Fire, Change, and the Valleys I Know

1. (September 1988)

Thirty years ago, throughout September 1988, students around the world learned more about forest fires than any time before. As a central focus of their early-year ecology lessons, middle school and high school students studied the benefits of forest fires — why they matter, why they’re important, and (most importantly) why the balance they create, removing thousands of acres of life in exchange for fresh ground, was invaluable for the future of the forest.

Meanwhile, thousands of younger kids sent thank you letters to those who risked their lives to fight fires. Alongside drawings of awkwardly proportioned firefighters, many of the letters included drawings of trees. Pine trees, usually. Trees “to replace the ones lost in the fire.”

The fires in Yellowstone National Park were finally settling down. Rain and snow had dampened much of the fire by this point. The hastily assembled collection of fire personnel, U.S. military, and volunteers were allowed to slowly disband as firefighters focused on keeping the remaining fires at bay. The embers still glowed — only a November snow would finally put the matter to rest — but the devastation was final. The landscape — charred stumps jutting out of the ground like used matches, a slow settling of ash finally blowing clear — was gutted.

This was the new Yellowstone.

It was an exhale after a long summer of heat and flame. As the sky slowly returned to blue after months of grey and orange, the sun no longer balled up as a menacing bomb floating behind the smoke-filled sky, we all breathed a little easier.

I still have my grandfather’s headlamp from when he helped fight those fires. Despite the onslaught of fire and wind, there was never any doubt that as the fire raged, the people who lived close were going to rise up. When Yellowstone was attacked, the entire region was attacked — and with that, their homes, their livelihood, their history. The fire invaded, and the locals fought back.

2. (What You Need To Know)

A map of Teton Valley and Jackson Hole

Just a half-hour or so south of Yellowstone lies two valleys. Here’s what you need to know.

First, there’s Jackson Hole.

Jackson Hole is the valley on the east side of the Tetons, in Wyoming. It’s the one people say when they usually mean to say “Jackson.” Jackson Hole includes the bulk of Grand Teton National Park, the city of Jackson, the National Elk Refuge, and a million little tufts of sage brush.

Then, there’s Teton Valley.

Teton Valley is the valley on the west side of the Tetons, in Idaho. Despite having “Teton” in its name, the Tetons aren’t as noticeable on this side, blocked by the gradual slope of Targhee National Forest. This is the quiet side of the mountains. More open. Sparsely populated.

In between the two, hinging the valleys together like a pair of wings, is the highway between Victor and Jackson: the Teton Pass. You pass through a town called Wilson as you roll into Jackson Hole.

Jackson and Jackson Hole were named after Davey Jackson, a trapper from the 1800s. Victor was named for a mail carrier named George Victor Sherwood. The Tetons were said to be named by French explorers because they thought the mountains looked like breasts, but in reality are probably named after the Teton Sioux tribe.

Wilson was named by Elijah “Uncle Nick” Wilson, who as a boy ran away to join the Shoshone tribe, became a Pony Express rider, and died a troubled western pioneer. He wrote an autobiography, and his family — his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren — have kept close a connection to the valley ever since.

I’m one of those great-great-great grandchildren.

That’s what you need to know.

3. (My Jackson vs. Kanye’s Jackson)

When Kanye West first arrived in Jackson, I wonder what he thought.

I wonder if there was a bit of culture shock. I wonder if the real yokel pockets of Teton County shone true, where things happen when they happen and most of the roofs are unfinished. Where the lawns are largely brown and the sidewalks are mostly approximations, graveled over and askew as they follow the path of the quickly disappearing grass line.

Or, I wonder if it was the kind of culture shock that can ruin a small mountain town. The kind of culture shock that’s been happening for decades, as a balance of bad cell signals and quaint western spaces pulls in wealthy vacationers, who become wealthy second-home owners, who become wealthy residents, who threaten the edges of the community as they descend and begin rounding off the rough corners of a formerly rough town. As they invite their friends and business partners on ski weekends. As they try to bring things up to their level.

