Wrong Side of the Mountain

September 04, 1995|By BARBARA EHRENREICH

DRIGGS, IDAHO — Driggs, Idaho. -- Darn, Bill, if you didn't go and get yourself on the wrong side of the mountain.

You had to vacation in Jackson Hole, which has been described as a ''high-altitude Palm Beach,'' when you could have come 35 miles over Teton Pass here to Driggs, where the people who make beds and wait tables in Jackson Hole live.

Jesse Jackson has said that when you come to a fork in the road, Bill, you take the fork. But he was just being kind.

When it comes to picking folks to spend your down-time with, you and Hillary invariably go for the big-time lawyers and Hollywood types, to the neglect of all the perfectly nice people in places like Driggs.

All right, no one really expects a president to vacation in a town that sounds like ''dregs" and which was once likened, by a tactless developer, to Dogpatch. But canny politicians at least pretend, now and then, to enjoy the company of their financial inferiors. Even Ronald Reagan, that wily pal of the overclass, had the sense to drop by when he was in the area and get himself photographed at the Victor Emporium, just south of Driggs -- a friendly, country-funky locale that features tackle and huckleberry shakes.

Everywhere in the West, well-heeled consumers of scenery are driving out ranch hands and short-order cooks. It's Beaujolais versus boiler-makers; latte versus cowboy coffee (throw the grounds in the water and boil).

In Jackson, as of late 1994, the average home sold for $561,000, which is why the people who work there can no longer live there. The town of Telluride, Colorado, now graciously allows its low-income workers to live in their cars in ski-area parking lots. In Glenwood Springs, a 45 mile drive from Aspen (where the average home sells for $1 million or more), some area service workers have taken to camping in caves.

In fact, these days any place with scenery to sell is getting sorted abruptly into high-rolling outsiders and broom-pushing locals. Key West has its Stock Island, featuring trailer parks and drive-through liquor stores; the Hamptons are laundered and waited on by blue-collar Riverdale. A study released in July by the Rand Corporation concludes that the disparity in wealth in America is ''simply enormous'' and growing all the time. We are becoming two societies, separated by a social barrier as steep as the Tetons.

In the old days, when wages sank below the price of shelter and grub, Westerners did things like go out on strike or elect a socialist mayor. On Labor Day, Ludlow, Colorado, remembers the 1914 showdown between striking miners and the state militia, in which 21 miners and family members lost their lives. My hometown, Butte, Montana, spent much of its history in a violent stand-off between miners and the flamboyantly greedy ''Copper Kings'' -- which is why I grew up hearing about two kinds of people, rich and poor, and that it was the rich ones who'd try to snatch your wallet.

But in today's West, economic frustrations are more likely to be directed, bizarrely enough, at the federal government or the United Nations with its mythical fleets of black helicopters. Right-wing paranoia seems a long way from common-sense Driggs, though this is militia-supporter Helen Chenowith's congressional district and Coeur d'Alene, headquarters of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nation, is only a day's drive upstate.

Now Bill, I thought the point of your Western vacation was to heal some of these political fissures. But once again, you couldn't shake your fatal attraction to the moneyed elite.

Think about it: If you and Hillary had spent more time in Arkansas with poultry-pluckers instead of real-estate tycoons, you wouldn't be in this Whitewater mess. If your health plan had been devised by wage earners in Driggs instead of insurance-company consultants luxuriating in Jackson Hole, you'd probably both be national heroes by now. And if you'd taken a firm populist stand on any number of issues -- from budget and tax policy to upgrading the minimum wage -- maybe low-income Westerners would be Democrats again, just as their grandparents were.

Too bad you didn't get over to our side of the mountain, Bill, and see the sights you missed in Jackson: the vast new trailer-park ''subdivisions,'' or the motel maids shopping with food stamps at Thriftway.

There are two Americas now, and if Western history is any guide, they could wind up being hostile nations. It would have been smart, as well as gracious, to have spent a little time in each.

Barbara Ehrenreich is author of ''The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes on a Decade of Greed.''

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