Recently, an acclaimed young writer and a world-renowned opera singer charmed a packed house in Driggs, Idaho. What were they doing there instead of in a place a hundred times larger? The answer tells us something about the future of rural Idaho.
The writer was Ann Patchett, whose most
recent novel, Bel Canto, draws its intensity from the art of opera
and the unexpected relationships that bloom between revolutionaries
and their hostages. Bel Canto has become a favorite of book clubs
throughout the United States and in the growing number of
“one book” cities, cities where a large group of people
choose to read and discuss the same book at the same time.
Well over l00 communities, including Boise, asked Patchett to read
this year, yet she agreed to read only at Driggs and a few other
towns. Why? The prospect of hiking in the Tetons.
opera star was Kristine Ciesinski, a veteran of La Scala in Milan.
Locally, she is perhaps best known as a teacher at Brigham Young
University-Idaho, as a captain of the Idaho Falls Wing of the Civil
Air Patrol, and as chair of the Teton Valley Hospital Foundation.
She fell in love with the mountains while performing with the Grand
Teton Music Festival in Jackson, and moved to Teton Valley, Idaho,
This leads to an obvious lesson for rural Idaho:
People visit and then choose to live in beautiful places. This
is often forgotten in the dozens of decisions made by planning and
zoning boards, governments and individual citizens. Mountains will
remain mountains, but humans control valley floors, water quality
and the environment where people live.
investment income is now the largest source of income in most rural
Idaho counties. These new residents are people who don’t
work, usually don’t have children living at home, but who do
have money to spend.
The second lesson goes to the matter
of leadership. For years, I’ve admired how Teton Valley has
promoted economic development and the arts, protected sensitive
land and water, and funded a hospital — remarkable for a town
of l,000 and a county of 6,000. The schedule for its youth
recreation program is printed in both English and Spanish, which
tells you another way it is ahead of other places in the
Teton County is nonetheless a tough place to make
a living. Between 1970 and 2000, average earnings fell from $24,000
to $17,000, adjusted for inflation. No wonder hundreds of people
commute over a difficult pass to Jackson, Wyo., for work every
Preparing for and accommodating growth has led to
mighty struggles over the years. Because earlier county
commissioners gave little attention to planning, hundreds of homes
have been scattered across the valley, increasing the cost of
school busing, police and ambulance service. Growth and zoning
issues have been at the center of every recent election.
In a question-and-answer session, Patchett was asked why she writes
the books she does, which seemed to the questioner so different one
from another. “Most writers have one central story they keep
telling over and over again,” she replied. “The
story in all my books is about people who come together as
strangers and form a family.”
This is the story
Teton Valley residents are struggling to write about themselves.
They are trying to build a true community, one organization and one
event at a time. However, after the concert, one old-timer told a
reporter that while he enjoyed the performance, he was also sad. He
said it marked the passage of the old Teton Valley and the arrival
of the new. But the old and the new can make a rich mix in all of
rural Idaho — if both sides work to make a go of it.
Kristine Ciesinski is a newcomer who has done just that. She took
up flying, volunteered, and set aside the frantic busyness that
goes with operatic stardom. While I have no statistics, it seems to
me that more newcomers like her “stick” on the Idaho
side of the Tetons because of the vibrancy of the local
organizations that welcome them.
Ciesinski may have come
for the mountains; she stayed because she was needed. The central
story in Teton Valley may, therefore, be just the opposite of its
pattern of habitation. People come here thinking they want to live
apart from each other, on 20-acre homesteads or ranchettes. But
they stay because they discover community.
ago, the musical Oklahoma sang of how “The farmer and the
cowboy can be friends.” The song of today’s Idaho is
still being written.