PETER O. ZIERLEIN
This essay is adapted from Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book, This Land Is Their Land: Notes from a Divided Nation (Metropolitan).
I took a little vacation recently–nine hours in Sun Valley, Idaho, before an evening speaking engagement. The sky was deep blue, the air crystalline, the hills green and not yet on fire. Strolling out of the Sun Valley Lodge, I found a tiny tourist village, complete with Swiss-style bakery, multistar restaurant and “opera house.” What luck–the boutiques were displaying outdoor racks of summer clothing on sale! Nature and commerce were conspiring to make this the perfect micro-vacation.
But as I approached the stores things started to get a little sinister–maybe I had wandered into a movie set or Paris Hilton’s closet?–because even at a 60 percent discount, I couldn’t find a sleeveless cotton shirt for less than $100. These items shouldn’t have been outdoors; they should have been in locked glass cases.
Then I remembered the general rule, which has been in effect since sometime in the 1990s: if a place is truly beautiful, you can’t afford to be there. All right, I’m sure there are still exceptions–a few scenic spots not yet eaten up by mansions. But they’re going fast.
About ten years ago, for example, a friend and I rented a snug, inexpensive one-bedroom house in Driggs, Idaho, just over the Teton Range from wealthy Jackson Hole, Wyoming. At that time, Driggs was where the workers lived, driving over the Teton Pass every day to wait tables and make beds on the stylish side of the mountains. The point is, we low-rent folks got to wake up to the same scenery the rich people enjoyed and hike along the same pine-shadowed trails.
But the money was already starting to pour into Driggs–Paul Allen of Microsoft, August Busch III of Anheuser-Busch, Harrison Ford–transforming family potato farms into vast dynastic estates. I haven’t been back, but I understand Driggs has become another unaffordable Jackson Hole. Where the wait staff and bed-makers live today I do not know.
I witnessed this kind of deterioration up close in Key West, Florida, where I first went in 1986, attracted not only by the turquoise waters and frangipani-scented nights but by the fluid, egalitarian social scene. At a typical party you might find literary stars like Alison Lurie, Annie Dillard and Robert Stone, along with commercial fishermen, waitresses and men who risked their lives diving for treasure (once a major blue-collar occupation). Then, at some point in the ’90s, the rich started pouring in. You’d see them on the small planes coming down from Miami–taut-skinned, linen-clad and impatient. They drove house prices into the seven-figure range. They encouraged restaurants to charge upward of $30 for an entree. They tore down working-class tiki bars to make room for their waterfront “condotels.”