There are no stoplights here. No city hall. No cineplex, and certainly no Big Macs.
"You can drive through it in less than 10 minutes," said resident Christina Jaffe-Kahrs.This is Gardiner, where elk are the Welcome Wagon, the high school track team practices in Yellowstone National Park, the library is open sporadically, at best, and Joel the Schwan's man sells his wares at the Sinclair station.
In less than two months, RVs driven by tourists will break the off-season spell of this small town. They'll come by the thousands, as they do every year, to pass under the Roosevelt Arch and into America's Eden.
The community willingly accepts the visitors and their money every summer. In fact, businesses depend on the tourists and residents rely on the park for jobs.
But in the past six years, Gardiner has absorbed more than just tourist dollars.
The community's population surged from 600 to 800, despite a nearby gold mine laying off more than 100 workers. Real estate prices have doubled. New motels have been built, as well as a new grocery store. A new post office is under construction and the volunteer fire department is planning to build a new firehouse.
It's a sleepy town in the winter, lively in the summer, and shifting with the constant ups and downs is the only way to survive.
The local economy is at the mercy of the weather and the tourists. Surviving the meager winter season is part of the package.
A dozen or so newer homes are scattered along Jardine Hill, which overlooks Gardiner and, beyond it, the park. Motels such as the Super 8 are relatively new additions to a small business strip along U.S. 89.
But the flurry of construction activity in the last decade will have to come to an end. The unincorporated town sits pinched between Yellowstone and U.S. Forest Service lands, and that makes private property a hot commodity.
"We just don't have any more land to build on," said Karen Hayes, a local real estate agent.
"Our prices are fairly high, but they have been for the last five years. The majority of property is sold to out-of-staters. Very seldom do I have anything under $100,000."
Almost everything along the Yellowstone River also has been sold and if an acre does come up for sale, it fetches $30,000, she said.
Hayes can sell you more than a new house. She's also in the T-shirt business and peddles insurance.
"You have to be very diversified to live here," she said. "When you live in a small community like this you do as much as you can."
Hayes' advice to newcomers is simple: "If you don't come here with a job and a little bit of money, you're not going to make it."
Before the throngs of tourists arrived and Yellowstone became a national park in 1872, there was mining.
"The first mining in this area predates Yellowstone," said John Hoak, Gardiner resident and manager of Mineral Hill Mine in Jardine.
Mining efforts in Jardine didn't begin until 1886, Hoak said. Jardine's population boomed to 500-600 at its peak.
Now, Jardine is far from a bustling community, with only a few homes in town, about five miles outside Gardiner.
In 1988 the most recent hunt for gold began at the Mineral Hill Mine. The first gold was produced a year later. At its peak during this go-round, 150 workers were employed by the mine, as well as 50 to 70 area contractors, Hoak said. About 80 percent of the mine workers were from Park County.
But in September 1996, most of the workers were laid off. A dozen people are still employed by the mine.
"Imagine the loss in a small rural economy of $5 million a year in payroll," Hoak said.
Gardiner's economy is difficult to gauge. It's seasonal and fluctuates with changes in Yellowstone and Park County. There is no sales tax, no resort tax, and the town's motels don't collect enough of the 4 percent bed tax for the state to keep track of it independent of Park County or the region.
That said, it is known that 487,561 tourists passed through Gardiner to enter Yellowstone from May through October of last year.
And many of those tourists ensure locals make it through the winter.
"It's not a place to earn big bucks, but a place to earn enough," said Julia Page, an owner of the Yellowstone Rafting Co. "It would be better if we had a little bit more diversity, a little bit more going on during the winter."
Jaffe-Kahrs, who co-owns Yellowstone Gallery & Frameworks with her husband, Jerry, agrees with Page.
"It hasn't been the easiest place to live economically," Jaffe-Kahrs said. "Gardiner's economy has improved for some, but not necessarily as a whole. It's becoming expensive to live here."
Gardiner has come a long way from its early days.
In 1883, three years after the first post office opened, Gardiner was home to 200 people, 21 saloons, six restaurants and one milkman.
Longtime resident Kay Baker was born in nearby Chico when "there was a hospital there; now there's a resort." She has seen a lot of changes in her 76 years.
A swinging bridge that spanned the Yellowstone River, which divides the north and south sides of town, was replaced by a more stable one in 1930. The first dial telephone arrived in 1940, and three decades later Northern Pacific made its last freight delivery by train. The company ran a freight and passenger bus between Gardiner and Livingston, 50 miles to the north, for a while after rail lines closed.
In today's Gardiner, Marge McCoy, secretary of the local Chamber of Commerce, spends her Tuesdays putting together the town's source for local happenings. It's a two-page newsletter, alerting residents that Hutterites will be in town to sell eggs, carrots, fryers, red and yellow potatoes in the coming week, as well as other tidbits of interest.
The chamber, like the community, is undergoing its share of change. The local office recently moved into a storefront on Park Street, named for the national wonderland it parallels. And the chamber's numbers are on the upswing, from 77 members in 1986 to 90 members in 1990 to the current 115.
"Some of the new people we've got here are CUT people," said McCoy, referring to members of the Church Universal and Triumphant, which has its headquarters at a ranch north of town.
In the late 1980s, church populations swelled as members flocked to the ranch. But the church has reorganized during the past two years, trimming staff. Many members have moved on.