Fort Squalor

In 1974 I moved to Jackson, Wyoming and I lived there for a couple of years.

Visitors sometimes think the name of the town is Jackson Hole, but that’s not true. The whole valley is Jackson Hole and the town that lies therein is Jackson. The valley is called a “hole” not because it isn’t a pleasant place to be – it is, in fact, quite the opposite – it’s called that because it looks like God ran three mountain ranges together into a big pile, then took his thumb and jabbed a deep pit into the middle of it. He added a lake and  some gorgeous scenery, then headed up to Yellowstone for some real fun.

French trappers, having been without the company of women for some time,  named the high rugged mountains that jut up out of the Western edge of the valley the “Grand Tetons”. Translated from the French, that means “The Large Breasts.”

I came to Jackson to teach Transcendental Meditation. But I had to make a living as well so I painted signs. I also carved wooden signs, built decks, repaired furniture, and pasted up advertising at the local newspaper. Because private land there is scarce, housing in Jackson is expensive and those of us on the lower end of the pay scale were always on the lookout for a cheap place to live.

Several miles North of Jackson on the highway to the National Park there was, at the time, a wide place in the road where someone had built a small resort. The place had gone bankrupt and was sold to a man who was trying to get it back up on its feet. As part of this rehabilitation effort, he needed signs. And I was hired to paint them.  As I worked there I noticed an abandoned building at the far end of the property.

“That’s the old gas station,” he said. “The tanks are rusted out, can’t be used to sell gas. May as well just level it.”

My friend Jim and I talked it over and then went to the owner with an offer. “If you’ll pay for materials and let us live there for free for a year, we’ll turn the second floor of that building into a two-bedroom living space you can rent out.” He agreed and we got to work.

We put in framing, wiring, insulation, a wood stove for heat, and sheetrock on most of the walls. At that point we went to him for more money and he told us that he wasn’t putting another dollar into the place and that he had started our year when we began working. It was now late October. We had until the middle of September, then it was move out or start paying rent.

Having nowhere else to go, we shrugged our shoulders and moved in. There was no running water so no kitchen or bathroom. We ate with friends in town, and got permission to use the Episcopal Church Community Room bathroom as long as we kept it clean. When winter set in, the place got very, very cold. The windows and doors were leaky and there was no insulation in the floor. If we stoked up the wood stove until it was practically glowing, it would keep  the air warm in a 10 foot circle around it for a few hours at best. Further out than that, you could see your breath float away on the chilly drafts that blew through the place. We scrounged up down sleeping bags and down comforters and hunkered down.

During that Winter, the place became known to all our friends as “Fort Squalor”. It also became known to the local small wildlife as a good place to pass the chilly months. We had mice. Lots of mice. When they realized that we weren’t going to do them any harm – Jim said, “Let’s just think of them as pets.” – they became bolder. We had an old couch next to the woodstove and if they weren’t running across our feet, they were coming out of their holes and scolding us.

Then one night in March, Jim was awakened from a deep sleep by an uncanny feeling that he was being watched. When he opened his eyes, there was a mouse about six inches from his nose, staring at him. Scared the hell out of Jim. From that moment he stopped being the “friend of small animals” and became “Jim the Hunter.” He bought several traps and baited them with Peanut Butter. Whenever we’d be sitting on the couch reading and hear a loud WHACK, Jim would pick up a Magic Marker, draw a cartoon of a mouse on the sheetrock wall, then put an X through it. Before long, the wall began to look like the side of a World War Two Ace’s fighter plane.

As I mentioned earlier, Fort Squalor was located next to the highway that runs from Jackson to Grand Teton National Park. On the other side of the road was, and still is, the National Elk Refuge. It consists of over 24,000 acres of flat valley floor where more than 7,000 elk come down out of the high country every year and Winter there. It was an amazing experience to come out onto our front porch on a crisp and clear morning to see several thousand of these magnificent animals foraging in the snow just across the road on the other side of the fence. In the Spring, as the snow melted, the elk moved back up into the mountains leaving behind an incredible amount of elk poop and a commensurate number of flies.

During the Spring in Northern Wyoming, temperatures in the daytime can be quite warm and pleasant. But at night they drop down to near-freezing. Any self-respecting fly, when the sun goes down, will look for a place to spend the night. Attracted by the heat and light coming from dear old Fort Squalor, they crossed the highway in great multitudes.

