Emily Articulated: A place between

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

I’m approaching my seventh anniversary of living in Sandpoint. Upon my arrival, I had only the incredible surroundings, a new bartending gig and the online events calendar to help me gain my footing and start to unveil and understand this foreign place to which I’d just moved.

“What’s it like?” my friends and family asked about a dot on the map that they’d never heard of. “Tell me about Sandpoint.”

I’d grapple for the right words. I’d lived in tourist towns — places that endured a tidal wave of visitors in their “on season,” leaving only a few locals left clinging on to pick up the pieces and enjoy their peace in its off-season wake. They relied on the industry, thrived in the ebb and flow of business and calm, and quietly chafed against the people on which their ability to live and recreate in the world’s most beautiful places depended.

Emily Erickson. Courtesy photo.

I’d also lived in industrial towns — places untouched by tourism, where an “honest day’s work” and an aptitude for making something from that which is often overlooked, were prized commodities. Locals were bound together in pride and hardiness, in exchanges of shared resilience and knowing that the life they led wasn’t for everyone, but that it was theirs to claim and build.

And I’d lived in artsy towns, filled with the vibrancy of culture — where riches were found in intangible experiences, like nights out at the theater, in pop-up restaurants and walking by art-laden shop windows. Locals shared a sense of knowing that the heartbeat of a community couldn’t be sold to the highest bidder and that an inspired life was worth defending.

But Sandpoint was somehow in between. It was some of those things, and yet, none of those things — a town with an unidentifiable quality, where disparate identities combined to make something greater than the sum of its parts. It was a little bit destination, a little bit gritty and a little bit artsy, and I loved it (love it).

Seven years later, however, I wonder if that lack of definition — the amalgamation of identities comprising our community being both amplified and pitted against one another — might also be a pitfall. 

Are we a tourist town, braced for the title wave of comers and goers, with infrastructure to protect and support the people on whose labor the industry depends? Or are we an insular town, closing the gates to the influence and income from passersby in an attempt to preserve what’s left of this quiet, simple existence? 

Are we an artsy progressive hub in a sea of red, or a lighthouse for political refugees from the farthest right? Are we developers or off-gridders, mountain people or lake lovers, environmentalists or industrialists? What are we, exactly?

Each unique part of our community’s sense of self, which used to feel like a melting pot of shared otherness, now seems mutually exclusive — where one can’t exist while the other thrives. It’s a tension, perhaps adopted from the national climate, that prevents us from knowing where we stand together, let alone deciding on and planning for where we’re heading next. 

This tension is reflected in the energy of conflict at local government meetings and political elections, in the skepticism at and support of Schweitzer Mountain’s acquisition and our downtown’s redevelopment, in the “now hiring” signs and second-home sales, in open fields and construction of storage unit complexes, in angry letters to the editor and the everyday exchanges of people who forget they’re still neighbors underneath it all. 

I don’t know the path forward — how to break this tension to reveal a community with an understanding of who and what it is, that can make decisions based on what we know to be best for the people who live here. But I’d bet it starts with turning inward, reflecting on what will define us and what we refuse to claim as our own.

And maybe, in also dedicating ourselves to finding the common ground on which we all stand, we can rediscover the uniqueness that allowed so many different types of people, with different ideas about how to be in the world, to make one place that’s beautifully in between.

Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.

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