A small community lies high in the mountains in a state we’ll leave unnamed. Until last year, it had an economy based on the all-too familiar story: Tourism in the high winter and summer months and second-home owners. Healthy hay farms and orchards completed the mix with the farms, in particular, setting a high standard: geometric fields, freshly painted houses and well-maintained tools. More than anything, the valley had beauty and wildness. These were almost sold in the mid ’70s to the highest bidder – a ski company had bought a large tract of forest and then attempted to duplicate Aspen, Colorado. The community was split but finally nixed this future – a lot of the problem was water – and, instead of downhill slopes, chose to develop extensive cross-country ski trails.
Still, the economy wasn’t solid: Tourism is uneven and delicate with more people on the low end of the pay scale than on the top, and too many of them laid off during shoulder seasons. It leaves a place vulnerable to chain stores and boom-andbust cycles, real estate tycoons and wealthy landowners who don’t have enough personal stake in the community.
Then recently, something changed.
One summer evening, a bunch of 30-somethings were spotted outside the local outdoor store complete with band, pizza and lots of kids. They did not look like tourists, and mention of “pizza night” was not advertised. They looked like they did this every Wednesday night; a local gathering, a place to talk and dance and get to know each other. (And, it turns out, this had been going for years; it suddenly was visible.)
The Saturday farmer’s market, which used to be all cabbage and turnips and hand-crocheted hats, was suddenly bursting the seams of the local community-center parking lot with fresh lettuces, sweet mountain strawberries, local honey and free-range eggs. A local butcher appeared who sold sausage (think merlot and garlic), jerkies and unique cuts of meat. A local chef who has survived 35 years in the valley plans his menus around that week’s vegetables from the market and meats from the butcher. White wool blankets from local sheep as light as clouds; a coffee roasting company near the recycling center; a mill that sells organic hard red bread flour and emmer farro; and faultless handmade soap.
Something was humming. It was summed up by the bumper sticker on a dusty truck outside a grocery store: “Support your local ‘hick-onomy.’”
Localism. Ignited by the local food movement and then, as in many communities, spreading like wildfire.
Here, old ranger-station buildings are becoming a set of artist studios, and those artists have designed a special “Made in … ” logo to brand locally produced stuff. The valley now has three local Wi-Fi providers making it easier for men and women to work from home.
The local conservation group, founded by veterans of the former downhill ski battle, works with private land owners including farmers and ranchers to protect land and riparian habitat along the banks of the main river that feeds the valley (7,000 acres and counting). They publish an excellent Good Neighbor Handbook – a guide to living on the land that is neither preachy nor vague. While mega-mansions still exist on some slopes, a vernacular architecture is growing: small, low-profile houses with earth-berms on the north side and interesting combinations of wood, stucco and state-of-the-art insulation.
In the online newspaper, combinations of old and new: a Jamboree Apple Pie Fest to celebrate a town’s 100th birthday right next to a tai chi class and a group that calls itself “Asylum for Writers.”
The wild is still wild. A wolf pack has moved back and several lynx were spotted over the winter. Snow-packed trails in July. Three free-flowing rivers and a healthy steelhead population. And it’s still tenuous: only one large chain away from a mass-market nightmare and bored tourists shuffling among places they’ve already been. But for now, this valley is on the cusp of a local, responsible economy. Latest talk is of small-scale forestry and local biodiesel. A recent blog post discussed connecting retired business leaders with folks just starting out. It isn’t happening by accident. Years of dedication by its citizens, keeping the wild, working with each other, taking risks and being politically awake is paying off. Said a local, “You have to stay creative and nimble.”
We can’t tell you where this one place is any more than you’ll want to tell us the location of your secret valley, but we know many others are out there. This is happening all over the United States. Let us know what kind of economies you see that point us in a new direction.