Skiing into Jackson Hole

Kevin Gilday hooks a foot onto the rail in front of Mill Valley Sheepskin & Leather in Jackson, Wyoming. It's a gorgeous, sun-splashed winter afternoon in this gently gentrified cow town at the foot of the Grand Tetons. Last night's snowfall is melting into rivulets on the wooden sidewalks that front upscale establishments like Gilday's, source of the supple shearling coats that constitute Jackson's de facto winter uniform. Gilday gestures at a stoop across the street. "I remember one summer Dick Cheney, Alan Simpson, and I sat right over there, shooting the breeze," he says. "Great guys." That Gilday can relate this with a guileless shrug says a lot about the Jackson mind-set. For a town crawling with rich and/or famous residents, studied nonchalance seems to be the unspoken attitude toward fame, or simply impenetrable wealth. There is no shortage of the latter. Thanks to Jackson, Teton County's per capita income of $60,000 places it among the nation's 20 most prosperous counties. But unlike Aspen, another Western hamlet transformed by the success of a legendary ski mountain, Jackson is only peripherally a ski town. The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is actually 12 miles away, across the Snake River, on the other side of the valley. And though Jackson, like Aspen, experienced an influx of celebrity residents in the '80s and '90s, its small-town atmosphere was not nearly as compromised. Today people in Jackson talk about Aspen the way people in San Francisco talk about Los Angeles: as an example to be avoided.

So it is that when Harrison Ford, who has an 800-acre ranch on the Snake, ambles down Jackson's streets, he isn't ambushed by paparazzi. And when Julia Louis-Dreyfuss arrives from Los Angeles en famille at the cozy Jackson airport--where a private jet carrying Sandra Bullock famously crash-landed in a Christmas snowstorm--she could be just another Patagonia-clad local scanning the luggage carousel for her Tumi. (Patagonia founders Yvon and Malinda Chouinard have a home here, too.) So if Cheney, who owns a $2.9 million house in the gated Teton Pines golf enclave, feels like kicking back with a regular guy like Gilday on a summer's eve, well, that's how things are done in Jackson.

At first blush, one would hardly peg the town as a magnet for the likes of Cheney, former Columbia Pictures CEO Alan Hirschfield, or World Bank head James Wolfensohn. Or, for that matter, Bill Clinton, who vacationed while president at the homes of investment banker Max Chapman and Senator John D. Rockefeller IV and was a dinner guest at Ford's ranch. (Clinton's former press secretary Jake Siewert had to interrupt his own Jackson Hole vacation to spin for his boss after Clinton's pardon of billionaire felon Marc Rich.)

Seen through the windshield of a rental car en route to Yellowstone National Park, Jackson could pass for any number of true West mountain towns, although on closer inspection its Western signifiers are truer than most. Arches fashioned from tangles of antlers shed in the nearby National Elk Refuge mark the entrances to the town square; a neon bronco kicks up its heels outside the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where saddles worn smooth by blue-jeaned buttocks serve as barstools and silver dollars glint beneath the bar's varnish. Range Rovers and Mercedes SUVs do ply the folksy streets, but there's enough unfashionable Detroit iron with Wyoming tags to suggest that you've stumbled into nothing more than a tidy, prospering, but otherwise unremarkable mountain resort town.

Walk Jackson's wooden sidewalks, however, and the Ferragamo in storefronts and ahi sashimi on menus are reminders that you haven't stumbled into Casper. Such is the carefully tended Zeitgeist of Jackson: On one hand, it's a relatively unspoiled chunk of semiwilderness with sparkling air, spectacular scenery, and peerless skiing. On the other, it's a haven for high but unmighty living among strenuously low-key millionaires, where a Polartec vest and faded 501s count as dressing up but you can still get a bottle of Pétrus with your venison at the Snake River Grill. In a bit of serendipity that sums up this town's relationship with wealth and fame, in 1987 a former minor-league baseball player named John Peterman bought a full-length cowboy duster in Jackson and spun it into the clothing catalogue that led to his pop-cultural enshrinement on Seinfeld, the show that enabled Louis-Dreyfuss to earn enough to buy a place here.

Strictly speaking, "Jackson Hole" refers to the 400-square-mile, high-altitude valley, or "hole," that is bordered by the Gros Ventre, Snake River, and Grand Teton ranges (the town of Jackson is at the valley's southern end). Native Americans used the area as a hunting ground for thousands of years. By the late 1800s Anglo trappers and ranchers had supplanted the Shoshone, Crow, and Blackfoot tribes, and the valley became known as Jackson's Hole, after an enterprising beaver trapper. Another Jackson, a photographer named William Henry, shot the jaw-dropping photos that helped goad Congress into creating Yellowstone National Park. During the 1920s John D. Rockefeller Jr. preempted thousands of acres for the family's JY Ranch, vast swaths of which were eventually donated to help create Grand Teton National Park.

