Day 9: A Disneyland For The Wealthy

Sep 9, 2020
Originally published on September 22, 2020 12:41 pm

Nate Hegyi, rural reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, is embarking on a 900-mile cycling trip crisscrossing the continental divide in August and September, interviewing and listening to Americans ahead of the 2020 election. You can follow along on social media, an online blog and this "Where Is He Now?" map.

September 4: Tetonia to Driggs, 20 miles

An important note here: These are my first-glance takeaways. Think of this as a reporter's notebook. A mosaic of voices over the next few weeks, cycling 900 miles across four states and dozens of small towns.

It’s a bad day.

The shoulders on the highway are narrow. The tourists driving to Grand Teton National Park pass so closely, their windy wake pulls me dangerously close to becoming a fatality statistic. They are being drawn, like flies to an electric lamp, to the Tetons, which rise majestically over farm fields and sagebrush. The valley I’m entering is my least favorite version of the West – the discovered West.

It’s a Disneyland version of the region, with multi-million dollar log mansions and an expansive golf course where I spot a wealthy retiree, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts, playing nine holes while, across a dirt road, two yearling cattle cry in a pasture.

I once lived in a similar place like this and hated it. And I hate that my hometown, Missoula, could be heading that way too. Just in the last year, housing prices have skyrocketed while wages remain stagnant, making it unaffordable for my friends living on social worker and service industry salaries. People from the cities are moving in and I worry my home will become the latest Disneyland for the rich.

But I’m also tired, angry and ... I need to check myself.

I’m prone to criticizing places like this based on limited experience. I don’t know anything about the depths of the Teton Valley. I have a handful of facts pertaining to extreme wealth entering the area and an armful of assumptions about it. I’m also an outsider who is sunburned, exhausted and frustrated with the traffic. I have chapped and bleeding lips from the aridity, my clothes stink and I keep getting rejected for interviews.

First, a farmer politely declines as he parks his white pickup truck in a garage, saying he needs to grab a part for a piece of equipment that’s currently lying broken in a nearby wheat field.

Then, near the small town of Tetonia, I meet a middle-aged man hitting golf balls outside of his home. He’s wearing a Teton County Republican Party t-shirt and I ask him if he’s game for an interview. He half-smiles, declines, and says he just wants to hit a couple of balls before running into town for some shopping. His adult son is standing behind him with a compound bow.

They tell me it’s dangerous to cycle here. About two or three bikers get killed every year. I’m feeling salty and retort that a lot more people die in car crashes.

“There are crosses everywhere,” I say. “Most people don’t see them because they’re driving.”

They change the subject and we talk a little about hunting in the Lemhi valley. I say it’s pretty country but they don’t reply – I can tell they want me gone so I ride off, dejected, and find a gravel farm road to take me the seven miles to Driggs.

Along the way, I see an older man, clad in a cowboy hat and a white beard with beads in it, leaning on a tractor. He’s from near Salt Lake City and is working in the valley for the summer. He shoots me down for an interview but says his boss, Jody Burnside, is driving up the road in a pickup and might be willing to talk.

Burnside’s skin is red from years of working construction in the hot sun. At first he demures at an interview, but I throw a hail Mary pass.

“I’ve already had four rejections today,” I plead. “C’mon, man.”

He’s repairing a pasture fence. After a moment, he agrees.

“Alright, talk,” he says.

So I scramble to grab my recording gear.

Burnside isn’t a poor man – well, he was poor growing up on a dairy farm in this valley, he says. But he’s since made his wealth running a construction company, owning a Japanese steakhouse and sushi restaurant, and maintaining a few commercial buildings in Mesquite, Nevada. He splits his time between there and the Teton Valley.

He’s seen the valley change since he was a kid – like many prettier parts of the West, it’s become more populated. But while growth is often a dirty word among Westerners, Burnside embraces it.

“It makes things more valuable,” he says. “Now you’ve got something to work towards on your land, your value, everything. The only thing I don’t like is, we don’t want to bring California attitudes into our little valley.”

He defines “California attitudes” as liberal ones. Though, over the past week, I’ve noticed many Californians moving out West do so because they are escaping the progressive politics of that state. But Burnside maintains that his valley is attracting progressives and he wants to ensure that it retains its conservative, limited-government values.

“I control my own destiny,” he says. “I grew up here when there was no money. And when I moved away from here, I made a lot of money. And now I can see the difference of both worlds. I like this world, too. [But] I want to teach my kids, my family, that whole style of living because we’ve got to learn to be self-sufficient.”

He sees the Trump administration as acting on those behalfs, though he doesn’t like the president personally.

“It’s pretty hard to set an eight-year-old girl in front of Donald Trump and try saying, ‘That’s a good example of how to raise a family,’” he says.

That being said, though, he believes the president’s administration has enacted tax cuts and other benefits for wealthy businessmen like himself.

“I went from about $30,000 in taxes down to $17,000. So he cut it in half. That’s great,” he says. “I like his drive. I like his work ethic. If we all jumped on board he could do a lot more for us,” he says.

There’s an irony to Burnside’s reasoning. He benefits from the Trump tax cuts which make more people, across political spectrums, extremely wealthy. At the same time, he wants to protect his valley from growth due, in part, to progressives having extra cash to purchase summer homes there and enact political changes that align with their liberal biases.

Burnside doesn’t give me a straight answer to that conundrum. The best, he can reason, is that the valley needs to maintain responsible growth. I assume that means keeping conservative, locally-grown politicians in power.

But this is an issue I’ve seen crop up throughout my reporting.

Growth challenges folks’ twin needs in the region: to make a good living while preserving their “way of life,” however they define it. But as we’ve learned over and over again in the West, ways of life are rarely preserved. They have been bulldozed, subjugated and forgotten about ever since white settlers first began colonizing this region. Why would anything change now?

I keep riding and eventually land in Driggs. I’m tired and waiting for my fiance to arrive, so we can spend the weekend – away from my bicycle and from the legions of tourists descending on the parks – exploring the area.

As I’m rearranging some of my gear, a friendly couple from Salt Lake City asks me what I’m doing. I explain that I’m a public radio reporter speaking with rural and small town communities ahead of the 2020 election. They own a vacation home in Ketchum, Idaho and tell me that public lands are the most important issue facing the West. I get a little red in the face. I’m exhausted, tired and feeling quippy.

I reply that no one on my journey has mentioned public lands as an issue because affordability is foremost on their mind. They want to make sure they can afford to live near public lands before thinking about protecting them. If they can't, then the West becomes an enclave for the wealthy, and the rest of us are just tourists.

I’m taking a break from reporting for a couple of days to clear my head. Too many days on the road have left me a little less patient than usual.

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