<--- Staff Essays
<--- Culture Activities
By Ryann Connell, Mainichi Shinbun
A 2-meter-long tongue of flame briefly bursts skyward from a propane burner into the expansive silk dome above. It sends the balloon upward before the fire peters out and we’re returned to the serene silence that inspires both exhilaration and contemplation.
Below—as the hot air balloon’s climb fuzzes detail yet expands horizons – is the Teton Valley, a picturesque corner in the eastern part of Idaho.
Piloting the balloon is Morgan Braden of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a veteran of 20 years at the helm of lighter than air craft and marshal of the 15 balloons that rally to form the centerpiece of the Teton Valley Summer Festival in early July.
Braden, whose bulk looks well suited to the farmlands throughout the valley, is a professional balloon pilot he has flown throughout the world, as well as in 38 of the 48 continental U.S. states.
His liking for the Teton is simple.
“It’s a beautiful valley with some of the most gorgeous views in the country,” he tells the Mainichi.
As we rise, one of the delightful sights of which Braden refers comes into clearer view.
Splattered patterns of multicolored wildflowers splash across the landscape in a manner reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock canvas, but nature has painted a picture far surpassing anything produced by American modern art’s most prominent genius.
Biologist Cathy Shill and naturopathic medicine doctor Stephen Helms will later lead a fascinating hike through Teton Valley backwoods to examine some of the more than 1,000 wildflowers that can be found in the area. They teach about the medicinal and edible qualities of such exotic flora as mugwort and monkshood, as well as the wild varieties of more common plants like dandelion, clover and geranium.
The lure of wildflowers helped Teton Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and operator of Wild West Adventures Mineko Miyoshi entice even this notoriously exercise shy writer into taking a leisurely stroll down from the slopes of the Grand Targhee Resort.
Fabulous flora is only one of the attractions of the resort, which offers a variety of mostly outdoor activities throughout the year.
Visitors can take part in such events as horse-riding, hiking, outdoor learning adventures with resort naturalist Andy Steele, mountain-bike riding or the highly recommended scenic chair lift ride which offers spectacular views of the Teton Range, the valley below it and the numerous adorably cute prairie dogs who’ve made the resort their home.
In winter, the lifts help visitors scale the slopes. The less active, meanwhile, can idle away in the resort’s outdoor heated swimming pool, the spa or even have a massage before hitting some of the comfortable on-site accommodation.
Blessed with outstanding natural beauty, Teton Valley has more than its share of resorts such as Grand Targhee to cope with visitors of all ages and abilities.
Top of the range Teton Ridge Ranch offers some of the best views of the mountains in the valley in delightfully secluded surroundings.
In a similar price bracket is the Teton Valley Lodge, where highly experienced guides assist those looking to take advantage of the fly fishing the Teton Valley is famous for.
Catch-and-release fishing is popular throughout the area thanks to the rich array of brown, rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout inhabiting waters such as the Teton and Snake rivers dissecting the valley.
Fly fishing is one of main attractions of the newly opened Teton Springs resort, which continues the wood-paneled luxurious interior of the other resorts at more affordable prices, though still making it hard for the budget conscious.
Whopping Yellowstone cutthroat trout fill the ponds surrounding and forming part of a pristine golf course that includes PGA legend Byron Nelson among its designers.
Operators expect the course, which only opened in late June, will soon earn a reputation for quality. Its wide variety of bunkers and water hazards contain enough challenges to satisfy more polished golfers, but player friendly fairways and several tee settings also make it forgiving for novices.
Teton Springs fits in nicely between the two older courses in the valley, Targhee Village Golf Course and The Links at Teton Peaks
At first glance, the 9-hole Targhee Village appears perfect for those new to the game, with wide fairways and small trees offering little hindrance to a slightly off-kilter shot.
However, the look of the course can be deceiving, with club pro Chris Inglis pointing out that water runs through five of the course’s nine playing holes.
Pointing at a line of conifers splitting a number of fairways, Inglis adds, “I only planted them five or six years ago. When they spring up in about another five years, this course is going to be really tough.”
Making no secret of the difficulty of his course is The Links’ pro Reggie “Pin Hi” Pinuelas.
The Links is the only Scottish-type links course in Idaho and starts making life hell from the first tee, continuing through all its 18 holes.
So tough is The Links, which was originally built because its owners wanted a challenge for a son with aspirations of turning professional, anybody shooting under 85 earns the right to have their name on a plaque posted in the clubhouse.
“This course humbles even the best of golfers,” Pinuelas says. “It eats golf balls for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
The Links, like all the other courses in the valley, has the Teton Range as a backdrop, adding visual appeal to a round.
Spectacular natural scenery is enough to make the Teton Valley attractive, but the area’s real appeal lies with its people. Throughout the duration of the four-day festival coordinated by Miyoshi and her husband, Chamber President Reid Rodgers, that included such events as an Independence Day parade, community breakfast and dinner, fiddler’s contest, rodeo, craft fair and fireworks display, people were overwhelming warm and welcoming.
Until actually experiencing it personally, the friendliness and hospitality such as that displayed by the people from the municipalities of Driggs, Victor and Tetonia that make up the Teton Valley seemed to be something that existed only in the minds of Hollywood screenwriters. But it is thriving in small-town America.
Perhaps this hospitality is what draws people back – Miyoshi’s Wild West Adventures, for example, has a repeat customer rate topping 80 percent – a trend that seems to be a common trait among enterprises in the Teton Valley.
Actress Dawn Wells, who fell in love with the Teton Valley during childhood fishing trips in Driggs with her father, has come back to the area with the intention of setting up a film institute for aspiring actors, kicking off fund-raising for her cause with August’s Spud Fest film festival in Driggs, the only movie carnival held exclusively in a drive-in theater.
“I wanted to be where the soul is stimulated,” the star of the 1960s TV show “Gilligan’s Island” says.
Also coming back to the Teton Valley will be balloon pilot Braden and his fellow balloonist, son Kristopher. They have pledged to fly their balloons over the Teton Range for next year’s summer festival. The younger Braden explains why.
“I’m hooked (on the Teton Valley),” says the 27-year-old pilot who has been flying balloons across the U.S. since childhood. “This is in my Top 10 list of favorite places to fly.”
Catch a plane from Seattle to Idaho Falls via either Boise or Pocatello. The Teton Valley is about a 60 minute drive from Idaho Falls.
Teton Valley Chamber of Commerce (English only)
Wild West Adventures (Japanese and English)