A Kinder, Gentler West in Jackson

Massive tangles of elk antlers form arches on the Town Square of Jackson, Wyo., a frontier community where wooden signs outnumber neon and the taps on the boardwalks are from the heels of Western boots.

The antlers are home-grown and home-shed. The largest elk herd in America--numbering about 10,000--winters just north of Jackson on a vast National Elk Refuge established in 1912. The animals migrate toward town when the snow gets deep and food in the mountains grows scarce.

From Christmas through March, horse-drawn sleighs carry visitors out to view the herd at close range while attendants toss out tasty bales of hay. With the spring snow melt, the elk return to higher country; most are gone by the time summer visitors arrive. But a few can always be found in a large, fenced-off pasture established by the National Wildlife Service between Jackson and the village of Moose, two favorite stops in the 50-mile-long valley called Jackson Hole.

The town of Jackson is West, all right. But not Wild West. It is the easygoing West of informal clothes and cordial manners, of plentiful art galleries and silver merchants, of factory outlets tucked into log-cabin buildings, and restaurants that proudly serve beef.

It is the booming West of sleek, timber mansions with Teton mountain views, and of high-rolling real estate offices.

Jackson, nestled at 6,200 feet, is frontier-chic. In wintertime, this brings the ski crowd to Snow King resort in town, and to the Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Teton Village, 12 miles away.

Even for nonskiers, the white season is an invigorating time to visit. The air is clear and crisp. When snowdrifts line the Wyoming roads, I have set out--with guides--on cross-country skis and then retired to a hearth and the warmth of a great mug of coffee, whether espresso or Irish.

Jackson has an extraordinary number of fine restaurants and bistros, considering that its population is not much more than 5,000. Its tastes are both hearty and cosmopolitan--with Cajun, Chinese, Austrian, Mexican and Italian (northern and southern) eateries.

Regional treats--buffalo, venison and even elk Wellington--are specialties at JJ's Silver Dollar Bar and Grill (with 2,032 silver dollars embedded in the bar) at the historic Wort Hotel. And one of the West's great hamburgers (half a pound of beef, choice of cheeses) is grilled at Billy's Burgers (takeout or counter service) on the Town Square.

Billy's is next door to the world's largest Ralph Lauren/Polo store outlet. Even if you don't want a polo pony on your chest, it's fun to check out Ralph Lauren's idea of a bargain. Besides, shops are warm and cozy havens when the temperature flirts with zero.

Splendid white cotton ladies' shirts with frilly lace and pleats can be had for $75 instead of $150. Jeans and jackets and cotton knit shirts come in a range of prices, depending on their condition.

I get a bizarre kick out of reading the labels on which the flaws that lead to discounts are described. "Small waist" was marked on one pair of jeans. Sure enough, the hips might have measured 40 inches and the waistband 21. I saw no takers.

"Twisted knee" was written on another pair. It looked as if one seamstress had gone to lunch and another had continued the job at a different angle. In this day of intentionally faded denims and fashionable slits and gouges, it is harder to recognize "irregulars." Odd threads and welts can make a garment more appealing to some shoppers.

Around the square are other outlets for sportswear: J. Crew, Patagonia, Pendleton and the ubiquitous Benetton. These mingle with awl-wielding bootmakers, ceiling-fan saloons, galleries and Western curio shops. Browsing, buying, eating, drinking, cabaret singing, skiing, snowmobiling, snow-shoeing, ice skating, elk viewing . . . it's all part of winter in Jackson.

There, just 12 miles south of Grand Teton National Park, is a good-natured town that stays wide awake while the park itself sleeps under a deep down-comforter of snow.

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