The Hansens use the wind and sun to make their own electricity.
PHOTO: DAVID SWIFT
Two couples over the hill (from Jackson) adapting without compromise after moving to Wyoming.
Moving to Wyoming: Homesteading in Teton Valley
At first glance into Teton Valley, it's easy to think, "This place has seen better times." There doesn't appear to be much going on. For entertainment, there's one movie screen, the Spud Drive-In, and it's closed half the year. Looking closer though, it's apparent that, despite recent lean times, there's no fear in the air. Kids wobble their bikes down the main highway without a care. Mention drugs, and people think of sulfa. If Teton Valley wants to lay a claim to fame, it was the Pea Capital of the World—80 years ago.
For the past 15 years, Teton Valley has attracted more than its share of persons looking for rural lifestyles. And not only because it's low key. It's privy to the world-famous Teton skyline and all the other natural attributes of Jackson Hole (which sits about 30 miles on the other side of the range) but to none of the hustle-bustle.
Paul and Mary Lou Hansen
Ignoring every mother's advice, Paul Hansen picked up a hitchhiker. The rider passed on a rumor about cheap land "over the hill," local vernacular for Teton Valley. Just for the heck of it, Paul and his new bride, Mary Lou, drove over Teton Pass to take a look. The land was five miles from the nearest paved road. Tillable Idaho soil under a huge sky, a former farm subdivided into 10-acre lots.
The terms: $850 per acre, no money down, $100 per month at 9%. Come what may, the Hansens figured they could always scrape together the $100 payment. They bought the land without having any other plans.
That was 1977, a time when, Paul admits, "We were pretty naive." Paul and Mary Lou were prototypical ski bums living in a trailer in Jackson. In an attempt at cottage industry, he made jerky and she grew sprouts.
Three years later, a $5,000 windfall helped them decide to beat the expensive Jackson Hole rent and build a home. Paul possessed basic carpentry skills and a penchant for quality work; the result is a secluded 700-square-foot log home that feels hermetically sealed against the lengthy winters—with windows that supply postcard views in all directions. Nearby, their garden yields plenty of food during the 80-day growing season. Evening silence is broken only by the whisper of Canada goose wings a quarter mile away.
The Hansens didn't set out to become as self-sufficient as they now are. The local electrical co-op inadvertently encouraged them to reject mainstream technology by demanding $30,000 for two miles of power line. Paul installed two 35-watt photovoltaic panels with a tracking system, a wind generator and a bank of batteries. Their house is never without juice.
This is no Spartan existence: The Hansens have a washer, a dryer and a pop-up toaster. The refrigerator, water heater and stove run on propane, the tank needs filling once a year. Paul's latest acquisition, a $1,500 Heart Interface inverter, runs their stereo and microwave oven.
Dave and Gretchen Spooner
The Hansens aren't the only settlers to flee to this quiet, predominantly Mormon farming community after the Jackson ski resorts, theaters, fancy restaurants and art galleries lost their sheen.
Dave and Gretchen Spooner are also among the Jackson expatriates. Dave says, "When moving to Wyoming from Texas, a lot of people warned me, 'A lot of Texans come up here to die.' It took me a while to realize they die because they starve to death."
The Spooners tried to make a go of Jackson during the real estate boom 10 years ago. "We could never get ahead," Dave says. "We'd save $20,000 and hand it to a guy. He'd say, 'The price just went up to $25,000.' We'd come back with $25,000, and he'd say, 'It's up to $40,000.' "
Anxious to raise a family, the Spooners moved to Teton Valley to manage a ranch. In 1980 they bought a comfortable farm-style home in Driggs for $50,000—about half what it would have cost in Jackson. "This is a really excellent place to live," says Dave. "The prices are the same as they were in the '70s. You can get a fixer-upper and a couple of acres of ground for $50,000."
Gretchen explains that local real estate is a buyer's market because the large farms are slowly folding. Water, at least in the massive quantities needed for modern agri-biz, has been scarce for eight of the last nine years.
One unwritten rule of free enterprise still applies, though: Deliver quality for a fair price and there's always someone who will pay. Dave has stretched his business degree and extensive background in electronics far and wide. He owns rights to a database program for personal computers, which he sells and supports from his home; he writes other programs; he repairs computers; he has a growing list of clients for whom he consults on just about any computer matter; he is under contract with a nearby hospital to keep their TVs running. Dave does well
enough that Gretchen can concentrate on her homemaking and doing bookkeeping on their computers. She also tends their four children and a bountiful garden that keeps her plenty busy canning.
With his house a showcase, Paul Hansen has recently earned a fine reputation as a log builder, as well as someone to call when looking into solar energy. When a neophyte bungles a log building (not a rare occurrence around here), Paul is the person who can straighten it out. He and a partner specialize in building the elegant, tight-fitting Swedish cope. Business has gotten to where, for the first time in years, Paul didn't have to work at the local ski area last winter.
Mary Lou found employment as a typesetter when they first built their home. Now she works part-time at the post office and keeps books for a single account. With two-year-old Martha and another on the way, it's enough. And just how well are things going for the Hansens now? Well, they've never had to borrow money, and each year they grow fewer vegetables to make room for more flowers.