I ask this as if it is West’s fault — as if he really played any part of this when he decided to essentially blindfold and trick the music media complex into a rustic Jackson Hole chuckwagon — but it’s not. On the contrary; I wonder if, in fact, West’s newfound dalliance with the Tetons is a symptom of the ongoing movement, as Jackson and the surrounding area slowly moves away from the Jackson I always knew and toward something that feels remarkably un-Jackson.

In fact, for all we know, in that moment — when Kanye stepped off a plane for the first time and stepped foot on a rented ranch and looked over the landscape — he may have felt more at home than ever before.

The truth is, Kanye’s Jackson and my Jackson aren’t the same. You can see this when you hit Town Square — the place you remember from the viral live feed, with the elk antler horns and, during the summers, the old west shootouts. You can turn left and see this as you head east, down a hill and into a residential area. To your left is the hospital, and to the right is one of the wider roads in town — Redmond Street, a road that seemingly heads straight and up the mountain, like a graph of rising property costs, like a chart displaying the inequity of pay.

You can see this when you turn left on Kelly Ave. About halfway down the block, there used to be a log cabin. Small, no more than 500 square feet on the main level. Plumbing backed up because of tree roots, the floor slowly tilting and shifting under the weight of a collapsing lower class. It was my great grandmother’s log cabin — Uncle Nick Wilson’s granddaughter’s log cabin.

It’s been gone for nearly two decades. It was torn down to build a two-unit condominium where a one-bedroom condo is valued at nearly $700,000.

4. (Fires Can Be Fun)

There wasn’t a single Yellowstone fire.

Instead, the Yellowstone fires were a loose collective — fires sparked in 250 different spots, joining together and rushing the landscape all summer long. There was no single point of entry: they came from all over.

“Fires can be fun,” Jack de Goliam, Park Ranger at Yellowstone said in a recap of the Yellowstone fire. “They’re a break from the routine, everyone gets swept up in the emergency effort, and lots of strangers arrive to help.”

The rush of attention. The influx of priority. It’s always an absolute thrill, both good and bad, when the floodgates — sorry: the firelines — are broken free and all hands are ready to tackle the problem. Even when we feel like we’re drowning in work — missed deadlines, sinking ships, roaring fires — we still, as humans, embrace the excitement and dig in.

“But, unlike other project fires I’ve been to,” Goliam continued, “The one at Yellowstone never ended.”

Because this time, it wasn’t just a small thing. This time, it started from everywhere. It felt like it never ended.

It did end, though. When all hope was nearly extinguished, the fire itself was gone — leaving nothing but burnt ground and new growth. Which is to say the fire never left. It just changed shape; its fuel transferring from a hot heat to the ground itself, restructuring itself as new and moving forward as if this is the way it’s always been.

As if the fire was the solution; as if the peace and comfort was the fuel.

5. (On Making It My Valley)

I spent every summer in Jackson, Wyoming, as a kid, which is funny because mostly I just hung out inside and played Super Nintendo and made live Rush mixtapes. I am not a skier, nor am I an avid fisherman or wildlife artist. I’m just a kid who has family in the valley. I’m just someone who loves the mountains and loves the space.

Which also makes me an insufferable wreck when it comes to staking my claim to the valley. I, like my mother before me, will proudly and often annoyingly point my finger in the air, triumphantly acknowledging my history, my connection, my lineage and right to be considered an honorary citizen of the two valleys.

In a lot of ways, this bravado has helped my real connection to the valleys. When you are tripping over yourself to tell stories of your childhood in Jackson, you tend to create a real, solid, love for the valley. You realize, much like we begin to see real expertise within our years of experience, that this is no longer an act. This is no longer a show, no longer a finger pointing celebration of proximity.

This is real love. Real affection. The valley overtakes you, even with its kind of dirty roads and its houses with no siding and its unmowed lawns and wild varmints, its very roughness providing a contrary expectation of peace and absolute chill. And so your memories of driving to the grocery store are puffed up into something more than they were before. Your memories of chopping wood — you hated it at the time, thought you might actually die in those woods — drop all negativity.

