FREE SPEECH: Living the Dream vs. Reality

By on April 4, 2017

Sometimes it is possible to go home again.

For the author, childhood in Jackson Hole was a bit easier than young adulthood, as evidenced by this journal entry. (Photo: Sarah Ross)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – During a memorable high school spring break, I donned a bikini and ski goggles and lay outside without any sunscreen. It was a bluebird day—cold and sunny. My hands and feet went numb, but I persevered. Later, I had to explain to my baffled parents how and why I’d gotten an intense sunburn on a 20-degree day without leaving our backyard.

It was worth it when the first person noticed my goggle tan and remarked that I must have skied a whole bunch over the break. “Yeah, I guess,” I said, shrugging nonchalantly.

For me, growing up in Jackson was an exercise in cultivating an exterior life that didn’t quite match my interior one. The coolest kids were the most athletic, thin, and besotted with Jackson’s alpine terrain. I felt guilty for being a mediocre and lazy skier, a scaredy-cat, and the slowest person on the cross-country team. I tried to create a version of myself that at least appeared to be all I was not. When, for example, people asked what I did after school, I vaguely referred to “stuff” rather than confessing that I was busy with community theater.

Despite hard-won tans and an elaborately constructed persona, I often felt under pressure. After briefly dating a popular semi-professional snowboarder, I broke up with him, exhausted from trying to be a cool and outdoorsy girlfriend. I received a flood of anonymous notes from his friends (people I’d likely known since kindergarten) via the now defunct Facebook feature “Honesty Box.” Most said he was out of my league, that no one understood why he was with me in the first place. One comment read: “With all the weight you’re gaining, no one here will ever want to date you anyway.” My journal that year included daily entries noting my weight and food intake each day.

My dad fled from the East Coast to Jackson, becoming a river guide at the age of 17. He worked hard to raise a family here, and taught his kids everything he knew about the rivers and mountains. Despite his efforts, each summer I returned to the suburb he’d escaped, happy to live with my grandparents and do theater camp, to escape the feeling that I should be more, better, thinner than I was.

There are many ways to understand a place, though. When I asked Fuller, my 20-year-old brother, how Jackson felt to him growing up, he described it as an accepting and comfortable place, full of endless opportunity: “It was so special. The kids I grew up with in kindergarten were my best friends when I was a senior. When I go home, it truly feels like I’m going back to a place I’m always welcome … everyone’s parents were an expert in something, I learned to do so much.”

For Fuller, growing up in Jackson was idyllic and simple. However, he doesn’t want to return for good. Now, he sees it differently. “I’d describe it as exhilarating, suffocating, and isolating.” Indeed, Jackson lends itself to extreme adjectives. When I asked a co-worker how she would describe the valley, she nearly got choked up. “It’s been an incredibly difficult place to live,” she said. She’s struggled to find housing, a sense of stability. Still, she calls living here, “The thing I’m the most sure about out of everything in my life.”

Another co-worker told me that before moving here in her early 20s, she had no idea places like Jackson existed. She loves it, but says it’s totally disconnected from “the real world.” When she goes to bars in her hometown, it’s a bit of a relief: “You forget that not everywhere is as amped up as this place.”

Other words I’ve heard to describe Jackson? Unreal. Perfect. Paradise. The dream.

Ultimately, those who reside here have to find ways to live within the conflicting narratives of a place that elicits such strong reactions. They have to find a way to feel real while living in a “dream.”

Six years ago I left for college and promised not to return. Now I’m back renegotiating my hometown. I still find it difficult to not get caught up in what I “should” be doing—the impulse to fake a goggle tan sometimes still kicks in—but I’m practicing a gentler approach. The Tetons exist outside of Instagram photos, and snow doesn’t fall as a reproach to the non-skiers. Growing up, I felt that Jackson encouraged competition, judgment, and disengagement. But since moving back, I’ve been surprised by the people I’ve met and re-met who are supportive, thoughtful, and passionate about building a life and community here.

Growing up, I was consumed by what I thought people thought of me. Now, I realize that my expectations of others were equally as limiting. In allowing a more honest approach to my Jackson life, I’m learning to see myself and those around me as more fully human. PJH

About Sarah Ross

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