Big Don and the vagabond days.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, for a very short time, I lived in Jackson, Wyoming. I was a squatter, a gypsy, camped out in my little sister’s basement on a futon with a wooden wine crate for a bedside table, just like in college. Only I was 30 years old, still clinging to the notion of being a girl and not a  woman.

I arrived in Jackson in early January 1996, having driven from Memphis through Kansas City and across Nebraska, with my dog Ella riding shotgun. My warmest winter clothes, some art supplies and a stack of books were loaded in the trunk and back seat of my beloved, 1988 champagne-colored, standard-shift Saab 900, a car that every man I knew tried to talk me out of buying. But I liked the way it looked and the way it handled, so I bought it anyway and only later understood the friends’ misgivings.

With the pages Rand McNally as my only guide, long before the days of Garmin and Google Maps, I drove the Saab-story up Snake River canyon, from the south, instead of over the pass, from the north, because it was January, and the pass was more likely to be closed by weather. About 10 miles from town my car overheated, and I used my very heavy, very expensive cell phone to make a very expensive, roaming-based phone call for help, and I learned why my friends thought the car a poor choice.

After some help from roadside assistance, I arrived at my sister’s house. Margaret, who then was ballet mistress for Dancers’ Workshop and now is a physician in Minnesota, lived in a 1970s vintage condominium a few blocks from Jackson’s town square. When I had called her, six weeks earlier, to say that I was quitting my job and renting out my house and driving to Wyoming to see what might happen, she was thrilled. I had always been practical and pragmatic, fully grounded in reality; I was the one who coped and took care. I had been offered a job in Omaha – a good job – and had turned it down flat to work instead for $10 an hour selling china and housewares at Vandewaters’, a gift shop on the square directly across from one of the iconic antler arches.

I worked at Vandewaters’ and I lived in Margaret’s basement and I dated, loosely, a ski-shop-by-winter/elk-antler-chandelier-artist-by-summer boy from Santa Fe. It was, in the context of my staid, stoic, responsible life, an outrageous rebellion. It was the 1990s version of a gap year, I suppose, though taken long past college years and entirely without  the benefits (or baggage) that such time-out years now carry: parental underwriting, orchestrated itinerary,  iPhone, and an express objective of leveraging the experience for future gain and good grad school interviews.

Instead of rent, I contributed food and cooking, because cooking was something I enjoyed and was relatively good at; and grocery shopping was an adventure I hadn’t yet come to loathe. To give an idea of what Jackson, and the world, looked like back then, I often drove to Albertson’s and left my car running (to stay warm) while I walked up and down the aisles, filled my basket and went through the check-out line.

Every morning I had coffee, White Cloud Frangelica-flavored, with my sister; then I took Ella outside to run around for a bit; and then I walked from the condo on East Simpson to my job at the store many people still called Jackson Hole Hardware, where I worked with John, the store manager, and Patty, whose husband was a Salomon rep, and Elisa, who was recently divorced and glad to have a new friend.

A couple of days each week, Blake Vandewater also came to the store to pay bills and check on things, driving his old pickup truck from his ranch in Wilson, complaining about all the new people with their SUVs who were completely ignorant when it came to driving in winter conditions. Mr. Vandewater had come to the Tetons as a park ranger in the 1950s, and he’d married a Simpson, whose family gave Jackson its name and who owned the V-Bar-S Ranch on Fish Creek Road.

Patty and John lived in Wilson, too, because they’d moved to the area when buying a house in Wilson was expensive but possible. Their kids went to public schools; they knew all the old bars, the good walking trails. Elisa, a relative newcomer who’d received a large divorce settlement, lived in one of the new houses south of town in Rafter J.

From 10 to 6 each day we sold cutely-packaged beer-cheese soup mixes to vacationers, trinkets to vacation home owners, and birthday party paper goods to people who lived there year-round. We listened to instrumental re-mixes of Phantom of the Opera and Cats. We walked down to Moo’s for sorbet, even though it was cold outside. We bought  Nicaraguan coffee from Jackson Hole Roasters, which if I remember correctly wasn’t much more than a desk, a roaster, a grinder and an Italian espresso machine sitting inside a second-hand store.

One day a tall, buxom blonde walked into Vandewaters’ with her taller, mustached, cowboy husband. “He got drunk last night and knocked over the Welsh dresser that held all my china, and today he’s buying me a whole new set,” she said. So we sold her an entire set of Portmeirion Botanic Blue dishes with new linens to match. Later that month we sold 12 place settings of Old Imari to a woman from Nashville whose granddaughter, a temporary Jackson resident, was getting married in the spring. I mention those two stories because they were so memorable, so clearly different from the routine activity in the store. There were movie stars and wealthy shoppers in Jackson; but there were quite a number of regular people then, too.

