Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Mountain Life
Mountain Life

Maybe it will happen in winter, atop Rendezvous Bowl, as your eyes take in the snow-blanketed valley that stretches below and your legs quiver, anticipating the 4,100glorious vertical feet that fall away beneath you. Or it might happen early on a quiet summer morning as you round a corner on your mountain bike and find your route blocked by a moose. Or perhaps the moment will come in a quiet fishing spot on the Snake River, as your gaze wanders up, then farther up, to the jaws of the Tetons, biting ocean-blue sky. But eventually, most visitors to Jackson Hole will wonder: Is there some way - any way at all - to avoid going home?

The "Hole" is really a valley that runs some 48 miles south from Yellowstone National Park to the Snake River Canyon, and 15 miles across from the Teton to the Gros Ventre mountain ranges. And it's so beautiful that at first sight it can hurt knowing you'll have to leave. The Tetons, shooting nearly 8,000 feet from the valley, rock-solid and foothill-free, are stunning, almostsurreal. Arriving by air feels like dropping into an artist's canvas. But this topographically intense northwestern corner of Wyoming is real to the core, its authentic frontier sensibility both a welcome and a warning to everyone from movie stars to ski bums, cowboys to billionaires. Come to play, come to live, but try to tame this place and you've missed the point entirely.

Yellowstone-bound tourists, some3 million annually, flock to the Wild West charm of Jackson's wood-plank sidewalks, its antler-bedecked town square surrounded by stores stocked with Native American jewelry and cowboy boots. A neon-studded bronco beckons revelers into the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, Jackson's raucous landmark, where live music, dance lessons and saddle-topped barstools loosen up cowboys urban and authentic. But to truly understand Jackson's spell, you have to forge out into the wilderness. Whether you venture by foot, bike, boat or horse, the crowds instantly dissipate and your connection gets personal.

The quest for the ultimate lifestyle has spurred enormous growth throughout the valley in recent years, as wealthy retirees, second-home owners and white-collar workers move in. If you can live and work anywhere, why not go where there's spectacular skiing, fishing, hiking and open space? As the money pours in, the real-estate prices escalate, but so do the door prizes. Residents enjoy such perks as the National Museum of Wildlife Art as well as music festivals, great public schools, and enough fine restaurants to make the phrase "chuck wagon" a quaint memory, all in a home where buffalo really do roam and the winter elk herd can outnumber humans.

The local skiing is, of course, legendary, but summer marks the real high season. Locals head toward Wilson, across the Snake River, where life is a little quieter. The most action you'll see is the breakfast line at Nora's, where people meet to fuel up for a day on the pass, the real local gym. Bikers, runners and hikers stream past the grazing horses at Trail Creek Ranch, where the old Teton Pass road kicks up a winding 4,000 feet to its summit (and points beyond). On a typical morning you'll share the road with adrenaline junkies, mothers pushing baby joggers, chatty power-walkers and, if you go early enough, a moose. Gravity returns you to Wilson for a river dip at Wilson Beaches or to the Stagecoach for pitchers and pool. Don't let the Harleys out front deter you.

The "Coach" - where Brooks Brothers, Carhartt and Patagonia share tables - is a slice of Teton life, a cross-section of the varied geographic andeconomic backgrounds that converge here. For many, the how-I-came-to-Jackson story starts with the innocent sabbatical fantasy: a hypothetical year off before graduate school or a big jobor something else that somehow never found the time to happen. Others come more deliberately, to a retirement condo, a "corporate headquarters" ina state with no income tax, a secondd or third vacation home. All succumb to a familiar script, where escape becomes reality, and true love - for the place and the feelings it inspires - conquers all.

Andy Chambers has seen the script play out a hundred times, with characters from blue collar to blue blood. A true Jackson local (his great-grandparents homesteaded here in the early 1900s), he's a rare specimen: someone who left Jackson for adventure. Eight years globetrotting with the U.S. Ski Team as a World Cup downhiller convinced him there was no place like home. "I thought I'd end up in a chalet in Switzerland," he laughs. Jackson, of course, is the anti-thesis of disciplined Swiss perfection. The area is big, open, wild and free; many of its glitzy mountain-town counterparts feel hopelessly artificial by comparison. The rich and famous come to Jackson to be part of the scenery, not the scene. That said, when lost hikers are plucked from the wilderness by Harrison Ford piloting his helicopter and wedding ceremonies pause as fighter jets patrol overhead during Dick Cheney's frequent trips home, you get the hint that you're amidst powerful company.

"Part of living here," says Chambers, speaking for the younger, less established set, "is having to work a lot." If anyone understands that, it's John Gute, 36, whose work ranges from computers to construction to ski tuning to film production to - escorting models. "My best job ever," he admits. "I have about 15 W-2s this year." With an economics degree, Gute is typical of the population: well-educated, yet eager to trade the security of a traditional career track for the serenity of an outdoor life. Career ADD, a parent's nightmare, is arguably an advantage in Jackson. "Here, the defined opportunities are much more limited," explains local Sara Flitner, "but there's lots of opportunity to be creative and define it yourself." Flitner moved here for that fateful year between college and law school. Fifteen years and no law degree later, she's married, running her own communications firm and raising two children.

Jackson's reality check is that, regardless of what you wear, what you drive or where you live, people aren't fixated on "haves" and "have-nots." At the music festival, when you see the man in a suit and tie standing next to his buddy in shorts and Tevas, you understand their bond as equal beneficiaries and caretakers of the area's rich natural splendors. As Chambers puts it, "Where you live and what you own is irrelevant." It'sthat you're there that counts.