Discover more from LivingSmall: The Subversive Power of Scaling Down
“But where would we go?”
It’s the question that keeps coming up in conversations. Our funky little town has gone the way of all the other funky little towns in the West. Housing prices went through the roof last year, and we’ve seen an influx of both really aggressive dumb white Trump people, and less toxic but nonetheless annoying rich retirees and second homeowners.
No one who works here can afford to live here anymore.
I ranted a little bit about it on the bird site this morning, and got responses ranging from Ugh to “you should move because it’s like a bad marriage and is never going to get better.” Which also, ugh. I was freaked out because I’d gone to the Post Office, the office supply store, and the bougie bakery our food bank started to raise funds (and to bake for food banks across the state). No one was wearing a mask. We’re still getting 7-8 new infections a DAY. The CDC site lists Park County in red, as HIGH transmissions. Only 41% of the county is vaccinated, and it’s probably not going to get much better than that because all the evangelicals and Trump people and ex-cult members (CUT, it was an actual, gigantic cult that mostly went bust about 10 years ago) “don’t believe” in vaccinations.
I moved here in 2002 because I found a cheap house, there was a good internet connection so I could bring my job, and there were writers here. I moved here because there are three mountain ranges and a valley so beautiful that I remembered it from years earlier, when I’d stopped to look agape at Sandhill Cranes, when I called my brother Patrick from a campground pay phone in Yellowstone. “No wonder all the writers live there,” I said. “It’s more beautiful than you can imagine.”
I stayed after Patrick died because I found a real community, full of interesting people, who absolutely carried me through that disaster. I also stayed because even though the writer and artist types were fairly bougie, there was also a solid core of plumbers and carpenters and ranchers, of hunting and fishing guides, of small business owners. Houses here are small, it was a railroad town. There were still railroad folks here, union working people who’d been royally screwed over when Burlington Northern bought out the Great Northern railway. It wasn’t Bozeman. It wasn’t fancy. It was a funky, slightly run down town with the kinds of interesting people who like things on the shaggy side.
Over the 20 years I’ve been here, there have been booms and busts. Housing prices went way up before 2008, then there was a wave of foreclosures. We have a serious meth problem that waxes and wanes. We have the highest suicide rate in the state with the highest rate in the nation. Most kids qualify for free school meals. But many of the same retirees I complain about have also brought huge energy and drive with them. They’ve built a food system that integrates local food producers, a community garden, a Farm to Schools program, the Food Resource Center and the local restaurant economy to make sure that no one goes hungry. There are community Thanksgiving and Christmas meals at the Civic Center that bring together church groups and elderly folks who live alone, and single moms with kids, and just regular folks who like to stop by because it’s nice.
Which is why the aggro dudes in the pickup trucks with the Trump flags are so upsetting. There are a lot of them. Even the ones not sporting the flags have taken to tailgating me when I drive down valley to walk the dog in the morning. Something about a lady of a certain age, driving a Subaru, wearing a straw hat (I sunburn) really enrages them. This, this fury, this is new.
I spent a lot of the pandemic looking at little houses in the French countryside, houses that are nice — fixed up, with little gardens. Houses that are substantially less expensive than what I could sell this one for. I could sell this house, move to France, find a house in a village. Walk to the bakery in the morning, build a new garden, drive myself mad trying to navigate French bureacracy. Retire a few years early, live off the money from this house, write.
But Himself isn’t going to move to France. I’d be alone. My French is terrible, which is sort of charming from a tourist, but making friends in a foreign country is no small matter. I’m good on my own, and while the idea has its appeal, it’s not going to happen. I love Himself. He loves me. I was single long enough to know how rare that is, how odd we both are, how good it is that we found one another.
“The thing is,” he said to me earlier in the pandemic when I was really freaking out, when I was worried we were headed for a Bosnian-war-level breakdown, when I told him that if it happened, I knew which surly white man neighbor was coming for my house, “the thing is, we’re range bound. Where are we going to go?”
He meant it in the ecological sense. We see animal herds here who are range bound — the Greater Yellowstone Area is pretty big compared to other chunks of wild land in the country, but our elk herd is always going to be restricted by the fact that there’s an interstate, and a lot of fenced agricultural land between here and the next range.