On weekends Margaret and I walked our dogs up and down Cache Creek, where we once crossed paths with Uma Thurman; and then we’d usually head up to the Village, possibly to give skiing yet another try but more likely just to hang out with friends, the most memorable of whom was Big Don, a giant of a man with a giant-sized heart to match who’d come to Jackson in the 1980s and stayed to become a legendary sort of friend to all he met.

Convinced that I might be a good match for his employee and friend Bernard (the boy from Santa Fe I’d driven to Wyoming to date), Big Don once tried valiantly to teach me to ski, worried that my deficiency in this area would limit Bernard’s long-term interest. Don was quite fond of Bernard; Don liked me, from what little he knew; Don liked happy stories; he hoped that ours might be one, and he wanted to do his part to help.

In Bernard’s words, Big Don was the kind of guy who’d show up with his truck to help you move your shit, not because you asked but because he was just that kind of guy.

To me, Big Don personified what Jackson was at that time: a classic, fairy-tale, Western ski town, with breathtaking scenery, abundant outdoor activities, snow in winter, sun in summer, and an eclectic mix of people that included Dead-heads, ski bums, actual cowboys, old money, new money, no money, geology and wildlife nerds, artists, fly fishermen (and women), photographers and writers. Though it was rapidly changing, Jackson in the 1990s was still a place where life’s explorers could wander in, find a service industry job, rent a small place (room in a shared condo, perhaps), and stay a while.

I didn’t last long in Jackson, though. I’m not a skier and never will be. I’m not a wanderer at heart, either. After four months of vagabond life, I took the job in Omaha and went mostly back to my normal routine, with intermittent trips back to JH, thinking I might some day return for longer than a weekend.

I rang in the new millennium in Jackson, popping the cork on champagne at midnight, welcoming Y2K by the light of the moon reflected on a snowy Snow King mountain, standing on the front steps of the condominium that my sister and her husband purchased in 1996 for seemingly-inflated sum $120,000, twice the price of my white clapboard house in Memphis.

But the party was already over; everything had changed in irreversible ways. At the stroke of midnight marking the calendar change I was three weeks pregnant, though I didn’t know it at the time. When I got on the plane to head back south two days later, I left the Tetons behind for good. Within a few months my sister left Jackson for medical school, also never to return. Bernard chased me to Memphis and, despite all bets to the contrary, is still here. Big Don, wearied by a new breed of customers who thought they knew more about ski bindings than he did, moved to the more affordable ‘town’ of Seattle – which pretty much says it all.

Through the magic of Facebook, Don and I stayed connected, mostly so he and Bernard could stay connected. He saw our children; we saw his grandchildren. He shared the story of his heart problems and his recent placement on the transplant list.

I was thinking of Jackson and Big Don yesterday afternoon while listening to a Marketplace piece about Aspen’s affordable housing situation. I was sitting in my driveway, inside my car (a sensible Acura) to hear the tail end of the story when Bernard (who still belongs more on a mountain than on this muddy Delta plain) pulled up beside me.

I recounted the story highlights, especially the part about the woman who won $500,000 in the lottery and still couldn’t afford to move out of her ailing affordable housing unit in Aspen. The story is the same in Jackson, Bernard reminded me. The average list price for a home similar to my sister’s old condo is around $750,000. The average list price for property in the Jackson zip code 83001 is $1.9 million. In 2013 the Vandewater/Simpson property sold for $65 million.

The days of being a ski bum – the days of driving to a pretty town,  hanging out for a while to see what’s going on, exploring and figuring out what life might offer –  are gone. The window for that particular kind of adventure has closed and likely won’t reopen. Those unfettered possibilities, replete with freedoms and perils, don’t exist for our children’s generation, at least not in the same utterly open-ended way.

While Bernard was out getting dinner, I scrolled through to see what the people in my tiny corner of the universe had been up to. I ran across a wonderful picture of Big Don (which I was given permission to share), only to learn the sad news of his sudden passing yesterday afternoon.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, for a short while, I lived in Jackson, Wyoming, during an era that has now passed us by. I was, for a short while, once, a visiting vagabond among true vagabonds, one of whom left a lovely, lingering trace.

Rest well, sweet friend to so many.

Big Don Dahlin
photo credit Jim Sorenson

Food | Week of August 29, 2016

Summer Farro Salad with Goat Cheese

Black Bean Burritos

Weeknight Porchetta | Roasted Potatoes

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches | Corn & Tomato Salad

Burst Tomatoes with Red Pepper Flakes| Mint-Pistachio Pesto with Orecchiette


  1. You reminded me to better appreciate those early days of knocking around and figuring out where we belong. Thank you.
    I could read every story of all the people and places you’ve collected along the way. There is something so beautiful in each and every one.


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