A Modem Cowboy Makes His Way Out West

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Several summers back, at a lake in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon, I decided to buy a fishing license. I'm not really much of a fisherman. But it gives me something to do when I go out in the boat or hike back up some stream with my brother-in-law Alan, who's been dragging me along on his quest for the perfect trout for 25 years.

Checking my Massachusetts driver's license, the young guy at the marina said, ``Whoa, you're a long way from home.'' Quick as a bass cast and with startling firmness I replied: ``No, I am home ... I just live a long way from here.''

I looked around to see if some ventriloquist had put those words into my mouth, for there seemed to have been no connection between thought and speech here. Where did that come from, I puzzled, this insistence that I was a Westerner at heart?

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I trace my Yankee roots back to well before the American Revolution. I was raised a musket shot away from the Hudson River, and I went to a private Eastern establishment school. I relished the contact sport of Boston driving. I liked snowstorms and road salt in winter, bugs and humidity in the summer. Bagels from a real deli - not venison or tofu - were my soul food.

Yet there was something about this Western place, where we had been vacationing for some time, that made it feel like home. Not just the high dry climate and see-forever views. Not just the friendliness we encountered everywhere. Not just the extended family - some relatives, some just good friends - that congregated here from time to time. There was something more, something ineffably homelike (and not just the distance in geography and mental space from work) that made us yearn for it throughout the year.

Not long afterward, we found ourselves living in a converted barn not 20 miles from that lake.

It was no big deal to look out our front window and see half a dozen deer grazing, a great blue heron looking to make a meal of perch from the pond, or a fox checking for duck eggs.

My commute (which used to take 45 minutes each way on a good day) now took about 8 seconds - from the front of the barn to the back. Hooked up to electronic umbilicals - phone, computer, fax - I was as much in touch with the rest of the world as ever, and with more time to figure out what the rest of the world was telling me. When my profession required a visit to big cities in the region, I could be on a plane and having lunch at my destination in half the time (and bother) it used to take to fight my way to Boston's Logan airport.

I had become, to use the current demographic phrase, a ``modem cowboy.'' (Not to be confused with a ``cappuccino cowboy'' who dresses up like the real thing but sits around cafes in Missoula or Bozeman, Montana reading the New York Review of Books. Or an ``equity emigre'' who cashes in his tract house in suburban California and buys a small county in Idaho.)

Since then, we've moved into town, ``town'' being a community of 16,677 that is 300 miles from a major metropolitan area and sits in a congressional district so sparse it's bigger than 34 states or all of New England (plus an extra Vermont).

These days I'm more likely to see a bobcat, a bald eagle, or a rattlesnake than a parking meter. A couple of springs ago, a black bear wandered into town one evening and climbed a neighbor's tree. He called the police (the neighbor did), who stood around until someone said, ``Let's call the state Fish and Game Department.'' The Fish and Game guy came, and everybody stood around some more until he said, ``Let's all go to bed and maybe she'll be gone in the morning.'' She was.

In the summer, it gets kind of crowded with tourists here for the theater festival. (``Crowded'' meaning you can't park in front of the store where you want to shop.) But we're grateful for the business they provide, and most of the year it's pretty quiet. Except for when the city council votes to slap the tourists with a restaurant tax or starts another argument over hillside development. Then the letters column - the most interesting part of the local newspaper - is filled with a lively back and forth. I'm just happy we still have hillsides left to argue over.

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