Local Syndrome: Who Tells Your Story?

By on June 20, 2018

StoryCorps and oral histories are Jackson’s best hope for cultural preservation

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Sitting across from my friend and creative cohort, Heidi Christine, a surge of warmth washed over me. Perhaps it was because we were being cooked like Hot Pockets inside the aluminum Airstream parked behind the Jackson Hole Historical Society, but I’m sure it also had to do with the intimacy of our conversation.

Christine and I spoke into the microphones for more than an hour; the StoryCorps facilitator extended our 40-minute time limit so we could expand on our interview.

We spoke primarily about queer identity in Jackson Hole, both my own coming out story as well as Christine’s journey towards self-acceptance. Our facilitator, Kevin Oliver, chimed in occasionally, asking us to expand on our emotions (“Was there a moment when you felt like you’d reached rock bottom?”) and experiences as Jackson Hole locals.

The StoryCorps Mobile Tour, in partnership with Wyoming Public Radio, concludes its monthlong Jackson residency on Friday. As a final celebration, there will be a free listening party 6 p.m. Thursday at Teton County Library. The event will be a chance to hear clips from interviews with residents speaking about their lives, triumphs and challenges.

My interview with Christine last week was only the first of two interviews I did with StoryCorps. The second was with my mom, Helga Tesar, this past Saturday afternoon. The initial experience with Christine was overwhelming on an emotional level, and I was surprised at how honest I allowed myself to be in the company of a friend and a a stranger. Tears were shed and truths were shared. And it was possible that Christine and I learned more about each other in that small time frame than we had in nearly 15 years of knowing each other.

My mom was initially nervous for our interview.

This would be the first time her voice had ever been recorded in such a setting, and, because she was unfamiliar with StoryCorps, she was wary about the whole process.

We sat down with Oliver again, and my mom immediately settled in like a natural. She spoke about her upbringing in Austria and the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. We shared memories and offered a glimpse into our private lives.

“I think it’s good that I talked about immigration and prejudice,” my mom told me as we walked home. “Maybe someone can learn something from what I went through.”

That passing along of personal wisdom is one of the goals of StoryCorps.

“It’s been a privilege to bring StoryCorps to an area as beautiful as Jackson Hole,” Oliver told me. “We’ve been able to record a wide range of stories spanning life in Jackson since the 1940s, our relationship to the natural world, the immigrant experience, ranching, rodeos, local politics, housing, arts and culture, remembrances of loved ones and so much more.”

As our town continues to transform in its landscape and populous, there’s an underlying fear that the version of Jackson so many people think of as “the real Jackson” is vanishing. With change comes loss and the concept of preservation (be it cultural, physical, environmental or otherwise) is becoming more prevalent in the minds of locals eager to hold onto the Jackson that they remember.

We won’t know how many interviews the StoryCorps residency recorded until after it has packed up and headed out of town. But people who are still eager to share their stories are not out of luck. A few reservations are still available before Friday. And Jackonites can also download the StoryCorps app from the website, record their own stories, and use #JacksonHoleStories as a keyword to make it a part of the Jackson Hole collection.

When it comes to “the way things were” in the formally named Jackson’s Hole, there are plenty of historic books out there that capture the spirit of the town in the early days. However, many of those books—This Was Jackson’s Hole and Along the Ramparts of the Tetons, to name a few—only make a few references to modern-day Jackson. There are no published books (at least none still in print) that document the the “glory days,” a vague time period around the 60s, 70s and 80s that many older locals hold in high regard.  

Jackson’s cultural history, and that of many small towns like it, is often only expressed through stories passed down from one person to the next. To have StoryCorps as a resource to capture those stories is an opportunity many of us should have pounced on, but Oliver mentioned, as of last week, they were below quota for interviews in Jackson.

The interviews that were recorded in Jackson this past month will be preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., ensuring that 2018 will be an official bookmark in the ever-changing story of Jackson’s Hole.

About Andrew Munz

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