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New to Montana? Get used to the tough life

Affluent urban invaders looking for simplicity find the going bumpy in Big Sky country.

October 15, 2002|Dana Calvo | Times Staff Writer

BOZEMAN, Mont. — Eventually, they all call Lee Provence.

Bumping along in his pickup with his black Labrador, Molly, barking in the flatbed, Provence stared straight ahead, shifted into four-wheel-drive and reeled off bleak statistics. As road and bridge superintendent for Gallatin County, he manages 1,100 miles of road with six plow trucks and a budget of $3.5 million. From that pot, he also has to pay for equipment repairs and the salaries and benefits of 32 full-time staffers.

Fixing every road is not an option.

"Neurotic people are moving here," Provence said. "I've had people call my mother a whore because I wouldn't pave their road."

One irate man called to report that a dirt road near his office had deteriorated into a dusty washboard and was impassable. Provence drove down and agreed. He was sympathetic enough to send a crew to grade the road, cover it with fresh gravel and sprinkle an inexpensive binder on top of it to hold it all in place.

A few days later the man called with a new complaint. The binder, he griped, contained red clay that was splattering his otherwise sparkling SUV.

Gallatin County officials have a strategy to help disgruntled new arrivals adjust. This month, they spent $8,000 to publish a "Code of the West" -- a sort of cowboy etiquette guide to bridge the cultural disconnect. They are not alone. Four other fast-growing counties in Idaho, Colorado and Montana have resorted to printing pamphlets when down-home diplomacy failed.

Hemmed in by four mountain ranges and patrolled by bushy-tailed coyotes too brazen to postpone their rounds until nightfall, Gallatin County has never been for the faint of heart. This is a place for people like County Auditor Joyce Schmidt, who wears a .357 magnum to work, even though that's not in her job description. It's a place for rancher Jim Kack, who laughs off talk about the full-grown bear that pressed its wet, black nose against his kitchen window.

But in the last few years, new settlers have staked their claims here, and evidence of their arrival is everywhere, from newspaper classified ads for housekeepers to secondhand clothing stores stocked with fine women's slacks.

These new pioneers want country living without sacrificing any of the amenities of big-city life. But Montana is nothing like the home they left behind. Montana is about rugged self-sufficiency. To make it here, one must endure nine-month winters, poor electrical service, slow emergency response systems and rough back roads that rumble to abrupt stops a few hundred feet from some homes.

Gallatin's 20-page "Code of the West" will be displayed in the offices of government workers, real estate agents and home title agents. The target audience is clear, and the tone is firm, if not slightly intimidating.

Among the issues it addresses: If you call emergency services, don't expect an immediate response. If you have trash, figure out where you're supposed to haul it, because there's no curbside pickup. And if you choose not to build a fence, don't complain if a cow or a horse tramples your front lawn.

Gallatin County can get as much as 6 feet of snow, so the manual cautions, "It is not unusual for a county snowplow to block your driveway with snow during plowing. Remember, it is illegal to remove snow from your driveway into a county right-of-way. Find another location to store snow."

It's a straight-shootin' method of dealing with a new kind of hubris from strangers who want to perform municipal cosmetic surgery -- a nip here, a tuck there and a smoothing out of every back road.

Kieran Kobell, a retired federal law enforcement agent from New York, arrived here with his wife in April 1998 and immediately volunteered at the firehouse and adopted a stretch of highway near Yellowstone National Park.

Almost as quickly, though, he asked an attorney to look into the county's obligation to pave some roads near his subdivision in Big Sky. On a recent morning, Kobell stood ramrod straight in crisp, clean jeans and a pressed, Wrangler, snap-button cowboy shirt and admitted he's a bit defensive about his reputation as a rabble-rouser.

"People say here, 'This is the way it's been done for 20 years,' " Kobell said. "My response is, 'It's not 20 years ago. Get with the time.' "

Novelist Zane Grey first wrote of the "Code of the West" in 1934, outlining neighborly rules laid down by settlers for their fellow "cowmen." The common-sense concept inspired John Clarke, a commissioner of Larimer County, a fast-growing agricultural region along Colorado's northern border.

Larimer's population grew by more than 35% during the 1990s, and Clarke said he could hear the urban sprawl through his phone. He nearly lost it one day, after a man who had just purchased a home next to a dairy farm called to complain about the pungent smell wafting through his windows.

"This is the gentrification of the West," Clarke said. "People moving here don't make their living from the land."

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