EDITOR’S NOTE: Enduring Lessons From Jackson Hole

By on August 23, 2017

The author circa her days as a fledgling reporter for Planet Jackson Hole.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – My love affair with Jackson Hole began in a place 2,173 miles from the valley. It was 2008 and I had just flown four hours from Jackson—where I shared a four-bedroom house with seven roommates—to visit a friend in New York City.

I was working one of my first reporter gigs for Planet Jackson Hole, the same publication that, after nine years, I will leave this week to continue my journalism education.

Donning short blonde hair with a pink streak (I fit right in among the Planet’s motley crew), I knew then, at 24, that journalism was my calling. But I wasn’t so sure Jackson was the place to pursue it. After all, the valley lacked surface tension, an ingredient I thought necessary to practice good journalism.

People left their doors unlocked, their keys in the ignition. And there was no option for anonymity. The post office, the grocery store, the bank—nowhere was safe from chance (read: unwanted) encounters with acquaintances, bosses, co-workers.

This, apparently, was small town living. And I would soon become the recipient of its kindness.

One blurry night, outside what used to be 43 North, I left my purse behind. It contained more than a few sentimental items, along with money, credit cards and my passport. When I returned to the bar the next day, a red Schwinn chained to a wooden fence was all that remained. I felt even more lost in my new town.

Two days later, my father called from Michigan. “Your purse is with the Jackson Hole Police. What are you doing out there?” But concern for his bemused daughter was eclipsed by my dad’s amazement for the honest people of Jackson Hole.

Someone had found my purse and delivered it to the police station, all contents intact. Then JHPD called every business card in my wallet, ultimately landing on my father’s number.

It was indeed a stark contrast to the grimy, beguiling milieu of Detroit, my hometown—where at one time my friend and I couldn’t get the cops to call us back for days after we filed a police report for her stolen car.

Despite Jackson’s warm embrace, I remained skeptical. What stories, besides those of good Samaritans, could I possibly unearth here?

When I arrived in New York City on that sticky day in August, the stench of trash simmering in the streets did little to temper my optimism. I secretly thought the city would convince me to abandon Jackson, to instead plant roots in a place where I had always imagined living. It didn’t take long, though, for me to realize something had shifted.

Walking down 56th Street, I found myself behaving odd: looking passersby in the eyes, smiling, offering up pleasantries. Of course, my efforts were mostly futile, met with looks of confusion or no acknowledgment at all. And when I wasn’t acting like an urban neophyte, I found myself craving the city’s green space, spending interminable hours in Central Park.

In just a couple months, Jackson Hole had peeled away my tough city dweller exterior. It had converted me to a nature loving, irrepressibly cheery person who wanted to discern friendly faces from the crowd, who wanted little, if any, anonymity.

During one New York minute, as I navigated a sea of digital denizens donned in earbuds, gazing at the pale glow of their smartphones, city life revealed itself to me: not even in the remote mountains of western Wyoming had I felt so far away from humanity. This notion crystallized after I said goodbye to the friend I was visiting.

We parted ways at Penn Station and panic set in when, in true country bumpkin fashion, I could not locate my train’s platform. Sprinting up and down stairs, I frantically skidded from one platform to the next. Meanwhile, people transfixed to their phones scurried by.

“Can you please help me?” I asked several commuters. Alas. They didn’t have time; they were late; they didn’t know.

When I noticed a man donned in a  uniform, perhaps an MTA employee, I asked him, too, for help. He shrugged and walked away.

That day my relationship with New York City dampened, and for the first time in my life, I returned home—to Jackson Hole—knowing I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Then, with my journalist hat on, I dove into the town. The truth, I soon discovered, is that Jackson Hole is layered and complicated and nuanced. And as the years passed, as the community grew, so too did its problems and my journalistic responsibility to highlight them.

When the housing crisis dug its claws into the valley, and since then, Planet Jackson Hole has told the stories of the afflicted, including with the series “The Faces of Blair.”

Placing pressure on power and raising public awareness about a 40-percent rent increase at Blair Place Apartments, the series introduced locals to integral members of the community: an advocate and volunteer, a preschool teacher, a police officer. When I visited them at their modest, beige-walled Blair digs, each told me their Jackson Hole dreams had been shattered, that they would be forced to leave the valley after their rents were raised.

But that wasn’t the end.

Amid sustained pressure at the hands of local media, the owner of Blair walked back the rent increase, splitting it into increments and delaying it by a year for some residents.

This is the power and responsibility of local journalism.

Afterward, I met with my reporters and told them PJH would not publish stories about the housing crisis without humanizing the struggle. Each piece would include someone’s narrative. Indeed, reporting valley issues through a social justice lens is at the core of Planet Jackson Hole’s editorial mission.

That has meant illuminating the trials and tribulations of marginalized people: Wyoming’s LGBTQ community, Jackson’s immigrant populace, people who juggle multiple jobs to live here. Indeed, in a place with the widest income disparity in the country, an increasing number of residents are working more and, essentially, living less to maintain a Jackson address.

Just the other day, the mayor of Jackson, Pete Muldoon, told me he doubts he could financially afford to be mayor for a second term. While the position demands more than full-time hours, the mayor and many of his colleagues, he said, work multiple jobs to keep an 83001 zip code.

If we are concerned about the people who represent us and the interests they advocate, this is deeply problematic. After all, what happens to a town when only independently wealthy people can afford to run for public office? We needn’t look further than national politics for the answer.

Planet Jackson Hole’s mission also has evolved to discuss global issues with local tendrils. It’s one reason we recently captured our first award in PJH’s history for Natosha Hoduski’s column, “Dispatch from Chios,” which chronicles her raw experiences volunteering at a Syrian refugee camp. Her words garnered an award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia because they could stir compassion among the most hardened of readers.

Look for a cover story from Hoduski next week.

It was an honor to unwrap and report the complexities of Jackson Hole under PJH’s coterie of editors, until three and a half years ago, when I felt capable to take the reins and become a mentor to the next batch of wide-eyed scribes. To groom local journalists is a nourishing exercise for both the student and teacher, one that will endure at Wyoming’s only alternative newspaper no matter who is at the helm. And it’s what has inspired me to continue on my journalistic path.

Although I must, at least temporarily, leave Jackson Hole to do this, the lessons I’ve learned here I will take with me everywhere. PJH

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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