I took a micro-vacation last week--nine hours in Sun Valley before an evening speaking engagement. The sky was deep blue, the air crystalline, the hills green and not yet on fire. Strolling out of the Sun Valley Lodge, I found a tiny tourist village, complete with Swiss-style bakery, multi-star restaurant, and "opera house." What luck--the boutiques were displaying outdoor racks of summer clothing on sale!
But things started to get a little sinister--maybe I had wandered into a movie set or Paris Hilton's closet--because even at a 60 percent discount, I couldn't find a sleeveless cotton shirt for less than $100. These items shouldn't have been outdoors; they should have been in locked glass cases.
Then I remembered the general rule, which has been in place since sometime in the 90s: If a place is truly beautiful, you can't afford to be there. All right, I'm sure there are still exceptions--a few scenic spots not yet eaten up by mansions. But they're going fast.
About ten years ago, for example, a friend and I rented a snug, inexpensive, one-bedroom house in Driggs, Idaho, just over the Tetons from wealthy Jackson Hole. At that time, Driggs was where the workers lived, driving over the Teton Pass every day to wait tables and make beds on the stylish side of the mountains. The point is, we low-rent folks got to wake up to the same scenery the rich people enjoyed, and hike along the same pine-scented trails.
But the money was already starting to pour into Driggs--Paul Allen of Microsoft, August Busch III of Anheuser-Busch, Harrison Ford--transforming family potato farms into vast dynastic estates. I haven't been back, but I understand Driggs has become another unaffordable Jackson Hole. Where the waitstaff and bed-makers live today I do not know.
I take this personally. I need to see vast expanses of water, 360-degree horizons, and mountains piercing the sky--at least for a week or two of the year. According to evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff, we all do, and the need is hard-wired into us. "People like to be on a hill, where they can see a landscape. And they like somewhere to go where they cannot be seen themselves," told Harvard Magazine earlier this year. "That's a place desirable to a predator who wants to avoid becoming prey." We also like to be able to see water (for drinking), low-canopy trees (for shade), and animals (whose presence signals that the place is habitable.)
But the gentrification of rural American has a downside for the wealthy too. The more expensive a resort town gets, the further its workers have to commute to keep it functioning. And if your heart doesn't bleed for the dishwasher or landscaper who commutes two to four hours a day, at least shed a tear for the wealthy vacationer who gets stuck in the ensuing traffic. It's bumper-to-bumper westbound out of Telluride every day at five, or eastbound on Route 1 out of Key West, for the Lexuses as well as the beat-up old pick-up trucks.
Then there's the elusive element of charm, which quickly drains away in a uniform population of multi-millionaires. The Hamptons had their fishermen. Key West still advertises its "characters"--sun-bleached, weather-beaten misfits who drifted down for the weather or to escape some difficult situation on the mainland. But the fishermen are long gone from the Hamptons and disappearing from Cape Cod. As for Key West's "characters": With the traditional little "conch houses" once favored by shrimpers going for a million and up, these human sources of local color have to be prepared to sleep with the scorpions under the highway overpass.
In Telluride, even a local developer is complaining about the lack of affordable housing. "To have a real town," he told the Financial Times, "Telluride needs some locals hanging out"--in old-fashioned diners, for example, where you don't have to speak Italian to order a cup of coffee.
When I was a child, I sang "America the Beautiful" and meant it. I was born in the Rocky Mountains and raised, at various times, on the coasts. The Big Sky, the rolling surf, the jagged, snow-capped, mountains: All this seemed to be my birthright. But now I flinch when I hear Woody Guthrie's line, "This land belongs to you and me." Somehow, I don't think it was meant to be sung by a chorus of hedge fund operators.