Jumping into a Mountain Lifestyle

If you moved here for the winter and stayed for the summer, you wouldn’t be the first.

by Chris Millspaugh                     Photo by Carol Waller

The saying goes, “I came to visit for a weekend and ended up staying all of my life.” That’s what happened to a lot of people who’ve ended up in the Wood River Valley over the years—including me.

I arrived here in the spring of 1974 with my wife and two sons in a 1961 Ford Econoline van with carpeted bumpers. (I didn’t want to hurt anyone.) We were both U.S. Air Force veterans who had elected to make a living as entertainers rather than going the traditional 9-to-5 route. We got popular in Houston, Texas and finally made it to “the mecca”—Las Vegas. After our engagements there were over, we sat down to contemplate our next move. (Actually, we threw a dart at a map and it landed on Challis, Idaho.) Okay, we thought. Is there someplace interesting nearby? What about that ski resort called Sun Valley? Although neither one of us could ski, we were ready for a fresh start, so off we went to live in the mountains.

We drove around the area for a while in the drizzling rain, staring at the mountains and the small towns nestled among the trees. “We love it!” we said. But now, how would we make it work? “Let’s get jobs and play music on the side!” A brilliant idea, and we soon discovered we weren’t alone in our approach. Many other folks were doing the same thing. I became an office supply salesman, a writer, a dishwasher, a cook, a bartender in addition to playing weekend gigs at The Holiday Inn, The Alpine Saloon in Ketchum, The Muleshoe in Hailey and the old Sam’s Club in Bellevue. Soon, we had rented a house and acquired quite a number of friends who guided us through the first three years until we officially attained the status of “locals.” (That was the generally accepted rule of thumb for becoming accepted in the Wood River Valley).

At times, it was difficult. During our first winter we endured minus-30-degree weather conditions—you know, when your toilet freezes and the thought of burning the living room furniture seems like a pretty good idea. With the help of our new friends, we made it through to our second summer. When the sun rose in the morning on the mountains, we found it was all worth the effort. We were living in the most beautiful place in all the world and we were having fun. What’s the matter with that?

If you’ve decided to live in the mountains and are thinking of moving here, let me tell you that you can do it no matter your situation or your living status. You must only keep an open mind, adapt to the environment and be willing to accept things the way they are. Man or woman, rich or poor, married or single, liberal or conservative, healthy or infirmed, there’s a place for you here if you jump into the mountain lifestyle wholeheartedly. In three years’ time, you’ll become a “local,” too, and gratefully accept this badge of honor. You’ll learn skills you never knew you wanted and your mind will expand and soar with wonder.

Yes, you’ll love this place and you’ll love the people, as well. You’ll find that we’re all in this together one harsh winter day when you’ve driven into a ditch and someone you hardly know stops and pulls you out, asking for nothing in return. Or, when you have to run to a meeting but you have a bunch of kids you cannot leave and your neighbor says, “Bring them over here. I’ll watch them like my own.” Or, when a forest fire crests Mount Baldy and you fear losing all of your possessions, kind folks come by and load your valuables in their trucks and store them in their garages in the next town out of danger. Or, if you come upon hard times, are ill or injured and can’t work, these same locals will throw a benefit for you to help you pay the rent. They’ll celebrate your birthday, your kids’ birthdays, your successes, your milestones and will be genuinely happy for you. Soon, you’ll be doing for others as they have done for you. Friends and families are the great assets up here and strong bonds between people are quickly formed.

I have never had so much fun in my life as just being a part of this great community. You can try your hand at anything you ever dreamed of doing, even things you didn’t know existed. At various times I’ve been a humor columnist, a radio disc jockey with my own soap opera five days a week, a producer of a live weekly comedy show, an announcer at the Wagon Days Big Hitch Parade (the largest non-motorized parade in the country) and the Trailing of the Sheep parade, wrote three books, became an historian at The Community Library and a maven on Ernest Hemingway’s life, played music in almost every bar in three towns, sold firewood and Christmas tree permits and mapped out wilderness trips for tourists at the Sawtooth National Recreational Area Headquarters visitor center. I found ways to make a living up here so that I could stay. You, too, can enjoy this wonderful mountain life whether you’re a novice carpenter or a full-fledged movie star.

What does the future hold for the Wood River Valley? A bustling economy, a thriving airport dedicated to serving our community, visitors and business in the area, a shopping mall in the south county and perhaps even passenger walkways built over the streets (probably not those last two). Businesses, bars and restaurants come and go, but there’s always opportunity for those with new ideas and a new plan. Maybe you’ll have the answer.

We’re not alone anymore. First-rate entertainers perform here and elite athletes compete at world-class sporting events. Visitors are welcome—most of us were one at one time. Should you decide to stay, I’ll be here to welcome you (and pull you out of the ditch if you need it.)

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