Unwritten rules exist for life in mountain towns. They create the texture and tone of the places to which urban dwellers have fled in droves during the pandemic.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, the Wood River Valley’s mountain towns have welcomed residents and long-term visitors. Some toted kids or new puppies. Nearly all were in need of sensible shoes.

Many arrived with attitudes best suited to sprawling suburbs and concrete canyons of major cities, not small towns that are 10 minutes wide—on foot.

Few long-time mountain town residents dispute their good sense in heading for the hills. They would have done the same, traded sidewalks for hiking trails and watering holes for fishing holes.

Yet, this common love of mountain life didn’t stop discordant tones from emerging in the Sun Valley area this summer. So, here’s a beginner’s guide for adapting to small town mountain life.

Oxygen: Breathe and relax to take in more oxygen at our high altitudes. Tiny distances between homes, schools and stores mean rushing isn’t necessary to squeeze out more time for life.

Roads: Drivers don’t speed through neighborhoods or most anywhere. Locals brake for kids, wandering dogs, deer, elk, moose, fox, beaver, squirrels and chipmunks. Most are lifetime members of a group that a former local DJ dubbed SPLAT, the Society to Prevent Little Animal Tragedies.

They observe the nighttime speed limit north of Hailey, sometimes during the day, because a windshield encounter with an elk will ruin days and weeks.

They know that the Wood River Valley’s short length and road conditions mean that speeding drivers and those they pass will arrive at the next stoplight at exactly the same time.

Scary stuff: People aren’t invisible here, unless they are famous. Then, locals don’t intrude. Normally, locals say hello and make eye contact with strangers on trails and sidewalks. They are not panhandlers or muggers. They wave to cyclists, pedestrians and other drivers on side roads. They know that “the wave” smooths the way when help is needed to fix a flat tire or get out of a snow bank.

Dirty truths: The rural West is dusty. Perfectly shiny, bug-free and dust-free cars are telltale signs of those newly uprooted from urban cocoons. Good backcountry users pack it in, pack it out and bury tissues that must be buried—off the trail.

Outer space: This is why everyone is here, and it’s easy to give. Uphill travelers on mountain trails have the right of way. On busy paved trails, people try not to spook others when passing and don’t threaten to run over the old, young or four-legged. Throwing a line into an already occupied fishing hole is a sin. So is cutting close to other skiers on Baldy.

Shoving into lines at grocery stores will net a sharp reprimand from locals, but locals will need forgiveness for clogging up aisles with neighborly chats.

What matters: Avalanches, floods, earthquakes droughts, wildfires and wild economic swings have taught locals what matters: friends, family, good neighbors, mutual respect—and occasional lively local political debates. People who agree will love it here. Others, not so much.

 This list doesn’t cover everything, so ask around. Locals will happily fill in the gaps.

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