A livestream of Jackson Hole went viral recently, but not for the reason you think.
It’s midnight and I’m watching absolutely nothing happen at an intersection in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. From what I can see, nobody has been on the street since around 10pm, when a man and his dog crossed from east to west.
It looks cold—you can tell just by the trees—but I can’t be sure since I’m all the way in Chicago, where it’s also cold but much less quiet. There are 86 other people watching with me via a livestream on YouTube.
I only know about the stream because it briefly went “viral” (groan) back in September. As an editor for a digital publication, it’s my job to know what’s trending and why.
After some quick headline scans —all variants of the same schtick—I concluded this was just another absurdist internet joke, exactly the type of whatever that shows up on reddit’s front page. There was a time when these things made me laugh; now they make me tired. I pasted the link somewhere and forgot about it.
In early October, I switched my summer wardrobe (short sleeves and black skinny jeans) for my fall/winter one (long sleeves and more black skinny jeans). I tried on a billowy grey sweater that was no longer billowy, pulling self consciously at the bottom hem, intensely aware of how my gut now filled the fabric. Depression has always been a heavy robe I can’t take off. Now my weight is, too.
I curled up on the couch, away from mirrors. That’s when I came across the link again, hidden in a dumping ground of notes on my phone. I opened YouTube and watched a blue sedan obey traffic lights and turn left. The sedan disappeared from the frame. I kept watching.
For the rest of the night, I was compelled to keep checking back, just to make sure everything was still going along without incident. There were 1,300 people watching when I went to bed.
That night, I dreamed about my college town, Iowa City, another sleepy American hamlet where my only jobs were to get dressed in the morning and look both ways before crossing the street.
According to the town’s almighty Google Doc (more on this in a sec), the stream started as a tourism initiative to promote Jackson, Wyoming, the “gateway to adventure at Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.” Apparently tourism webcams are fairly common practice—they’re hardwired into a stationary HD camera system and run year round. This YouTube live stream has been going since 2014, but the cameras have been running since the 90s.
The aforementioned Google Doc is an FAQ that breaks down everything you could ever want/not want to know. Just like the cameras, the Doc is maintained by volunteers—you can tell by the clip art.
The Google Doc also houses a list of memorable moments and people from the stream so far: Like ‘orange hat man,’ who wore a neon orange hat and waved to the camera in the rain. Or the red truck, which is basically one big game of I Spy every time a red truck rolls through the intersection. The game has become the whole town’s unofficial pastime.
But The Arch is the glue that holds the whole stream together (I’ve capitalized it to give it the importance it deserves). Jackson Hole’s version of the All-Seeing Eye, it sits in the center of the frame and is made of more than 2,000 elk antlers. I know this because I watched a video of its construction and a video of the very elk whose antlers make up the arch. That’s how far deep I am.
Commenters often say “feed the arch,” which is a weird rally cry—a way of praying the town’s residents will somehow interact with it. And they do, of course. A group of kids even fed it pizza.
But “feed the arch” isn’t a directive only meant to be taken literally. “Feed the arch” is also encouragement for the people in the frame to break the fourth wall and morph into amateur artists in an impromptu street performance.
There are some poignant observations in the comments section—“The green lights are strangely blue”—but it’s mostly Tumblr-esque jibber-jabber. Everything is meme-ified beyond recognition.
Some people goof around, over-aware of the camera. Four policemen did push-ups in the middle of the intersection. A man climbed up to the cam to show a close-up of his nose. The sheriff dabs. Multiple times.
But my favorite moments don’t involve any clever camera interaction at all. I like the jaywalkers who cross with a silly, half-hurried gait you only use when you know there’s no real danger. And red balloon girl, who simply walked along holding a dozen red balloons one day.
I could wax poetic about why people are still watching—why I’m still watching—but the Google Doc answers this in a way so unintentionally poetic, it might as well be a passage from Thoreau’s private journal:
6. Why do people watch this? Many reasons. Some find artistic beauty in the scene itself, or just a virtual vacation with friendly folks; others like to people-watch, a pastime from a slower-paced way of life, like other popular “Slow TV” streams. Keep watching and you’ll find your reason! This stream is recommended for all ages. Please leave everyday drama and strife outside, this is a place of relaxation and family friendliness.
On Nov. 8, the night of the presidential election, my whole face melted into open-mouthed horror. I don’t need to tell you why. Before I even realized what I was doing, I found myself checking the Jackson Hole stream.
When I clicked over to the page, the screen appeared frozen. Was the camera broken? Had the volunteers decided to shut it down? Was this the end?
A moment later, the stream jolted alive. Turns out cars were just stopped at the light. I laughed at my ridiculous moment of panic. Then I cried.
It’s midnight and I’m watching absolutely nothing happen. In the morning, the sweater still won’t fit. Donald Trump will remain our president elect. But for now, I am safe watching a place where there is no story.
Where the car doesn’t crash and the sheriff’s not busy. Where the balloon woman is on her way to a party I won’t be attending. Where things aren’t getting better, but they aren’t getting worse, either.