Every road, every corner, every rock and plume of brush and weird car with too many old license plates stuck in the back window — they’ve all joined together into one massive string, tied tight to the bottom of my heart, staked deep into the heart of Pearl Avenue. Yanked taut whenever I try to leave.

And that’s where things get complicated. Because while I keep thinking it’s my valley, it’s not.

I’m just a visitor. This really isn’t my fight.

6. (Gentrification And Our Fear of Change)

This isn’t a new or unique story, in the larger picture. Marginalized cultures and neighborhoods have been systematically uprooted and driven out for centuries, and this is a case of neither — this is a lament. This is a sadness.

There’s a bit of resentment in both valleys toward the influx of wealthy vacationers and second-homers, and that resentment sprouts from the western ethos of space and privacy. As a stranger, you are free to show up for dinner or a few weeks of vacation, but please keep moving.

And here we start dialing in on the idea of migration — both immigration and gentrification within the valley. Both tie largely to the discomfort that comes from new people showing up. Within the valley, immigration is always debated with an eye toward protecting the current state: protecting against job displacement and fighting to keep a traditional set of values and culture. It’s deeply personal, even if it’s not always fully realized — as new people, new cultures, and new experiences come into a new space, the things that we have always loved and cherished may … change.

Change is scary shit. And change is especially scary when it happens like this, when newness suddenly floods our everyday life, forcing us to adapt.

With gentrification, though, migration doesn’t lead to culture change as much as it leads to economic class change. Gentrification doesn’t mean looking for a new job and finding more Thai restaurants. It means a wholesale removal of the western ethos. It means pushing everyone out and adapting the valleys into pockets of upper-class taste, western and rugged and tied to nature, but in a BPA-free and sanitized container, where the treeline is removed to make wood accents inside the home.

Forgive me for being bold and reactionary, but to me — other than just pumping money into the area — there’s little that the new wave of vacationers and wealthy second-homers are adding to the culture of the valley. They are providing some viability for high-end specialty retail and art, but they are also pushing out any semblance of affordability. While other gentrified sections of major cities are still somewhat connected — they can still attempt to pull a workforce, or secure housing, from other areas of the town, the truth is Jackson is not connected.

Housing is too expensive everywhere. There aren’t enough people to work in that valley. And no one wants to bother owning up to the cost of affordable housing.

These are heady thoughts to be having in a post about sad feelings, and as a relative outsider they are far to complicated for me to argue for. But they are at the heart of my struggle. While an influx of different cultures through immigration has the benefit of positively affecting the culture and diversity of an area, an influx of privilege classes through gentrification tends to barrel over existing culture through a mismatch of economic power. Prices go up. The temperature of the culture changes. And everyone’s too stubborn to do anything about it.

That sucks, because that culture means something to me. Regardless of whether you roll in for two weeks, regardless of how much you spend on your house, there’s a need to recognize the valley that’s being run over: real towns, with real culture, being pushed to the edge.

Real problems. For real people. And when the vacationers head back to their day jobs, those problems are still around. You still can’t afford the house you could ten years ago. You still can’t live in the valley your family helped settle. You still can’t. You just can’t.

7. (Evolutionarily Stronger)

“Rainbows fill the sky where smoke was. Thank you, fire fighters!” — Jori, Kindergarten, Laurel, MT

A serotinous pine cone will not release its seeds until its resin melts, which takes a heat that goes far beyond a simple heat wave. Evolutionarily, this protects the seeds until they are given an optimal landscape: fresh, downed, soon-to-decompose plant matter mixed with a sudden lack of competition. This raises the chances of survival until, eventually, decades later, the patches fill in and the forest cover is made whole again.

In this way, fire is good. Fires are natural. They are required, in fact, and the brave people who live and work and embrace the dense forests and scraggled underbrush of Yellowstone know that, without fires, there is no renewal; that, like a slowly sinking company, there’s a need for change at the top of the pack, the producers that give us shade and protect us from harm eventually have to go. So new producers can live. So that the shade can be rebuilt and restructured.

Despite sadness and destruction at the micro level, we want fire. Looking higher, at the macro level, everything supports this. Get rid of the old. Bring in the new. Clear things out. Move on, evolutionarily stronger.

