What’s it Like to Move to the Country Side From the City?
I get this question ALL the time, and seem to be the go-to friend-of-a-friend that people call or find on Facebook to ask "What is it like to live in Montana?” or "I want to move from the city to the country, will I like it?" There's no question that 2020 has seen droves of people leaving densely packed urban areas. Cities have become more and more overcrowded and personally, I can’t imagine being quarantined in my old Brooklyn loft, or San Francisco Railroad apartment during Coronavirus, so it makes sense to me.
Because of the ability for people to work remotely, we’re seeing what is being called a “land grab” in Montana - folks from cities buying up land and homes off the internet, without even seeing it in person. Affordable housing and open spaces makes it attractive. Montanans used to say “If you come to Montana, make sure to bring your money” because there are so few jobs here - in fact, Montana continually ranks at the top of the charts for being one of the lowest wage states, and that kept people from moving here for decades. It’s common to see locals working two or three jobs to get by. So now that folks can keep their high paying tech jobs and come live in a dreamy cabin in the woods, many people who have been ‘stuck’ in cities are asking what it’s like to move to the country side, so having made that move a few years ago, I’ll answer with my honest experience.
First some background: I bounced between Fortune 500 advertising, and non-profit conservation work, and then worked in mindfulness in major metropolitan areas for twenty-five years. I lived in Minneapolis, then San Francisco, Frankfurt, London, San Francisco, Brooklyn (Williamsburg) and Los Angeles (Venice Beach.) In that order. And was fortunate to get to travel the world and see almost all the major cities for my career (on someone else’s dime, yea!) But I had grown up in Fargo and spent summers on a remote lake in Minnesota, and I always, always craved nature and felt a nature deficiency in cities, as much as I loved the urban lifestyle. But city parks did not cut it for me and trying to get out to the Catskills with the rest of the NYC, or hike on a packed trail in Malibu didn’t help my nature cravings.
So, in 2014, newly single, I moved to Montana to get my kids closer to nature and to my family. We first landed in Whitefish, Montana, just 20 minutes from my parents and 11 minutes to the ski mountain. Whitefish was a great soft landing. It’s a tourist destination and gorgeous small town with good restaurants, a couple of theaters, bars and….things like building codes, city design, common community values - it’s really a small “liberal” pocket in Montana, like Missoula or Billings. But, as in most small towns, adults have had their friend groups their whole lives, most people my age were married, and many folks grew up here and their families are nearby, so that’s who they spend their spare time with. Being in my 40’s, single and new to town, it was great to be near family and in nature but the social change was tough, no denying that. So, there’s my first note of caution - unlike cities, where everyone moves around a lot and sort of gets a thrill out of meeting new people, and there are possible new friends everywhere, folks in small towns aren’t as socially open - or necessarily looking for new friends or social activities. Even in a progressive town like Whitefish.
Second note of consideration is career. If you have a plan (and the savings) to be an entrepreneur, that’s a great reason to move to a small town. I knew I wanted to do glamping and keep this website going, but I took a job in a local nature conservation office while I sorted out my plan. I took a position at the same salary I had made in my first advertising job more than 20 years ago — and that was the most they had ever paid someone in my position by far. It hurts to look at your bi-weekly paycheck stub and see that amount, even if you believe in what you’re doing. And then, there’s office culture….most folks in Montana have never worked in a metropolitan city or fast-paced office. It was sort of like stepping back in time, which was pleasant, fascinating and frustrating all at the same time. You probably are going to be a fish out of water in a small town office with your fancy degree and waxed canvas messenger bag.
A third consideration: Leave your big city aesthetics behind, or bring your ’stuff’ with you because there's no where to shop. There is nothing like CB2, or DWR, or Ikea and no Trader Joe’s for hours. So homes and businesses are built and decorated with whatever is available at Home Depot and Target. To me, this is an enormous blessing. There is almost nothing I want to buy, and there is no feeling of keeping up with Joneses. If the kids need clothes we mostly shop online, but I’m never passing by stores and thinking “I really need that” (when I didn’t, anyway.) Going to people’s homes is 100% about the company and conversation -- I don’t think I’ve ever said “oooh, where did you get that?” in Montana. So while I earn a lot less money here, I spend a lot less too. Which (and I probably don’t need to point this out) is a win for the planet too. So, I’d say if you’re moving to a small more rural community to lower your expectations. Yes, we have coffee shops and yoga studios, but they aren’t as nice as yours. Leave your expensive city wardrobe behind, even your boho hippy attire that you wore to last year’s Diwali celebration or the summer solstice party. All you need here is flannel. And your BMW or Audi? Definitely out of place here. Even our wealthiest locals drive a beat up old pick up.
