Outlaws on an upscale road


When I moved to Teton County, Wyo., two decades ago, I lived in a sagging, second-hand pup tent for the summer. The tipi I moved into that winter felt palatial by comparison.

Almost everyone I knew then lived in wall tents, tipis, yurts, or cabins with no plumbing. Even when the temperature fell past 30 below, we were grateful to have housing we could afford, especially when off-season jobs were scarce and wages so pitiful it was embarrassing to reveal annual income to urban friends. We were a bit eccentric, perhaps, but not crazy enough to have chosen Wyoming for the scent of money. Maybe we were sage-addled fools not to smell it coming.

The revising of Jackson Hole into an enclave for an off-the-chart Western fantasy "lifestyle" is an old story, a sequel to Aspen, Telluride and other Rocky Mountain ski towns where monuments-to-the-self grow increasingly outre. One seldom-occupied Jackson Hole palace is overrun with museum-quality dioramas of local and African wildlife, dozens of enormous, antique Navajo rugs, display cases of Plains Indian beaded moccasins, pipebags and ceremonial clothing, and ancient Southwestern Indian pots - things never intended to be sheltered under a single, permanent roof. What the hell, everybody's gotta have room to store their stuff.

Naturally, the rathole housing that made it possible for some to live in Teton County became outlawed on the road to upscale ruin. Ten thousand square-foot houses are ubiquitous but, with few exceptions, temporary shelters on private land were banned - a profoundly poor choice where a tourist economy depends on low-wage workers. On national forest land, there is a camping limit: two weeks at most, but close to town, the limit is a few days.

In Kelly there persists a community of 14 yurts, "grandfathered" under current county regulations. The mostly white, roundish, fabric-covered structures resemble sugar donuts, Mongolian tents or spaceships, depending on your point of view. Beautiful to those who appreciate light sifting through a canvas roof and mandala of rafters, appalling to those accustomed to covenants and stately, uniform architecture.

The yurt-dwellers communally lease from landowners who allowed the yurt community long ago, despite opposition of conventional minds. "Yurtville" has provided affordable housing for nurses, construction workers, therapists, bookstore managers, magazine publishers, teachers, firefighters, artists, musicians and others determined to live and work in Teton County - many who managed to save enough money to eventually buy land and build a home. These people are essential to any community, even a resort town.

The land Yurtville occupies is, in effect, surrounded by Grand Teton National Park, and worth millions. One of the owners died last year, and what his widow and children will do with the land is unknown. If they sell - who could blame them? - the land will be subdivided into tracts only the ultra-rich will be able to afford. The yurts will have nowhere to relocate in Teton County. An old story, I know.

Yet Yurtville is an example of a temporary-shelter, affordable community that has worked for nearly 20 years. A communal bathhouse takes care of sanitation; each yurt has electricity, just like an RV park. True, Yurtville is not posh. It's not landscaped; there are no covenants and more than a few eccentricities. But contrary to a real estate agent's worst nightmare, the yurts have not diminished Kelly's property values, which have rocketed into the stratosphere like everything else in the valley. But for now, Kelly remains a small town with economic and even some cultural diversity.

My tipi is long gone now, and while I am grateful for the house I call mine, I consider my tipi life a watershed year.

I don't know anyone who's regretted living with only a thin shelter from snow and rain, when sun and moonlight are constants, when the calls of birds are audible with doors and windows shut tight. Such a life brings to mind our common ancestors, who migrated with skin-shelters, or built homes of mud and stone - materials that return to earth when abandoned.

The affordable housing crisis in the New West is as much a shortage of memory as a shortage of affordable lots. The human history of this land has always included wild souls, willing to live marginally, conjoined to the elements. Perhaps the appropriateness of temporary shelters on this landscape - like the appropriateness of wolves - will one day be re-evaluated, and viewed as habitats whose inhabitants are as necessary to Western biodiversity as cutthroat trout and six-point elk.

Geneen Marie Haugen writes and lives among bison, moose, coyotes and other wild souls in Kelly, Wyoming. Her work appears most recently in American Nature Writing 2000 and in Ring of Fire: Writers of the Yellowstone Region.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Geneen Marie Haugen

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