In 1990, I lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for eight months, arriving in January and leaving in August. Those eight months were some of the most beautiful and intense of my life.
I had just graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Metropolitan State College of Denver, and thought I was really lucky to land a job in the field. The Jackson Hole Guide, one of two weekly newspapers in Jackson, Wyoming hired me on the strength of the articles I had written for my college newspaper. The job paid pittance, but I really didn’t care. I did have a gnawing suspicion that I would not be a good reporter — going after and looking into events, but I knew I could write an excellent feature story.
The moving trip from Denver was a harbinger of my future in Jackson — that things might not go so smoothly — when my father and I drove up there one blustery winter day. You know that you’re young and unencumbered when most of your belongings (except your books) fit into the trunk and back seat of your little blue Nissan Sentra. The trip took 10 hours, straight up north and a bit west. On that trip, we encountered something I have never heard of before — a ground blizzard.
The snow and wind came up suddenly, because the day was only partially cloudy. One moment I was driving behind a white Jeep, the next I was surrounded by swirling thick snow. I freaked out and wanted to just pull over, but my father talked me down into driving slowly forward. The maddening part was that we could look straight up and see a blue sky above us. It felt as if I was driving in the very eye of a snow tornado. The whole thing took just a few minutes, but also probably a year off my life. Then, suddenly, I drove out of the snow storm, as though I walked through a cloud, and again back into a fairly clear day. And the Jeep was still there, ahead of me. No one was behind me, so it was safe to unclench my fingers from the steering wheel. Safe, but not possible, because they were still locked on.
Once we arrived, we checked into a motel, where we spent the night, and the next day, my dad caught the bus back to Denver. I went into the newsroom. It was a little bit disappointing that no one threw a parade in honor of my arrival, but on the plus side I was in the place I had trained to be in for the past four years. If the newsroom wasn’t hustling and was, indeed, tiny, it was not a deterrent. If anything, “quaint” was a great word for it, but then again, I had nothing to compare it to, except the newsrooms I’ve seen in movies.
Another reason I was a bit anxious was the fact that I had nowhere to live. When I inquired about living quarters, with several people, I was met with shrugs and blank looks. One of the people from advertising took pity on me, and agreed to let me use a condo he rented out, as long as I got to clean it and it was not needed for paying customers. My boss, the editor, told me that I could take a few days and settle in before my first assignment.
It snowed the first three days. I cleaned and I cried, missing my parents, scared of fucking up, feeling lonely. When the sun came out, I walked out, too. It was early morning and I clearly saw the nearby Grand Teton Mountains for the first time, their three distinctive snow-covered peaks bathed pink with the rising sun. The air was so cold, my nose hair immediately froze when I breathed in, and my eyes watered. I felt elated with the possibility of a new start in this place, and the new job that didn’t seem all that daunting in the light of a cold day.
That day I went in to the Jackson Hole Guide, met my coworkers, filled out the paperwork. I got my first assignments. I was to cover Cops and Courts, and cover the local school board. Another reporter, Emily Quarterman, took me under her more experienced wing.
When I could no longer stay in the condo, I lived in a hotel that rented by the week. The hotel was located a just a few miles outside of town, and out of my window I could look out and see Snake River, which looked as serpentine as its name. I walked around town, started a bank account, discovered that the area is called Jackson Hole, but the town is called Jackson. There was a mountain right in the middle of town, called King Mountain, but the real action was Yellowstone National Park, which was located very close by. While, at that time, 200,000 people come in the winter to ski in town and the nearby Grand Teton Mountains, more than 2 million come in the summer for Yellowstone, and the town of Jackson was also full of these visitors. The restaurants were outstanding, but I couldn’t really afford to eat in them very often.
Just to pay rent and afford groceries, I found another job, on week-ends, working front desk for a hotel called The Sunshine Inn. The proprietor of it had a 1920’s cabin in the back that he rented to me for a discounted $300 a month, a total steal considering the rents around me. I joke that it was so small, that I had to go outside to change my mind. But it was tiny. The bed was three paces from the door, and the kitchen/dining/living room two paces from the bed. The shower was standing up straight-room only. The kitchen came with a single sink that had separate hot and cold water spigots, and a tiny stove top in the corner with two burners. I would get up from the bed, take two steps and be in the kitchen, turn right and step into the bathroom. But the tiny cabin came with certain amenities. For one thing, I could have fresh linen and towels from the hotel for free any time, and it had a tiny black and white TV, which made everyone appear short and squatty, and had a constant line on the bottom of the screen. I saw k.d. lang in a video on that TV, and fell in love with her voice instantly. Once the weather in Jackson warmed up, I could leave the cabin door open to air out the room, and type stories on my electric typewriter on my kitchen/dining/living room/TV table near the cabin door.
My friend and mentor, Emily, was a recovering alcoholic, and she threw herself into exercising with her addictive personality. In the winter she took me snowshoeing once. I began to lag behind more and more, until I just sat on the snow bank and waited for her to come back. She was a dynamo. In the summer, each day, she used to run up and down the King Mountain’s ski runs.