“Jackson would just blow away in the wind if it wasn’t for this place.”
So said a Big Hole rancher on a recent Saturday night, while sidled up to the bar of the Jackson Hot Springs lodge, which has been in the valley since 1950.
It’s not clear what kept the town of just 36 people nailed down between early 2017 and mid-2018 when the lodge was closed, but it was still there last June, when Franciska and Hilla Fokkinga pulled up.
Located 48 miles from Dillon, the nearest sizable town, and surrounded by the Big Hole Valley’s expansive ranchland, Jackson’s not the kind of place most people stumble upon.
Like many of the town’s visitors, the Fokkingas weren’t there on accident. They were there to visit the town’s main draw, the hot springs lodge.
But they weren’t just interested in stepping into the pristine pool or having a drink in the rustic lodge, watched over by countless mounts of mostly local game. Longtime hot springs enthusiasts who had visited lodges all across the West, the Fokkingas were on a mission to sell their laundromat business in Denver, escape the big city, and realize their dream of buying a hot springs lodge.
They’d never been to Jackson, but maybe it would be the one.
There were reasons not to.
For one thing, there was the remoteness, which they couldn’t not notice as they turned off the Interstate and entered the Big Hole.
For another, there was snow on the June night they first visited.
But that didn’t stop them, and a month later, on July 18, 2018, they took over not only the hot springs and the lodge but also the bar and the restaurant housed inside.
The place had been closed for a year and half after the death of its previous owner, and the effects of that temporary neglect combined with the lodge’s long history meant there was work to do.
The main job was replacing the lodge’s warped wooden floor. As Hilla started in on installing new hardwood, he faced the fact that the nearest large hardware stores were two-and-a-half hours away, in Missoula.
“We weren’t used to no stores around,” he said on a recent Sunday. And that lack complicated matters, “especially when you’re thinking of improving it,” Hilla said.
But the work got done, and the doors of Jackson reopened in October.
Since that time, the couple has done their best to make themselves at home in the tight-knit Big Hole community by allowing locals to use the lodge as a kind of community center.
“The doors are always open to community parties or meetings or events,” Franciska said.
On New Year’s Eve, she said, “The entire community came out.”
And on a recent night, she said, “Almost the entire town of Wisdom was here for a gender-reveal party.”
The Fokkingas are also looking for ways to bring in people from beyond the valley, of course.
On Saturday, a group of bikers from Livingston took up much of the bar, while a local woman celebrated her birthday with family and friends in the lodge.
And so far, the Fokkingas say their efforts are working.
With hunters staying over in the fall, snowmobilers and skiers coming in the winter, and bicyclists, bikers, out-of-staters and even international guests starting to show up this summer, they say they’ve been booked every weekend since they opened.
That’s not to say it has always been easy.
The complexity of running a restaurant along with so much else compelled the Fokkingas to lease it to a Wisdom woman, who runs it still, serving up affordable and delicious cattle-country staples like prime rib and hamburgers. And then there was the long, hard winter, which the Fokkingas got through but not without wondering if they might find a caretaker to give them a break for a part of next year’s cold season.
Otherwise, though, the Fokkingas, who were both born in the Netherlands and spent decades in Denver, say they have no regrets about their major life change.
When Franciska told her family of her plans to move to a town of 36, she says they asked her whether she meant 36,000.
But now that they’re full-time residents of Jackson — and have seen their first cattle drive — they say they are settled in for the long haul with plans to maintain and improve but not radically change what they love about the lodge.
“One of things we want to do is keep it family friendly,” Hilla said.
“We want to keep it authentic,” Franciska added. “We want the lodge, the restaurant, the bar to be convenient for everybody.”
If they keep doing that, the lodge won’t go anywhere — and Jackson won’t either.