Jackson Hole Was Nicer Before You Came Here

Jackson Hole Was Nicer Before You Came Here

As the hole deepens

Jackson Hole Was Nicer Before You Came HereJackson Hole Was Nicer Before You Came Here


Here is what kept me from sleeping last night: Bullwhip is a noun, and horsewhip is a verb. Why is that?

The whip question came about because I dropped in on Clyde Walsowski-Smith’s house and found Clyde’s father, Wally, in the kitchen where Clyde was pouring hydrogen peroxide into his dad’s ear. Wally’s nose was bleeding. He had a scrape over one eye, and, like everyone else who’s been beaten up in Jackson Hole, he was writing a letter to the editor.

Wally wanted my help. “Is stump sucker one word or two?”

Clyde said, “I had a stump-sucking llama once. Could clean a fence post down to the barbed wire in a hour flat.”

I poured myself coffee. Clyde drinks what in this area is called Mormon coffee. The stuff is so weak you can drop in a dime and tell whether it’s heads or tails there sitting on the bottom of the cup.

“Who’s a stump sucker?”

Wally licked the lead on his pencil. “Red Doppleganger. He says Mr. R’s Cafeteria was in what’s now the Gart Sports parking lot. Anybody with a brain knows it was in the old Bubba’s building. When I corrected Red he tried to bite my ear off, like the stump sucker he is.”

Clyde said, “Gart turned into Sports Authority ten years ago, dad.”

“I got enough trouble keeping up with the old times. I can’t be expected to follow what happened yesterday.”

The fight took place at a meeting of TOTS—the True Old-Timers Syndicate. TOTS meets in the sub-sub-basement of the Wort Hotel, so far down the current owners don’t even know the room exists. Wally and his cronies come together to argue about what used to be where and who used to be whom.

As in every tourist town in the world—from Paris, France, to Wall, South Dakota—the definition of what makes a person local is hotly debated by those who are and those who would like to be. It comes down to this: I am a local, and anyone who arrived after me is a newbie. Seasonals don’t count. People rich enough to hire out the shoveling of their driveways don’t count. In certain parts of the county—Hoback Junction and Buffalo Valley—Democrats don’t count.

After weeding out everyone who came late or doesn’t count, there aren’t that many left.

TOTS has a strict definition of old-timers. An old-timer has to have lived through a winter in Jackson Hole before the ski area opened—1966, although the date is another point of bitter conflict.
“How many old-timers are there?” I asked.

Wally said, “Six. Seven, if you count Modell Burbank out in Kelly, but we don’t count her. Modell borrowed a pickaxe off Henry Widowmeyer in 1961 and didn’t return it. The true locals have shunned her ever since.”

“Long time to ostracize someone over a pickaxe.”

“Modell claims she brought the pick back the day she used it to bury her pet goat, Emory. Ever’one knows she ate that goat and never buried her at all.”

The first wave of settlers who descended on the valley in the 1880s were basically hippies and survivalists here because there was no law north of Salt Lake. They couldn’t stand the second wave who pulled in in the 1920s and built schools and churches and, in the opinion of the way-back old-timers, screwed up everything. The end of World War II brought a bunch looking for cheap land, and, at almost the same moment, the opening of Grand Teton Monument chased out as many as it brought in, at first anyway.

The so-called Fourth Epoch of Jackson Hole came when the ski area gave us something to do year-round. Men and women from the other epochs feel vastly superior to the ski bums.
The author Donald Hough was the first to talk about the Cocktail Hour in Jackson Hole. Back in his time, from Labor Day in September to Memorial Day at the end of May there was nothing to do here but drink. That’s how the old-timers liked it.

“That ski area brought movies and cable TV, and now they’ve built a Center for the Arts to go with their monster of a parking garage.” Wally spit on Clyde’s kitchen floor. “What do we need all these winter distractions for? I’ve seen a heap of changes in this valley the last sixty years, and I’ve fought every one of them.”

Wally took Clyde and me over to a meeting in the sub-sub-basement. “Normally, you wouldn’t be allowed in, but Red is afraid we’ll all die in an earthquake down here, and there won’t be anyone to record how it used to be.”

He gave the secret knock—quick, quick, slow, slow, the two-steppers’ mantra—and we were let into a room furnished exactly like the old Happy Hound. Pine tables swathed in soft lacquer, chairs you stuck to if you sat in them wearing shorts. They had weak coffee and creamers shaped like cows with the artificial whitener dribbling from their open mouths. The sugar envelopes were white. No pink, yellow, or blue packets allowed.

The assembled TOTS were fighting over the difference between a local, an old-timer, and a native.

“To be a local you had to have eaten in the Elk Horn between midnight and dawn,” Red said. “And survived.”

Wally stayed away from Red. His ear was still bleeding.

Jackson Hole Was Nicer Before You Came HereI asked, “What makes a native?”

“Born here over fifty years ago. I’ve heard high school kids calling themselves natives and whining about how downtown has lost its character. Hasn’t been any character on the square since Clover the Killer’s last shoot-out.”

“Have you run into Hank Elkrunner lately?” Wally asked. Hank is our token Shoshone. His family has been in and out of the valley for three hundred years. “He’s been going around with a can of black spray paint, blocking out all the Wyoming native bumper stickers.”

“Why would Hank do such a thing?” I asked.

“The man is a snob. Thinks because his people got here first they’re better than the rest of us.”

“I can’t stand snobs,” Red said. “I haven’t liked elitists since the park closed the Jenny Lake store in 1962.”

“Sixty-four,” Wally said.


That’s when Red offered to bullwhip Wally with a horsewhip, and I scurried off in search of a dictionary.

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