Engines roared, and a sold out crowd at the Jackson County fairgrounds cheered with every crunch of steel. My friend Brendan and I showed up late to the Figure Eights — a competition between beat up cars of unknown make doing figure eights around a dirt track and trying not to wreck — so we patrolled outside the barbed wire perimeter trying to catch sight of a spectacular smash-up.
We were closely observing the movements of security guard types as well, who would blast suspected fence climbers with flashlights and jeers until the freeloaders backed off. The small stadium was filled to capacity on this last night of the county fair, but we were not about to miss the championship round of the Figure Eights.
“On your 9 o’clock there’s a gap in the porta-potties.” Brendan said in a don’t-look-now mutter. On the other side of the fence, behind some bleachers were a row of toilets, and a convenient gap set one on the end apart from the rest.
We strolled coolly for a minute among a flock of armored dirt bikers there for a mini-motocross kind of event. Gates opened and closed like locks in a river, allowing a bulldozer carrying a steaming wreck from the aftermath of another round. Heads turned, and in a flash I was over the fence, emerging from a gap between toilets, moving like I’d just pulled up my pants. Soon Brendan would follow, and we’d find a place in the bleachers, beer in hand, where we could enjoy the carnage.
If Romans had cars, gladiators would have driven them. Brendan and I made it in time to watch a few long rounds of Figure Eights, with cars trying not to wreck themselves, but also trying to wreck all the opponents, but also trying to be the first to complete some ultimate number of laps, there was lots to yell about. It was perhaps the most redneck thing I’d ever seen, but at the same time, most of the crowd around me were twenty-something dirtbags like me living in Jackson Hole for the sake of living in Jackson hole. Men wore fleeces and bore beards and hiking boots or sturdy sandals. Women were the same, except for the beards. Everyone’s faces were hardened and legs made sinewy from year-round active living. All very attractive if you’re into yoga pants and Carhartts. The Romans of the Rockies.
Jackson Hole (once Jackson’s Hole, being the valley once patrolled by a hard-ass trapper named Davey Jackson) is a high mountain town of about nine thousand residents. Most residents you talk to are not from there. The town attracts a lot of tourism for it’s access to excellent skiing in the winter, and for fishing, boating, mountaineering, and any number of outdoor activities in the summer, and so many people living there are working in the outdoor recreation industry, drawn in by the lifestyle and the endless opportunities for adventure. Being there for a week of work made me feel more like a resident of the place than a visitor.
“It’s definitely a work-to-live and not a live-to-work kind of place,” Brendan would later tell me. I asked a number of transplants like him what brought them here. Many were ski bums doing whatever it took to live and ski here. Some were guides of fishing trips or expensive expeditions into the woods. Just about all of them came here first for the life and found jobs to support it later. And jobs there are, though mostly seasonal tourism industry stuff.
Teton National Park is the only national park with a full service airport within its borders. It’s how myself and my bike camp partner Abbi got there. It’s also how tens of thousands of wealthy tourists arrive — Direct from L.A., San Fransisco, Chicago, New York, Houston — to hire guides to take them on trips through Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The downtown area is a strip of rustic-ritzy store fronts selling cowboy boots, fine art, and anything moose or bear or elk or trout related. While we were there, during the high point of high season, there was not a vacancy to be found in any hotel, and even the Motel 6 was pushing $200 a nite for a room.
In a town called Moose — really just a touristy stopover with a superb view of the Tetons — My partner and I were enjoying a pizza dinner on a rooftop patio with our bike camp organizers Kurt and Didi. We sipped local beers and I posed the same questions to Kurt, a slight, bespectacled man with a grey beard and sinewy limbs, still blown away that people can live in such a beautiful place and make a living doing spectacular outdoorsy things. He’d been here for some thirty years, maybe, and now he ran Teton Adaptive Sports, a group which teaches mainly skiing to folks with disabilities.
“My friends asked me the same thing when I first moved here, ‘what are you gonna do out there Kurt?’ And I would tell ’em ‘Whatever it takes, man.’ It’s so beautiful out here.”
757s whistled their agreement overhead at 500ft on final approach to the airport.