It’s not always easy living in the rural West, with customs so ingrained that everyone takes them for granted. What makes things difficult for newcomers is that they are trapped in a mysterious culture.
Learning the code of the Old West was easy decades ago. Novelist Zane Gray’s “Code of the West” told men to wear a hat only outdoors, never nod to someone on horseback, and treat women with chivalry. You were also advised, and were always assumed to be male, to remove your gun belt before sitting down to eat.
But here we are in 2022, and from what county officials and some jaundiced newcomers tell me, the cultural confusion for newcomers almost always starts with private property. For example, novices tend to get angry at their limits and may not believe they have to fence cattle.
Wyoming, of course, is a classic fenced-in state where cows outnumber people more than 2 to 1. Irrigation is another area of contention, as water law can be murky. A ditch may run close to your property, but that doesn’t mean you can draw water from it.
To ease the transition from urban to rural, I’ve compiled 10 tips guaranteed to make your new life easier. But first, know that you will never become a veteran, though with patience you could become what Western historian Hal Rothman called a “neonate.” Here’s hoping this helps:
Always greet neighbors when you see them and make eye contact with everyone who passes you, whether in a car or on foot. This is not a challenge; It means you are a neighbor. And be friendly to everyone you see at the post office because you’ll see them everywhere. You can even see their dual characters, as many locals must work two or even three jobs to pay their rent.
Never take a long walk in new boots. Bring enough water and food for yourself and to share. Bring raincoat and sweater and waterproof matches. The saying “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” is accurate. And when someone on a hike assures you that “it’s all downhill,” it’s only partially uphill. “A little technical” means the mountain has hair-raising sections, while “just around the corner” means the end of the trail isn’t.
Realize that no one is more important than anyone else. Rich and poor can wear tattered clothes. The notable figures of the city are probably the dogs; learn their names.
Know that it is considered rude to insult a person’s dog, but if you go onto your land and harass your cattle, you can shoot the dog. If your dog chases wild animals, he will face a big fine and maybe worse.
Flashing the headlights of oncoming cars is a good way to go if there’s a hazard ahead, usually a deer, or maybe a sheriff’s deputy tracking speeding drivers.
Keep in mind that law enforcement people aren’t the only people who carry guns, and a gun on the hip doesn’t necessarily indicate a political party.
Always stop to help people on a trail or road because federal agencies are too spread out for quick rescues. Locals would stop to help you, even if the logo on your hat doesn’t reflect your politics.
You might be mindlessly bored, but you’ll learn what local public service is all about if you take samples from school board meetings to county commission. And immediately volunteer for a nonprofit or two, while subscribing to your local newspaper if you’re lucky enough to have one.
Clean jeans are considered dressed up.
Give up saying you’re pretty good at something unless you have a death wish. For example, in Durango, Flagstaff, or Jackson, calling yourself a “good” mountain biker or skier is an invitation to be politely left behind at noon.
Bonus tip: If you’re thinking of buying a house next to a yard littered with old farm implements, don’t be tempted. That garden collection is permanent. However, complaining rarely works in the rural setting he has adopted. A painful lesson could be that whether you like it or not, you can only change yourself. Wagon wheels are always a safe decoration.
Dave Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering lively conversations about the West. He grew up in rural Colorado.
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