes and another guy I didn't envy: the young man assigned to hold a stop sign to protect the workers upgrading the main road through the park.
Because summer is the only time the National Park Service can do road repairs, there were at least half a dozen crews out on the park roads, their labors requiring drivers to wait, sometimes five minutes, sometimes 30. (There's more roadwork than usual this year, thanks to $23 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.)
Even on a beautiful day, it wouldn't be fun ordering restless tourists to idle. But on the afternoon we crossed the young man's path, the sky was thick with charcoal-colored clouds, a thunderstorm was expected to begin shortly, and he was stuck standing there, with his metal sign, in a park where lightning regularly injures people and occasionally kills them. (On July 22, a 21-year-old climber fell to his death after being struck by lightning in the park.)
I hope that road-crew job comes with a health plan.
Fortunately, the storm was brief. The park was otherwise in fine form, offering not only natural wonders but also good values. First, there was the entrance fee: $25 per vehicle, good for seven days in Grand Teton or Yellowstone to the north.
Then there was the boat ride across Jenny Lake — a mere $10 per person , and it gave us a chance to make the little hike to Hidden Falls and spot a marmot on the way. (The trail was crowded, but nobody was in a hurry and everybody was happy.) At the Jackson Lake stables, Grace was too young for a trail ride (you have to be 8), but just right for one of the $5 pony rides offered between 9 and 10 a.m. and again between 2 and 2:30 p.m.
At $224 nightly, the Jackson Lake Lodge wasn't a great value, if you measure by service and amenities, and I have to agree with those who say it could be the ugliest building in Wyoming. But the trees hide it pretty well. And when you're inside, looking out, you see only the greenery of Willow Flat, Jackson Lake and the Tetons.
In the evening, we sat on the terrace of the hotel's Blue Heron Lounge and watched clouds tumble past the peaks while a bunch of brown dots lounged in the distance (a herd of elk). Down in front of us, meanwhile, a bird-watching woman stared so intently through her binoculars that she never noticed the interloper creeping out of the nearby brush, strolling up the path, then brushing right past her ankles: a red fox.
The next morning, I crept out of our room about 6 a.m., grabbed coffee in the lobby, and climbed a gentle hill next to the lodge as the sun slowly rose. The light was coming from behind me now, and while I waited on the hilltop, the day's first rays shot across the valley and struck the Tetons at their peaks.
So maybe the hotel was worth it. Also, with all respect to the happy boy on the bike, that made two Wyoming euphoria moments within 16 hours. Doesn't that make me King of the World?