Magazine article Sunset

Jackson Hole; Beautiful, Natural, and Rich: Is Wyoming's Paradise Too Good to Be True?

Magazine article Sunset

Jackson Hole; Beautiful, Natural, and Rich: Is Wyoming's Paradise Too Good to Be True?

Article excerpt

With all due respect to heaven, it's got nothing on Jackson Hole at dawn. A.J. DeRosa is heading out on a float trip down the Snake River. A native of Chicago, DeRosa arrived in this corner of Wyoming in 1972. He's been guiding on the river for 27 years using wooden boats handmade from Douglas fir.

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The river is running high, and the boats settle into the current south of the Wilson Bridge. The head of a bald eagle flashes white as it catches sunlight high in the trees. In stretches, DeRosa stops paddling and the boat wheels in lazy circles, creating a kaleidoscopic panorama of Jackson Hole: blue sky, cottonwood forest, and the dark, jagged summits of the Tetons.

A few riffles aspire to whitewater, but the Snake remains quiet enough that it's easy to hear the castanet-like crackles of stream-smoothed cobbles as the current pushes them along the river bottom. "When I was 8," DeRosa says, "I used to lie in my uncle's boat in Wisconsin so I could listen to the water lapping up against the wooden hull. I still get to hear that sound. Every day."

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Life in the valley known as Jackson Hole is filled with such connections to what may be the most spectacular of all American landscapes. "Sense of place" isn't a genteel catchphrase in this 60- by 20-mile area but an in-the-gut feeling. Residents of Jackson proper often recall a moment when they knew that they were going to live here. For many it was seeing the Tetons rising over the valley floor like mountains out of childhood imaginings. Jobs? Housing? All of that will work itself out. One way or another. Because sometimes you just know where you have to be.

Head out of the airport and you immediately sense you're in a different kind of place. Grand Teton National Park surrounds the airport, and minutes out of baggage claim, you're likely to spot such wildlife as moose, bison, and elk; in fall and winter, the valley is home to North America's largest elk herd.

"It's hard to move to Jackson and just take up where you left off," says Nancy Shea, the former executive director of the Murie Center, Jackson's nationally known wilderness advocacy group. "You're living in a very different kind of place. Here it's personal: You have a moose in your backyard."

Shea tells a story about one resident who lives along the Snake. The man loved his yard's landscaping--as did the local moose. "He decided to share," Shea says. "His perspective was, 'They get a little and I get a little. If I'm going to live here, I won't be a perfectionist.'"

That said, for anyone oriented toward the outdoors, Jackson Hole comes pretty close to perfection. Ninety-seven percent of the valley is state and federal land, while the Jackson Hole Land Trust has gained protection for another 15,000 acres of ranchland through conservation easements. And so Jackson has some of the country's best out-your-front-door recreation.

In winter, people working downtown can get in runs during their lunch hour at the Snow King ski area. In warmer months, there's prime trout fishing, climbing, or mountain biking. All year, there's proximity to Grand Teton National Park.

"I feel like the park is my backyard," says Laurie Andrews, executive director of the land trust. "I think everyone does."

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High up in Teton Pass, a sign depicts a bucking bronco and declares, "HOWDY STRANGER. YONDER IS JACKSON HOLE--THE LAST OF THE OLD WEST." The reality, however, is that Jackson Hole is the epitome of the New West.

From 1997 to 2003, Teton County ranked as the nation's wealthiest county four times; the other three years, it came in second. Tourism is the biggest employer, but the area's affluence is apparent in the fact that the largest source of income among its residents is from investments, not salaries.

Jackson's growth can largely be attributed to economic and technological changes that have allowed entrepreneurs who are well into their careers to move here and run their businesses remotely. …

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