Today more than 97 percent of Teton County lies within national parks, forests, and wildlife preserves. (One of Cheney's first acts as vice president was to advocate opening 370,000 acres of the Bridger-Teton National Forest to oil and natural-gas drilling, which endeared him to Wyoming's energy interests but not to his environmentally disposed millionaire neighbors.) The flip side of so much protected acreage is that less than three percent of the land around Jackson is in private hands, which has had a predictable effect on real estate values: The price of a single-family home in Jackson tripled during the 1990s, and more substantial properties routinely go for seven or eight figures; actress Heather Thomas sold her house in the Crescent H development, threatened by last summer's wildfires, for a cool $20 million. The cost of living is such that many of Jackson's shopkeepers, waiters, cooks, and lift operators commute over the treacherous Teton Pass from homes in less exalted Idaho communities like Victor and Driggs.

It was against this backdrop of bulletproof wealth that the Aman chain of hyperluxury resorts chose a bluff 7,000 feet above sea level on the East Gros Ventre Butte as the site for the Amangani, its first North American property. (The name is a conflation of Sanskrit and Shoshone that means "peaceful home.") The move mystified some, since Aman is most closely identified with properties in places like Bali or Bora Bora and with the "Amanjunkies," who refuse to stay anywhere else. In fact, Jacksonite Tom Chrystie, a former Merrill Lynch executive who developed the adjacent Spring Creek Ranch resort and condominiums in 1982, suggested the site to Aman founder Adrian Zecha and became an investor in the project.

There was opposition to building the Amangani, despite its small size and minimalist, terrain-hugging architecture, and the bad feelings have not entirely dissipated. Part of the problem, acknowledges general manager Monty Brown, was that after it opened, in 1998, the resort was perceived to be operating as a virtual city-state. The Aman culture of cocooning guests in spoon-fed luxury while ignoring the locals didn't mesh with Jackson's preppie-meets-Old West egalitarianism. Which is how, in an enclave of multimillionaire owners of sprawling vacation homes, the Amangani was seen as putting on airs. The stunning hilltop site, with its feudal view of the Snake River Range, only exacerbated the resort's isolation. Since then, steps have been taken to smooth things over--Brown saw to it that the Amangani joined the local chamber of commerce, among other conciliatory gestures--and today the resort and town appear to have reached what Cheney's generation would call peaceful coexistence.

The Amangani's arrival intensified the conviction among Jacksonites that the hordes from Los Angeles and beyond were turning the town into--the phrase is by now so well-worn that locals throw quote marks around it themselves--"another Aspen." There is a story, possibly apocryphal, about a household-name action star and his wife who were made to wait for a table at a popular downtown restaurant. "I don't wait in line anywhere," the star supposedly sniffed. "You do here," the hostess replied.

Getting high-handed with the locals is an exception, and a sure way to get on the wrong side of a town that pointedly does not reward bad behavior. Celebrities "don't come here to be seen," says Mike Keating, assistant manager of Jackson's Teton Mountaineering store. Says Cathy Shill, a naturalist and guide who's worked in Jackson for 15 years, "Until a couple of years ago, [famous] people came to Jackson because they liked it: Dick Cheney likes to fish, and Uma Thurman would come to snowboard. I wouldn't have even known that Sandra Bullock had a piece of property here if her plane hadn't gone off the runway." Harrison Ford, who's lived here for almost 20 years, emerges as the preferred role model for expat movie stars: polite, quiet, sporadically heroic. "He's very low-profile," says Scott Sampson, former chef at Terroir, a Jackson restaurant that serves its share of celebrities. More than once Ford has airlifted stranded hikers to safety in his Bell 407 helicopter; one later said her chief memory was of his blindingly white teeth.

The incursion of new money and celebrity has created a sense of, if not paradise lost, then the passing of an era. "I'm glad I knew the town 20 years ago," says Susan Carlman, manager of Jackson's Crazy Horse jewelry store. "It was much more of a funky Western town." Locals say last summer's Green Knoll wildfire, which never threatened the town but did force the evacuation of some 400 homes nearby, was oddly restorative. "Jackson seemed to have lost that small-town feeling," Keating says, "but during the fires people were on the radio offering to board horses, dogs. It gave the locals a pretty good feeling." Adds Shill, "All walks of life, all levels of income, came together. I don't think anybody even went to the Red Cross shelters; when all those people were evacuated, they were taken into other people's homes. That's pretty amazing, and the true sense of Jackson."

You reach the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort--"J-Hole" in local parlance--by driving across the tabletop-flat Snake River Valley, out of which the Tetons leap so abruptly and theatrically as to appear rendered instead of real. The Tetons satisfy our unconscious expectations--derived from the View-Master stereoscopes of childhood and the works of Walt Disney (think the Matterhorn at Disneyland)--of what big-time mountains should look like. They also make for one hellacious skiing experience.

