After years of RV life, retirees build a house they and the landscape can live with.
By Dina Mishev • Photography by David Agnello
Of course we had a groundbreaking celebration,” Carol Schoner says as if it were as usual as filing for a building permit. Sitting at the dining table of the home she and husband Phil moved into in December 2016, she pushes a paper titled “Groundbreaking Words” toward me. “These are the promises we made then,” she says.
“To these majestic mountains: You are why we selected this spot to build our home. We promise every morning we will look to the west in appreciation.
“To the wildlife: This was your home before it was ours. We will respect your space and minimize our intrusion into it.
“To the great sea of sagebrush: Please be patient. We will disturb the terrain as little as possible. We will do all we can to repair and restore this space.
“Our goal is for our house to sit lightly on the land.”
Before the Schoners built on a two-and-a-half acre site in the sagebrush flats behind the Jackson Hole Airport, they looked everywhere in the valley, from condos at the Four Seasons to a Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis cottage to scrappers to other lots. But then they decided views were their primary consideration. This lot was the clear winner, Carol says, adding, “I thought, if nothing else, whatever happens to us with our health, if I can wake up and see these mountains, everything would be all right.”
Now 67 (Carol) and 75 (Phil), the Schoners plan to live in this house until “we go to the old cowboys’ home,” Carol says. “It’s a very elder-friendly home. There is not a step anywhere. And that was the whole idea.” When the couple hired architectural firm kt814 to design the house, they asked for an age-in-place, open-space design that was clean and contemporary and that, of course, made the most of the property’s views, which are unobstructed and of the entire Teton Range. The area is also rich in wildlife; it’s in a migration corridor. “When we were inside, I wanted to feel that the outside came in to us,” Carol says. “I wanted to lie in bed and watch moose wander by between my feet.”
But now that they’ve been in the house for almost two years, Carol says she’s not sure she is living up to the promises made at the groundbreaking ceremony. “It’s hard to maintain that sense of wonder,” she says. Her excitement as she talks about watching a bison wallow in a patch of dirt twenty feet from the dining table just the day before suggests otherwise, though.
Phil talks about one night when he woke up around 2 a.m.: “I just happened to look out the windows from the bed and the Big Dipper was perfectly framed,” he says. He woke up Carol and the two sat together on the outside patio and wondered at the stars and Milky Way for about an hour. “The stars were actually shimmering,” Carol says. “It was amazing.”
The day after I visited with them, vegetation restoration consultants were coming to replant sagebrush in the area nearest the home, the only part of the lot, other than the house site itself, that was disturbed during construction.
When weather permits, Phil starts off his mornings with a cup of coffee on the patio on the north side of the house. “I’ll spend an hour out there, listening to the meadowlarks and just sitting,” he says. “They’re lovely to listen to.” When the weather’s too inclement, Phil sits on the sofa in the main living area, where walls on two sides are glass and the northern one frames the Tetons. “The views are always changing,” he says. “Clouds make it different, the angle of the sun. Every day, every hour, is a different view, but they are the same mountains.” During our chat, Phil spies a bluebird perched in a small aspen tree outside and points it out. “They were my mom’s favorite bird,” he says.
With how well Carol and Phil live in this home, it’s hard to imagine they spent the thirteen years prior to moving into it living in an RV. In 2005, when they learned that neither of Carol’s kids (the youngest of whom was away at college) would return to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they had lived for more than thirty years, they became what Phil calls “RV road warriors.”
Their RV was big, and living in it “was not roughing it at all,” Carol says. The couple didn’t spend all their time driving around, but instead would arrive at a place and stay there for several months. They volunteered at national parks during the summer. After three summers at Bryce Canyon, they came to Grand Teton National Park and volunteered on the park’s Wildlife Brigade. (Carol’s daughter had recently moved to Victor, Idaho.)