But with forests, and animal populations, and even other countries, the macro level is easier to comprehend. It’s all we know — our only connection is as a group, larger than the individuals who make it. It’s happening out in nature, which we still barely understand, from which we are still sort of separated.

On the micro level, though, it hurts. And so we fight it. The fire is good for the ecosystem, but tell that to a bird who’s lost her home. The doe who’s lost her fawn. The tree, each of them, one by one, falling in the name of a greater good that they’ll never understand.

8. (Forest for the Trees)

I’ve been drawn to the mountains since I first smelled them. I didn’t recognize the smell: I thought it was just the smell of a fresh spring day. The smell of hot concrete. The smell of a clean garage, one that smelled just like my grandparents’ garage always smells, one that, with a bit of gas and oil added, also smelled just like the small engine shop on Jackson Drive that my grandfather used to own.

I struggled with writing this post, because I couldn’t figure out my angle. How was I was going to address the weight on my mind without sounding entitled or blind to more serious cases of gentrification, and how I could possibly fake any level of authority. How I could possibly speak for the valley itself.

Kerrie saw it. She knew why this was important, even if my mind was scrambled.

“A piece of your heart is always there.”

I’m scared by how the valley’s changing, because my view of the valley isn’t macro. That’s not just a town I’ve visited a few times. That’s the city I grew up in every summer. Where my family planted trees and built houses from scratch and drove snowy passes before they had put the safety railings on. I’m scared for my grandmother and my aunt and my cousin and her little girl and I’m scared for people who struggle to make money in one of the most imbalanced economic situations in the nation.

I’m also scared because there’s always the chance that I, given a few additional tweaks, might be a part of the problem. The focus away from ranch life toward recreational land use. The ability for a high-end bike store to roll comfortably on the corner of a 1,000 population town, and for the grocery store to gouge us for local craft beer.

I’m scared because now, as an adult, as Jackson Hole becomes more of a tourist destination, Teton Valley is becoming exactly what I’ve always wanted, and I’m scared that by the time I’m ready to grab a hold I won’t be able to make it work. I’ll have been priced out, just like my family was priced out of Jackson over the past two decades.

Of course, that’s the issue right there.

I look at South Dakota towns like Hill City and Deadwood and I see high-end real estate mixed with tourism hokeyness and I shake my head as I wonder how it’s all made it this far, but I never think about the plight of those small towns. I never think about what it’s meant to the long-time residents, or what it says for the distribution of wealth or the identity of the population. Those aren’t my towns.
And while the two valleys aren’t mine either, I still feel protective. This is change that affects me, that I want to fight against, regardless of its outcome, because it’s different.

Because change is hard.

Because I’ve seen the individual trees, and I know that each of them is something special, and I don’t want a single one to go anywhere, regardless of how it will affect the overall health of the community. I can’t tell if I’m trying to save the forest, or if I’m just trying to save the trees along the side of the road. I can’t tell if I’m fighting gentrification, or if I’m just fighting change.

9. (Tree Scars)

Not every tree is downed during a forest fire. Some are saved; injured, but saved. They’re spared either because they sat in the right place, or because the wind shifted at the right time, or because they were too young, too wet, too hard to take down when there’s so much better fuel sitting around.

In that level of heat, even if saved, wounds form on the bark. The trees fight back by creating a boundary around the injury, protecting the open and raw area. A fire scar appears: a gnarly gash, breaking the bark’s pattern. Sometimes the scars fade into the tree itself, visible only in the rings and as a lump along the outside; sometimes, they’re visible forever.

The scars heal, and the trees survive. As they grow, the new forest growth fills in around them, pulling them back into the fabric of the canopy, each tree no more than a bit of anomaly.

Those scars are always there. The trees live with those memories, their scars fulfilling their role as a reminder, helping make the forest a richer place, living proof of change’s inability to take down every tradition.

Everything levels out, and the system ties itself together again, and the forest is back to where it was.

For now. Until another attack. Another shift in the ecosystem. Another change. Another fire, ready to lay things out again. To make things new again.

This was lovingly handwritten on August 17th, 2018