By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
For a few years now I’ve been hoping to meet the creator of Jackson Hole’s alter ego.
Finally, I reached her by phone. Her name is Allison Smith and she lives in Portland, Ore.
My interest in Smith’s work was piqued again a few months ago by a story appearing in The New York Times. Written by reporter Andrew Jacobs, the piece was titled, “Living a Frontier Dream on the Outskirts of China’s Capital.”
Intriguingly, the piece came with an uncommon dateline: “Jackson Hole, China.” (You can read the story here.)
Ms. Smith is an affable and obviously talented American interior designer who, a decade ago, sold developer Ju Yi International on the idea of modeling a resort community in Hebei Province after Jackson Hole. (You can view her portfolio here.)
Jackson Hole, China, is said to be a reasonable facsimile, but what, exactly, it replicates is up to the beholder. Marketed as the quintessence of “Hometown America,” it’s a place “inspired by” this valley, Smith says, and yet it’s like gazing at reality through a distortion field.
The community’s genesis moment came among a slate of options Smith gave to developers. She flashed photos of Martha’s Vineyard, Yosemite and Vail.
Her clients were left most enchanted by images of families dressed up in cowboy attire sitting on buck-and-rail fences drinking wine, strolling beneath the elk antler archways in the Jackson Town Square and mock-talking John Wayne.
“They wanted to know what Jackson Hole was really like,” she said. “The more they learned, their interest grew and it became their magical place.” Of course, few had actually been to Wyoming.
The goal was to manufacture a make-believe town, though she didn’t want Jackson Hole, China, to appear as if it had been Disney-fied or made too Las Vegasy. The developers loved her cowboy and Indian motifs, derived from memories of Smith’s own younger years spent in Big Piney, Wyo., and Dillon, Mont.
Smith told me residents are merely searching for “the good life.” They want a break from the other 21.5 million souls in nearby Beijing, which on several occasions has recorded the worst air pollution on Earth.
Of course, Jackson Hole, the Wyoming version, has qualities that can’t be readily replicated in a copycat, beginning with the Tetons and including public wildlands capable of supporting wide-ranging megafauna.
Any large mammals in Jackson Hole, China, serve only ornamental functions—as in mounted animal heads on the walls, next to reproductions of Charlie Russell paintings and other rustic effects.
There’s even a knock-off “Teton Village” neighborhood woven into the fabric of Jackson Hole, China. Among the “colorful festivals” residents celebrate are Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Easter weekend is described as an event where, “ … from Friday to Sunday each public places such as a church, stores and shopping malls will let kids touch and play with lovely rabbits and chickens.”
Its website says, “On Independent Day, July 4, Jackson Hole, China will hold big-scale celebration activities to feel the national traits of U.S. festival.”
Apparently lost in China’s version of nirvana, which exists with the blessing of the Communist Party, is the irony of what Independence Day in this country actually means.
Jackson Hole, China, is also supposed to represent freedom and liberty, though anyone logging onto the Internet knows they’re being monitored by government eavesdroppers.
Still, some 90 percent of the 1,200 homes in Jackson Hole, China, already have been sold. Smith says the developer’s selling pitch is: “Hey, you have worked hard. You deserve what the Western world and America has. You deserve to have a second home. You deserve to have two cars and a place to take your children on holidays. Just like Americans.”
And, just like the real Jackson Hole, real estate speculation has proved to be very lucrative.
No matter what we think, Jackson Hole, China, offers Americans a chance to reflect on the difference between a consumerist fantasyland and a place with authentic heart and soul. Will there also be Big Sky, China; Bozeman, China; and Red Lodge, China?
The question isn’t what Jackson Hole, China, represents as an escape for the Chinese. Rather, it’s what the real Jackson Hole and other mountain communities in the Northern Rockies represent to us, to the rest of the world—and how we feel when we gaze into the twisted mirror.
Columnist Todd Wilkinson is a correspondent for National Geographic and the Christian Science Monitor among many other publications. He writes The New West every week and is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” (mangelsen.com/grizzly) featuring photos by Thomas D. Mangelsen. Look for Wilkinson’s profile of Yellowstone National Park Supt. Dan Wenk in the upcoming summer 2016 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.