April 2009
by Jim Gladstone, Passport Magazine

"Elk under glass.” That’s the phrase that was running through my head late last summer when I decided to schedule a much-needed change of scenery.

I was not daydreaming about four-star game gastronomy. I was musing over the wildlife dioramas one finds in big city institutions like Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History. I was relating, unhappily, to the urban constraint, the denatured “nature,” and the sense of isolated disconnection I saw in a taxidermied elk under glass.

While certainly soul-worn by daily life in my own cubicle, I was—unlike that poor vitrined beast—not quite fully and truly dead. A revivifying journey was in order. I would head to the land where the elk roam free!

A long solo September weekend at Spring Creek Ranch in Jackson, Wyoming proved an invaluable respite from the incessant busyness and cramped surroundings of urban life. Situated in a wildlife sanctuary with panoramic views of the Teton Mountains, the ranch’s most essential offering to visiting cosmopolites is a vast Western landscape and its rebalancing sense of scale. Powder blue skies stretch as far as the eye can see, punctuated by craggy, snowcapped peaks. Plains of pale green and sere brown roll endlessly toward the horizon.

Over 54% of Wyoming’s acreage is government-owned and preserved, with much of the rest of the state’s land dedicated to agricultural use. The resulting vistas, ribboned by the occasional road but largely free of buildings and other overt signs of human intervention, are a pointed, precious reminder of how small we are in the grand scheme of things. I welcomed the chance to feel tiny and to re-envision my daily anxieties and disappointments as puny man-made specks on an epic natural canvas.

You, little City Mouse, are not particularly important here. You will get over yourself. Quickly. Mother Nature says so. Loud and clear. It’s a healthy, liberating message to receive every now and again.

At Spring Creek Ranch, I was able to tune into that wavelength while simultaneously indulging in the creature comforts of a top-notch resort that’s been featured in the Robb Report and Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List. In nine timbered buildings, the ranch’s thirty-six hotel rooms, all with woodburning fireplaces and balconies or patios, surround a quiet trout pond. (There are also larger condo and villa units on the grounds, for shared rental by groups of up to eight.)

A stone’s throw from the guest rooms is The Granary, the ranch’s window-wrapped bar and restaurant. Hovering over a valley with breathtaking views of the Tetons, it’s a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Locally-focused dinner offerings indeed include elk (not, alas, under glass) both fillet and osso bucco style. Buffalo rib-eye and Idaho trout are also featured. To me, the restaurant was at its best during long, quiet breakfasts of trout Benedict when I could sip hot coffee and watch pale yellow sunlight begin to warm the sprawling landscape below.

Spring Creek’s central lodge building features a fire-lit lobby with a complimentary all-day coffee bar (plus fresh-baked cookies every afternoon), a well-equipped gym with on-call personal trainers and yoga instructors, and an outdoor pool. The ranch’s subterranean spa area is relatively small in size, but taps the Jackson area’s significant holistic health community to offer expert massages and body treatments. After a long morning’s horseback ride or hike in the wild, it’s lovely to return to the civilized pleasure of a lemongrass and peppermint foot massage.

In true holistic spirit, the Spring Creek spa goes beyond sole therapy to offer soul therapy. Spring Creek has wisely handpicked Carol Mann, a Harvard-educated, self-declared “clairvoyant” to be their spa’s resident metaphysician. Mann, who also does telephone consultations, is blessedly light on off-putting mumbo-jumbo, delivering a combination of articulate psychological insight and spooky how-the-hell-did-she-know-that? analysis that genuinely fascinated even this super-skeptical writer. Mann digitally records guests’ hour-long sessions, sending them home with a CD that serves as an extraordinarily personal souvenir of one’s trip.

Post spa-treatment, there’s an indoor Jacuzzi to relax in, but late at night, I loved soaking in the pond-side hot tub, steam rolling around me as I stared into a silent sky positively clotted with stars.

A guided tour of those stars is another of the offerings that makes a stay at Spring Creek unusually rewarding. Staff naturalist Kurt Johnson and his team offer open-air astronomy talks by night and informative nature walks by day on ranch property. They also lead excursions to nearby Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, as well as the National Elk Refuge, which is just a five-minute drive from the ranch.

Johnson, who has worked for the US Forest Service as well as conservation groups in Mexico and Kenya, has been settled in Jackson for nearly a decade. His passionate embrace of his role at the ranch has led to his writing of a remarkably detailed field guide to help guests understand the flora and fauna that surround them. When I wonder just how ignorant we city slickers can be about the natural world, Johnson says, “You might be surprised at the intelligent questions I get. But when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Nobody travels all the way here from the east or west coast because they don’t care about connecting with nature. The folks who come here appreciate being here.”

On a 90-minute hike, Johnson turns the underbrush into a multisensory classroom, pinching the heady turpentine essence from wild sage leaves and plucking serviceberries, chokecherries, and rosehips from their shrubs so I can sample the diet of the local muledeer, up to 350 of which winter on Spring Creek Ranch’s protected lands each year.

A family of these big-eared creatures ambles through a stand of trees just yards ahead of us. It is the trees, however, not the deer, that provide my most poetic memory of that morning’s amble. With their striking white bark and green-gold leaves that tremble audibly in the slightest breeze, Quaking Aspens are at once handsome and delicate and they have a special resonance for gay nature-lovers: a stand of Quaking Aspens (there can be dozens of trees, or more) is actually a communal, same-sex organism of genetically identical trees sprouting from a buried network of shared roots. When one tree in a stand grows unhealthy, the entire group is at risk. Males and females stand separately; reproduction through pollination is possible, but amongst Quaking Aspens it is the exception rather than the rule...