A soupy mix of beans, rice and quinoa down the hatch, Erica Robertson prepared to get cozy last Thursday evening at one of her favorite places to call home: Curtis Canyon.
The 23-year-old semi-itinerant Jackson Hole denizen sleeps in the twin bed built into the back of her Toyota RAV4, and her four wheels were parked in a place she’s become familiar with. The dispersed camping area where Robertson would roost for the night was some 1,200 feet over the valley floor, boasting sweeping views of Jackson Hole and the Tetons that have drawn car campers up the rock-strewn, switchbacked road for generations.
Robertson enjoys those same marvels.
But, as a temporary resident, she finds other perks to holing up for the night at Curtis Canyon rather than a more far-flung destination.
“I can watch Netflix up here,” she said. “I’ve got unlimited data.”
A twentysomething who is stringing together odd jobs and living off her savings for the time being, Robertson chose to live out of her car. That’s been life ever since graduating from George Washington University with a molecular and cellular biology degree in 2020, and it’s the plan up until winter makes car life untenable.
“If I could find housing, I probably would have done that,” Robertson said. “But it’s just so hard I didn’t really even feel the need to try.”
So she makes do with 139 cubic feet of retrofitted Toyota.
Calling the forest and town of Jackson streets home is not a unique position in a remote, mountain valley where there’s an acute lack of housing and rent has skyrocketed. Based on reports Bridger-Teton officials receive of people overstaying five- and 14-day camping limits, there are an estimated 300 to 500 people living on the 3.4-million-acre national forest that wraps around three sides of Jackson Hole.
“People staying in one spot all summer is not a problem just in the Jackson area,” Bridger-Teton wilderness and recreation manager Linda Merigliano said. “It’s an issue in many of the other popular corridors, like the Greys River and Green River and drainages on the Big Piney District, too.”
Even if problems are widespread, residency and “nonrecreational camping” are “very clearly” increasing locally, Bridger-Teton patroller and fire prevention specialist Lesley Williams-Gomez said.
Robertson said she respects the five-day stay limit up Curtis Canyon, which wasn’t enforced with vigor until this summer. The change took her by surprise, but she’s adjusted by staying in friends’ driveways and other in-town haunts instead.
Not everyone is as apt to heed those regulations.
Full-time volunteer camping “ambassadors” are now posted for the summer at Curtis Canyon, Shadow Mountain and along the web of forest roads leading up into the foothills near Toppings Lake. Their presence has worked to cut down on people living in those areas with the most direct Teton Range views.
“Unfortunately, the concerns are migrating to a new place,” Williams-Gomez said. “They’re going somewhere else, where there isn’t an ambassador.”
Illegal camping has especially sprung up farther south, in places like Fall Creek and Mosquito Creek roads. While making the rounds, Williams-Gomez has heard “heartbreaking” stories that have channeled her frustrations away from some individuals and toward some Jackson Hole businesses. Those businesses gave their staffers unrealistic expectations for housing when trying to lure them to Jackson Hole, and then pushed them toward the national forest when they couldn’t find anything.
“We can’t just use the national forest as the bedroom for employers to house their staff,” Merigliano said. “That’s not what the national forest is about.”
In the most deliberate of instances, staff tied to one luxury Teton Village hotel really tried to make their home on the forest. They outfitted a Fall Creek Road-area site with couches in anticipation of settling in for the summer, but were hit with a host of citations after a Red Top Meadows resident tipped off the national forest.
“Litter, food storage, fire violations,” Merigliano said.
The environmental consequence of forest residency comes in the form of human feces littering the landscape, vegetation and grasses that are worn away and burnable wood that being depleted when campfires are allowed (there’s currently a ban). But there are consequences for Jackson Hole’s human inhabitants, too. There are few places for locals left to camp when all the spots have been claimed by the record-smashing crush of tourists and people who camp to live.
“Our natural resources are suffering, but it’s also locals who want to go up Curtis Canyon with their family and run around without seeing toilet paper,” Williams-Gomez said.
Robertson sees some of the abuse of the land firsthand. Most people are respectful, but her life up Curtis also includes confronting people with illegal campfires and picking up garbage others leave behind.
“It’s frustrating,” Robertson said. “But it was a lot worse last summer when people were camping places they weren’t supposed to camp.”
Living out of a car on the national forest and in other public places is predictably tiring at times and isn’t for everybody.
“I eat shitty food all the time and it’s exhausting worrying about where you’re going to sleep all the time,” Robertson said. “I’ve had some cold nights. Last Sept. 7 it snowed. It was like 10 degrees and I didn’t have a proper sleeping bag.”
Still, she extolled the benefits of being homeless in Jackson Hole.
“I think more people should try living in their cars,” Robertson said. “It’s very liberating.”