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Code of the West, for Onetime City Slickers

Gretchen and Bruce Duykers (with dog Charlie) moved from the Chicago suburbs to rural Montana.
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Gretchen and Bruce Duykers (with dog Charlie) moved from the Chicago suburbs to rural Montana.
Cover for the Madison County, Montana "Code of the New West"
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Cover for the Madison County, Montana "Code of the New West"

Would it bother you to find the neighbors' cattle grazing on your front lawn? Just how long can you live without power when it’s 20 degrees and snowing outside? Those aren’t standard questions for most prospective homeowners -- unless they’re looking to move to parts of the rural West. To prepare people making that move, some communities in the rural West have drafted some ground rules -- a modern-day "Code of the West." For Morning Edition, Kathy Witkowsky reports.

The Codes are written for the likes of Bruce and Gretchen Duykers. Bruce, says Witkowsky, "had always dreamed of owning a bit of land where he could run a few horses and gaze out on a little piece of paradise." Ten years ago, the dream came true: Bruce and Gretchen abandoned suburban Chicago for a 35-acre spread in Montana’s spectacular Madison Valley.

The Duykers found themselves living in a place where cowboys still drive cattle downt he maina highway. That might sound terribly romantic -- but not if you’re in a hurry to get to town. And just when they think they have the hang of things, they find out otherwise. Gretchen recounts seeing some cattle coming out of a gate into the road and, presuming a gate had mistakely been left down, stopping to try to help. "I was just going to kind of encourage them to get back into their pasture. Well, all of a sudden this cowboy comes riding up saying 'Don't do that! I want them out!' And I said sorry, and got back into my car and felt like a complete idiot."

While learning to live with cowboys, the Duykers also had to learn to live without a lot of services they’d taken for granted in the suburbs -- trash pickup, smooth-paved roads, snow removal. Says Bruce: "One of my favorite lines to Gretchen was, 'There's a pothole over there that the entire Osmond family was lost in.' I mean, it was just horrible."

As retirees and urban refugees have flooded into the Rocky Mountain West, they’re bringing with them new demands and expectations that are causing some tensions. To reduce frustrations on all sides, rural counties in Colorado, Idaho and Montana are distributing modern-day "Codes of the West." Says Witkowsky: "Where an earlier Code warned you never to try on another cowboy's hat, these new pamphlets remind landowners not to assume that just because water crosses their property, they can actually use it. They explain that livestock may have the run of the land, unless you fence it out; that wildlife is dangerous, cattle stink, phone service is spotty, and winters are severe and very long."

Not exactly a sales pitch -- but Montana realtor Toni Bower often hands out her local code to prospective buyers. "I think it helps them," Bower says. "And if it scares them off, then they shouldn't be here."

Historically, says Witkowsky, "every wave of Western settlers has looked down their noses at those who come after them." It's a snobbery that Bruce Duykers experienced when he made the mistake of complaining to a local about a bad windstorm -- and the local chided him, "'Til you’ve lived here 35 years, you don’t have any right to say anything about the wind." Says Duykers with a laugh: "There is an attitude out here -- Code of the West or whatever -- it's basically 'Shut up and like it, and if you don't, move on.'"

That's exactly what the Duykers are doing, Witkowsky says: "They didn't mind the cows or the cold, but they've decided that their Montana dream home is just a little too isolated -- and it's up for sale."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.