Another common question is from folks, like me, who grew up east of the Mississippi River, and would like to move closer to proper mountains and Big wilderness. While the answer, and the process to get one, depends greatly on personal preference and position in life, the question should be how, rather than if. M and I moved west permanently not long before this blog got started, and moved from Des Moines to Prescott in a partly full Xterra with 3 bikes on the roof. I no more regret those years in our 20s, renting, building furniture from scrap wood and forest logs, and riding bikes for endless hours everywhere, than I do the current years in our late 30s, raising kids and staying home on weekends doing remodels on a 1880s house, with unknown mountains in our back yard.
The impact of the choices which led us to these places have no been inconsequential. I’ve turned down jobs and turned away from career paths that would have brought more money, and sooner. I eliminated a raft of more prestigious (and probably, just plain better) grad schools because they weren’t in the right location. Our families have gone through a hell of a lot more bother and expense visiting us over the decades, especially when (like now) we’ve been in places with little regional airports, several connections and many miles from anything “major.”
Moving is, in short, not just a life choice, not even a lifestyle choice, but an existential once. The prime benefit, added up over all these years of adulthood, has not been in the big adventures, or the small daily ones made possible by backyard woods and trails, or the dreams fostered seamlessly by the craggy evidence on the horizon, it is the absence of what ifs. What would it be like to live in a given location, to really live there? We know, because we did.
After you have passed through the decision, it is, for most people, time to think about employment and money. In this respect the west is not really different from the midwest: more people in an area mean more opportunity, more economic competition, and thus more money. The smallest towns, which in the west and midwest (and I assume the south and NE) generally exist due to farming, usually have few job options outside ag or extractive industry. If career and personal preference intersect rightly (or wrongly), the question then becomes whether Denver or Salt Lake will be, for you, be all that distinct from Chicago or St Louis. Will you be motivated to fight ski traffic each weekend? Will you be able to sneak out early enough during the week to make bouldering in Little Cottonwood or a ride in Buff Creek a regular feature? Will the views, lifestyle, image, and diminished drive time for the occasional outside vacation be reward enough?
Large towns and small cities provide a realistic medium, with enough opportunity for most folks to make a living, while being close enough to the woods that integrating such into daily life alongside everything else is doable without monumental and potentially unsustainable investments in time and bother.
This where the real parsing starts, when it comes to preferences in recreation and climate and general atmosphere, as well as the more sticky questions of political climate and human vibe. 3 and a half years ago, when we were at the end of our own, theoretically final search for a place to settle, I wrote a good deal about choosing a place for the physical aspects, and on how one might use demographic data to spitball some of the human and cultural factors. And this is where the second sentence of that email I often get comes in, something to the effect of “we want to move west, and want to end up in a town close to the mountains, but are worried about the rednecks/mormons/republicans/cowboys/etc.”
In 21st century America, in most cities* it seems like you know what you’re going to get, or at least what you’ll be able to choose. This isn’t to say that Colorado Springs is the same as Cincinnati, but it is to say that both will have an Olive Garden, maybe 3 Olive Gardens, and that both will have streets and malls and traffic lights that could as easily be in one as the other. In cities, and increasingly in large towns, idiosyncracy and the legacy of regionalism is something one can choose to experience, rather than it being obligatory. Our little city of Helena is an ideal example. The town grew up around the gold mines, which were dug into placer (i.e. alluvial) deposits in the bed of a small creek as it exited the mountains. The old part of town, and the entirety of the old city (in 1900 the most millionaires per capita on earth) was built close to that gulch, the result being that today the city streets grid out along often steep, north facing hillsides. A silly place for a car-based society to exist north of the 46th parallel. The lions share of growth in Helena (the number of single family homes in Montana has doubled in the past 40 years) has taken place north, on the flats, where land half a century ago was less thickly occupied, simpler to build on, and more pragmatically located during the snowy months. It is there you find the parts of Helena that could, in America, be anywhere. Not yet Olive Garden, but Lowes, Hobby Lobby, and Applebees. There isn’t a socioeconomic chasm between any of the neighborhoods in Helena, but if you spent a month hanging in the front desk of one elementary school down on the flats and another up on the hill you’d notice some distinct differences.
Helena is also the state capitol, and that steady source of non-tourist based, non-extractive or ag based income has made it almost unique amongst Montana cities. This is the single biggest difference between city and town demographics in the west compared to elsewhere; the influence that tourism and trophy/destination/second residences have on one place, compared to another. As I wrote three years ago, how a town gets its money matters a great deal, and tourism/second home/retirement based locations 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.” Ski towns (Crested Butte, Whitefish) are often wholly this, with the full time inhabitants whose labor shapes daily existence hanging in the background. As more and more boomers retire, the largess of that generation has hybridized more and more places. We’ve seen this at play in Missoula, heavily, in the decade since we lived there. It’s both a trophy destination and a proper city, the question being how far the former can go without irrevocably impacting the later.
Tourism, in short, is not a sustainable answer to how a community can exist. What is an answer, as many of the non-trophy towns in the west are discovering, is outdoor infrastructure and preservation as a lure for talent. You’ll likely take a hit to your functional income, in either absolute terms or relative to cost of living, by moving from Decatur or Columbus to Helena or Flagstaff, but the intangibles are easy to make center of the argument when they consist of good air and an easy walk or bike to hundreds of miles of trails. Even if the current move to remote work winds up being less extensive than predicted, I expect the pandemic to have a broad and lasting impact on these types of western towns and cities, potentially permanently increasing tax bases by significant percentages.
All of that being a long and circuitous way of saying that one of the compromises inherent to moving out west, and moving to what I’ll quite seriously call a real town out here, is living around people who are different. One of the chief complaints from old timers, directed at all of the above, is not just about the coming of Starbucks and new neighbors who can’t drive in the snow or know which shot size to use on grouse. It is about people not wanting, but tacitly expecting the amenities and convenience of modern culture, as it is fully instantiated elsewhere, to catch up with them, fast. The homogeneity which inevitably comes along is rarely given full, conscious consideration as such. Most people, old timers and city slickers alike, like Starbucks (and Maroon 5). Plenty of people will even look you in the face and deny the coherence of this sort of creeping intracultural colonialism. But those people are simply wrong.
The final matter then, after you’ve chosen an experience for the rest of your life, is to seek out the relevant particulars of climate and favored activities. You can ski in Arizona, of course, but if you really like skiing moving to Arizona doesn’t make the most sense. (Do the math though; actual weekend drive time from Payson to Durango or Taos might not be as different from Denver to Vail as geography would suggest.) If you really like whitewater it is hard to make a case for not somewhere west of the Divide and north of the basin and range. Many activities are more adaptable and subject to creative exploration than you might suppose, though. Montana is synonymous with fly fishing (and increasingly EVERYONE seems to be out doing it, even when no fish is eating within 15 feet of the surface), but climate probably allows longer functional seasons in both New Mexico and California. Does Nevada have good fly fishing? I would imagine so, and not having heard much about it, or any activity being tied to a given place, is not evidence of it not being possible there, or even darn good. If we’ve learned anything from living out west, it is that climate and proximal population, along with the history of land development (or more specifically, the lack) have far more influence on the outdoor side of ones lifestyle than terrain or trails. In California, it is harder to get away from people. In Colorado, harder to get away from roads. In Arizona, harder to get away from the sun. And in Montana, harder to get away from the snow (thank goodness).
There are plenty of poor choices, but the worst choice is the one left unmade.
*I’ve never lived on either coast for more than a few months. Bite me.
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