Sunday, December 21, 2014

Urban Mythology and "Wilderness" Truth

Friends, many of the voices you hear from the proverbial wilderness are those who have managed to ensnare the group imagination. They are those that the group mind likes to think threaten some cherished 'way of life', and thus should be put on display in the virtual village square and pelted with virtual rotten veggies.

It's less often that we hear voices of reason, like Wendell Berry or Terry Tempest Williams, or like me. I will place myself in this lofty company for this entry only, but I like to think I have learned from and share some of their wisdom and perspective. I like to think I confront the mockery aimed at wingnuts with a saner and healthier perspective, one I have gained over the last year.

Right now, I have one such perspective to share: you don't have to accept the lies and justifications about why you need to live in a major urban area.

Let me first share my take on what constitutes a town and a city, and what constitutes smallness and largeness, just so we are using a common vocabulary.

A city is distinguished from a town in that it is a cultural destination, and steers the cultural and political development of a larger region. It often provides a range of services that can only exist because a regional population's needs make providing them tenable, like specialized medical facilities. A town serves the same role on a much more localized scale, and tends to be where only day-to-day critical needs can be obtained.

Smallness and largeness in the context of a city are harder to define, but I tend to think of what is gained and lost as one crosses thresholds between the two as defining. The importance of relationships, curiosity, and working with what you have are defining positives I associate with smallness. The prevalence of alienation, suspicion, waste, and stress are negatives I associate with largeness.

I'm not going to be fair to the large city environment. I'm not going to buy into the delusions that the large city avails of cultural opportunities, high-paying specialty employment, mobility, power, influence, connectedness and so on. Why? Because there are too many losers in order for the few winners to exist. There are resource 'pies', and all but the richest and most influential capitalists and owners have to live with one of two realities: either everyone gets so small a sliver of a given pie that it's not enough for anyone, or pieces of some pies are only available at certain thresholds of economic power; some of the pies necessary for long-term health and well-being fall into this latter category.

There's too much misery, poverty, homelessness, and untreated mental illness abetted by the urban context. There are too many service workers spending most of their lives trapped in inhumanely early and/or interminable mass transit commutes from 30 miles out, or giving up intolerable portions of income to keep an aging vehicle limping along, and even then working multiple jobs that rob them of seeing their children and focusing on what all the struggle is supposedly providing them: enjoying life. The city is a slaughterhouse, a mountain of bodies everyone is eternally scrambling up, and really only those dropped from a golden helicopter on a golden parachute will ever get to the top of it anyway. The large city is defined by the 'pursuit' portion of the constitutional 'pursuit of happiness' for most, a pursuit that rarely achieves that happiness.

Think for a moment on this: why is escape to a place that is not-city one of the primary themes of travel agencies and car advertising? Why is this brand of 'freedom' so compelling? Do most people living in large cities hunger for something the city can't provide? You know the answer.

Let me tell you about the reality of living in Missoula, Montana, a small city of around 70,000 inhabitants - the second largest in Montana - and a central hub of culture and speciality services for perhaps three times that number that live within 100 miles of it. If you can't get what you need or want in Missoula, your next larger metropolises are Spokane (160 miles to the west) and Boise (250 miles to the southwest).

I will offer this caveat first: I am very, very fortunate. I came into this world with all the privileges (see John Scalzi's "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is") afforded a white male in America, save for material prosperity. I grew up in poverty, an all-to-common feature of being born to a Mormon family in Utah; adherents of that faith tend to have larger families than they can economically support. Religious doctrine trumps economic sense in this case. The upside of poverty was that I learned that I had to work for whatever I wanted, and learned to spend that money wisely.

I was able to go to college, to gain the perspective and identity offered by travel and study abroad, and I have both the personal passion and intellectual penchant to be well-suited to a profession in information technology. I have the rare gift of being equally capable with both machines and people, and have long considered my special ability to be making the people work better with the machines. I've played my hand well, and with a few obscure and unorthodox moves, was able to transmute all that I've experienced and learned (both because of and in spite of a suburban and urban existence for 45 of my years) into a tech job that pays the top end of the scale for such jobs available in Missoula.

