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Welcome to the Potato State--Now Go Home : Idaho: Californians fleeing big-city problems have been met with resentment by their new neighbors.

August 08, 1994|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COEUR D'ALENE, Ida. — Each year, the winds of August bring a smoky controversy to this bustling Northwest city, pitting a stubborn stock of locals against a quirky new breed of resident: The ex-Californian.

That's when farmers set fire to 40,000 acres of bluegrass in a time-tested technique to add nitrogen to the soil and increase crop yields. Throughout August--prime tourist season in rural northern Idaho--the skies above Kootenai County blacken with billowing plumes of soot, a surefire signal of the Potato State's biggest rhubarb.

Like thousands of other environmentally conscious California transplants, John Mann watches the streaks of smoke trail low over Coeur d'Alene Lake and its international-resort hotel, over blue-collar housing tracts sprouting from once-virgin forest land and massive, newly built mansions that locals refer to as "California dance halls."

And he fumes.

"You show me somebody who doesn't complain about the smoke and I'll show you an idiot," says the former Thousand Oaks resident, frowning in distaste. "But these farmers are given free rein--just because this is the way they've always done things.

"I just don't get it. This would never happen in California."

The bluegrass burn-off is just one volley in a cultural clash being waged in this tradition-bound town of 28,000 residents less than 100 miles south of the Canadian border. Californians, weary of the crime, earthquakes and overcrowding back home, have come here by the carload, bringing with them fat home equities and what the locals regard as curious big-city attitudes.

Californians are moving northward in search of a rural solace many believe can no longer be found in the country's most populous state. Between 1991 and 1993, a reported 28,202 Californians moved to Idaho, making up nearly 27% of the state's 98,446 new residents. In the same period, 5,315 of those California transplants moved to Kootenai County, nearly 40% of its newcomers.

California provides more than twice as many emigres to Idaho as second-place Washington state. And even many of the latter, according to Idaho state transportation officials who tally newcomer origins through auto license plate transfers, are once-removed Californians who moved on after finding the growing congestion of Seattle and Puget Sound too much like home.

Those numbers are fueled in part by a growing number of San Fernando Valley residents weary of the noise and drive-by shootings as well as what they call the outrageous price of doing business in places like Van Nuys, Chatsworth and North Hollywood.

John Mann left Thousand Oaks and a career as a stockbroker because he hate L.A. traffic and cultural tensions. "I'm no racist, but I just got tired of being a minority in Los Angeles, tired of explaining English to 7-Eleven clerks and counting their change for them," he said.

"And I'd go orbital, absolutely berserk, if I had to sit in traffic. I'd hyperventilate, pound on the wheel. Once I chased a guy, doing 105 m.p.h. on the Simi Valley Freeway, because I was sick of him cruising my neighborhood at 11 p.m. with his boom box blaring."

Inspired by such suburban pioneers, the centuries-long westward migration to the Pacific has taken a decided turn to the north as tens of thousands of Californians follow The Dream to states such as Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Colorado.

For most Southern Californians, this new life has been a bit of northern exposure--searching for their own private Idaho, a niche among the strait-laced and sometimes cranky native population who wear the term local like some Great Northwest badge of honor.

Barbara Lund, a 40ish ex-model from the City of Industry, had such a hard time adjusting to Idaho men that she founded a dating club for California transplants, attracting dozens of lonely hearts, frozen out of or self-exiled from the Idaho singles scene.

"Idaho," Lund sums it up, "can be a very lonely place."

The name Coeur d'Alene was coined centuries ago by Native American hunters, angered by French traders they thought were low-balling fur prices. They called them small-hearted men. Hence, the story goes, Coeur d'Alene means, roughly, "heart the size of an alene, " a small leather-piercing tool the Native Americans used.

Today in Coeur d'Alene, many locals are lashing back at what they regard as a new small-hearted invasion, of big-city "kooks" whose very appearance and every action affronts their traditional values.

"There's a stereotype of Californians here," said David Bond, a reporter for the Coeur d'Alene Press. "They roller-blade around town in neon, glow-in-the-dark clothes. They put fences around their land and call the Forest Service all winter long, complaining that locals are killing the deer."

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