When we were remodeling the place, Jim and I put in a three foot tall and four foot wide picture window. Through it one could see across the National Elk Refuge to the high mountains of the Gros Ventre Range. It was a beautiful view, but not when the window was covered every morning by a heaving, buzzing mass of flies trying desperately to get back to the elk poop across the road.

We had two or three fly swatters hanging on a nail next to the window and we would set to work, sometimes with a swatter in each hand. Part of the effort was to kill the flies but not brutally smash them. We didn’t want to have to clean the window that often. It wasn’t long before an inscription in Magic Marker appeared on the sheetrock – “This must be a nice place to live. 10,000 flies can’t be wrong!”.

Jackson has four seasons – Tourist, Hunting, Skiing, and Mud. As the elk move back into the mountains, the runoff from the melting snow runs back downhill  and turns the valley into a loblolly. Hence the name. During May, as the mud was drying up and construction on the many tourist oriented facilities that are always going up was put in high gear, I was asked to provide interior signs for a new hotel that was about to open on the South edge of town. The problem they were dealing with was that when they were budgeting for the finishing touches, someone had overlooked the need for signs. “Restaurant that way,” “Health Club this way,” and “Saloon over there.” So I bartered with them. I agreed to cut my prices down to fit their tiny budget, and they agreed to let us eat in their restaurant for nothing and use their showers. The ground floor of Fort Squalor became my workshop. Sawdust, wood scraps, and empty paint cans piled up in the corner.

It was an idyllic summer for us in Jackson. The Tourists filled up the main streets and highways with RV’s, trailers, and fifth-wheel rigs while the locals used the back streets and roads in order to get around. There were fishing trips, parties, and floating down the Snake River in inflatable rafts. This was the summer that Boscamp came to visit and the summer of The Great Bottle Rocket War, both of which will, in the future, get stories of their own.

As Summer went on I decided I just couldn’t face another nine months in the icebox of a Jackson Hole Winter. Between the hotel work and some other signage projects I’d completed, I was able to put together enough of a portfolio to land a job at a sign company in Denver.  So near the end of August I loaded all my possessions into my old VW van, said goodbye to all my friends, and headed South.

Two weeks later,  Jim had found a place in town and was moving out as well. After he’d loaded a borrowed pickup with most of the rest of his things, he got to feeling bad about the pile of wood scraps in the corner. So he started a fire in the wood stove and stuffed in as many of the scraps as he could fit. After he’d unloaded the truck and was on his way back out to get the last few things, he noticed a column of black smoke boiling up into the sky from somewhere just ahead. When he came around the last bend he just pulled off the road, sat there, and stared. Fort Squalor was on fire. The Volunteer Fire Department was there with their pumper trucks but since there was nowhere to connect to water, they could only watch as the building burned to the ground.

After being used almost continuously the previous winter, the woodstove had filled the uninsulated chimney with a thick, creosote coating. All those wood scraps that Jim had pushed in there burned so fiercely that they set the inside of the chimney on fire, which in turn set the building on fire.

The “Resort” that Fort Squalor was once a part of is long gone. That land is now occupied by the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

12 Replies to “Fort Squalor”

  1. Great adventures, Tim. I have nothing that compares to Ft Squalor in my past. The knotty pines in Laramie sounds luxurious in comparison.

  2. The story is told so well its like a memory even though I missed Ft Squalor. Left WY in 73 and came back west in 77 on a trip after law school that included a visit to Jackson, interviewing for a job with Gerry Spence (no such luck) but by then FS was gone, though our friends in Laramie were talking about it. We were in Jackson last summer for the eclipse and went through the National Museum of Wildlife Art (which is the opposite of squalid,) never realizing it was the scene of the crime. That area is achingly beautiful

    1. If you ate in the restaurant, the view through the windows is almost exactly the same one we had (when the flies weren’t in the way).

  3. One of my favorites so far Tim. It conveys all the energy, insanity and affection of a youthful adventure.

  4. I recall a bar ‘n’ grill in Jackson that had a 60′ counter packed with vintage silver dollars under plate glass. It burned down also, melting all those buckeroos.

    1. The Cowboy Bar. If you should ever watch a Clint Eastwood film called Every Which Way But Loose, Clint punches the bad guy through a gift shop wall on one side of the square and out through a wall into the Cowboy Bar half a block away!

  5. Of course I have a special place in my heart for ft squalor. Loved the time I spent there visiting and of course the telling of my sisters wedding ( previous post) which I had to miss. I still remember it all very clearly today. Love you. Deb

    1. What a fun read. I have many memories of Jackson as well! A special Wyo Howdey to you Debbie!

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