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By Tom Dworetzky
The days have grown short in Driggs, Idaho, and Paris Penfold, a third-generation farmer, agrees to take a break from harvesting his 800 acres of seed potatoes and packing them into a half dozen of the giant Quonset-hut cellars that pepper the valley. He leads me into one of the dark cellars like a proud parent. Standing before a towering mound of spuds, I can feel the heat coming off them.
"They're alive," Penfold says. "We have to manage the temperature with computers to keep them from sprouting in here." Without ventilation the temperature of the potato pile would go up a full ten degrees in a week. In the spring these disease-free seed potatoes will be shipped to growers in the Pacific Northwest, to be cut—one eye per piece—for planting.
Before that, though, children in this Mormon stronghold will be let off school for two weeks to help with the harvest, and Penfold will enlist the aid of his second cousin, Clair Hillman, for the 14th year in a row. Clair, 69 now, has the wiry strength of a man half that age. He's been trying to retire for years, "but Paris won't let me," he says with an easy laugh as we stand in the soft, brown dirt by the huge crossover machine he's been driving all day. The crossover, bouncing side to side over the deeply rutted field, digs up potatoes from one row and dumps them on top of another, so the harvester can suck up a mouthful at once and conveyor-belt them into potato trucks driving slowly alongside. The work sends a haze of dust into the thin mountain air.
When the harvest is in and bitter snows slow valley life to a crawl, Paris Penfold will turn to other jobs, like most folks around here. He is, after all, the bishop of a local Mormon church. And he is a master carpenter, having built his spacious house, including its elaborate cabinetry, and much of his own furniture. From the windows above his sink you can see the soaring, forested Tetons across the fields and catch sight now and then of coyotes—which with disheartening regularity have made off with a long line of family cats.
Penfold's son, Wyatt, is a fourth-generation potato farmer. But by the time he takes over his father's place, few of the neighbors will even know what a crossover is. More and more farms like Penfold's are giving way to 2,500-square-foot log retreats. Nestled between the Tetons and the rolling Big Hole Mountains, Driggs has become a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, with fishing, hunting, climbing, skiing, paragliding, ballooning, snowmobiling, even skateboarding. Skateboarders call fresh asphalt on a twisting mountain road "black powder," after the white powder of newly fallen snow. Nearby, 780 acres are being transformed into a golf resort.
The seat of Teton County, Driggs lies just a short drive across Teton Pass from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, "where the billionaires are driving out the millionaires," as locals like to say. Movie stars, too, make regular appearances in Driggs. Harrison Ford parks his planes at the Driggs airport, a fact not lost on Kristal Nagle at her family's Corner Drugstore. A college junior, the brunette former high-school cheerleader says she wants to get married and have 12 kids. She laughs. "I'll have to marry a rich man." She has a huge crush on Ford.
August Busch III of Anheuser-Busch and Paul Allen of Microsoft fame have spreads in the valley surrounding Driggs. "Lot of money, though you don't see it here," one local told me.
What you do see is a community struggling to hold on to its way of life as "move-ins" and new ideas flood into town like spring snowmelt. Clair knows about change. After his wife passed away seven years ago, he got involved with a move-in. "I married a ski bunny, 26 years my junior. But she ran off. I still see her, though. She stays with me when she comes out to ski. Lives in Maine now. She's getting her Ph.D. in forestry."
On Main Street a couple of Mexican restaurants share space with the drugstore, a Laundromat, the Dark Horse Bookstore, and a restaurant-gallery-clothing-jewelry store called Miso Hungry. Over an espresso I learn about the town's farmers, skiers, and hired farmworkers from Jeanne Anderson, owner of the Dark Horse and a move-in herself. "The high school is the real melting pot for old-timers, move-ins, and the Latinos here," she said. It's also a place with a sophomore curse. For each of the past several years, a teenager has died. Last year it was a boy wrecking a car. This year another boy, Robie, from a drug overdose.
It hits home for me a few days later, over breakfast at Miso Hungry with Dave Wade and his 11-year-old son. Dave, a waiter at a Jackson restaurant who also sells handmade candles, talks proudly of his son's passion for freestyle skiing. But the boy is mighty quiet.
"He had a really good friend, almost a brother, who died recently."
I nod sympathetically. "Robie?" His son nods yes.
"It's real hard when something like that happens," I say, meeting his son's eyes.
He looks me right back for an instant, unblinking, making contact with an adult as kids rarely do. Then he looks away.
Comfort comes in many forms, and in Driggs on this Friday night it comes in the crowd of families and teenagers gathering at the Spud Drive-In two miles south of town. Though it's quiet and dark, you can't miss the towering wooden screen and the dilapidated flatbed truck sporting a concrete potato.
Sara Wood, wearing a purple shirt with "tease" written on it in sequins, takes my five dollars and directs me to the refreshment building, where her father, Richard, runs the projectors and her mother, Dawnelle, has covered every inch of the ceiling with old vinyl records. She's also put out for display her budding line of tater-themed T-shirts.
During the double feature—Osmosis Jones and American Outlaws—some people are actually watching from their pickup trucks and cars. But most are on their way to the snack bar or are standing outside, talking, laughing, seeing and being seen. Orders crackle over the PA system for fries and Gladys Burgers (named for a previous owner). The meat's real lean, Dawnelle says, that's the secret to the burgers. And the fries? Made from Idaho's finest.