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 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 of 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.
The 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, in
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 move in with children, 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 region.
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 day.
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 thinking they want to live apart
on 20 acres. But they stay because they discover
Forty years 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.