Friday, June 19, 2015


I can't remember when I first heard the term, "Californication," but I can remember that it came up in a conversation with my uncle Doug, who lives in Walla Walla, Washington.  I'm sure he didn't coin the term, but he did use it correctly: it refers to the way in which Californians seem to ruin parts of the rural West through overdevelopment.  This week, I've driven with my oldest daughter, Lara, through northern Nevada, eastern Idaho and western Montana on our way to visit Montana State University in Bozeman.  Our travels have given me the opportunity to think about, and to some extent, observe the process of Californication in the intermountain West.

On our first day out, we crossed northern Nevada on I-80, turned north on Highway 93 at Wells, and stayed the night at Jackpot.  I always enjoy spending time in the Great Basin.  While the geography might seem monontonous to some, to me, the landscape and skyscape offer rewards if I observe carefully.  As we drove east from Winnemucca, we started seeing ranchland - cows, hayfields and meadows.  We also saw evidence - past and present - of mineral extraction.  What we didn't see, though, was ranchette development.  Californians like to think that 10 or 20 acres qualifies their property as a "ranch."  In Nevada, 10 or 20 acres might feed a cow for a couple of weeks.  I don't think most Californian's are tough enough to Californicate in the Great Basin!

On our second day, we drove through southeastern Idaho up to West Yellowstone, Montana.  From there, we proceeded through the western edge of Yellowstone National Park, down the Gallatin River, and into Bozeman.  Our first clue that we were in ranch country came when we got on the interstate in Twin Falls, Idaho.  We crossed a cattle guard at the end of the on-ramp, and were greeted by an 80 mph speed limit sign.  Lara remarked, "I guess we're not in California anymore!"

Southeastern Idaho is farm country - center pivots, big-bale alfalfa, grain and potatoes - we could have even stopped at the Potato Museum on our drive north!  To an agriculturist, the landscape is beautiful, but again, I didn't see much in the way of ranchettes!  Not much Californication south of Ashton, Idaho, either.

From Ashton to West Yellowstone, the world turned green and lush.  As we crossed into Montana, we drove along the Henry's Fork of the Snake River - and passed a number of campgrounds and resorts.  We also started to see large homes and real estate signs.  North of West Yellowstone, after we left the park, we saw more "cabins" - fancier than any home I've ever lived in.  Over the next several days, as we explored Bozeman, we saw more evidence of ranchette development - extravegant homes on "large" acreages with horse pastures, ponds and swimming pools.

Bozeman itself was beautiful - for a grass farmer, seeing unirrigated verdant meadows in mid-June seemed like a luxury.  If winter wasn't a dirty word for some of my family, I could move to the Gallatin Valley in a heartbeat - it looked like a rancher's dream.  The town was a mix between Davis, California, and Walla Walla - a college town that seemed mindful and proud of its agricultural roots.  People were friendly everywhere we went.  Lara remarked that it wasn't too hippy, but it was hippy enough - and there were still pickups with dogs in the back and guys in Wranglers and boots in town.

On the first morning, I picked up a real estate paper to check ranch prices.  Based on the asking prices and advertising, I think Bozeman may be on the way to Californication.  I guess this is just another way of saying that gentrification is happening in some of the prettiest spots in the West.  Those of us who are attracted to a place primarily because of its agricultural potential are out competed by the wealthy second-homers and vacationers.  Such a cultural shift can't help but change a community in the long run.

Of the places we visited, there were a number where I could live, I think - Ennis, Montana; Tetonia, Idaho; Ruby Valley, Nevada (among others).  The attributes I found attractive - lush meadows, clear rivers, stunning mountains - are attractive to many folks.  This attraction, if left unchecked, can change a place - Tahoe and Truckee come to mind.  In loving a place for its beauty and not for its productivity, we change that place.  I wish I knew how to change this pattern.

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