MONTROSE, Colo. — By day Dan and Bev Bumgarner enjoy a stunning vista of the snowcapped San Juan Mountains. At night the sky above their spread is awash with stars, and coyotes howl in the brown adobe hills. Last year, somebody even shot a mountain lion over at a neighbor's place.
Pretty wild stuff for the suburbs.
The Bumgarners live in Meadow Gate, a subdivision just outside Montrose. When the couple moved in five years ago, their house was a lonely outpost on the southern edge of town.
"There was nothing out here," Bev says. "It was really kind of scary at first."
Now the Bumgarners live in a bona fide suburb, with custom homes going up all around them. The house across the street obscures their view of the mountains, but Dan recently added a small second floor that allows them to see over it. Barely audible in the distance, the rhythmic "chunk-chunk" of pneumatic hammers foretells more obstructed views.
This is the suburbanization of the Great American West.
In a mass quest for the good life, people are transforming the West just as profoundly as they did in the days of homesteads and covered wagons. These new Westerners are tired of living in big cities and sprawling suburbs. They're fed up with smoggy skies, clogged highways and strip malls. Thanks to a booming economy, they have enough money to settle down and enjoy life for a change, in beautiful places far removed from crime and pollution and traffic.
As America glides into the information economy, the shift is affecting the West like nowhere else. What used to be an almost mythical land of miners, loggers and cowboys has become a place where the super-rich go to build their second homes; where prosperous baby boomers go to ski and retire; where businesses go now that the Internet and Federal Express have freed them to settle even in the most remote places.
"It's all driven by the stock market and all the incredible wealth that people are generating in this country," says Tom Perlic, executive director of the Western Colorado Congress, a coalition of grass-roots environmental groups.
The newcomers are revitalizing and stabilizing towns once plagued by a boom-and-bust economy. But everybody who arrives brings along a little piece of what they left behind. That means McDonalds. Wendy's. Taco Bell. Strip malls. Suburbs.
"People come here for the things we all want. And by coming here they destroy the things they came for," says Montrose real estate appraiser Marv Ballantyne.
Between 1990 and 1999, the population of the Mountain West grew 25.4%, faster than any other part of the country. The five fastest-growing states in the country--Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Colorado--are all in the region.
The effects are being felt in big cities like Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas, where traffic and sprawl have been major headaches for years. But things are really booming in the hinterland.
Archuleta County in southern Colorado grew 70.5% between 1990 and 1998. Teton County, Idaho, grew 59.6%. Montrose County, where the Bumgarners settled, has grown 26%.
White people started settling the Montrose area in 1882, days after the native Ute tribe ceded the Uncompahgre Valley to the U.S. Army. The new settlers transformed a wilderness with rifles, railroads and barbed wire. They lived off the land, taking things of value from it and shipping them to faraway cities.
In those times, Montrose was a dusty cow town of 125 houses served irregularly by a narrow-gauge railroad. Residents could pursue drinking and gambling 24 hours a day in any of 16 saloons.
A Utah Town Reborn
Today, there are more banks in Montrose than bars. The population of the city and the surrounding county has grown to 30,000. There are golf courses and senior centers. Super Wal-Mart. Burger King. There is an airport with regular service to Denver.
There is even a new concrete skateboard park, with a scene right out of a Mountain Dew commercial.
"It's an interesting transition," says Steve Jenkins, executive director of the Montrose Economic Development Council.
For a look at what that transition may bring, drive west over the San Juan Mountains into the red rock canyons of Utah. Moab, the gateway to Arches National Park, is a community that has spent the last 20 years turning itself from a company mining town into the tourism capital of southern Utah.
Nearly every job in Moab disappeared the day the Atlas uranium mine closed in 1982. People moved out so fast that one house in four sat empty.
Like everybody else in town, brothers Bill and Robin Groff, a private pilot and mining engineer, needed something to do with their time now that the mine was closed. Even more than that, they needed money. So the brothers and their father put their combined life savings into a bicycle shop.
The Groffs started calling people in the fledgling mountain bike industry, inviting them to Moab. They'd take anybody who showed up for a ride on the Slickrock Trail, a 10.5-mile track just outside town.