City Mouse, Country Mouse

But we’re all mice, no matter how you cut it

Note: This is a longish post. You were warned

I immensely enjoy reading Mark Morford’s column for the San Francisco Gate-Chronicle. He’s funny, smart, and right on. Most of the time.

In his latest column, though, (link above), he writes about wanting to flee the city to somewhere beautiful and peaceful and small-towney and get some property there and do the Urban Dweller Two-Step that goes like this: Get in the city, work; Get out of the city, relax. Have the best of both worlds, neverminding that:

  1. It’s hard enough to have the best of one world
  2. It’s remarkably easy to destroy the thing that brought you out of your living room in the first place; one foot in wrong spot in the forest, one Starbucks in a small town, and the delicate blossom in ground into the mud
  3. (Forgive me for stating the idealic and obvious, but…) If no one commuted, there’d be no traffic jams

Feeling that the odds of Mark reading my blog were pretty small, I felt I oughtta send him my thoughts, as per his request at the end of his blog. So I did.

The First Letter

Hiya Mark,

Sorry to hear about your car. I hope you got to take it spiraling up
the coast at least once before it’s unfortunate interaction with the
mid-80s behemoth.

So, anyway, about getting out: Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but
come, visit, relax, enjoy, then get the hell out. Unless you’re
planning to stay.

Here’s why: I live way *way* up north on the south shore of Lake
Superior in a seventy-year-old brick school house that my wife and I
heat entirely with wood. We have a pond and a small garden and dogs
and chickens and cats and a beautiful little boy, though not always in
that order.

My commute to work is thirty minutes, along the shore of the lake,
then through the edges of the murky, beautiful boreal forest. The
roads all have two lanes. I might see a hundred different cars on my
way to work, and about a third of those belong to people I at least
recognize. When traffic is backed up, it’s because the school bus has
stopped to pick up the neighbor kids.

Our friends the organic farmers, the giant-puppeteers, the musicians,
the chefs, the house builders, the horse-loggers, and the
whatever-they-are-this-week get together for food, cards and
smack-talking on a regular basis. We make meals out of what we grow,
what we forage, and a few things from the local food coop.

At least, this is the way it is in the winter, when the stars beat
down through the crystaline air and shimmer in the dim white world,
when folks go fishing through holes in the ice, and when the absolute
icy calm of the night will both freeze the inside of your nose and
keep out the riff-raff.

In the summer, things are different. The roads are clogged with boats
on trailers behind behemoth campers, cars and many more trucks with
out-of-state plates. The easy-to-find beaches are swarmed with people
in ugly bathing suits and zinc on their noses. The restaurants are
filled with sunburned people in shock at eating out for ten bucks a
plate and asking their waitress how to pronounce “Chequamegon.” And
this is all good and as it should be. It’s great when other folks want
to come play in my back yard because it’s beautiful and realitively
untrammeled and makes them feel better about life.

But then there are the folks who buy a “second home” or a
cabin. Sure the view is nice, and the house is relaxing for the five
or six weekends a year the owners might actually be there, but it’s
destroying the foundations of what it’s meant to enjoy. The big,
beautiful (or little, tasteful) house is expensive, which isn’t a
problem when you live in the city and have a city job. The taxes on
the house are also expensive, but it’s still not a problem. The
problem comes from the house’s impact on the community as a whole.

The big, beautiful house increases the property value of the whole
area it’s in, it brings in more BBHers, and the circle turns until
folks who have lived up here all their lives (emphatically not me)
can’t afford the taxes on their property any more and are forced to
move from a home that, in some cases, has been in their family for

That, however isn’t the biggest problem with the two-home phenomena.
The real problem is one of community. Where are all the second-home
folks when the schools up here have their holiday recitals? Where are
they when my jazz combo plays at the bar on a winter night? Where are
they when my neighbor’s barn is on fire?

It’s this sprawling refusal to choose, to commit to one thing, one
place, one community, that is causing great division and harm in our
country. Imagine a politician who when she says I’m going to do this
thing, then goes and does it. Imagine going shopping at the local
market and knowing the kid bagging your groceries because you went to
school with his dad. Imagine not only knowing the folks next door, but
being able to ask them for help without embarassement or fear.

I’d be proud to have you or any other urban refugee as my neighbor,
but only on a full-time basis. I’m not particularly interested in
being background color for a sophisticate’s soire. In this life, it’s
not a question of wealth or of status. It’s not about where we live or
where we’re from. It’s a matter of who we are and who we’re with.

An Invitation:
Why don’t you come up for a weekend or a week, meet some folks around
here, see what I’m writing about? You can stay at our place, or go to
some of the beautiful B&Bs around here. It’s quiet. It’s calm. Bring a
friendly lover or a lovely friend. Be our guest.

His Reply

a wondrous and generous and kind reply, good A.J., and much
appreciated, partly for giving me a geography lesson. Shows what I
know of Ca that I have little idea where, exactly, you are. You mean
Lake County? Anything I would end up buying wouldn’t affect local
taxes one iota, given my extremely limited budget. But yes, well do I
know of your community woes, but that’s CA living, unfortunately.
Almost every lakefront/oceanside community shares the same fate.
Trust me when I say, you’d want me as a seasonal visitor/owner than
some of my wealthy dot-com breathren.

Anyway, a weekend getaway wherever it is you are sounds nice indeed.
I do need to explore this region much more. Thanks much for the
terrific note, and invite.

My Addendum

Hiya Mark,

I think we’re talking about different geography. Here’s a link to
MapQuest that’ll point you toward my house, but if it was me doing the
driving, I’d definitely wander through Pine Ridge and the Badlands:

I guess I wrote to you to let you know (as I’m quite sure you already
did, but I felt compelled to speak up and be that one person in the
room who, for better or worse, restates the obvious) about my concerns
about the influx of city folks to the verdent green (or in my case,
white) spaces in the world. But you are certainly right: I would
*much* rather you were my part-time neighbor than some porsche-driving
dot-com plasti-tron. There’s nothing worse than new money unless it’s

Anyway, keep up your good work — your lovely and interesting and
intertaining writing — and I’ll keep reading the spectacular bits
(like the first two (at least) paragraphs of the BushCo Thanksgiving
Lust Fest) outloud to my co-workers, and keep me posted about a
potential visit. Honestly, coming here in summer is probably a better
idea, at least for a first trip, because there are sailboats to trim
in the Islands, horses to drive through the fields, beans to weed and
a little corner of the garden that first turns into ruhbarb, then pie.
But you are, of course, welcome any time.

In Summation

So. We’ll see what happens. But what an interesting communication. And how cool would it be for Mark to get in his rebuilt Audi and come out?

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