By Dustin Hoffman
You’re driving north out of Coeur d’Alene, You pass through Hayden, it could be any American town as viewed from the highway.
The stoplights and intersections become less frequent. The familiar clusters of fast food eateries and retail chains are compacted into your rear view mirror. The road stretches out, courses over hills, winds as it climbs. You cross a threshold.
The beauty you observed was a backdrop until now. Evergreens tall and straight like the masts of a ships. Bare rocks inscribed with the underlying code of the universe. The mountains stacked in unending succession, marching into the blue veil. You’re saturated, full to tingling with visions of a painted world. Suddenly, the terrain smooths. You glide out over the glistening waters of Pend Oreille, a spectator to her depth and breadth, to the green-blue vision of tree clad mountains retreating in every direction. You cross the Long Bridge and take the first exit.
Sandpoint, North Idaho. You were born here. You grew up here.
Maybe you’re a prodigal son or daughter. Someday you’ll come home, if you haven’t already. Or, maybe you’re like me, you came here an emigrant, a refugee of some grey city USA.
This place seems to draw like the tide. It is synergistic, more than the tamaracks and the ponderosa pines, more than Schweitzer and Lake Pend Oreille. It drew me 1400 miles, sight unseen. I didn’t know anyone who had been closer than Coeur d’Alene.
My wife found Sandpoint on Google Maps. She liked the look of it, nestled between the 38th largest lake in America and a ski mountain. We planned our escape for almost a year. During that time I remember sitting in my office punching Sandpoint into the search engine. It was a sacred ritual. I read the Wikipedia article. I studied the census data. I visited locals websites, looked at pictures, and took virtual flights around the area compliments of Google Earth.
The move was intentional, find a place we want to live and move there. We didn’t a job or a chain of what-ifs to lead us around by the neck. My wife and I didn’t know how we were going to survive in North Idaho, but we were committed to making it work. That was the most important part of our decision. We did what we set out to do and we have no regrets.
Now we’ve lived here for almost a year. We’ve met a surprising number of people like us, people with a similar story. Many recall the first time they crossed the Long Bridge as their singular inspiration to make Sandpoint home. Some view Sandpoint as the endling of small town America, revering it as though they’d stumbled upon a thriving resurrection of the lost city of Atlantis. Regardless of the initial draw, people desire to live here, to raise families here. Out of the vinyl boxes of America they come to Sandpoint with little more than the determination to make it work.
It is an inspiring story, a romantic vision that has existed since before the first settlers, a call to adventure that reflects a larger human narrative. But there is another side to the story, another narrative, that of the native residents. Some could trace their lineage back to the brave people who first settled this area over a hundred years ago: trappers, traders, miners, loggers, and railroad workers. For them, Sandpoint is a generational family home.
While Sandpoint natives may not have exclusive claim to the land, they have a culture and a history worthy of respect. They are not obligated to accept every newcomer with unbridled hospitality, though many do. They have seen people come and go: tourists, seasonal residents, and those whose honeymoon with North Idaho ended after their first winter. They have sustained this area and proven their ability to survive here. There is no impetus for them to adapt to newcomers.
Whether we recognize it or not, many of us come here with the expectation that someone will cater to our needs. When in the city, you immerse yourself in the culture of your choice, you draw around you people like yourself. For the most part, you can afford to ignore everyone else. That fast food, city centered way of life doesn’t work here.
The wild gods of the Idaho Panhandle require a sacrifice in return for the enduring beauty and serenity of this place, humility. Treat other people as you would like to be treated.
That is at the heart of small town charm. If we’re to live together as newcomers and natives enjoying the wonders of Sandpoint, it will be through the preservation of a culture wherein people care about other people.
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