Writers on the Range: Poverty with a Western view is still poverty
January 6, 2015
I spent my 20s in some of the most beautiful towns in the West. "Poverty with a view," my fellow waitresses, bartenders and ski professionals would call it. We'd finish a shift, share a beer, and revel in the sheer dumb luck of getting to live where we lived.
We'd seen the alternative. The sole reason our jobs existed was to tend to the streams of overeager, city-fleeing weekend warriors who flooded our narrow streets, filled our restaurants and provided the rivers of money that keep a tourism economy afloat. They'd pull into town in shiny SUVs, the women's faces obscured by heavy makeup, the men demanding directions and advice because no one had taken the time to look at a map or make any detailed plans before entering the highway crawl of like-minded urban refugees.
We obliged. They paid their bills; we paid our rent. It goes without saying that we mocked them behind their backs.
"Can you imagine working a whole week in a cubicle, then sitting in traffic for three hours to get up here?" we'd ask each other.
"No, thank you!" we'd reply.
Tourist-town jobs certainly have their perks. You can walk away if it doesn't suit you and find something else with relative ease. You work odd hours, which means you can ski and hike and bike and do all the things that make living in a mountain town a sort of playground for those of us who never really got comfortable with the idea of growing up.
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Yet "poverty with a view" has its downsides. Namely, the poverty bit. Waitressing in McCall, Idaho, paid $3 an hour before tips. Working at the ski hill in Flagstaff, Arizona, paid $7 an hour. I got excited when the ski hill offered me a position as assistant manager, until I realized that it paid $9 an hour, with no benefits and no guarantee of work if there was no snow. This was the dark side of that blessed tourist-town bubble — the reality that you are one major car repair away from financial disaster, one bad ski season away from not making rent.
At some point — and this may be the horrifying moment known as "growing up" — you look at your life in a town like that, and you either find a way to make it work, or you leave. I couldn't ever quite make it work.
Few people realize that opting in to the rat race is as much of a choice as opting out. As I scoured my options, I knew one thing: I refused to leave the West. Her mountain highways and rolling expanses of wide-open sky will always be my true home, no matter what my mailing address reads.
I packed my car to overflowing and headed north to Seattle. I found a studio apartment overlooking a parking lot, got a job bartending ($8.67 an hour plus tips? Hallelujah!) and started graduate school. As my adopted city debates the merits of our new $15 an hour minimum wage, I understand both sides of the argument, yet will never forget the exhilaration I felt when I realized that I could pay all my bills and actually have a little left over.
My degree led me into a career I love. I discovered health insurance and the benefits of paid sick leave, and I opened a savings account. I look back at tax forms from my 20s and marvel that I was able to survive.
And yet here I am — another city dweller who longs for the peace of a small town. I miss seeing the stars at night the way I miss members of my far-flung family. I have become one more person who works in the city all week and flees on Friday afternoon — Prius loaded with camping gear, bikes, skis, and three kinds of jackets because I didn't have time to check the weather before I left. I have become the person I used to mock.
I see it in the locals' faces any time I strike up a conversation. I'll ask for a restaurant recommendation, how to find a particular hot spring, or any of those mundane questions the tourist town professional must answer every day.
"Where are you from?" they inevitably ask.
"Seattle," I say, as apologetically as I can.
"Right," they say, mentally filing me under "C" for "City".
I've learned a few things from living on both sides of this interaction. Be nice. Tip well. And know that each party in this conversation longs for something that the other one has — they just couldn't quite make it work.
Katherine Pryor is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Seattle and is a sustainable food and farming advocate, and author of the children's book "Sylvia's Spinach."
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