The West: Finding the Dream?


Bozeman, Mont. -- Drawn to the American West for its promise of opportunity and wide-open spaces, 20th-century homesteaders are rediscovering the lustrous land that author Wallace Stegner once called "Hope's native home."

Not unlike their forbears, millions of pioneers are pointing their Broncos, Pathfinders and Blazers toward communities across the Western United States in search of "home" on the range.

But are they finding it?

The Western region, according to the U.S. Census, has become a magnet for much of the nation's population growth. With the exception of California, the West grew at a rate of 1.7 percent, the highest of any region, in the year ending July 1. The fastest-growing states are in the West, led by Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona and Utah.

But a new study by Montana State University sociologist Patrick Jobes -- 20 years in the making -- suggests people are putting the West in the rear-view mirror after living here for only a few years.

"People have this fantasy, this notion of community," said Mr. Jobes. "What's happening is they're finding people like themselves, then after two or three years they begin to grumble about the growth caused by people like themselves. As it turns out, they haven't actually found the community they're looking for, so they move on."

Calvin Beale, a U.S. Department of Agriculture senior demographer and one of the nation's foremost experts on rural migration, said the West historically has experienced constant shifting patterns among its population.

"There's lots of churning, if you will," Mr. Beale said. "It seems to be a cultural phenomenon, more so than in the rural East or other parts of rural America. The West is really so different than other parts of the country."

Mr. Beale is reviewing population statistics for the first 2 1/2 years of this decade, which suggest that rural counties nationwide are gaining growth -- more so than in the 1980s, but less than during the "back-to-the-land" movement of the 1970s.

He added that most folks who move West are likely stay within the Western region, even though they might move from state to state.

"There is still growth, despite the number of those who move on. There's a lot of coming and going, but practically every area in the West that is not heavily dependent on agriculture, timber or ++ mining other than gold is growing. The whole blessed West is growing."

Folks are seeking out the frontier for any number of reasons -- to escape urban ills, to find a sense of community and belonging, even for spiritual fulfillment. Technology has also made it possible for "modem cowboys," such as writers, stockbrokers, telemarketers and consultants, to live anywhere they choose, creating a new breed of frontiersmen.

"People want to get back to their roots. They want life to be a little less sophisticated even though, interestingly enough, it is technology that's allowing many of us to make the move," said Marilyn Ross, who with her husband Tom wrote "Country Bound!: Trade Your Business Suit Blues for Blue Jean Dreams." The Rosses, who are publishing and marketing consultants, live in Buena Vista, Colo., a community of 2,500 in the Rockies.

"For the first time in decades, the population of rural communities is increasing," said Mrs. Ross, a senior associate with Center for the New West, a Denver-based think tank. "I think that puts into perspective what everyone is sensing. There is a definite relocation trend, and much of it is out West. But what people have to realize is that this lifestyle isn't suited for everyone."

Writer and filmmaker Victoria Westermark moved to Billings, Mont., from Los Angeles last fall. She had grown up in Montana and yearned for a quieter space. Hers is a cautionary tale.

"If you're going to fit in, you better be creative," she said. "Geographically, this is still a pretty remote area, and it's not a place that's rife with jobs. People have in their minds that living in the West is the most idyllic life in the world. Certainly, there are times when you feel that way. But a place doesn't cure. There are challenges.

"This is still a very special place. But you can be in love with someone and still tell them that they need to brush their teeth. You can love someone and still see their flaws," Ms. Westermark added. "The West is a fancy and an escape route for a lot of people, just as it was in the 19th century. The West is a state of mind. Over-reverence and fantasy and glamorizing something can be the kiss of death -- for a place and for a person."

On average, according to the Jobes study, seven out of 10 people moved to Bozeman from urban areas.

Most moved away after four years, and half cited jobs or the economy as the reason. Other explanations included failed marriages, disappointment with the school system and medical problems.

Four out of five people who left had said initially that they planned to stay permanently.

"People come here because they're looking for something called community in something called 'The West,' " said Mr. Jobes, whose survey included research in Colorado and Wyoming.

He concluded the study several months ago after interviewing, over a period of 20 years, 1,000 out-of-staters who had made the move to Montana.

"They may as well be moving to Santa Fe, Lake Tahoe or Boise, Idaho. People specifically mention coming West, but they don't understand the differences in place," he said. "It's very naive."

Some of the more sought-after communities in the West, according to Mr. Jobes' research, include Bozeman and Kalispell in Montana; Park City, Utah; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Silver City, N.M.; Prescott, Ariz.; Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and Reno-Lake Tahoe in Nevada.

"There is an underlying mythos [about the West] that people are honestly picking up on in their hearts. People honestly want a community, but they don't know how to go about getting it. There's a deep hunger to connect with people. But to satisfy that," Mr. Jobes said. "you have to stay."

Pam Houston -- whose 1992 collection of short stories, "Cowboys Are My Weakness," became a national best-seller -- recently rented an apartment in Oakland, Calif., just days after buying her dream ranch in Colorado. Ms. Houston, who is from New Jersey, has lived in Utah for the last nine years,

"I spent 10 years getting as far away from civilization as I could," said Ms. Houston, 32. "I found this land in Colorado, spent a ton of money on it, then woke up two days later and said, 'Oh my God, I need to be in a city. What have I been hiding from? Why haven't I wanted to be in a community?' My largest concentration of friends is in the Bay Area. So, I'm here now. One of these days, I'll wind up on the ranch, but I'm loving being in the middle of culture. I didn't consciously miss it all those years in Utah, but I love it here -- the music, the water, the people who look differently from the other."

Ms. Houston is now writing an "intellectual love story" from her apartment in Oakland. The novel, she said, is set in Seattle.

Ellen Uzelac, a former reporter for The Sun, is a free-lance writer.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad