Flight of the Affluent
Sometimes what’s most dear is left behind
According to the United States Census Bureau, Stanley, Idaho, has a population of 69. The number seems a little suspect. On a July day, there could be 69 people in and around the town’s gas station alone. In mid-January, with the temperature hovering at -10 F, you might think you were the last person on Earth, left to live your final moments in an empty Sinclair station. Apparently, someone in Stanley’s 220-year history thought the place was too crowded and so decided to establish an Upper Stanley and a Lower Stanley. They are separated by perhaps a mile. The distribution of population between Upper and Lower Stanley is not known.
A river runs through both Stanleys. Actually, two rivers run through, though one is technically a creek. The other, the Salmon River, is a true river, a big western river that runs to the ocean. If the fish for which the river is named make it to Stanley, they’ve come nearly 900 miles against the current. Most years, fewer than 69 make it. Sadly, those that do, don’t know what they’re missing just above the surface of the water.
The Sawtooth Mountains—at 30-50 million years old—are relatively young as mountains go. As the name suggests, the peaks are jagged and tower 3,500 feet over the town, which itself is well over a mile above the ocean from which the salmon begin their journey. Unfortunately, that’s not all that looms over the town.
On the north side of Upper Stanley there is what looks like a bad mustache—a Brobdingnagian mustache of glass and steel—resting awkwardly on a cliff (see below).
I bring it up not to highlight one spectacularly bad P&Z decision but because it is emblematic of what is going on across the West: The affluent are on the move.
With the leash of the corporate office cut, perhaps forever, droves of those with money and wherewithal are leaving otherwise pleasant places—San Francisco, Marin, Santa Monica, Seattle, Portland—and heading to the semi-rural West: Stanley; Bend; Bozeman; Sun Valley; Telluride; Flagstaff, Santa Fe; the list goes on. With that has come to these small western communities the concomitant shortage of everything from affordable housing, day care, and classrooms, to fishing guides, e-bikes, shotgun shells, and sometimes hospitality.
Some of these are real problems and call in to question the sustainability of these now top-heavy Western towns. But this house—no doubt there are many of its ilk in every town I mentioned—concerns me for another reason.
What exactly does a house like that say to the thousands of summer visitors, 69 hardy residents, and fewer but even hardier salmon? Certainly, there is an element of financial flexing going on, but, really, who cares about that? Obtuse is a word that comes to mind; perhaps insensitivity to place and landscape. It also seems more than a bit disrespectful to those 69 people below who must look up at that thing every day, as if they were prostrate before some sort of lord.
Most importantly, though, it is a disavowal of community, which may be the biggest sin.
A sense of community is at the core of functioning society, but it is not something simply ordered up. It is ethereal, sometimes illusive and tends to develop organically through time and proximity and then trust. But once it is conjured, it becomes a force that can bind people who don’t formally know each other, who are leading parallel lives that, while never intersecting, are close enough to be enjoyed and appreciated, even celebrated.
Recently, in the Wood River Valley of Idaho, where I live, a beloved woman, mother, athlete, and otherwise bright light recently died of glioblastoma. I didn’t know her, but I knew her husband casually, on and off over the years. And I knew “of” her for 30 years. I don’t know that we ever spoke. In tight communities, you can come to know someone, even feel close to them, without knowing them, just in hearing their names, or through conversations with mutual friends, or reading about their kids’ soccer games or ski races in the local paper. So when this smiling woman appeared in an obituary photo one day, I stopped short. I had that sickening sensation of falling, when you’re not sure where the bottom is. I could hardly read on.
A community is stronger than the sum of its parts. Conversely, when a part of that community falls away, the loss is greater than one. Oddly, it’s personal.
In my little community, there has always been a tension between locals and non-locals. How long do you have to live in a place to be considered a “local,” which is just another way to say, part of the community, part of the binding force? Is it five years? 10 years? 30 years? The truth is, none of us is really a local by the metric of time, except for a few Native Americans who happen to live here.
Maybe there is a simpler, more mundane way to answer that question. Do you find yourself leaning on the horn when some punk cuts you off, someone slides into the parking spot that belonged to you, or older person dithers at a stop sign? If so, as they say in the self-help world, you have more work to do. A local, in my estimation, would never use a horn to mete out his aggressions. Why? Because the person at the receiving end may very well be his neighbor, or son, or teacher, or mother of his daughter’s best friend. In communities, there is accountability, a sense of others, and humility. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that you care, care about those you know and even those you don’t.
The stereotypical ethos of the West has been that of rugged individualism. Perhaps a stereotype, but nonetheless it is true: individualism courses through the culture of these places. What gets less notice but is just as true about the West is that there is a fierce and longstanding belief in community. Paradoxically, it is braided with individualism. The two strengthen one another. I suspect that in the days when you scratched a living from the earth here, you didn’t make it without both. It’s not clear if that’s still true, but if I had a farm, I’d bet on it.
One thing still puzzles me about this house and the guy who is building it: What’s he going to do when his kid kicks his soccer ball over that 200-foot cliff? I don’t think his neighbor is going to just toss it back.
Maybe he needs a wall.