State Report WY 4: Why Wyoming?
by Fran Tully
This report is very different from any of the other state reports that I have read. Rather than crunching numbers and comparing charts, I want to discuss what it's like to live in Wyoming.
I first discovered Wyoming on a coast-to-coast bicycle trip in the summer of 1981. I stopped at the base of the Grand Tetons and camped for five days at Jenny Lake. The entire trip took me five weeks, and I spent five of my 35 days hiking and fishing in Grand Teton National Park and cycling back and forth to the town of Jackson Hole. From the moment I got off my bike at Jenny Lake until this day, I have always known that is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. When I met the woman I eventually married, we were living in Manhattan, NY. She had to meet my first prerequisite before I would even ask her on a date. I posed the question every potential girl friend has had to answer since 1981 "If you were married and your husband wanted to live in Wyoming, would you have a problem with that?" Obviously, my wife passed the test. Two years later, we moved to Wilson, a small town 15 miles from Jackson at the foot of the Grand Teton Pass.
There are things that make Wyoming special that are hard to put into words. Likewise, there are things that make Teton County special, but very different from most of Wyoming. The purpose of this report is to try to explain why I find Wyoming unique and one of the most excellent places I have ever been.
The skiing, rock climbing, fishing, and hunting are among the best that the country has to offer. Other outdoor activities include backcountry skiing, dog sledding, camping, hot springs, mountain biking, snowmobiling, horseback riding, hang gliding, adventure racing, horse racing, rodeos, white water rafting/ kayaking, gliding, and wilderness orienteering.
The climate does not seem harsh at all when compared with coastal states. Having lived in New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Florida, I found Wyoming to have the most desirable climate of them all. While the winter did bring low temperatures, the arid climate made them seem very comfortable. I went most of the winter with just a thermal undershirt, a tee shirt, a fleece or quilted overshirt, flannel-lined jeans, and my Sorrel boots. There were only two weeks or so when it was very cold, and then I just wore my ski jacket. The days were sunny and bright. The air was crisp and clean. There were at least 20 days when we had an elk or a moose come within 20 feet of our deck and graze. In the year that we lived there, we never felt the need to dress up.
The trees were mostly evergreens and aspens and seemed hundreds of years old. Some of them were huge. Most of the people we met seemed healthy and sturdy if not downright rugged. Unlike most of the places we have lived, when we met people, they just asked approximately where you lived and where you skied. We were not subject to the "20 questions" that folks in many other areas of the country hit strangers with like "do you have any kin around here, where do you work, what church do y'all go to, what brings you out here, " and other questions that I think are nobody's business. The people we encountered wanted privacy and respected ours. In the year that I lived there, I never had a key to my house, and never removed my keys from my truck. The people I met were all happy to be there, and wishing that others had not discovered it and driven the property prices through the roof.
When I opened an account for video rentals, I put down my name and phone number. No SSN, no driver's license, no home address, nothing. I asked, "Is this all you need?" and the clerk said, "Yeah, you're not planning on leaving town anytime soon, are you?"
When we opened a checking account, the people were friendly and courteous. One day, I went in to make a deposit of $12,000. The girl looked at me and said, "Are you sure you want to put ALL this in one deposit?" when I asked why wouldn't I, she explained that she wasn't really supposed to tell me this, but anything over $10,000 had to be reported to the government. I appreciated her assistance and made two deposits instead of one. I cannot imagine another bank in the country offering such advice.
There was a small-town feeling, without the small-town gossip. People work hard and play hard. During hunting season, businesses close down so that their employees and owners can go hunting. When you are hiking, or camping away from the towns, there is a closeness with nature that I have never seen anywhere else. The animals and humans seem to co-exist in harmony. I believe it's one of the only places in this country where you can imagine what it must have been like to visit the West before the white man destroyed it. There are literally hundreds of miles of backcountry where one can hike or camp for weeks and never see another human. When you live in Wyoming, it's hard to explain how much larger the sky is. The mountains in the distance seem to give you a perspective that you can only get out West. While there, we saw bears, mule deer, elk, big horn sheep, antelope, mountain lions, owls, bald eagles, golden eagles, hawks, wild horses, and moose.
The town of Jackson had a rodeo, and the town of Wilson had a "practice rodeo" right next to the park. On Wednesdays I would take my kids to the park and we would watch the cowboys practice their rodeo skills while the girls played in the park. In town, there were two theaters where plays were performed every day of the summer, 20 or more art galleries, a country music saloon that has a bear on display that was killed by one of the previous residents with his bare hands when he was 60 years old! There is a shopping district downtown that mostly caters to tourists but is quaint and surrounds the town square, which is framed in thousands of pounds of elk antlers. In the winter, just north of town is one of the largest elk refuge in the country. There is an excellent smoke shop, three ski resorts, two golf courses, a few museums, a world class fly shop, three theaters, a ballet company, a symphony, a damn good hockey team, a great community center with a pool for swimming, scuba lessons, and kayak lessons. There is also a new hospital. While we were there, my wife gave birth to our second child. We inquired about a midwife because we had used one for our first baby and found it a very pleasant experience. In Jackson, the doctor's wife was a midwife and my wife gave birth at the foot of a king-sized bed in a private room. The entire staff treated us like family and there was no rush for them to take the baby, give shots or any of the other things one might associate with childbirth. My wife and I held the baby for an hour before they took it away for only a few minutes. It was a peaceful, relaxing experience.