Where are we going to go?
We’ve all seen the stories from across the country. City dwellers moving out, moving back to be near family, moving to the suburbs so the kids will have a yard now that they can’t be in the parks, folks moving “upstate” in whatever part of the country they’re in. And it’s only going to get worse. Climate change is upon us. I’m typing in my living room, with the shades drawn against the glaring day out there. It went from snow to 100 degrees in two days. My window AC units are both going. There are fans blowing. I’ve been spending an hour or so watering in the morning trying to keep the seedlings from burning up.
All indications are that this fire season in the West is going to be worse than last year. Himself and I were hoping he’d come meet me in October after a writer’s workshop I’m doing by Point Reyes, so we could drive the Oregon coast on the way home. We’re holding off buying tickets until we have some idea how fire season is shaping up. Driving up a coast on fire doesn’t sound like much fun. Crossing states on fire sounds like a nightmare.
The pandemic was climate change (no matter what nonsense they’re currently spouting about Chinese labs). The pandemic is just the first wave. I chose Livingston all those years ago not only for the writers and painters, but because it was out of the way of the rising seas, because it had a river and three mountain ranges. I figured the water would last my lifetime at least. We’ll see.
Where would we go? isn’t just a personal question, but at this point, it’s a question for humanity. We’ve well and truly shat our own bed. The oceans are full of plastic. Soils are depleted and the great rainforests of Brazil are falling under the axe. These rising temperatures are because we pulled stored carbon out of any crevice in which we could find it for industry and cars and fucking synchilla sweaters. We’ve burned up the world for clothes dryers and to fly oranges from Australia out of season and to drag full-sized SUVs behind RVs through the Western National Parks so we don’t have to sleep in hotel rooms. I was pretty hopeful before the pandemic, but seeing what whiny babies people are, how deeply selfish, how unconcerned the general population seems to be about anyone else, how unwilling people, mostly comfortable white people, are to sacrifice anything to save the lives of their fellow citizens. Well, I’m pretty depressed about that.
And so, since there’s no where to go, since we own our houses at this point, and renting the cabin to vacationers is Himself’s retirement plan, there’s nothing to do but settle in and follow the hard advice that Gary Snyder gave us all so many years ago: that the most radical thing you can do is to stay home. Stay home and take care of your range. Make peace with your neighbors. Try to make the place you are a little bit better than it is now.
And because he’s Snyder, he also means sit down, and tend your own inner home. Sit with your self. Your whole self, good and bad.
The engine of American consumer culture runs on the idea that boundaries are to be broken, that you should strive always for more, for better, to optimize your performance, to go everywhere, to refuse to accept no as an answer.
But the world, as it will, is telling us something different. If there’s one thing I learned from living through the cancer epidemic of the 70s that killed my youngest brother and several others in our very wealthy suburb on the shores of Lake Michigan, and the AIDs epidemic in the 80s and 90s that killed my beloved Uncle Jack, my college friend Michael, and half the men in my NYC neighborhood, it’s that the world has actual limits. Despite the television nonsense about American exceptionalism and Elon Musk’s space dreams and consumerist madness about how “you deserve” a trip to Disneyland or Cancun or on one of those hellscape cruise ships, the world has limits. We’ve just refused, as a spoiled, late-empire society to acknowledge them.
I live in a beautiful place that is currently beset by some really dangerous nonsense. I’m angry that there is this cohort now who find it entertaining to frighten me. Because they do.
But then I remind myself that there are nice neighbors across the alley, and although I haven’t seen them in ages, I still have solid friends here, people I love. If the transmission numbers come down, if the vaccination numbers go up, maybe I’ll see them at Happy Hour again. There are chickens and a dog and two cats who are trying to learn to get along. There’s Himself, the unexpected gift of a person who loves and gets me, and I him. There’s this garden. I can’t even manage the Post Office right now without losing my nut, but I can manage to keep some tomatoes alive, and the masses of poppies I planted in the front look like they might be fabulous, and if worse comes to worst, I can live off eggs and greens. I might not be going out there for a while, but I’ll be back here, cultivating my garden, doing what I can to make this range to which I’m bound as fruitful as it can be.