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New Code of the West - 2002-11-24

Would it bother you to find the neighbors' cattle grazing on your front lawn? Just how long can you live without power when it's minus-six degrees and snowing outside? Those aren't standard questions for most prospective homeowners… unless they're looking to move to parts of the rural west.

Bruce Dukyers had always dreamed of owning a bit of land where he could run a few horses and gaze out on a little piece of paradise. Ten years ago, the dream came true. He and his wife Gretchen abandoned suburban Chicago for a fourteen hectare spread in Montana's spectacular Madison ValleY. "The mountains change continually, I look out at Sphinx Mountain. I often take picture of it just because I love the way it looks in different qualities of light," she says.

Other aspects of their new life took a little more getting used to.

The Duykers found themselves in a place where cowboys still drive cattle down the main highway. That might sound terribly romantic, but not if you're in a hurry to get to town. And at the same time they were learning to live with cowboys, the Duykers had to learn to live without a lot of services they'd taken for granted in the suburbs. "Taking the garbage to the dump was one big surprise," she says. "I really didn't expect to have to do that."

And the dump-like pretty much everything else-is many miles away, over roads that took a heavy toll on the Duykers' vehicles.

The Rocky Mountain West grew at two to three times the national rate during the past decade. Retirees and urban refugees are changing the look and feel of the region, bringing with them new demands and expectations that are causing some tension.

"I hear it's a constant stream of complaints. ..and I wonder why… how they could be happy, says "Laurie Schmidt, who owns a small isolated resort just outside of Yellowstone National Park. At least, it used to be isolated. Now her place abuts a huge subdivision of 8-hectare parcels, home to neighbors with a laundry list of disappointments. "Lack of county services, like road plowing. Lack of mail service to a convenient location. Neighbors who do things that they don't likebuild things in their view, have dogs that come over into their yard, have horses that they don't like the smell of," she says. "They're friendly enough, but when you get a call from them it's always because they want something, they have a problem." To reduce frustration on all sides, rural counties in Colorado, Idaho and Montana are distributing modern day Codes of the West. Where an earlier Code warned you never to try on another cowboy's hat, these new pamphlets remind landowners not to assume that just because water crosses their property, they can actually use it. They explain that livestock may have the run of the land, unless you fence it out. That wildlife is dangerous, cattle stink, cell phone service is spotty and winters are severe and very long.

Not exactly a sales pitch. But Montana realtor Toni Bowen often hands out her local Code to prospective buyers. "Well, I think it helps them, and if it scares them off, then they shouldn't be here," she says.

Full disclosure, Ms. Bowen says, is both ethical and practical. "I think it's so important that people know what they're getting into before they come here, before they buy," she says. "I don't want them disappointed, and I don't want to be sued, either."

Geographer William Travis of the University of Colorado agrees that a well-written code can be very helpful. "But it's also, kind of separates those in the know from those out of the know," he says.

In other words, those dire warnings often serve another, less altruistic purpose. "I think some of that was actually, makes the long-term residents, the locals, if you will, sort of feel that they're rugged individualists who could put up with these hardships and the newcomers were kind of urban refugees who were going to be soft, who weren't going to be able to deal with rural life. So some of it is a little self-aggrandizement," he says.

Historically, every wave of Western settlers has looked down their noses at those who come after them. It's a snobbery that newcomer Bruce Duykers discovered when he made the mistake of complaining to a local about a bad windstorm. "And he said, 'How long you lived here?' I said, 'Well, about a month.' He said, 'Til you've lived here 35 years, you don't have any right to say anything about the wind.' So there is an attitude out here-Code of the West or whatever, you know, and it's basically, shut up and like it, and if you don't, move on," he says.

That's exactly what the Duykers are doing. They didn't mind the cows or the cold, but they've decided that their Montana dream home is just a little too isolated, and it's up for sale.