For Dave and Eiaron Triggs, Cataldo was supposed to be paradise, a scenic place where a young couple could buy some land and build a life.
Instead, it’s looking a lot like hell.
Seven months after they arrived from Arizona, full of hope, the Triggs are huddled in a camper with their 12-year-old son. They try to stay warm with a jury-rigged woodstove and dwindling propane. They have no electricity, no work, little food and virtually no money.
“Our plans were on building a log cabin,” said Dave Triggs, who turned 35 on New Year’s Day. “They said it was beautiful country.”
Charities and social service agencies throughout North Idaho say the Triggs’ situation is not unusual.
The region’s growth and natural beauty, caseworkers say, are drawing out-of-staters looking for land, a new start and jobs. Instead, many find debt, unemployment and a bitter return to wherever they came from.
“They get here and try to make a go of it, can’t, and leave. But it seems like there’s always someone behind them to take their place,” said Marv Vandenberg Jr., a state welfare eligibility supervisor in Sandpoint.
Many newcomers are urbanites trying to escape crime, caseworkers say.
“They just want to have some peace in their lives, without having to fear for their children going to school,” said Rose Henderson, an eligibility examiner in St. Maries. “I don’t know if it’s relatives or friends, but someone told them there’s lots of housing up here, lots of jobs. When they get here, there’s nothing.”
At the Shoshone County Food Bank, director Isabel Marquez said she’s heard the same story, over and over. In December, the food bank saw 439 people, 20 percent more than the year before. Many new cases, she said, are people who came in from out of state, expecting to make a go of it.
“What I’m trying to do is make them selfsufficient. I’m sending them over to the Job Service,” Marquez said. “There’s not many that do succeed. I really don’t know how it’s going to end.”
Neither do the Triggs. They’re determined, however, to do it on their own, without welfare.
“That’s the easy way out,” said Eiaron Triggs. “I think if somebody really wants to do something, they can find work.”
“We felt bad enough going to the food bank,” added her husband.
The Triggs grew up in Iowa, and moved to Arizona 10 years ago. In 1990, they opened up a small auto shop in Phoenix. Dave Triggs worked as a mechanic, his wife worked parttime in nursing homes and fast-food restaurants.
“We were holding our own, making a living,” he said.
Some of their auto shop customers were “snowbirds,” people who spend summer in Idaho and winter in Arizona. Their tales of life in the Panhandle convinced the couple that Idaho was the place for them.
“We were both born and raised on farms anyway,” said Eiaron Triggs. “We got sick of living in the city.”
They saved $3,000 and put it down on 20 acres, sight unseen.
The Triggs spent the next seven months preparing. They packed the tools, lifts, compressor and tire changer from the auto shop, expecting to open a new shop in Kellogg or Coeur d’Alene. They bought chain saws, mittens, a generator and large batteries.
“We knew there wasn’t going to be any water or power when we got here,” said Dave Triggs. “We got the trailer set up for a solar panel, then we found out the sun isn’t too strong.”
After a week on the road, they arrived in Cataldo in June. They cleared a short road, set up the camper and began looking for a shop to rent. They never found one.
Running out of money, they auctioned off the equipment and tools from the shop. They expected to earn $15,000. They got $6,000.
They rented a former pawn shop near Coeur d’Alene, and opened their own pawn shop. They said they quickly discovered the place had a bad reputation from the previous owners.
“We were so far behind we were taking stuff to other pawn shops to get money,” said Eiaron Triggs. “It ended up that we just dwindled everything away.”
They took a paper route in Coeur d’Alene, delivering 800 weekly shopper papers by hand. They were still waiting for their monthly check, they say, when they ran out of money for gasoline. Unable to get to Coeur d’Alene, they lost the route.
“We’ve basically been out here ever since,” said Eiaron Triggs.
Dave Triggs now spends much of his time chopping firewood. Occasionally, the couple walks the 6 miles to tiny Cataldo, where they pick up mail and use a pay telephone. Their food supply is dwindling; their generator is broken. After dark, they play board games inside the camper.
To keep up with the $250 monthly payments on the land, the couple pawned their wedding rings. They pawned their son’s television and Nintendo game.
“It really makes you feel bad to take stuff away from your kid,” Dave Triggs said.
He says it’s impossible to find work without a telephone number, shower or gasoline for their truck. No one, he said, will hire a mechanic without tools. They’ve saved up $100 to send away for a “starter kit” to make jewelry at home. They hope that will give them a way to earn money.
What little help they’ve gotten has come from the congregation at the Cataldo Lighthouse, a small nondenominational church. Members pledge time and money to charitable causes. Often, they’re called to help families like the Triggs.
“The mines are gone, the logging’s gone, but the people still come,” said Merle Beare, a church founder and out-of-work logger.
Church members have brought the Triggs water, propane and some donated money. Another local church donated groceries.
“They didn’t come asking for any help and they still haven’t asked,” said Glenda Beare, Merle’s wife. “We just found out about them.
“They just want a better life; you can’t blame them for that,” she said. “But we can’t fix it. We just do what we can to help.”
She said she felt guilty during Christmas, knowing the Triggs had little.
“That made me feel bad,” she said. “We had all these gifts and they didn’t have anything to give each other.”
The Triggs are in more danger than they realize, her husband thinks.
“It could be 4, 5 feet of snow up there, and then if a cold snap comes, how are they going to get their wood in? They’ll really be in trouble,” he said.
Nonetheless, the Triggs say they’re determined to make it work.
“We’re not giving up, that’s for sure,” Dave Triggs said, looking at the land around the camper. “We don’t want to lose this. This is what we came for, and we’re going to get it.”