Just south of town was one of the nicest private shooting ranges I have ever been to. It costs $20 a year to join, and you get the combination to the lock on the gate, and can come as often as you like, as long as the sun is up. On weekends, one can shoot skeet from seven stations. The time I went, I was shooting with the number-four ranked shooter in the country.
Moving from New York, we were very concerned about being able to get good food. Where would we shop, how were the restaurants, could we get a decent bagel and a good cup of coffee? We found several coffee shops that would put Starbucks to shame. While we lived there, they built the largest Albertson's grocery store in the country in Jackson Hole with a Starbucks, and a wine and cigar shop attached. We also found excellent restaurants including The Snake River Grill, which I would compare to any of the top restaurants in the country.
The schools were good, the nightlife was adequate, and the liquor stores were in competition with each other not state-run.
We enjoyed a picnic or hike to a hot spring nearly every weekend of the summer. There were also street parties, and art auctions with wine and cheese. A few times, buddies and I would go out for a slice of pizza and a pitcher of locally brewed beer and then go out for some night skiing for $5. You could go out for a bike ride and never hear a horn blow.
The town had a beautiful library that was built with local donations. In fact, on several occasions, people came around with a "pledge sheet" to raise money for a public building or a local public event. I was always impressed how quickly they raised all the money they needed and NEVER went to the government for the money (maybe this is why they are one of the only states in the country with NO deficit). They also raised $2,000,000 in donations to buy off a proposed nuclear waste contract and send them packing. When a proposal was up for charter helicopter permits, the paper ran a negative story and people in the town signed a petition to end the discussion. When someone lost a pet, they called the radio station, which promptly mentioned the loss every 10 minutes until the pet was recovered. If you had anything to sell, you called the shopper show and sold it within a few minutes. If you wanted a place to live, you put a sign on the door of the general store.
Many of the locals smoked pot, but I never heard of an arrest. I heard several stories of people getting stopped with open containers only to receive a warning. If you had too much to drink in one of the many local bars, the bars would pay for a cab to take you home. During ski season, there were dozens of backcountry skiers hitching a ride to the top of the mountain. They never had to wait for more than a few cars to pass before someone picked them up.
I have to say that while the cost of living in Jackson was pretty close to the same as Manhattan, the quality of life was far superior. In Jackson, I lived life and enjoyed every minute. I never felt like a rat on a wheel. The people seemed to all share the same love of nature and excitement that I did. They seemed to cherish their privacy and seemed to all be familiar with the "code of the West" which Vin and JJ have previously mentioned.
While Jackson may not be the best or most affordable place for many of the Free Staters to live, it's nice to know that such a paradise is within a relatively short drive.
Some of the other towns we enjoyed and would consider living were Pinedale, a real cowboy town with good food, a gorgeous lake, excellent hunting and fishing, and one of the best high school swim teams in the country. Pinedale is also home to Museum of the Mountain Man. One thing that really impressed us about Pinedale, besides the best bacon I have EVER found on the planet, was that the front page of their newspaper always had news about a high school football, wrestling, baseball, rodeo, or soccer event. There was also a picture of some kid with an elk, a moose, or a fish on the front page. It was an absolute treat to see that the priority of the town was good news about their kids and not the latest bad news being pumped out by every other paper in the country.
Another town we loved was 60 miles south of Jackson called Afton. This is home of our Olympic gold medal wrestler, Rulon Gardner. While Wyoming schools are in the top ten in the country, Afton's school is ranked in the top in the state. Afton is in peaceful Star Valley. In addition to being a very affordable alternative to Jackson, Star Valley offers excellent golf, snowmobiling, and other outdoor activities. I am still kicking myself for not buying a three-bedroom log cabin there with seven acres, a well, and access to BLM land for only $150,000.
Another spot that I liked was Hoback Ranches. The properties were excellent, but there was no winter access. The locals would leave their trucks at the highway and take their snowmobiles to their homes. This was just a little too rough for my wife, but there were some great deals on 20 acres that backed up to 1,000 acres of BLM land.
Wherever the Free State Project ends up, we need to be happy. While I admit that Wyoming can be a hard place to start over, I think that the FSP has a bunch of stubborn individuals with huge hearts who have resolved to make it anywhere and do whatever it takes. Wyoming is not just a state with 400,000 freedom lovers that time forgot; it is a state where we can enjoy a fantastic way of life in a pristine environment. I honestly believe that if one is an outdoor person, they will not find a better place to live. I admit that my wife and I occasionally miss the ocean, but L.A. is only a two-hour flight away.
I hope that you get a chance to visit Wyoming before you vote. If not, visit some of the web sites and read the other reports on Wyoming. In my opinion, Wyoming will offer the least resistance to our efforts. And with all those days of sunshine, it will be easy to stay happy and focused.