Writing in the Mountain Gazette, Cal Glover shares similar thoughts about Jackson Hole, where the average price of a two-bedroom house last year was a whopping $643,000-this in a depressed market. "I make four dollars and twenty five cents an hour. So I'd have to work 151,294 hours, or 15,129 cab shifts...or about 210 seasons, to afford such a house. If I radiate enthusiasm and make a few tips, I could whittle that down to 105 years." Less than a third of the people who work in towns like Jackson, Steamboat, Vail, and Aspen can afford to actually live there. Of the wealthy who can afford it, many are no less fair-weather friends than those who roamed the Rockies a hundred years ago. One of the eeriest experiences in this region is to walk through entire subdivisions on a night in November or May, between ski season and summer holidays, and find there not a single lamp burning in the windows.
Wealth has brought other changes as well.... At the northern edge of Greater Yellowstone work continues on the exclusive Yellowstone Club-a recreational hideout for the rich, with memberships going for $250,000 and annual dues of up to $16,000. Security is coordinated by former Secret Service agent Bruce Bales. In all it's a far cry from even 40 years ago, when a handful of Hollywood stars were setting up homes in the remote valleys of Montana and Wyoming-not because such places were trendy, because they clearly weren't, but because such celebrities were desperate to hang out in a place where the neighbors weren't easily impressed. Today the famous have been joined by thousands of others who are impressed, and greatly so, fairly giddy with the thought of telling friends at cocktail parties in New York or Atlanta about their Wyoming ranch, just down the road from Harrison Ford.
Ironically, in some ways the environmental community itself helped foster such a movement. Throughout the 1970s it was a common practice to argue locally for the preservation of untrammeled landscapes almost exclusively on the notion that such places would be highly sought after by a growing swarm of people who would pay handsomely for such backdrops. Beauty, then, far from being a basic human value-that agent of transformation celebrated by everyone from ancient storytellers to American landscape artists-became little more than cultural cachet. Lands that had long provided access to Sigmund Freud's notion of healthy cultural fantasy-providing images not just of beauty but of danger and shadow-came to be thought of in terms of bistros, condos, and ski hills. In the 1890s Rudyard Kipling made a special point of describing a curious group of Westerners he ran across as "so suffering from American materialism that they were inclined to sell off their abundant natural resources." These were people who "catered too willingly to the hordes of builders and tourists who swarmed like angry ants over sections of the region." But what in Kipling's time merited comment because it was somewhat of an anomaly has in our own time become common fare.
Ironically, even many of those who came to mountain towns during the back-to-the-land movement, going on to eventually prosper themselves, these days show little tolerance for newcomers who look different, who are clearly outside the status quo. The mere placement of affordable housing has become one of the most contentious planning issues of mountain towns, as surrounding neighbors fret over how it might diminish the value of their property. One candid old-time resident of Crested Butte-at one time a hippie girl herself-tells of recently making friends at an exercise class with a young woman in her 20s, sporting colored hair and tattoos up and down her arms. "My initial reaction to her was really prejudiced. Then all of a sudden it dawned on me: To what extent are those of us with money likely to give a break to anyone who's different from us?"