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My town is tops and now the pressure is on

Essay by Rob Marin

Modern Life – August 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Help me with a quick survey: Pick the “10 Best Towns” that people call home in America. Go ahead, take a minute.

I’m betting Driggs, Idaho, wasn’t your top choice. But that’s assuming you didn’t pick up the March issue of Men’s Journal while waiting for a root canal and see its list for the “Best 50 Places to Live.”

Men’s Journal, for the uninitiated, is a cross between Rolling Stone, Outside and a PG-rated Playboy. Readers are supposedly fit, outdoorsy men who indulge in exotic travel, warm women and clothes with Tommy stamped all over them.

Men’s Journal is not afraid to tell guys where to live: Park City, Utah, ranked 15; Jackson, Wyo., sixth; Telluride, Colo., second; and the best all-around place in the land, Driggs, Idaho. I live in Driggs, population maybe 1,000, and I love the place, but what are these guys smoking?

I’m guessing the publisher must own land here. Like much of the West with mountains or a river, there’s already a land rush, and now, thanks to Men’s Journal, the county will be invaded by well-chiseled guys looking to build log cabins, ski, fish, and refresh their rugged souls, before selling out and moving on to the next best place.

The editors claim their rankings resulted from “a rigorous analysis of everything from the price of land to cancer rates to the ratio of men to women.” Really? Let’s take a closer look at the rigor of these criteria to see how Driggs measured up.

The male-to-female ratio: Sorry, fellas, there’s no gaggle of hotties hanging out at the county landfill. Our singles scene consists of picky Shannon, Dusty and Sophie — the only available women I can think of — who will probably be engaged to triathletes from Jackson Hole before you read this.

If cancer rates get considered, consider Driggs and its downwind proximity to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). The INEEL complex houses various nuclear-test reactors and decades worth of nasty defense-related fission by-products. But that’s a fun fact that didn’t make it into Men’s Journal’s research.

I admit that Driggs is special. We’ve got the magnificent Tetons (as seen from the back), clean air for now, negligible crime and abundant outdoor recreation. But will Men’s Journal’s readers find happiness in a town that’s abandoned on Sundays? If a radioactive cloud from INEEL wiped out Driggs’ entire population during mud season, no one would notice.

It is true it is relatively cheap to live in my town, though not that cheap. The Journal cites a wildly misleading median home price of $86,200 in Driggs. Try nearly doubling that figure. Eighty grand gets you at best a slouching bungalow insulated with newspapers announcing the close of the frontier.

Last July, just 2 percent of sales of houses county-wide were less than $150,000, and according to my token realtor friend, the current average listing price of a house approaches $260,000. Workers may eventually be priced out of the valley — as they already have been in neighboring Jackson.

Pitching Driggs’ vaunted affordability, the Journal says “a home in Jackson costs twice as much.” That’s an understatement, when quarter-acre lots in resort towns like Jackson go for six figures. That’s why Jackson’s workers (and professionals) are seeking homes in Idaho, even if it means commuting across avalanche-prone Teton Pass to their jobs. But unlike other bedroom communities such as Rifle or Leadville in western Colorado, we have our own amenity — Grand Targhee ski resort. It’s a big attraction to wealthy second-home shoppers thinking “hot investment,” and it makes affordable housing here in Driggs even more endangered.

National Geographic Adventure touted Driggs as one of the top 10 “base camps for summer adventure” (The Hot Zones, July/August, 2001), and National Geographic Magazine recently dispatched a writer to profile Driggs for a future issue. This isn’t harmless hype — just remember what Backpacker and Outside did for once-remote wilderness.

National publicity can only exacerbate the usual Old West/New West growing pains, and we seem to have ’em all in Driggs: the push for planning vs. private-property rights, new-age vs. rural values, a controversial ski-area expansion, and development threatening our groundwater. Just for good measure, a luxury vacation home/golf course complex is under construction at the headwaters of the Teton River, the most vulnerable watershed in the entire Yellowstone ecosystem. Funny, consumer magazines never dwell on this stuff.

OK, one more survey question. How can our community avoid becoming a high-priced, badly-planned playground for absentee homeowners who read too many magazines?

Oops, sorry, times up.

Rob Marin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He likes living in Driggs, Idaho.