When I was little and spending time in my home state of Missouri, we would often drive through small farming towns. I was completely taken by these places as a kid. I loved that the residents got to have a Main Street, something that the neighborhoods in my military brat life lacked. At the time, I believe I was heavily influenced by “Little House on the Prairie” and thought any small town that had a Ben Franklin with penny candy and one really charming community chapel was super cool. Of course, there had to be a vegetable stand hanging around somewhere and a post office as well.
As an adult, I still wondered about these places when I drove through them. Is this a farming community or is everyone here retired? What do they do here? How do they make a living? When I lived in Washington, I imagined all of towns we drove through to get to the best whitewater were filled with creative types that made a meager living writing poetry about the foothills of the Cascades.
Now, I live in one of those towns that might be driven through on the way to somewhere else. Travelers may gaze upon a charming Main Street in both Driggs and Victor. We have a privately owned drug store in Driggs with a soda fountain. It is the closest to Oleson’s Mercantile that I am gonna get (I even got to work there – and let me tell ya: slinging shakes ain’t easy). We have a locally owned bank, a post office for every town that comprises Teton Valley (Tetonia, Driggs, & Victor), and a farmer’s market right in front of the Driggs City Center every Friday during our short summer.
Now I can answer the question that has been plaguing me: what do people in a small town do?
Answer Number One: people here struggle. All over the country, many are struggling to get by and stay above the poverty level. It’s happening here as well. The majority of the populace is hangin’ in there, and hoping things don’t get any worse. I know someone that used to live in Victor, a small business owner (tattoo parlor) that finally had to ditch it all. She called this place “poverty with a view”, and took off to tattoo her way across Europe.
So think of it this way: most businesses that are still open here are fighting to keep going. We just lost the local book store (all hail the Kindle) and the video store; we hope not to lose our music store, and even though I would love to eat out more often to keep my favorite restaurant in business, I have to hope that others can actually spend money there. ‘Cause I can’t and neither can many of my friends.
Answer Number Two: many people here don’t have to struggle. This place attracts people with money. We like that. They shop at local businesses, they buy property, and they stay engaged in their community. Well, some of them stay engaged. Some of them are lucky to have access to trust fund type money. It allows them to fully disengage. They may not be aware, for instance, of our watershed woes or the fact that the suicide rate at the high school last year was record breaking. I’m just sayin’.
The other group that doesn’t have to struggle and perhaps don’t have the energy to drink their boots off at the Knotty Pine one night and then ski Teton Pass the next morning like the Trustafarians are the retirees that have made the choice to squat during their golden years in Teton Valley. They golf here. They eat out. They buy stuff. They bring visitors here to do the same.
Answer Number Three: some people that live here don’t really live here. These are the second homeowners that come into town during both high seasons – the winter for skiing and the summer for world class fly fishing, rafting, and mountain biking… I suggest you go to the Teton Valley Chamber of Commerce for the full list. Here’s the thing about these folks: they are not entirely reliable. Even the rich have had to cut corners. When the economy tanked, the building frenzy of upper income housing developments went Tango Uniform, as my formerly enlisted father would say (that’s “tits up” to you civilians). And now, as homes in Teton Springs face foreclosure, those second homeowners don’t come for both seasons. They may come for only the skiing this year… they may not come at all.
Answer Number Four: don’t forget agriculture. Here’s what some others do here: they grow potatoes or barley. They ranch cattle or sheep. They have llamas or alpacas. They own horses. They ride rodeo. Our 4-H Clubs are alive and kickin’.
Answer Number Five: the majority of residents in this valley area consider this place home. They are not staying temporarily just to ski out all of the good runs, they are here year round. They are here because they want to be, and will continue to stay as long as they can hang on. I suspect that many small communities are like that. They may not boast champagne powder during the cold months, or offer a view of the mountains that professional photographers crave, but they call their tiny town home.
People wave when they drive by, even if they don’t know you. If you want to know what’s up in the community, hang out at a hair salon. If you’re into the more seedy aspects of the community, read the Sheriff’s blotter in the local paper. And if you want to smile, just run by the post office and wait for any conversation to take place between two locals. It might be about local politics or the weather, but it’s usually pretty entertaining.
If you are going through life’s rough times, a small town may be just the place to ride it out.