What was supposed to be only a week of exploration, turned quickly into something much larger.
The day prior to arriving in Jackson, Wyoming, I camped through an amazing storm about thirty miles south of the city. The rain came down in sheets as I cooked a steak and some potatoes in Dumbo. The raindrops hit the fiberglass roof like rocks, creating a serenade of static above my head. I was gleaming as lightning struck the hillside next to me, exploding a tree into tiny fragments. Storms are a marvel to me. When I was a child, I wanted to be a meteorologist; storms and inclement weather were fascinating. Now, some twenty years later, I have managed to obtain all of the crazy, wild aspects of being a meteorologist without all of the extra baggage that somehow has burdened the beauty of weather by learning as little as possible about the subject. I can still sit through a storm and marvel at the wonder of how it works.
After eating, I washed my dishes and read a book as the Sun disappeared in a calm-after-the-storm kind of way behind the surrounding mountains. Once darkness began, I turned in for the night. When restoring Dumbo, I made sure to not fit him out with enough light to warrant staying up past dark. I sought to become acquainted with the natural rhythm of night and day for my sleep schedule.
Once again, I woke in the middle of the night to take a piss. Since I currently sleep for more than eight hours, I tend to wake at some point in the middle of every evening for an hour or so. I lay in bed and listen to things around me until I fall asleep again. This time, I didn’t have to listen very hard. There were noises coming from inside the van. Tiny sounds, like the shuffling of paper or something. Before I could find the panic button in my mind, I lifted my head up to see three field mice borrowing some of the toilet paper roll from in between the front two seats. They had somehow found a way into the van while I was asleep. When I sat upright, they did some ninja vanishing moves and were gone under the front dash. Man, I hope they haven’t figured out that they are now free to build nests with the insulation inside Dumbo’s walls, I thought. I didn’t need to have dead mouse smell in the van again. I found enough dead mice in the walls when I restored the van.
I stepped outside, did my business, put down a few pieces of cheese that I had, and went back to sleep. Hopefully those guys just needed some stuff out of the van to build elsewhere. The next morning, the cheese was gone and there were no further signs that the visitors had decided on a permanent residence. After breakfast, I packed things up and drove into Jackson.
Jackson was flooded with tourists. It is clearly a town that runs on tourism and nothing else. The food and shops were priced for people with unending bank accounts. The people walking the streets were dressed mostly in high-end clothing, and most of the vehicles lining the streets were built mostly for luxury. If it was a camping rig, it was typically well into the six-figure range. I parked Dumbo right in the heart of the town to walk around and get a peek inside this little town. Maybe I was missing something. I threw on a pair of khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt to blend in with the well-dressed vibe, and began my walk. Don’t waste time or money, I thought. Get right to business and get out. I stopped into a few shops with hopes of chatting with the people working them. I don’t know what it is about my appearance, but starting conversation with anyone happens with fluency; I ask a few questions to get things rolling and people just open right up.
The first person I chatted with was a man about the age of forty who worked inside an art gallery. He was well-dressed, wearing a dark grey suit and tie. We opened the conversation on art, which led way to him discussing how he landed the job from an art degree, then moved on to telling me that his move to Jackson was to escape the throngs of people who have migrated to Seattle in the past seven years. He had been in Jackson for the past two years with his wife. When he mentioned his desire to escape the large city life, I took my chance. “What do you think of the Jackson population now that you’ve been here for some time?”
“I dunno, man. To be honest, me and my wife have been discussing hitting the road again to find somewhere new. Jackson is getting too money hungry.”
“How so? I mean, I can see that money comes here to play, but…”
“Well here’s an example. Real estate is big here. The local government is wanting to expand residential areas and raise the value of the shit that’s already here. The federal government has been slowly selling off national and state park lands to Jackson because Jackson has the money to buy it and the fed is always hurting for money.”
“Damn, I’m surprised that those lands are even sellable.”
