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In Praise of the Small Town

On my long haul from Lexington, KY to Boise, ID, I found myself in some random parts of the country I've never been to before, but places that I now want to go back and explore. I've already been thinking that next summer will be the first that I don't return to Colorado at all, and seeing what else is out there is really solidifying this plan. 

Wind River, Wyoming

I will definitely be spending a month in the Wind River region next summer - probably half in Lander and half in Dubois. I loved the drive along route 26 so much - I saw dozens of hiking regions I want to explore. Plus there's climbing, rafting, wild horses, historical places, interesting people. 

This year, I only spent twelve hours in Dubois at these charming little cabins, but those twelve hours - combined with everything I drove by on the way - were enough to get me hooked. I wandered down the quiet main street until I reached The Perch Coffee Shop, where everybody knows your name. While it would be my nightmare to live in a town like this, where everyone is in everyone else's businesses, I really enjoy these places short term. 

When I opened the door and walked in, it was the AM equivalent of the record-scratch moment when PeeWee Herman walks into the biker bar in his pearl grey suit and red bow tie. Every face turned toward me. In the type of place that would have been filled by hipsters on laptops in a larger city, those faces were farmers and hunters, the kind who wear flannel for warmth, not aesthetics. There was not a single laptop in sight - just coffee mugs and people actually looking at each other and conversing. I said a few hellos as I passed through the main seating area to the counter.

The barista was managing the place by herself, so while I waited for her to make the drink order of the people in front of me, I enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversation of the trio next to me. The conversation ranged from a known female mountain lion in the area to tourists getting lost trying to get to Yellowstone to abortion rights and new laws. They greeted everyone who came in by name.

When I got my latte and breakfast burrito from the overworked barista who was super apologetic about the wait, I decided to sit outside on the wrap-around porch. Or rather, the decision was made for me since all the seats inside were taken and I would have felt intrusive indoors anyway. It was only 49 degrees out, but the direct sun and lack of wind at 8:30 in the morning made my little perch quite pleasant. I watched the traffic roll through, most notably an old man on a three wheeler with his goggle-wearing dog on the seat behind him and a huge American flag waving from a pole he had rigged up to the back. 

Across the street was a large Cadillac Escalade with Oregon plates, and the two men sitting a few tables down had a few words to say about the size of the vehicle, even though we were in a state where every other vehicle is a pickup truck too large to fit in a standard parking spot. Their conversation then meandered to Jimmy Buffet bars in Florida, Joe Biden, Teletubbies, someone they knew who got fired from the US Forest Service and how truly lazy you have to be to get fired from a government job, and how they had to drive eight hours to Boise to see any kind of decent medical specialist. They also greeted everyone who walked into the coffee shop by name.

It all felt surreal to me, this tiny town surrounded by mountains where every store front was wooden. Having just come from ultra suburban and orderly and bright Lexington, I felt like I was in another, distant country. The idea of horse racing at the Kentucky Derby and going to the Orange Theory gym and having a fancy brunch in a fancy hotel with fancy mimosas seemed absurd. I loved the contrast. 

Teton Valley, Idaho

Teton Pass between the national park and Victor, Idaho was my first mountain pass of the summer. And true to form, the weather on the pass was miserable - raining, foggy, sketchy - but as soon as I got down into Idaho, it was lovely. And unexpected!

The first town you reach is Victor, population 2,200 and just up the road eight miles is Driggs, population 2,100. Very small towns. And yet, they have a very large number of breweries, distilleries, bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants. And a super bougie grocery store called Broulims that I dare say rivals Whole Foods. Oh and some natural foods grocery stores. And two rails-to-trails systems and a climbing gym! 

What gives? It'll take you over an hour from here to get into Teton National Park and even more to get to Yellowstone. I can't imagine they have a ton of spillover tourism. Well, this is the Teton Valley. With views of the Tetons in Wyoming to the east and more mountains to the west, it's a lovely little area and I've been told that a lot of Boise people have second homes there because there's good fishing. There must be because I had absolutely fantastic trout at the Knotty Pine. I also really wanted to hike to Darby Wind Cave but recent reports indicated there was still too much snow, so I didn't try.

Driggs was just a two-night stayover for me in between my Memorial Day camping and when I needed to get to Boise to catch my flight to Santa Fe on June first. (Yes, I went back to Santa Fe. I know you never would have seen that coming. More on that next week.) But sometimes places surprise you and I'd like to go back for a little longer. I wouldn't go to Teton Valley for a whole month, but I'd like to at least to get two full weekends in. So looks like I'll be visiting Idaho for a third summer in a row in 2024.