Jackson Hole has a fearsome reputation among casual skiers. A boldface notation that appears on the resort's official trail map--this mountain is like nothing you have experienced before--hardly calms the uninitiated as they size up its 2,500-acre sprawl, 4,139-foot vertical drop, and abundance of double-black-diamond runs with names like Bivouac, Dog Face, and Surprise. Compared with other ski mountains in the American West, Jackson Hole has always had more in common with classic European ski resorts like Val d'Isère and Zermatt--a point driven home by Teton Village, the mock-Tyrolean complex that was constructed at the base by founder Paul McCollister in the sixties. In truth, while Jackson Hole demands respect, there is plenty of terrain that will keep intermediate and even beginning skiers happy and challenged.

As a nominal expert myself, I found that many intermediate runs at Jackson Hole were the equal of advanced trails at, say, Colorado's Breckenridge or Steamboat Springs. As at Ajax, the original mountain in the Aspen complex, it's easy to get in over your head fast; more than once, carving easy giant-slalom turns, I was surprised to find that the pitch had suddenly steepened and my speed had increased precipitately. But through trial and error--the latter rendered in a couple of spectacular, binding-release wipeouts--I settled into several trails that matched my ability but kept me on my toes.

Locals and in-the-know outlanders make the hourlong drive across Teton Pass to the Grand Targhee ski resort, run by former Vail owner George Gillet. By a fluke of geography and a base elevation of 8,000 feet (to Jackson Hole's 6,300), it receives a prodigious dump of fluffy powder with passing storms. Several ski magazines have rated Grand Targhee's snow as North America's best. Although the terrain isn't as varied as Jackson Hole's, this is a manageable, easygoing mountain that's seldom crowded, and an excellent place to divine the mysteries of powder skiing in a nonthreatening environment. I drove over on the forthright recommendation of a J-Hole lift-ticket seller, after a warm spell had turned the snow there into the dread "mashed potatoes," and was charmed by Grand Targhee's intimacy. The experience was a throwback to skiing in the 1970s, right down to the vintage Rolling Stones music piped over the loudspeakers at the base.

The even smaller Snow King mountain, on the edge of downtown, was Jackson's first ski area, founded in 1939. It's popular with locals for night skiing on fresh powder from afternoon storms after the lifts close at Jackson Hole and Targhee.

"It matched the vision I had of what beautiful is," Harrison Ford once said by way of explaining why he had forsaken Hollywood for Jackson Hole. That sentiment was shared, in various guises, by nearly everyone I spoke with in and around Jackson. Says Scott Sampson, "I came from Las Vegas, which has grown into a big city with the problems of any big city. The quiet and solitude are what struck me about Jackson. Everyone here has a very natural lifestyle--it's hard not to jog, climb, ski. It was the pureness of Jackson that did it for me."

"The way of life is so down-to-earth," says Danielle Parazette, a refugee from Ralph Lauren's empire, from her post behind the counter at the blissful beauty store Pure. Life in Jackson, she allowed, was good. Her husband was about to launch a Mexican restaurant, and the couple were raising their child in the sort of place her old boss exploited in a thousand glossy adverts. But even Arcadia had its drawbacks. Jackson's isolation, so satisfying for those with the time and wherewithal to indulge and then hop a Gulfstream back to L.A., can wear on the year-rounders. "When I first got here, I was selling fish three or more days old," chef Sampson says. "Now, with the Net, I can get anything anywhere in the world the next day. Still, there's not a place to buy a suit. The closest is Idaho Falls, and it's not exactly Macy's."

The presence of so many cosmopolitan millionaires has inevitably raised the bar culturally. Architect John Carney spent part of his childhood on his family's ranch outside Jackson and now lives and works here full-time. "On a physical basis, yes, the town is very Western," he says. "The tourist element tries to play up the Œhowdy, pardner' aspect of it, and there are those elements. But it's a much broader culture than that. We have an incredible group of talent. There's a dancers' workshop, resident companies, very talented Equity actors who live here."

I found that the diversity of Jackson gave it purpose and energy that it otherwise would not command. Diversity certainly not in a racial sense: In five days I saw only one African-American on the sidewalks. But the mix of classic ski-town hippies, zillionaire investment bankers, discreet movie stars, and third-generation natives is a lot like, well, Aspen in the '70s. "There's still a broad cross section of people here," Keating points out. "Old ranchers, people who have lived here for generations, who are probably opposed to things like the land trust" (a referendum that requires homebuilders to set aside property for affordable housing). "There are people here who hunt mountain lions."

Having encountered veiled sullenness when traveling outside big cities in the mountain West, it was refreshing to be treated with neither light hostility nor the treacly solicitousness aimed at the tourist dollar. The people who served me in Jackson's restaurants and shops, at the gas station and the grocery store, were plainspoken, polite, and evenhanded. They think Jackson is a nice town and, like the perennial high school yearbook inscription, want it to stay that way. So maybe the Jackson where our vice president and the former senator from Wyoming can shoot the breeze with the proprietor of the local shearling-coat emporium on a summer's night isn't in danger after all. Even the most conflicted townies are betting on it. "In all my years in Jackson," says Shill, "I've never felt like leaving."