Most people in Missoula don't have much money. It's not a place to get rich, unless you're running one of the nearby resorts that subsist off selling rich idiots a pampered and deceitful version of the 'freedom' illustrated in the aforementioned car advertisements. Said resorts do everything they can to exploit the lack of legal regulation for which Montana is known, to avoid supporting the coffers of local and county infrastructure. The best-paying jobs are associated with several regional medical centers and the University of Montana. There are also good jobs in skilled trades, especially if you are entrepreneurial, which many Montanans are. Most families live on about $35,000 a year, which is roughly the equivalent of $50,000 a year in Seattle. If this sounds hard, it is. Many people own their own homes, but those homes are extremely modest, sometimes double-wide mobile homes with a couple of tool sheds in a small yard for storage.

Surprisingly, this doesn't suck. As independent, 'lawless', and fiscally conservative as Montana may be, there's an encompassing spirit of common cause that's almost socialist in flavor. Self-reliance is a given and an entitled mentality is rare, but people share things, as there's an understanding that not everyone can or needs to own every little thing they might occasionally need. There are affordable housing developments built on a unique adaptation of the land trust. There's a food co-op that keeps prices down through every member staffing the store 40 hours per year, along with the familiar voting rights on what happens. There are multiple public and private enterprises that support self-reliance through providing know-how, tools, and building materials for re-use. There's a robust local economy that people understand will only thrive if they invest their money in it, and not the exploitative Walmarts and other national chain stores.

Within the sphere of a 30-minute drive away from Missoula, one can buy 20 acres of prime land for $40,000, and then set up as connected or disconnected a life as they wish on it. You can spend tons of money and bring in all the utilities to establish a sprawling ranch house, or you can go 100% off-grid, tapping a stream or drilling a well for water, bringing in propane for large appliances on an annual basis, setting up solar panels for incidental electrical needs, going satellite for Internet access, and building tiny houses for shelter. For one-quarter of what the most abysmal house in the Seattle suburbs costs, you can live in the middle of what the travel agents and car advertisers hold out as the carrot on the stick most urbanites will never taste.

Missoula is uncommonly bike-friendly, even by the standards of what passes for 'bike-friendly' in cities like Portland or San Francisco. Many trace this positivity back to an experiment the Army did with a bicycle 'cavalry' in the 1890s, based out of Fort Missoula. Missoula has as developed and amazing a system of urban bike and pedestrian trails as most cities 10 times its size. What's my daily commute like? I ride two and a half miles each way, and half of that distance is covered on dedicated paved trails. If I don't mind adding a mile each way, I can do three-quarters of my commute on the trails.  Drivers are wary, but rarely confrontational and often unnecessarily courteous, since many of them are on their own bikes when not behind the wheel of a car. I spend 30 minutes of my day commuting. When I lived in Seattle, I never spent less than three times that long getting to and from work.

More than anything else, Missoula's population is genuinely friendly and engaged. Making eye contact with someone sets the stage for something more, sometimes just a passing 'hello' on the bike trail, and just as often a concept alien to large cities, that of 'visiting'. The willingness to engage in 'visiting' can be taken as a measure of social health, since it is the anathema of hurrying. People in large cities are eternally running late, more because there's not enough time to do what needs doing after navigating all the urban hurdles; though it's rarely due to any flaw in their character, their lateness will frequently be attributed to some personal failing. One of the abiding principles of the large city is that it can't be the city's fault if you aren't able to survive it.

I wrote most of what you've read about two and a half months ago. While my intention wasn't necessarily to write an advertising piece on behalf of Missoula specifically, and Montana generally, that seems to be where it went. More to the theme of my post, the example of Missoula stands as just one possibility in a much broader landscape. There is life - often of distinctly greater quality and fulfillment - in small cities / large towns. You can slow down, and you can have the connectedness with family and community the urban mythology is always peddling. You just have to be willing to break the urban habit.

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