The Big question


Where to live?  A question of massive importance that for obvious reasons we’ve been pondering a lot lately.  With a kid and a lot of stuff future moves will ideally trend toward the number of digits needed to eat chicken nuggets.  We also did the van life thing before hashtags were invented, and it lacks the romance and depth the net would have it possess.  There is a lot to be said for human life and attention and understanding only having the resources to get to know a few places well, and I’ve spent plenty of time in recent weeks pondering whether I care to add another to our list.

If you’re a regular reader here regular access to the outdoors is a priority.  It has been a driving force for M and I since 2003, and we’ve yet to have cause for regret.  Location is a factor, but it is not the factor.  Along with van life I’ve spent enough time as a car-dwelling outdoor bum to realize that there is more to life and purpose, a conviction that last six months has only served to reinforce.  So while for example back in 2007 we didn’t consider my going to graduate school in a place like Missouri or Michigan that would have looked good on the resume, we’ve also never considered (too seriously) places where the income to cost of living balance is so systemically out of whack that just maintaining a permanent residence would have required major and ongoing sacrifice.  In this matter one should be a persistent dreamer, but not an ideologue.

At this point circumstance merits an interlude on the importance of timing.  I was fortunate that I applied and was accepted to grad school just as 43s negligence tanked the economy, and we were smart to have not invested in real estate when we moved to Arizona in 2006.  When I went on the market post grad school in 2010, the impact of history was still deeply felt, especially (in retrospect) in the human services sector and most importantly in the state budgets allocated too them.  I was fortunate then, in a way I can only now appreciate, that one of the few calls I got back from the many applications I sent out was from a place which both did good work and was a good place to work.  The contrast to the last month has been enormous.  My resume is a bit fatter, but the larger difference has been broadly the economy and more exactly, the ACA.  Medicaid expansion has put what I do in high demand, enough that we’ve been put in the enviable position of having many nice offers from many nice places.

So then, how to make a decision?  Professional imponderables are too specific for any meaningful comment (unless any readers are contemplating moving west for a job in the non-profit children’s mental health sector, in which case drop me a line and I’ll do all I can), so I’ll restrict the following to location and the associated benefits.

Making a choice based on activity and climate preference is obvious.  If you’re a serious, obsessive mountain biker for example I don’t see many good reasons to live anywhere other than somewhere in the four corners state.  Aside from the central mountains and far west vestiges of midwestern sprawl (aka the front range) circumstance and weather generally allows for quality riding 10-11 months a year, and in the desert the riding itself is simply the best mountain biking on earth, several orders of magnitude better than anything else in both quality and quantity.  Truly obsessive, ski-every-month folks have a more complicated decision.  Colorado makes a lot of sense for these folks, especially with an eye to the future, where models suggest high altitude will protect the dying resource which is skiable snowpack.  The cost is of course crowds both in the hills and on the way to them.  There are exceptions and workarounds to this and any other similar situation, but the trend holds true across the west: there is a price to be paid for having many desirable things close (both natural and otherwise), which is generally having to be around lots of other people.

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 9.47.30 PMFor some, or indeed many, this isn’t a big deal.  It can even be a bonus, the wealth of cultural and culinary resources available most places in Arizona or Colorado vastly exceeds even the most cosmopolitan places in Montana.  For me, getting away from people is a very big deal, and not only because my standards for backcountry crowds are far too exacting.  (4 dayhikers, 8 backpackers, and one packrafter in ~50 miles of the Escalante certainly counts as crowded.)  As I suspected of New Zealand a lower population density can be directly responsible for a more congenial populace and a daily ethos which I find to my liking.

I’ve attempted to capture this dynamic in the above chart*.  The population of a given town or area (~100,000 in the larger Flathead Valley, for example) or even the population density of the county in question, doesn’t tell the whole story.  The number of people within a 250 mile radius (striking distance for a weekend, for the motivated) is more demonstrative.  It explains why the Grand Junction area, or Flagstaff, or Moab, or even the Escalante can be as crowded as they often are even in the absence of much local population and especially local involvement in the activity du jour.

Elevation, and especially the change in vertical relief within a 20 mile radius, is also for me a huge factor in outdoor quality of life.  Higher elevation is almost always better.  It makes cool nights colder, sunny days warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and turns winter rain into snow.  When the weather doesn’t quite cooperate, on when you just want a change from the status quo, a change in elevation can provide that.  In this matter type is as important as quantity.  Grand Junction has such a large figure due to Grand Mesa, were that feature taken out the figure would be less than half of 5900 feet.  Grand Mesa is a somewhat homogenous feature, whose slopes are due to vegetation and land ownership not especially accessible.  The canyons south and north of town do provide quality terrain and close to 3000 feet of relief, but to say that the Grand Valley has a diversity of good terrain on par with Flagstaff, Escalante, Moab, or even Whitefish would be false.

