Hidden on a bench in the Snake River bottoms, this neighborhood with big lots lives up to its name.
By Mark Huffman | Photograph by Tuck Fauntleroy
DRIVE AS FAR NORTH ON Spring Gulch Road as it stretches, along the backside of Jackson Hole Airport where few people go, over the edge of the bench to the Snake River bottoms and—if you’re a homeowner in the aptly named Solitude subdivision—you are home. Many more people know the name than have ever been there. Solitude is on the way to nowhere, 586 acres at a dead end. In keeping with the trend in Jackson Hole, these lackluster acres, benefitting by being out of the way and having a nice view, have become a fancy place to live.
In 1979 the bovines moved out to let Jackson developers William Meckem and Pete Mead (a member of the Hanson-Mead ranching family that runs cattle on Spring Gulch to this day) begin the work of subdividing. Both men were well-known pilots—Meckem, a former Air Force flyer who arrived in the valley in 1959, ran M&M Air Charter—and the two men had plenty of chances to view the land as they flew from the nearby airstrip.
Even by the standards of Wyoming cattle, the land that was to become Solitude wasn’t particularly desirable. The owners, ranchers Phil and Betty Lucas, told the Jackson Hole News in 1982 that as cattle-raising land, the parcel was “second and third class.” Mead remembered recently that it “wasn’t the best land, it wasn’t even good pasture land.” The soil is sandy and poor. The parcel was partly sagebrush plain. Along the west boundary it turned into a tangle of trees and scrub bordered by the Snake River, which is armored with a rock dike installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold back spring flooding.
The Lucases—their descendants still ranch in Jackson Hole—looked at the sale as a way to preserve the family’s way of life. They saw a big tax bill hitting the following generation, Betty Lucas said. Even without inheritance taxes, the county had threatened “to assess the land at what it will sell for,” she said. “It should be assessed as agricultural land.”
But while the use changed from cattle to the houses that dot the parcel today, Solitude is still much less dense that most valley developments says Dennis Triano, an eleven-year resident of the subdivision and an agent at Eagle Mountain Real Estate. Triano says the attraction is being fairly close to town but being in a spot that avoids the increasing traffic in the valley. Triano lived north of town for nearly twenty years before buying a house in Solitude, and he likes the feel of that part of the valley. “Solitude is a great place to live,” he says. “It’s a perfect spot to build homes, down off the bench there, basically it’s ‘solitude.’”
Beyond that, Triano says a big draw is the Tetons: His house is in the open, eastern part of the subdivision, and that means a big view. “I think Jackson Hole is the main attraction,” he says, “but the fact that we love to see the mountains is why we live north of town.”
Meckem and Mead designed a layout that prevented crowding. Most of the 103 lots are five or six acres, which gives owners privacy. The east-west streets line up with views of the mountains, and these views suggested the roads’ names: Buck Mountain Road, Phelps Canyon Road, Death Canyon Road, Cloudveil Road, and Avalanche Canyon Drive.
It’s a perfect spot to build homes, down off the bench there, basically it’s ‘solitude.’”
[ Dennis Triano, resident ]
An early complaint by the Wyoming Division of Game and Fish—that subdividing this area would hurt elk migration—was resolved. The solution included a ban on most fencing. Today, Triano says, the area remains thick with moose and deer, sometimes bison, and elk are so common that they “can get annoying.” Another worry turned out to be imaginary: The school superintendent at the time told commissioners he would need land for a school because “one hundred and three homes could generate a lot of children.” As it turned out, Solitude wasn’t to be a children kind of neighborhood.
Meckem, Mead, and a third partner, Bob Lucas, worked a deal for the Lucas family to get its money as the area sold. “We paid them as we sold the ground, there was not really any money down,” Mead says. “Fortunately it sold pretty well.” When lots went on the market in 1979 they were advertised for as low as $80,000, and Triano remembers some going for less. That’s a hazy memory now.
Within a few months of the subdivision coming online you could see lots advertised at $95,000. In 1983 one was listed at $250,000, though that seems to have been a stab at a windfall, because two years later one was offered for $100,000. Still, the price for 5.45 acres was $195,000 in 1992 and $695,000 for 6.5 acres in 1997. Triano is currently agent for the owner of several six-acre lots bought nearly 30 years ago as an investment. They’re listed at $950,000. Each.
House prices are also strong: In 1989 a three-bedroom place with two baths was advertised at $450,000; in 2001 a house and guesthouse was offered for $4.25 million. About the only house on the market recently has been a 3,760-square-foot place built in 1988 and listed at $3.495 million. Triano bought his house nearly a dozen years ago for something more than $2 million, and he considers that a deal. “Of course, 2008 happened, and everything slowed down for six years,” he says. “But it was brutal everywhere in the valley. But now everything has come back, it’s tremendous.”
Some lots were bought by people who were building houses and wanted even more elbowroom than the original lots offered. It started out that “people would purchase land and hang onto it,” Triano says. They’re still hanging on. “Over half the property has never been built on,” he says. Still, there’s been a recent boom, and there are about five houses currently under construction.
So what started as a bit of speculation, like a lot of Jackson development ideas of the 1970s and ’80s, turned out to have been a good idea. “It was kind of taking a chance,” Mead says of the initial idea, “but all of a sudden people were starting to buy stuff. I guess I was surprised, but I’ve been surprised by what has happened here in the last 40 years. If I’d been smarter, I’d have bought more.”