A Hard Place to Say Forever

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It’s amazing what the average person sacrifices to live in a ski town.

Including myself. I’ve done the commute up and down the Snake River Canyon, I’ve done the living in my truck routine, and I’ve paid a pretty penny to live in town so I can bike and walk everywhere instead. Like everyone else, I move every 6 months here as rent (and your work hours) go up and up and up. I read Outside Online’s article about Jackson, Wyoming not only being the most expensive ski town in the United States, but the most economically unequal town too. Because I live here, and am one of those residents making less than a $30,000 salary, I experience it firsthand

I think the only uplifting takeaway from the article is that the older the person is being interviewed, the more money they make. I’m sure they’re out there, but they didn’t feature the 43-year-old ski bums making less than $20,000 a year. They featured a 43-year-old hard-working (teacher, mountain guide and weekend avalanche instructor) who commutes over an hour to and from work everyday. In a town of 10,000 people, that’s an extraordinary amount of time. It’s apparent he works hard. He said he wants to be able to afford a house in town. But in Jackson, it’s a laughable aspiration unless you’re well-off. There’s a saying here that you either have two homes and no job, or two jobs and no home. There’s also a very real concern that its squeezing out its middle class, and once that’s gone, the community character so many moved here for goes out the window alongside it.

I came out here for a wildlife guiding job, and I had heard incredible things about the Tetons, but only that Jackson was “awesome” but “touristy.” After over a year here, I still find those to be the most appropriate words to sum this place up. I stayed here after a season for the first time, well, ever because I got another job as an editor (and the bears). Then I got a job as a reporter. And even though I love this land, I’m still planning on leaving.

And while it sounds like an “awesome” life, I’ve known during my tenure in Teton Valley that my time here would not be forever. It offers so much in terms of recreation, wildlife, wildness and a strong community. But it comes at a high price. Most of my friends work two or three jobs, and to find a time slot that we both aren’t working to go hiking or biking is rare.

I know why people stay. The Tetons and grizzlies and events here are an unparalled combination. But I see too many people here struggling — hard. The things I want in life — land, peace of mind, a life lived close to nature, to have a big garden, beekeep and time and a space to write and create — won’t happen here. Rather, I’m not willing to wait until I’m 60 to make it happen.

People stay here because it’s a rare place where you can be a professional and still mountain bike every day. They are willing to pay high prices because traffic here isn’t suffocating, and because you can see the stars from town. They pay their debts to still have wild moments in their daily lives, something that is a far cry from the norm in the states today, with over 80% of Americans living in urban areas.     

I always think about how we’re so obsessed with the apocalypse. But when it comes, what useful skills can people contribute? Very few people are self-sufficient anymore. People in cities can’t protect themselves with their apps, and Jacksonites won’t be able to kill a zombie with their skis or insane work hours. What are we doing, I wonder. Are we just biding our time here? Am I?

You can live a life close to nature without sacrificing your future, and sometimes that means hitting the slopes every other day, or God forbid, every third or fourth day in exchange for a little less stress. You don’t have to work 70-hour work weeks only to give it all away to your landlord. You can still watch the elk migrate and foxes hunt, and be able to rest your head at night in your affordable housing knowing that you are working towards something. People live in the woods or on the water and in small towns for a better life balance, and that simply does not happen in Jackson.

But in Wyoming, there’s a hard headedness that matches the weather. When people come to Jackson, I think a bit of that stubbornness inevitably wears off on anyone who spends time here, and they stay because they’re hell bent on not letting the town defeat them. I say, who cares? Plenty of places have defeated me, and it makes the next place that much sweeter.

They do it to ski/climb/bike/flyfish/trail run as much as possible, they say.

You know where else provides that life? Whitefish, McCall, Leavenworth, Salida, Durango, Bellingham, Bend and a million other towns you have to zoom in on Google Maps to even notice they’re there. Why live in your truck when you could move to Ellensburg, Washington and get an entire 3-bedroom house for $800 to yourself? It’s closer to ski resorts than you think. $800 will buy you a closet in Jackson. I know because in my exhausting search for a better life balance, or an existence of one, I’ve found that Jackson doesn’t provide it. I remember one night this winter, my boyfriend said the hot water for the shower wasn’t working. It was one of those -30 degree nights and the heater was on just a tad — below the 45 degree mark — yet it felt like we were sitting in a sauna. I wiped the sweat off my brow before I said, “Well, you can’t have it all in Jackson.”

Maybe it’s just me, or maybe my love for skiing is lacking. Either way, Jackson is a hard place to say forever.