“Yup. I didn’t know it was a thing either, until one of my friends who goes to town meetings was told about it around a year ago.”
We talked a short while more about that before I redirected the conversation to lighter topics.
“Hey, there’s a dozen or so rafting companies around here. Have you done any of the rafting down the Snake,” I asked. The Snake River runs right next to Jackson with a section of class II-III rapids just fifteen or so miles outside of town.
“Yeah, I’ve done it a few times,” he casually replied.
“Is it worth doing it?”
“Sure, at least once if you’ve never done it. Just get a taste of what it’s like.”
I thanked him for the chat and went on my way. More people to talk to and now a rafting trip to check in on. I walked into the closest rafting company to the art gallery to check out prices. The staff there consisted of two girls and a guy in their late twenties. Either the last night was a giant raging party for them and they were suffering the aftermath, or they were all newly designed robots with human features that only activated when they detected a substantial increase in sound and movement. They were ten percent alive, and that’s being generous. I grabbed a pamphlet and browsed the rafting prices while fielding the few questions one of the girls was asking me about rafting. I was fully convinced that she was asking the questions from an instructional sheet of paper hidden behind the counter. Once I found the information I was looking for, I wandered out to find another rafting company for comparison.
Directly across the street, there was this hole-in-the-wall shack thing labeled “The Sands Rafting.” Or something like that. I can’t remember the exact words, but sand was an important part of it. I walked in to find two women behind the counter at this place, one of them at the tail end of her adolescent years and the other one in her silver years. I’m not sure why most people would say golden years. I have yet to see a person’s hair turn gold when they reach their sixties. The young one welcomed me in. I cut right to the chase.
“So why should I consider giving you guys my money instead of the company across the street?” Bam. She looked like I had just flopped a mess of spaghetti on the counter and asked her to come up with unique names for each individual noodle. She started rambling all of the textbook responses to me about how they have great service and competitive pricing and quality staff who practice safety while on the water… She likely thought I was smiling to show interest in the information she was offering me, which is partly true, but the details of the information didn’t matter a bit to me. I was smiling as I watched her grasp on to that information like a ten-year old boy trying to climb a jungle gym with Crisco slathered on his hands.
When I could tell that she had fallen off the jungle gym, I asked about float times and other things which she could respond with more confidence. She somewhat regained her composure as her voice rid itself of a good portion of the nervous shaking. “Well, we have four different rapids trips that are open tomorrow. There is one at nine, one at ten…”
“Cool, which one has the most people on it?” I laughed in my head at the thought of some sabotage event that some guy could carry out in this exact same fashion, popping a raft and taking down as many ritzy passengers as possible, forcing them to dramatically swim to shore, their plastic hair and overpriced clothing getting drenched in the process.
“The ten and the eleven both have seven passengers. You would fill the raft.”
“Awesome, I’ll take the ten.”
With that being done, the silver years woman spoke up. “So what are you doing in Jackson?”
That’s the queue for finding out the info I was really seeking. I explained my voyage in brevity, then moved on to learn more about her and the town she lived in. She and her husband had moved to Jackson ten years prior, from a small town in Arizona. They had also been thinking about moving on to a new place, but they were waiting for Jackson to burn out a bit more. “The money is tearing this place apart. The cost of living here is on par or worse than Los Angeles, yet there are few jobs here which will match the cost of living. Most people who work here aren’t living here, they’re commuting from nearby towns or living out of vehicles like you.”
“That’s what other people have been telling me too. I don’t understand how people can expect to run a place like this. I mean, if you’re paying shit wages to the people who work here and they’re providing services for people on vacation, how do you expect to get good service?”
“Exactly! There’s no method to it. It’s like the people in charge here only see dollar signs.”
“What is rent and property like here?”
“Okay. So there’s a plot of land about two miles outside of town that’s been for sale for the past six months. It’s down a crappy road next to the city dump. It’s one-and-a-half acres with a double-wide trailer on it. They’re asking one point five million for it.”
