Another Perspective

All in the Family

Living in a small town has its charms -- but anonymity isn't one of them.

By 12.10.10

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Living in a small mountain town in the Rockies has its charms, but as with small towns anywhere, anonymity isn't one of them. There is a price to be paid for the scenery and outdoor recreation, and the slower pace and near absence of crime, traffic and noise. Living in a town of three thousand people is akin to living in a large family that's scattered around and inhabiting their own domiciles, but still visible daily. It has its pros and cons. I've lived in Salmon, Idaho, for two and a half years, and seemed to go from knowing hardly anyone to knowing many people very quickly. That's how it happens. People just get used to having you around.

I see these folks at the grocery store, the post office, and the public library. I see my doctor at the bank, my dentist at the hardware store, and my barber gassing up his Subaru outside of a convenience store on a frigid morning. A Saturday evening out in a local restaurant means that I'll know half the people in a crowded dining room. Sometimes I'll see certain friends and neighbors in multiple places on the same day, as if we're shadowing each other in a Hollywood espionage thriller. Strangely, if I've chatted up somebody at the post office, we can completely ignore each other an hour later in the grocery store. That's because there is only so much time allotted for visiting in busy lives, and a long daily tally of people to visit with. And then there is the long Main St. parade of wavers and honkers. Salmon is a town (like the rest of the country) experiencing the economic difficulties of high unemployment and a few empty storefronts, yet there sure are a lot of people driving around. Forget about Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody: Henry Ford actually won the West.

Not only is Salmon small, but it's remote (the isolated large family metaphor again). It's 140 miles south of Missoula, Montana, with a few small towns scattered between. We have a weekly newspaper (the Recorder-Herald, more later), but our available daily is the Post-Register, published in Idaho Falls, which is 160 miles south. Imagine if people in Trenton, New Jersey, awaited the Washington Post to be trucked-in daily over mountain passes in howling blizzards. Even in the age of cable and the Internet, when the paper misses a day we're reminded how far removed we are.

As previously noted, all this municipal intimacy isn't all sweetness and light. I have a friend who goes to great pains to avoid bumping into his ex-wife, and is mostly unsuccessful despite the fact that she also seeks the same. This is a common problem here with folks who have multigenerational roots. My friend not only wants to not see his ex, but her brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, etc. It seems to me there's a lot of folks who go "way back" with other folks around here, and would be hard pressed to admit those other folks even exist, yet they see them at the post office everyday.

I sometimes get the feeling that I'm living in the movie Back to the Future. In some respects it'll always be 1955 in Salmon, Idaho. For instance, it's a standing joke that the majority of members of the city council (and who are elderly) don't use e-mail, and are proudly defiant in their technophobia. This is equally quaint and annoying to the civically-minded newcomers who attend city council meetings with progressive ideas in mind. It definitely disconnects the civic dialogue. In Salmon we have Republicans and Democrats by about a two to one ratio. But the actual political atmosphere consists of non-cerebral reactionary conservatives (OK, rednecks), and the newcomer block of over-educated, idealistic progressives (OK, smug-liberals-who-hate-Sarah Palin).

As in many small Western towns, the population is graying. The kids graduate from high school and promptly leave for college or job opportunities elsewhere, as employment opportunities here are limited. Senior citizens stick around long enough to populate a large nursing home and eventually the local obituary pages. Since kids today don't bother to read newspapers, the Salmon Recorder-Herald (without a website and competing with the city council for local Luddite honors) is seeing its readership sink on its own obit pages.

Salmon does have alternate high tech media in It's a citizen journalism site that credibly covers local stories; mostly the machinations of municipal government, high school sports, cultural events, and public lands policy updates from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Yet the kids ignore it and the old folks read the paper. Lemhi Web's demographic are those newcomer Boomers, civically and entrepreneurially-minded and in different degrees retired from a former life. The website has had only 23,935 hits since its inception in 2008, but it's obviously the future model for local information distribution.

Lately it's the Christmas season, of course, and Salmon is in a holiday mood. And it's looking that way as we've had two six-inch snowfalls in the last week. The Post-Register missed one day. The mountains show that solid white, forbidding aspect that tells us that we're in it together for another long winter. At the community Christmas parade and tree lighting ceremony the other night I exchanged holiday greetings and pleasantries with everybody I knew.

I guess I haven't lived here long enough yet to have it otherwise. Merry Christmas.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.