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When a landslide blocks your commute

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Section of Wyoming Highway 22 that cracked open and slid down mountainside.

High Country News, June 2024

In the early hours of June 8, a half-acre section of Wyoming Highway 22 cracked open and slid down the mountainside, leaving a yawning gap in the road. Every morning and evening, thousands of people cross Teton Pass on this highway, commuting between their jobs in Jackson — one of the wealthiest towns in the country — and their homes in Idaho, where housing is less expensive. In an instant, this already-challenging daily commute became nearly impossible. The commuters must now spend more than four hours a day on a winding 200-mile detour. With the extra time and fuel costs disrupting their lives, many have turned to their neighbors for help: Through a Facebook page started by Victor, Idaho, resident Melissa Thomasma, locals have taken commuters’ dogs to veterinary appointments, picked up their kids from summer camps, offered spare rooms and rides to the airport, and bought baby formula for those in need.

It’s a beautiful response at a desperate time, but Thomasma, whose own partner commutes to Jackson every day, said it isn’t a permanent solution. “This is a massive wake-up call for Teton County, and how much they rely on these other communities and the people,” Thomasma says. “They’re not just numbers. They’re people with lives and families, and they need to treat them as such.” And Teton Pass is far from the only mountain highway that Western working families depend on. As infrastructure ages and the climate changes, many of these essential routes are more vulnerable than ever. “When you think about when most of these were built — the ’60s and ’70s — that was a time when we believed we could pretty much engineer anything,” said Paul Chinowsky, a professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “There was this thought that our engineering was smarter than the elements it had to deal with. So we kept building in more and more risky locations.”

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