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.
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 l995.
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.
Retirement and 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 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 here thinking they want to live apart from each other, on 20-acre homesteads or ranchettes. But they stay because they discover community.
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.
Jerry Brady is president of the Post Company in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and was a Democratic candidate for governor in Idaho in 2002.