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.
For 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.
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 statsamerica.org, 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.