My friend Meg grew up in Jackson, Wyoming, and then flew the coop as a young adult to become a world citizen, living in New York; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco. She returned to her hometown a few years ago. I took advantage of my Get Your Pitchfork On! book tour to visit her last September.
We met when she lived in Portland because we’re both writers, and used to have epic walk-and-talks—we’d go up to Forest Park and cover miles while energetically debating current issues. We were excited last fall to get back to our old routine! One of the topics we considered was comparing “urban” and “rural.” I had referred to Jackson Hole as a rural place, and she demurred.
“How do you define ‘rural’?” she asked. I thought it was an odd question—I mean, look around! Mountains. Livestock. Moose. However, I was asked twice more during my stint in front of the Valley Bookstore, hawking copies of GYPO and chatting with passers-by. “What do you mean when you say ‘rural’?”
My definition at the time related to population and proximity to an urban area. Jackson is a small, remote town. Isn’t that rural? To me, it has nothing to do with wealth/poverty or “sophistication.” But the question remains: What does “rural” mean, exactly? Here’s Meg’s take:
Is Jackson Hole Rural?
by Meg Daly
At the risk of sounding too relativistic, it depends on whom you ask?
Certainly my friends from unequivocally urban areas like West Hollywood or North Portland will encounter “rural” in all its cow-dotted, mega-cab-truck splendor. But many of us who live here espouse non-rural cultural values and interests one would expect to find in abundance on the funky streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We zip around in Priuses or (gasp) on bikes, listen to Vampire Weekend, and read articles about gastronomy and modern design.
Setting aside definitions of rural and urban based solely on population density and open space, and looking instead at values and aesthetics, then Jackson Hole is actually a little Petri dish of urban and rural in constant state of tension. The town’s main industry is tourism, and in the summer that means millions of visitors from all backgrounds coming through to see “the last and best of the Old West.” In the winter, however, tourists flock to Jackson for world-class alpine skiing, and they want the luxe amenities they’ve come to expect in cosmopolitan settings.
I think it’s a sign of the urbanization of the world. Much like globalization, the landscape is being flattened so that the texture and personality of rural America becomes a commodity rather than a place or way of life. In recent years, my town has endured heated debates about planning and development of the few remaining open spaces. Opponents to development started a campaign called “Don’t Let the Hole Lose Its Soul.” Proponents speak to the need for affordable housing, with the pragmatic view that open spaces tend to get developed eventually so why not do it in a thoughtful way.
Our local debate raises questions about who gets to be the representative of a town’s “soul.” In a little mountain town like Jackson, with severe winters and a super-short growing season, people have only been living here year-round for a century. The town has changed in personality with every passing decade. Why shouldn’t Jackson Hole become a place where skateboarders and cowboys ride?
On our main drag, Broadway, the Jackson Hole Historical Museum (where you can view an exhibition like “Homesteading the Hole: Survival and Perseverance”) abuts Nikai Sushi (where you can sip a Lotus Flower Martini while noshing on a Big Kahuna roll). These kinds of juxtapositions exist all over Jackson Hole. I’m less concerned with whether Jackson qualifies as rural or urban, or whether we lose or protect our so-called soul. I see Jackson the way I think people have always seen it, for better or worse, as a new frontier. The challenge is to be pioneers on that frontier, and to create healthy, vibrant communities living in balance with nature.