“Ya’ll’s have fun!” called the hotel desk manager as my sister and I moseyed through the lobby of the Rusty Parrot Lodge.
“Did he just say ‘ya’ll’s’?” asked Heather (and did I appropriately use apostrophes?).
Whatever the friendly reputation of the South, we’ve got stiff competition in the West, where in towns like Jackson, Wyoming, cowboys tip their hats on the street, motorists screech to a halt rather than hold up approaching pedestrians, and restaurant servers and shopkeepers confirm our plans for the evening.
“Will we see you gals for Bluegrass at the Wort tonight?” asked the soft-spoken gentleman building our fire, as Heather and I ate berry-filled oatmeal beneath our room’s goose down comforters.
It was on the quick plane ride from Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole that we first suspected a vortex of sorts, a descent into the land of friendly, hearty folk, such as the he-man in front of us, who leaned over his seat following the we’ve now reached our cruising altitude signal and asked the question we would hear at least another two hundred times this week:
“Do you Chatty Cathys ski?”
We learned from his camouflage-clad wife of their plans, a three-week wilderness camping adventure, including fly-fishing and river rafting throughout Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
What about the animals? I asked, timidly.
“I’m not afraid of bears,” he laughed. “I’m a Marine!”
It was Justin, our guide through the National Elk Refuge, who provided the week’s best education. Founded in 1912 by concerned area homesteaders and $45,000 from the U.S. Congress, the preserve now boasts 24,700 acres, 900 bison, and more than 7,300 elk, migrating yearly between the Jackson Hole refuge and the surrounding Teton National Forest and Yellowstone National Park.
Today only five percent of the elk, tracked according to GPS devices inserted within collars on mature females, summer in Yellowstone, as opposed to fifty percent as recently as the 1990s, choosing the Tetons instead.
“Too much pressure in Yellowstone,” explained Justin.
I assumed he referenced the filled-to-capacity campgrounds and the traffic jams at park entrances and animal sightings.
Instead he spoke, to my surprise, of the grizzlies and wolves.
“Six hundred grizzlies now in Yellowstone,” he said. “And in 1995, without a wolf to be found in Wyoming, we introduced thirty wolves from Canada into the park, hoping for a population holding around 150. Now we’re at 1700 wolves in three states. Last week a dog was killed in town.”
He went on to explain that the moose population is at its lowest in years.
“A pack of eight wolves takes down a bull moose with ease.”
Furthermore, the large padded wolf paws rest on top of the snow, while the moose and elk, which run up to 35 mph on land, sink and slow within the deep drifts.
It was hunting opportunities on the preserve that most surprised me, until Justin told a tale of population control and economic impact that somehow made sense, while reminding me of alligator-hunting elucidations on Louisiana Swamp Tours.
As though trying to cheer us, Justin explained that the elk shot on the refuge must be prepared for human consumption, whether or not one actually eats it. Heather and I, guilty, looked from each other to the lounging animals, as we thought of the delicious elk sausage we tried the previous night. (Turns out, we learned later, that Wyoming forbids the use of hunted elk meat in commercial establishments; according to Justin, we probably ate elk shipped from a game farm in New Zealand).
Antlers sprinkle the preserve as the male elks drop naturally once each year. Following the animals' migration, local Boy Scouts collect the antlers, selling them at auction during the Elk Fest in May. Last year, according to our guide, they collected 13,000 pounds of antlers, raising $111,000 for their troop.
“The Scouts in our neighborhood sold popcorn,” mumbled my sister.
With a few days left on our annual sister trip, Heather and I, both non-skiers, plan more cards and conversation by the fire, day-dreaming before the Grand Tetons, moseying along the raised wooden sidewalks, and perhaps another performance by Elk Attack, our bellhop’s band.
We look forward on Easter Sunday to a big “How ya’ll’s doin’?” to Tyler Alford, former Food and Beverage Manager at the Wild Sage, recently moved to New Orleans from Jackson and working at Commander’s Palace.
“Wyoming has this parallel way to how we grew up,” noted Heather, recalling our childhood in the beach town of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. “We needed the tourists but didn’t always want them, but we still made them feel welcome.”
“I so would have worn that t-shirt,” she continued, recalling Erin at the Silver Dollar Bar and the words “Chicken Fried Prison Music” printed on her back.
I did wear that t-shirt, I laughed. It said, “Hog’s Breath is Better Than No Breath at All.”
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
-all photographs by Heather Wolfe Parker-