A modern code of the West


Neighbors: Rural areas are sharing common-sense advice to ease the transition for city-slicker newcomers.

April 23, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

WENATCHEE, Washington - When Californians Dave and Laurie Schmidt moved to Montana in the 1980s, they knew the dirt road to their cabin - a route that takes visitors over a river and through a ghost town - would disappear under mounds of snow for months every year.

They knew that there'd be no curbside trash or recycling pickup and that they'd probably have to drive several miles on rutted country roads to pick up their mail. But that's what the adventurous couple wanted - and that's what they got.

So they were surprised when some of their neighbors - recent arrivals from distant cities who'd purchased 20-acre ranchettes with dreams of a quiet, rural existence - started to complain about the absence of such amenities.

"They thought that if they bought the land, someone would bring the services to them," says Laurie Schmidt, who with her husband manages Wade Lake Cabins resort 30 miles west of Yellowstone National Park. "They figured the county was going to take care of it."

But rather than bash the newcomers for their city-slicker naivete, Schmidt and friends decided to educate them; let them in on time-tested country-living maxims such as "cows smell," "snowstorms happen," and "dirt roads wash out."

Catching on

The concept of a modern-day Code of the West - based on the kind of cowboy common sense made popular by Western writer Zane Grey - is catching on in Colorado, Idaho and Arizona.

Most recently, Chelan County in Washington adopted a code, which has been distributed at Town Hall.

Grey, who wrote about hardy, self-reliant men and women on America's Western frontier, romanticized a code that warned one cowboy not to try on another's hat.

The new pamphlets explain that cattle may have the run of the land unless you fence them out, cellular phone service may be iffy, and potholes may prove hazardous to luxury-model sport utility vehicles.

"Some people think that we are trying to deter people from locating in Chelan County," says Buell Hawkins, a beefy tractor salesman and chairman of the Chelan County Commission. "But that's not the case. We are trying to make people aware of what they should expect."

Chelan County, nestled at the base of the Cascade Mountains, about 96 miles east of Seattle, is probably best known for its apple, peach and cherry orchards. During harvest season, busloads of tourists flock to the area to experience the simple pleasure of plucking a perfect peach from a leafy bough.

Price for growth

Enchanted by the region's bucolic setting and stunning mountain vistas, more visitors are returning to build showcase homes on far-flung terraces. With a population of about 58,000, Chelan County is one of the fastest-growing areas in Washington, attracting urban professionals yearning to escape city stress.

But this surge of growth has not come without growing pains, says Hawkins, referring to newcomers who whine about the poor conditions of roads, unreliable septic systems, the noisy drone of orchard machinery and foul odor of agricultural pesticides.

"I get calls from people who say, `I need you to do something about this wind machine,'" says Hawkins, referring to machines that circulate air to keep fruit from freezing. " `It goes off every morning, and I am trying to sleep.'"

Charles Jeffers, 47, a Chelan County native who runs a sedan service to the Wenatchee regional airport but has never traveled in an airplane, says he finds some of the newcomers bothersome. They complain about the cold, he says, as well as the "inhumane" use of dogs to hunt wild game.

"They say things like, `You have to wait an hour for the bus?'" Jeffers says. "`Oh, goodness.'"

Risks of building

Chelan County's Code of the West - E. John Clarke, a former elected official from Larimer County, Colo., wrote the first one in 1995 - includes helpful hints about the risks of building in a forest (wildfires are unpredictable and devastating) or on a steep slope (rockslides could reduce your dream home to a pile of sticks.)

The Chelan County code also includes tips for dealing with rattlesnakes, bobcats and mountain lions as well as a warning to animal-rights activists that "hunting is a tool for managing wildlife populations. It also involves individuals who may trespass, litter and fire guns. Don't assume your property is in a no shooting zone."

Response to the code has been positive, says Hawkins, even among real estate agents, some of whom make a living selling large expanses of forested land to wide-eyed settlers.

"One can't have a city perspective and survive in a rural environment," says Kathy Emerick of Windermere Real Estate in Chelan County. "The Code of the West does place an awareness on the buyer to do their due diligence. To ask questions like, `Is there going to be power there?' How will I get water?'"

Not all `latte folks'

Still, when news of the central Washington county's code made it across the Cascades, some Seattle-ites struck back with a set of rules.

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