It is worth noting that were the radius extended to 30 miles Flagstaff would have a truly extraordinary 9000+ feet of relief.  It had been almost a decade since we had visited, and driving south a few weeks ago and up into the world’s largest ponderosa forest, draped around the volcanic feet of the San Francisco peaks, was a beautiful reminder of just how extraordinary that location is.  Flag is a big and, due to geography, crowded and bustling town, but isn’t yet built up to the extent of a Los Angeles, Phoenix, and even Banff where the scale of human presence has all but obliterated what was once one of the most beautiful places on earth.  I have a rule to not live anywhere with less than 4000 feet of relief within 20 miles, but it is profitable to remember that by following that rule one is almost certainly participating in the continued trend of urbanifying the unique.

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 9.18.02 AM

A final point worth discussing, which is a bit more difficult to capture, is where a town gets its money and the extent to which it is a resort and vacation destination.  Escalante is becoming that, against all expectations, while Whitefish is emphatically a 2nd home destination.  Which is why weren’t not moving back there, and why any home with 2 bathrooms is 350,000 or more, no matter the size (I exaggerate, barely).  Beyond COL issues, the 2nd home phenomenon tends to create a never-neverland atmosphere which long term I do not find pleasant.  Whitefish, and towns like Crested Butte, Durango, and Jackson, have their livelihood tied up in appearances.  They pull tourists, retirees, and the wealthy in because they look the picture of a western ideal made real.  Which they are, but they are made not grown, and that artificiality comes home to roost when the folks who live their can’t afford to live there, and therefore the substance of the place becomes hollow and imbalanced.

Nothing comes for free, but this question and everything I’ve written here reeks of privilege.  It’s a choice and a problem I’m grateful to have.

*Numbers from, which is a fantastic use of leisure time, but necessarily doesn’t tell the whole story.  For example, I draw % of 2nd homes from the “Percent of Total Units Vacant for Seasonal or Recreational Use” which is not an exact equivocation.


31 responses to “The Big question”

  1. Dave, I wish you and M the very best in making these decisions. I grew up on the western slope of Colorado–Durango, lived on the front range for about 20 years, and now live in Helena, MT. I’m enjoying Helena but I’ve always like Montrose, CO–not too far from the San Juans, the Escalante-Dominguez, nor southern Utah. But I have to confess a love of northern New Mexico–Santa Fe and the surrounding area–ancient culture, people of color, great food, mountains and high desert, and the best sunsets anywhere I’ve ever seen.

    1. Any tips on Helena you’d care to share? ;)

      1. How can I be of help? MikeM also resides in Helena.

    2. I live just south of Montrose and have many wonderful things to say about the area.

      1. Lyle and Beth, loads of great places could have but did not make the list. My degree was a good investment in that in this economic climate the job opportunities existed in most places we wanted to consider. Plenty got discarded in the pre-interview or interview phase, there are some sketchy and badly run mental health centers out there.

    3. Interesting. I am thinking of moving to northern New Mexico for many of the reasons you mentioned. History is my first love. I truly did grow up in a culture of deep food traditions myself and know on an emotional level how much ethnic dishes are intertwined with a culure. And I like the variey. Plus it seems to be off the radar for many. And my ex-wife moved to exactly where I was thinking of moving…so I’d rather not put down roots there. I take it as as sign. ;)

  2. The only meaningful comment I can make is, avoid debt at all costs. If you and M choose to buy a house chances are you will have to get a mortgage. Having our own house and a mortgage has factored in some career decisions I made that in retrospect were questionable for my (and S.) happiness in the medium and long term, so I am now lukewarm about houses (S on the other hand hates the impermanence of renting).

    So while I do accept that a mortgage is potentially the only justifiable kind of debt one could incur, I would only make such a huge financial commitment if I knew I would stay put for at least 10 years and knowing I would not end up losing money if I have to sell (making money out of a house is trickier than people think and I would not get into debt for an ‘investment’). To be sure that I’d stay put 10 years or more I would then have to check all the other stuff I care about (you might also want to concern yourself with the potential sale of public land near a place you are scouting out) in a pretty severe way, and your tables are exactly what I’d do, adding many other unavoidable details (schools, energy costs, need to spend a lot of time commuting for instance).

    Finally, as much as I am a grumpy old bastards I admit having a good circle of friends where I live has major and positive effects on my mental health, so I’d say the locals need to be more than congenial, they need to be people you actually like and who actually like you.

    1. We’ve rented for over a decade for exactly the reason you detail, and am ready to buy exactly because we’re ready for this to be the last move for a long time.

      Commuting more than 15 minutes is a non-starter, which makes a place like Flag a toughie due to housing costs.

      As for the intangibles; another title for this post could be “Why do I hate Fruita/Grand Junction?” For obvious geographical and recreational reasons our current location has always been on my short list, but from the first I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve disliked the place. The mountain biking is world class, and the volume of hidden-in-plain-sight canyon hiking is fantastic, but most everything else has fallen flat, which has been tough to understand, especially in the face of having some darn good friends here. Suffice to say that we’re not staying, and at this point I’m in can’t move soon enough mode. Thankfully that date is rapidly approaching.

