Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ehrenreich explores nation's "great divide"

Montana has nurtured many fine writers -- Tom McGuane, Richard Hugo, James Welch -- but Montanan Barbara Ehrenreich is a writer and activist with a pissed-off populist bent. I'm reading her latest book, "This Land is Your Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation." She no longer lives in Montana, but does spend a few weeks each year in the Rocky Mountain West.

I need to see vast expanses of water, 360-degree horizons, and mountains piercing the sky -- at least for a week or two of the year.

As a Westerner sojourner, she is suddenly confronted with those changes that we residents see day-by-day, such as the morphing of small scenic towns into playgrounds for the rich. Driggs, Idaho, for example, where she and a friend rented a small house.

At that time, Driggs was where the workers lived, driving over the Teton Pass every day to wait tables and make beds on the stylish side of the mountains. The point is, we low-rent folks got to wake up to the same scenery the rich people enjoyed and hike along the same pine-scented trails.

But the money was already starting to pour into Driggs... I haven't been back, but I understand that Driggs has become another unaffordable Jackson Hole. Where the waitstaff and bedmakers live today I do not know.

I don't know either. I do know that plenty of people still commute to Jackson over the pass from Driggs and Victor, and up from Alpine, Afton and Thayne to the southwest and Pinedale to the southeast. Long commutes, especially with the winter we had this year. The super-rich are replacing the just-plain-rich, and the locals keep searching for affordable housing. Some has been built, but more is needed. Meanwhile, the waitstaff and bedmakers and coffee baristas and white-collar workers get hit the hardest by growth and the sputtering economy. That drive over the pass in that second-hand SUV just gets more and more expensive.

Ehrenreich's book is full of pithy examples of the growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots. Read it -- and prepare to get as ticked-off as she is.

No comments: