Part 1: I threw my hometown off the Tetons (and then found it again)
[Originally Published on 11/4/2015 on www.atlasoflight.com, the blog that preceded atlasartpress.com]
When tiny seeds are planted and roots are kept safe, perennial blossoming is sure to take place.- AtlasofLight.com -
I limped across the stage with my walking cast [I conveniently broke my foot in 2 places just a few weeks before college graduation], then shook hands with a man I'd never met to accept my diploma. Hal. Le. Lu. Jah. I was finally done. I couldn't wait to leave. Don't get me wrong, I did have some good times, but they weren't the best years of my life. I have not been back since, don't own any alma mater gear, and only have a couple friends I'm in touch with whom I met in college. After graduating, I was not going to use my degree right away. I was burnt out. I was not going to get a long term job. I'd start by cleaning cabins and waitressing so I could live in the mountains. I was finally fulfilling this dream of the mountains that I had for a decade.
Barely two weeks after hobbling across that stage, I threw a giant backpack into the trunk of my friend's little black two-seater Honda, put my mountain bike on the rack, and lugged my broken foot / walking cast into the passenger seat. I was heading to a place I'd never been. This destination was a place that most people--upon arriving--call "Heaven on Earth" and "God's Country". This place was the West, but not just any west. It was in the heart of the most photographed mountain range in America and possibly even the world. I was going to the center of it to work at the only historic dude ranch actually located in a National Park--in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. I was going to spend a summer in heaven-on-earth, in the magnificent mountains.
The interesting thing is that I was leaving my hometown, which was at one time, called "hell with the lid off"(for an entire era, actually, Pittsburgh was called this). Over the course of history, it didn't have the best reputation on a worldly level for being a destination vacation travel spot. (Although now it consistently ranks among the best cities to live!) It was not hell by any means during the time I grew up there, but I couldn't wait to get out to see more of this beautiful earth.
After a long, but very exuberant road trip with my friend including a visit to the Corn Palace and Badlands of South Dakota, Buffalo Bill's country, and several campgrounds and dive joints, we drove up through the Hoback Junction into the little town of Jackson, Wyoming or Jackson Hole ("hole" is another name for valley and it was named after David Edward Jackson, the early trapper who descended into the "hole" from the steep mountain slopes and the first to spend an entire winter there). Jackson felt very much like the other ski towns I had visited on a state-wide camping trip to Colorado with my family back in middle school--resort style appearance, lodge-like, rustic feeling, western boutiques, killer outdoor enthusiast appeal, lots of restaurants--but it is unique in that there are NO major cities within a reasonable distance. The closest one is a 5 hour drive (SLC) and the next one is 10 hour drive (Denver). The state of Wyoming is actually the least populated state in America, but the ninth largest area. THIS is what I wanted. To just get away to open spaces.
This is actually what a lot of the people I met wanted as well. To embrace mountain atmosphere and everything that went with it--freedom and outside everything (think skiing, snowmobiling, snowboarding, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, camping, wildlife). This doesn't even include the other end of the spectrum--the arts--which Jackson is also known for: more art galleries and shows than most towns of that size, more real-deal artists and photographers than you would have time to meet, plentiful art-lovers and patrons, and a massive art center. Then, to top it off, a full size, impressive, nationally designated art museum--dedicated to wildlife and nature--drawing the likes of Warhol, Calder, and Picasso exhibitions as well as esteemed speakers and environmental activists like Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson, James Balog, and more. It was everything I loved. All. In. One. Place. Wow. But these names and features of this little town were nothing--I mean nothing--compared to the guardians of the valley... the Grand Teton mountain range.
It was upon driving through the town and coming out the other side, that I saw them... for the first time I laid my eyes on the most--THE MOST--enchanting scene I had ever seen. The Grand Tetons were like meeting an old friend that you haven't seen in a very, very long time...like seeing them for the first time, but also knowing deep down they are already (or have been) your best friend. Sometimes I dream that I lived in the Grand Teton range of heaven before I was born to this earth... as if I had a past life here... because I felt such a strong, dynamic bond upon that moment of seeing them, that I knew I had found more than a summer job location...I had found a new home--for a while at least.
It was here in this magical place that I painted en plein air and showed and sold my first paintings. It was here I photographed the heck out of everything and won first place in the local newspaper's photography contest. It was here I learned how to ride a horse. It was here I learned how to cook. It was here that I sang in some local bars, at an art show, and recorded my voice on a couple songs for a friend's album in a little "double-wide" recording studio. It was here I served choice wine, hors d'oeuvres and a private meal (on multiple occasions) to the [then] vice president of the U.S. It was here I saw true generosity and kindness exhibited by friends and acquaintances in their treatment of my future husband and I. It was here I met artists of all kinds --photographers, interior designers, painters, sculptors, writers, yogis, and professional, sponsored athletes. It is known in Outdoor-Magazine-reading-communities that Jackson has more people with Masters and Doctorates waiting tables than any other resort town.
Many who have lived there agree that it's nearly impossible to quench the Jackson Hole Thirst anywhere else on this earth. It was here I hiked to the top of real mountains, learned how to really snowboard, went backcountry riding by myself, had a season pass, and knew how real butterflies felt in your stomach on a freshy, fresh, pow, powder day. It was here I went mountain biking and cross country skiing right out my back door after work (because nature was everywhere and it was free!). It was here that I lived in a famous musician's former home with my future husband and the incredibly generous and loving couple that owned it. It was here I accidentally slid down a glacier while trying to take a shortcut on a backcountry hike and my future husband caught me in my utter shock and trauma from the experience. It was here I sipped on champagne at midnight under the starriest sky on earth in -20 degree weather in a jacuzzi on the dude ranch. It was here I tried sushi and caviar and escargot for the first time and learned what umami was. It was here I met multi-millionaires and most likely a few billionaires without knowing it... and went to a few of their parties. It was here I got my first real job in graphic design (my degree) and loved it. It was here I was mentored in my trade and given incomparable opportunities for growth. It was here anything seemed possible.
It was here I met amazing people from around the world and heard their stories. The sky was the limit and all the tools and connections you needed were right in front of you. It was here--in this melting pot of pure amazing--that I gained the confidence to start to find myself again. After spending a summer there, I knew I couldn't leave, yet, and would work as hard as I needed to so I could stay for a while.
It was here that I learned to love and lose and love again. It was here I met my husband, the love of my life. It was here I felt free.
Upon the first year of working, living, and experiencing it here, I decided I was never going back the East. The West was incomparable and exciting and breath-taking. So, I threw my hometown off the glorious Tetons and didn't look back...at least for a while.
In the mountains, there you feel free. - T.S. Eliot -