  3. Great Post.
    The stuff of a life well-lived and the result of many small decisions along the way.
    Au contraire….your analysis does not reek of privilege; it is actually the sane desire for a meaningful life that is sustainable. Why do you think so many relocate to the West, overcrowding our once enviable environs? The life they leave is not acceptable to them. THAT cross country relocation is a privilege. Most surely cannot.
    Too many people and too much wealth lead to such decisions. And every “once-choice” Place has a reverberating refrain….”why did they move here and try to make it just like what they escaped from?” AND that “Second home” phenom is exactly what they do. Part Timers at best; commitment to community?
    I assure you there is a Spot for you three that allows a “double digit chicken nugget” resting place. But ….it will “cost” and is, I suspect, not on the list your graph uses.

    You go man!

  4. What about Joseph/Enterprise, Oregon?
    Elevation: 4200ft
    Vertical in 20 miles: 5600ft
    Latitude: 45.3543° N
    Population: 1000
    County pop density (#/sqmi): 2.2
    Population within 250 miles: 3.7m

    John Day, OR, Yakima, WA, and Idaho Falls, ID are other options that might fulfill your requirements.

    1. Currently in Yakima. We’ve been here for 4 years and have truly grown to love the area. Lots of sunshine and quick access to the Cascades. While we obviously don’t participate in it, there is a heavy amount of gang activity in the east side of town, which sometimes causes you to think “Gosh, I hope I don’t get shot in a drive by today.” I used to feel better about it because the gangs were primarily just shooting eachother (still sad), but lately it seems that there have been more innocent bystanders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
      Needless to say, we’ll be moving back to Missoula in a month, and the increase in safety will be quite welcome.

      1. Not much to complain about with Missoula. Housing/income is less than ideal, as are the winter clouds, but bikeability and Bernice’s more than make up for that.

        Currently living in a places that a mountain bike destination but an amazingly horrid town for actually biking around, the things Missoula does to normalize bike commuting are more appreciated than ever.

        1. Agreed. Coming from a town where it’s not uncommon for bikers to get clipped by vehicles, I’m beyond excited to be moving to a more bike friendly town.

          Never heard of Bernice’s, but will definitely check it out. Feel free to pass on any other Missoula/surround area recommendations. I only spent one summer there during college, so I don’t know the area well. Excited to explore!

        2. The trails are one of the absolute highlights of Missoula; for 7 months of the year it is second to very few places in places one can bike or hike straight from town. Bernice’s for coffee and sweets has only gotten better in the last decade, their various chocolate cakes are beyond superb and a sure bet for special occasions. Since we lived there the breweries have more than doubled, but Bayern was and still is my favorite, both for the excellent dark ales and lagers and the more laid back taproom. Bridge Pizza is the standard quick lunch or dinner, and last year was just as good as ever. Biga Pizza (pronounced Bee ga) is usually stupid crowded, but worth it. I believe they now have a liquour license and are no longer BYOB which is too bad.

        3. Thanks for sharing, Dave! We’ve been to Biga a couple times and loved it.
          Best of luck in your travels.

  5. Interesting to see someone do such a wonderful analysis of all the things I think about on a daily basis.

    I am pretty miserable where I am, and I long to move out West, but even after the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of finding a job, there’s a lot to consider. I really do not want to be around a lot of people, but that has a lot of tradeoffs too. Most days I think it’s worth it though. The house thing is a real kicker though. I cannot afford nor do I want a 350000 house.

    I’m really excited to see where you go, and I wish you the absolute best Dave.

  6. Any thoughts about E. Oregon or Idaho? If you end up thinking of Oregon hit me up cause we’re in the same field

  7. Dave- one more chart needed :) Length of big game season (archery and rifle), % of districts that are general districts (no special permits needed to hunt), opportunities for early backcountry hunts, species to hunt and probably a few I’m forgetting.

    I will say that Helena very likely has the largest “urban” trail system in the west, probably nation???? Urban in quotes as while the myriad of trails here all eventually bump into the city limits, they are almost exclusively single track and cover a wide array of terrain. You can put together hikes/runs/bikes from a mile to 20+ miles very easily.


    1. The hunting stuff is complicated. Suffice to say I’d take residency in eithe MT or AZ. Different sets of benefits but in my book the two best in the west.

  8. This has been something I’ve consistently thought about in the past 2 years and having little obligations I’ve almost convinced myself that SC AK is the only place that makes sense for me aside from distance from family.

    Your thoughts about AK vs lower 48?

    1. Main issue is that for folks with a “normal” work life the extent of wilderness is AK isn’t functionally different than a place like western MT or the Colorado Plateau. For some specific activities (hunting, WW boating) AK does have more/different stuff to offer.

      If you’re in a position to have more than the average amount of free time, in big chunks, the only downside of AK is the dark winter. Especially if you’ll have enough disposal income for bush plane flights.

      1. That is a pretty broad brush you are applying to Alaska – there are plenty of places in Alaska that match that description, but there are lots of places that do not.

        There are more downsides than just the dark winter though, alas. :)

        Best of luck with the move.

  9. Gary and Patti Avatar
    Gary and Patti

    Have you researched the San Luis Valley in CO, Del Norte, specifically? We like it here and it seems it meets a lot of your criteria. It is affordable.

  10. How do you calculate vert delta 20 miles?

    1. Look at a topo map.

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