Pinedale Journal: A Town Has Mixed Feelings About Its Day In the Sun
By Michael Janofsky
The New York Times (Wednesday, February 02, 2000)
PINEDALE, Wyo., Feb. 1 -- Big-time sports seldom reach a place like this. Heck, small-time sports seldom reach a place like this.
But today was Pinedale's day in the sun -- and a toasty one, at that, as temperatures reached the mid-20's when the first of 23 mushers crossed the finish line on the third leg of a 12-day, 410-mile sled dog race through western Wyoming, chasing $120,000 in prizes and shining a bright light on small towns like Pinedale.
Nestled at the western edge of the Wind River Mountains, Pinedale is 100 miles from the nearest Interstate. Its municipal airport has no commercial service.
A motorist might stop here on the way from Denver to Jackson, Wyo., but otherwise it lies forgotten most of the year, a town of 1,181 people with no traffic lights, movie theater or dry cleaner in the least populated state in the nation.
Most people here like it that way, especially in the summer, when fishing, hiking and the Museum of the Mountain Man draw hundreds of vacationers.
Some visitors enjoyed the area so much that they bought a second home here. James A. Baker 3rd, the former secretary of state, has one. So do Donald M. Kendall, the former chief executive of Pepsico, and Erivan K. Haub, the majority shareholder of A.&P.
Slowly, though, life in Pinedale and its cowboy ways are changing. Word is getting out. Western towns of scenic splendor where everybody knows everybody else and the heads of wild animals line the walls of the general store reflect a rustic past that more Americans want to experience.
The question for Pinedale is how to accommodate them, a challenge that Paul Riggs noted over coffee this morning at the Wrangler Cafe when he said, ''The population of the world is doubling every 20 years, so people have got to go someplace."
Not that Pinedale's population is exploding. But signs of growth are everywhere. Lots on the edge of town now have houses selling for $200,000. A new ski resort opened this winter, and locals say actors like Michael Keaton, Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt have visited, looking for property.
"By the 2000 census, we could have 1,300 people," Mayor Rose Skinner said proudly.
That worries some people here, who fear that Pinedale could emulate Jackson, a resort town 80 miles to the northwest that has changed -- some might say eroded -- from Western to faux Western, with an expanding assortment of upscale hotels, shops and restaurants.
"We could grow a little," said Robert Bing, who owns the Cowboy Shop here on Pine Street with his wife, Carolyn, and his 90-year-old mother, Caryn. "But I wouldn't want to see us become another Jackson. We'd lose some of our charm."
Property values in and around town are soaring because of what Cathy C. Caskey, a broker at High Mountain Real Estate, called "the Godfather syndrome."
"People have made so much money in the stock market they see a ranch they like and make an offer the owners can't refuse," Ms. Caskey said.
As a result, families are leaving ranching, replaced by second-home owners who have little interest in cattle or developers who subdivide large tracts and sell them off for huge profits.
"I want us to grow," said Suzy Michnevich, a fourth-generation rancher who works part time as a waitress at McGregor's Pub. "But what I don't want to see is people come in here and destroy the culture that they have come here to enjoy."
In that sense, the International Rocky Mountain Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, the biggest of its kind this side of Alaska and now in its fifth year, helps and hurts Pinedale. Starting last Saturday in Jackson and looping through more than a dozen smaller towns before returning to Jackson on Feb. 9, mushers and their dogs draw attention to each community along the way. While not well known at large, the mushers are celebrities in the world of dog-sledding, which is best known for the annual 1,049-mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.
Here, it is hard not to notice the mountains, the lakes, the cowboy spirit and how people go out of their way for one another, like those who baked pies for the big social tonight to celebrate the mushers, their dogs and the race. It's almost enough to make you want to live here.