Although places like Whitefish are changing quickly - the population is exploding - clearly I wasn’t the only one steering the wagon to Montana and property prices have been jumping for the last few years. Luckily for me, this where the small town experience gets really good. I met an awesome partner with a ranch, an hour away from Whitefish, near the Canadian border. Dreams collided! I was able to buy the neighboring ranch with an old 1901 farmhouse we are renovating. He (and we) do a lot of conservation work, just finishing a river restoration project on 2 miles of the Tobacco River that runs through our property. Together we have nearly 450 acres of forest, river and farmland which we lease to cattle ranchers and hay farmers. But most importantly, we are opening glamping in 2021 and hope to bring people here to teach them about conservation, regeneration, and nature! We’ve built three cabins and renovated three campers/airstreams and are looking forward to sharing all of this: www.tobaccoriverranch.com - So yes, for me moving to a more rural area has allowed me to follow my passions and dreams. We are stewards of a beautiful piece of nature that we can both protect and share with others.
Another consideration - there are 'small towns' and 'rural communities,' and they can be very different. Now my kids and I are in an even smaller town and more remote area. Queue the Green Acres theme song! Life got even simpler. There is no real social life and very little community, except maybe through the churches, or for kids via the schools (which are really good.) Having just twenty kids in a class means happy teachers and happy kids, and my twin girls love school and their teachers. The girls, now freshmen, help us on the ranch, can run a chainsaw, start an old snowmobile, raise goats and chickens, and I have been able to give them what I couldn’t if I was working my old career in a city: My presence and a calm, quiet, happy life with lots of nature -- and that’s pretty much everything. If you’re a parent, you could stop reading here!
The last consideration to share is the political views and the general ‘culture’ of a small town. I’d say my biggest challenge is living in a rural area and state which mostly my political polar opposite. And it can even be hostile. Montanans are open about their of hate liberals, Californians, and generally people from cities. You’ll see the bumperstickers and social media comments everywhere “Montana is full, I hear ND is nice.” Or the way folks always point out that “You’re not from here” but “I’m fourth generation.” I’ve even heard a local relator say they won’t show property to people from California or Oregon. And while people here do love these lakes, rivers and forests, it’s a different kind of love - it’s a man vs. nature. Man is here to conquer nature, and this historic logging town is still reeling that they ran out of old growth trees to saw down and blame the liberals. People who want to protect nature are still considered enviro-nazis, or job haters, etc.
Most people did not go to college here, and I’m not sure if all graduated high school or even value education. In fact, a lot of people are suspicious of public education and homeschool their kids. Most folks do not have a passport and probably don’t even leave the state. And historically, this where people have moved to get away from other people. This is why The Unibomber chose Montana, the Scientologists have an end of world bunker here, and there are realtors who specialize in “survival” properties where you can hide out and live off the grid in case there is a government coup. These remote woods are home to Amish communities, constitutionalists and conspiracy theorists. We have three pizza places and two other restaurants. Our town has a population of 1,000 - and 21 churches. It’s incredibly patriarchal. And like any small town, it can be heart-warming and kind, or small-town-in-your-business-mean. Luckily it’s mostly kind, but there is no diversity.
On the other hand, we have an adorable Main Street, one of those postcard perfect Montana small towns. Our police officers lead town parades for the high school students when they come back from a state meet. (And we have the best parades, all year!) The police will also help you when your dog is lost, and will call you (again) when your ranch hand is drunk and disorderly so that he can sleep it off at home instead of in jail. Even the cool kids do 4-H and our annual county fair and rodeo are amazing events. The old ladies quilt together in the old school house at the Historical Village on Fridays. If you get sick, the town will do a fundraiser for your medical expenses. The kids are kind to each other and honest, and manage mostly to stay out of trouble. We don’t have to lock our doors.
For me there was a feeling in a city of disconnection that I couldn’t deny. I believe it's a disconnection from nature, which people try to bandaid by buying stuff, without realizing that only brings more dissatisfaction. I had to meditate all the time in a city to calm my nerves — the stress and the never ending noise (real, and in my head) was heavy. Did I mention that I even worked for Headspace meditation app? But now I know for certain, that the best meditation is a walk in the woods.
So, should you move from the city to the country? YES. Yes, come, bring your open minds and open hearts, your worldview, and your entrepreneurial ideas, and your love of nature. Have your friends come visit you in nature when you need a social lift. Explore the mountains and rivers, that could be all you need. And come, but come softly and slowly, these places are changing for the better too, but it will take time.
I’ve learned that moving is easy and exiting. And I moved cities or countries eleven times. The hardest move was the first one away from home.
A FEW QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
1. How much do you really like nature? Or the city? If you're happy just visiting nature while on vacation but thrive on restaurants and parties, that's something to think about.
2. Are you comfortable in settings where others don't think like you? You might look for a small town with a progressive vibe vs. a rural area.
3. If you like where you are, but just can't afford to buy a home where you are, could you consider moving to a less developed area in your region?
4. Do you have a job that allows you to work from anywhere? If not, consider finding a company in your city that might allow remote working in the future, rather than depending on finding a job in a small town.
Do you have an experience in moving from a city to the country? Anything I missed? Please share your experience for others, or leave your questions below and I'll answer.