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A way around

In a corner of the West, Americans redefine home

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Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

The median price of a home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming: $3.89 million.

In the nearby Teton Valley, Idaho — just over the peak of the Grand Teton as the crow flies — home prices are trending up 33 percent year over year. Regardless of the movements of the national housing market, this little region, tucked away on the state line of Idaho and Wyoming, is a bubble made of billionaire wealth, limited resources and a middle class caught in between. And the bubble just won’t seem to burst.

With home prices come other trappings commonly found in the neighborhoods of the exorbitantly wealthy pockets of America: homeowners associations, mansions, and covenants, conditions and restrictions. But in a twist of irony, the very things that defined living in the West for generations — self-sufficiency, unpretentiousness, proximity to nature — are now an act of rebellion for some.

Sea Marie Biladeau grew up in Idaho. After living in Colorado, she recently decided to move back to her home state with her partner, Devin Pool. Biladeau tried looking at traditional real estate, but only found enormous homes with massive price tags. In a search for land to build something smaller on, she learned about CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions, which dictate what owners can do on land they own.) “The requirements were crazy — the materials, the square footage and also limitations on your personal freedom,” she says. “I guess I’m really an Idahoan after all!” So the couple found an 11-acre piece of property with a creek running through it for $165,000 and built a yurt. 

Biladeau and Pool aren’t the only ones. Look closely into the rolling valleys and the evergreen forests, and you’ll find them: rotund walls of stretched canvas with the smell of wood burning rolling from the chimneys. No one has an accurate count of how many are in the area, since so many of the structures are unpermitted. But these Westerners have turned a 3,000-year-old Mongol dwelling into a housing crisis hack.

Welcome to modern life in a yurt.

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Tavin Cope, and Lia Applegarth, are adapting to life in a yurt, including maintaining an outhouse, using a bathhouse and dealing with frozen pipes. But, while cooking tacos for dinner, all seems well adjusted.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Tavin Cope and Lia Applegarth’s yurt.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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It’s not easy to heat the structure, as evidenced by Tavin Cope. He notes that it’s common for temperatures to dip into the minus 20s in winter, but staying warm is possible. “We put in an extension cord from the main house and put in a space heater. That keeps it (the bathhouse) above freezing. It’s set to 68 degrees, but it’s been running nonstop from November to March.”

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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When the pandemic hit and rents skyrocketed, Betsy Hawkins — pictured above with her daughter — looked into buying land and building a house on it. The cost of the most modest house available was over $400,000 for 1,000 square feet. Her family of four decided to buy 2.5 acres and a yurt kit, spending about $200,000 in total. Now, Betsy says she isn’t in a financial bind she believes she would have experienced with a more expensive, traditional structure.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Betsy Hawkin’s yurt.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Sea Marie Biladeau, with partner Devin Pool, owned a 500-square-foot loft near Aspen, Colorado, which she sold for $350,000. With that money, she bought 11 acres, drilled a well, dug a septic tank, built a road, got electricity to the property, purchased the yurt kit and hired the labor to help build it.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Sea Marie Biladeau and Devin Pool’s yurt.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Devin Pool collects chicken eggs from his coop. One of the restrictions on many of the lots the couple looked at was that chicken coops were not allowed.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Devin Pool’s chicken coop.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Sea Marie Biladeau and Devin Pool’s yurt.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Anne Flatberg, and husband Earnest ”Skip” Widgeon Bell IV play gin in their yurt in Tetonia, Idaho. When Flatberg’s father died in 2021, she moved in with Bell, who has lived in yurts for the past two decades. This home, designed and constructed by Bell in 2010, is situated in the wilderness a few miles from the western border of Yellowstone National Park. Bell milled the wood and constructed the yurt by hand.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Anne Flatberg and Earnest ”Skip” Widgeon Bell IV’s yurt.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Temperatures in the winter can stay well below freezing for weeks at a time. That can make some aspects of life in a yurt, like a trip to the outhouse, more difficult. But Flatberg and Bell take it in stride.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Flatberg and Bell’s outhouse.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

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Flatberg and Bell can hear wolves at night and have seen grizzly bears and mountain lions wandering around. “They’ve never gotten into the yurt, which is nice,” says Bell.

Natalie Behring for the Deseret News

  

This story appears in the December issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.