The Emerald Lens Newsletter

You Can Buy Dirt

Wait, you can't, but Jordan Davis can.
By Emerald LaFortune (Subscribe to These Newsletters Here)

In 1994, my parents bought a 1895-built-farmhouse-turned-college-rental in the middle of Moscow, Idaho for $90,000.

At the time, my dad was a junior high teacher for the public school district and my mom was a physical therapist. They saved on childcare by both working part time, Dad had summers off, and I spent a lot of my childhood with both of them. The house was beat up, needed some updating, and over the years they slowly remodeled, room by room. It didn't have nice views of the wheat fields, like some houses, or new construction with giant carpeted basements, like other houses. But the bones were good and at eighteen, I left that same house. My childhood home had a big yard with brambles to get lost in. I could walk to my friend's house and to school. I had my own bedroom.

A lot of my peers from my high school years left our hometown. We escaped to mountain towns with ski resorts, or fled to coastal cities with more job opportunities or more progressive politics. We attended graduate school or PhD programs in middle America. Even when we left, there was always the feeling that Idaho would always be there. We bought into the country songs, the American Dream of it all, even without realizing it. Go off, make money, have your adventures, but if you need it, your "boring" (as I thought as a teenager) little hometown will welcome you back.

There has always been a certain privilege - based on class, race, who you love, ability - to falling back on the small-town American Dream. A lot of us, in Idaho in the early 2000s, fit the profile. We're now experiencing a frailty of America that has been long understood by just about everyone else. A good handful of us recognize this, making grappling with it all the more fraught. We feel like shit, but don't talk about feeling like shit, because in so many ways we are also lucky. We could be joining our advocate force with all the others who have always been excluded from housing, but instead we quietly dig deeper into debt, trying to reach the dream.

Casey and I lived out the dream, in a way, when we used a small chunk of family savings and a sub 100k housing market to buy in rural Idaho. When we lived in Missoula / Bozeman / Salt Lake, with all their mountain town culture, great concerts, breweries, and public land access, we knew when we got priced out, we could always go home.

Songs like Buy Dirt, Jordan Davis and Luke Bryan's 2021 ear-worm, reinforce the backup plan, even shine up the dream with a few verses. Buy Dirt is a song in the canon of McGraw's Where the Green Grass Grows, Shelton's I'll Name the Dogs, and even Prine's Blow Up Your TV (sampled at the start of Davis' song and noted in his YouTube comments).

Old Ford truck with a dog in the back.

Plant our dreams where the peaceful river flows.

Eat a lot of peaches.

Ain't we livin' the dream.

But then, during COVID, the growth that has always whispered at the door of the Rocky Mountain West really arrived. Or, I guess it had been here - first in resort towns like McCall and Ketchum, then in college towns and cities (Boise, Moscow, Coeur d' Alene, Pocatello), then finally in bedroom communities and rural spots like Salmon. The truth is, I can't afford to go home anymore, and neither can a lot of the kids I grew up with.

The house my parents bought in 1994 is now worth over 400k. Our house in Salmon has doubled in price since we purchased it in 2017. Minimum wage in Idaho is still $7.25, less if you make tips.

Maybe I should feel smug about getting in when we did, but I don't. I just feel sad. We're not the first region be gentrified and as aforementioned, believing in the dream to begin with involves privilege in itself. But I'm sad because gentrification always hits the most vulnerable the hardest. I'm sad because I watch the way financial scarcity pushes at my friend's mental health, our depression and our anxiety. We're working hard at very average jobs only to not be able to afford health care, student loan debt, or housing. Even owning a house that has appreciated, I'm still stuck. Because the cost to buy has grown everywhere else too. There's affordable housing policy and city planning that can soften the impact of this type of growth, but Idaho's live and let live approach (call it a lingering sense of manifest destiny and late-stage capitalism, if you will) doesn't suggest we'll dig into this anytime soon.

"Buy Dirt" aptly begins with an 80 year old passing on his wisdom to the young narrator. The same thing plays out here in rural Idaho, as some (but not all!) of the older folks in our community can't figure out why the youth today, "Just don't want to work hard." We wish we could take the advice of our grandparents - put a ring on it, settle down - but we can't, because we're not living in the same world.

Davis and Bryan, from Shreveport, Louisiana and Leesburg, Georgia respectively, might be singing in truth for the hometowns they grew up in. Buying a peanut farm aside, Zillow suggests one can still buy a family home in both places for under $250k. But in Idaho, the idea of "adding a few limbs to our family tree" feels financially laughable. We certainly aren't doing what we love but calling it work. Buying a three bedroom house is out of the question. We have all of the country culture, all of the songs on the radio, but increasingly scant accessibility to living a decent life in it.

I agree with the heart of these songs, which say, "Don't focus on chasing money. Family, community, and a life-well-lived are what matters." But we have to find other ways to do so besides buying dirt and building a nuclear family. That dream has always systematically excluded so many, and the ranks continue to grow. Bryan and Davis, with net worth in the millions, perhaps shouldn't be our advisors on this one, nor should their 80 year old mentors.

Yours in voting in local elections,
This song by Billie Eilish, by way of CHIKA
- future's lookin' dreamy

This Jessie Reyez album
- scorpio vibes included

The Heart Principle
- this one made me uncomfortable, which isn't usually what I'm going for in the romance genre. But I'm always better for reading Hoang's work, especially her depictions of women navigating autism.

Portrait of a Scotsman
- it's got to be tricky work writing historical bodice ripper fiction for a modern, feminist audience, but Evie Dunmore does her best (flagged for fans of Bridgerton).


I wrote for Patagonia!
- about fly fishing, the outdoor industry, and bisexuality. I was impressed by the care Patagonia and their team took with this piece from start, through to managing social media comments.

Why I No Longer Identify as a Mountain Biker
- a consideration of identity and outdoor sports

Grief Thirst Traps
- November is grief month (I don't make the rules, look outside) and this was a beautiful consideration of the different ways we feel our aliveness following loss.

On Kurt Cobain
- one of the only CDs in Casey's old truck is Nirvana's In Utero, which I always jack up the volume on when I take a load of whatever to the county dump. Call me a Northwest kid, but sometimes Nirvana just feels right.

Just Because I'm a Woman
- "the limitations of womanhood are structural, not biological, not bound in any sort of essential nature" (yes, it's a Dolly reference).

Sex Education
- what took me so long?! I don't know, but I'm here finally.

Thoughts on all 2 hours and 35 minutes of Dune:
- Roxane Gay says it best: "The movie cost $165 million but not one single dollar was spent on a lamp."
- You know you're getting older when the dad becomes the heartthrob of the movie (sorry Tim, hello Oscar).
- A good movie, especially a Part One, should wrap in 100 minutes. Period. Make a TV series if you can't pull this off. Yes, I realize this also makes me sound old.

While Thanksgiving has a lot of emotional resonance (family! food! gratitude!) for a lot of us, the extra few days off is also a good time to consider the impacts of colonization and learn more about the indigenous folks whose land you occupy.

Also, you can support indigenous-led organizations like River Newe & Indigenous Women Hike.

PS: Today, November 2nd, Idaho is holding city council and school board elections. If you aren't registered, all you need is a driver's license and piece of mail to register and vote at your polling place!


Hi, my name is Emerald (she/her). I'm a rural-Idahoan, whitewater and flyfishing guide, bisexual woman, dog-mom, and book lover.

Get to know my work and say hello here:
Photo: Leslie Hittmeier

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