“Ha! You’re kidding!”
“No! And even worse, the trailer isn’t even livable! That thing is barely standing, but somehow it’s priced at one point five.”
Jackson is a time bomb. It seems that it is a miniature replica of the state of the U.S. economy as a whole. The division between the upper and lower classes in a monetary sense is growing further apart, creating two separate islands of existence. The bridge of Exchange of Goods and Services between them can only stretch so far before it’ll crack at some point in between and fall into the gaping chasm of What Once Was. What will Jackson do when the current people working the stores decide that it isn’t worth it? How will resort towns, Jackson and the like, handle the shift from English-speaking workers to Mexican immigrants who (not in any demeaning sense) degrade the luxurious vacation experience from an inability to communicate effectively and lack of interest in creating some rich, old, white person’s lavish weekend kingdom? Will this add to the looming death of The American Dream?
I had a rafting trip scheduled the next day at ten, and the Sun was about to explore the other side of Earth again. I found an abandoned road a few miles outside of Jackson, cooked dinner, and called it a night. The next morning, I showed up at the rafting place two minutes before the bus left without me. The ride to the top of the rapids section of the Snake was thirty minutes of quiet beauty, only accentuated with the sounds of the sheet metal school bus body as it drove head-first into the wind at a solid fifty-five.
Once off the bus at the boat ramp, I was greeted by a man who has successfully combined the appearance of lumberjack and hipster. He stood at six feet-ish, wearing a pair of dilapidated black converse, cut-off jean shorts, an inside-out grey tee-shirt, suspenders, sunglasses held on with a Grateful Dead dancing bears croakie, and a baseball cap. Somewhat of a beard sat on his face, looking more like six months of a goatee and one month of not shaving in general. “Damn man, that’s an impressive beard! I mean, I was gonna say that to this guy (standing to the left of him), but you’ve got him beat,” he said with enthusiasm.
“Thanks,” I happily replied to the hipster-lumberjack. Turning to the guy next to him, I said “yeah man, sorry but you don’t have shit on this thing. Maybe one day.” We all laughed at the reply, and I got to talking with the hipster-lumberjack fairly quickly. He just so happened to be the guide who will be in charge of my rapids trip, and we chatted the entire walk from the bus to the raft and water. Through our chatting, I learned that his story is called Carson; he has been doing raft tour guides for a decade now, some of it in Jackson and some of it on rivers such as the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, and the Salmon through a remote part of Idaho (even though the entire state is remote). Joining us on our rafting adventure was a family from the United Kingdom, consisting of the parents, two teenage boys, and one teenage girl. For the first twenty minutes of our float, Carson and I talked like high school buddies that have traveled the world in different directions, reuniting again after some years apart and stories to share.
Only a few minutes into the trip, Carson blurts out “what are you doing later in the day?”
“Just wasting time, man.”
“Wanna come on a private trip later? I have friends in town and we are gonna do another run later, but it’ll be more laid back and stuff. Beer, you know. It’ll be a good time.”
“Fuck yeah, man! I’m down!”
“Right on! Aight, we’re gonna meet at the boat ramp that we start at around three. Cool?”
“Dude I’ll be there. Right on.”
I drink this hippie kind of tea that puts little zen sayings on the tabs for the tea bags. One I read recently said “Let things come to you.” I interpret it as “Don’t resist things when they come your way,” and I think I have done an exemplary job of that during this journey with Dumbo. The rest of the rafting trip with Carson and the English people was a bunch of rambling between Carson, the English father, and myself, spiced with a few exciting moments while passing through sections of rapids, and one moment of the English father being launched out of the boat and into the water when he wasn’t quite prepared for a rapid to come over the side of the boat like a giant arm and sweep him over into the water. The English and I rode back on the bus to the rafting company’s main office, and parted ways after wishing well on our respective journeys. Journies? Jernees? Hmm. Anyways. To be Continued!