A year in the West
Boston transplantJon Duval reveals the perils of life in the Wood River Valley. Illustration by Gavin McNeil.
Growing up in Massachusetts, you come to take certain things as indelible facts of life: You will sweat profusely in summertime, even if your most strenuous activity is opening the top of a cooler. Drivers have the unassailable right to cut you off then give you a one-fingered salute for getting in their way. A powder day consists of three inches of laboriously heavy snow lying on a three-foot sheet of ice. It’s perfectly acceptable to wear a blazer over a button-down shirt to breakfast. And, unless your license plate reads "Live Free or Die," a gun rack is not a suitable accessory for your car.
So it is not a surprise that when I moved to Ketchum last August in search of my own manifest destiny, I experienced a good deal of culture shock, often at the expense of my pride. Within my first six months of Idaho residency I suffered more public humiliations than Paris Hilton.
Being altruistic, or perhaps impertinent, by nature, I believe I have a moral obligation to share my hard-earned knowledge as a way of sparing fellow East Coast transplants and visitors similar tribulations.
While I cannot guarantee to keep locals from laughing at your pronunciation of "Rivah Run," I do have a few suggestions that should at least earn you a modicum of respect: Start sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. Find the number to Floyd Landis’ pharmacist. Trade in silk ties and supple leather loafers for tight-fitting shorts and Gore-Tex hiking boots.
While the elevation of the Wood River Valley differs slightly from, say, Machu Picchu, the effects of oxygen deprivation on those arriving from sea level are noticeable. Walk down Main Street hoping to catch a glimpse of Demi or the Governator and you’ll feel fit as a fiddle. Hike up to Pioneer Cabin and you’ll start wondering if it’s possible for your heart to jump out of your chest like that alien from the movie, um,Alien.
I moved to the mountains a mere two months after having completed the Boston Marathon and working as a bicycle messenger. I was indisputably in the best shape of my life. Imagine my disconcert when grade-school children bounded past me with smiles on their faces as I sat by the side of the trail, pretending to admire the surrounding beauty while sucking wind like a sumo wrestler playing double Dutch.
Compounding the adverse effect of the oxygen-impoverished air is the fact that residents of the area tend to regard athletic pursuits the way Rain Man felt about watching Wapner—fanatical.
Regardless of efforts to the contrary, city living has a way of forcing indolence upon inhabitants. Those accustomed to subways and elevators have little hope of keeping up with people who willingly hike up a ski mountain when there’s a perfectly good chairlift in plain view.
I routinely floundered like a bad vaudevillian actor in a 1920s silent film in both waist-deep powder—searching for buried skis—and placid pond water—trying to flip a kayak to the decidedly preferable oxygenated side. I’m on the verge of contracting carpal tunnel as a result of clutching the brake levers on my mountain bike too tightly. And, tragically, I’ve given up all hope of ever feeling comfortable in cowboy boots.
Please, prior to arrival make every attempt to gain some semblance of proficiency for any athletic undertaking you might engage in here—get on a bike, grab a paddle or get to the nearest gun range—perhaps you’ll leave with your ego, and hopefully your bones, intact.
However, it may be this treacherously steep, bruise-inducing learning curve that keeps me here, spending the majority of every meager paycheck on new ways of inviting serious bodily and mental injury. And some day, maybe I will be the one lithely passing a hyperventilating young man lying in a crestfallen heap, wearing a tattered Red Sox shirt.