More Americans Move Off the Beaten Path

As a big-city psychologist, Catherine Crews worked with children in some of Trenton, N.J.'s, toughest neighborhoods. She liked going to the theater. She loved buying Parmesan cheese in wedges, not in cans.

But this month she is packing up and moving to an old farmhouse in Arkansas, where fireflies cover the fields like a bright cloud. While she doesn't know what job she will have, she's willing to find out.

"Initially I thought of it as a place to retire, but I loved it so much," she says. "When I went outside and saw the stars, it brought tears to my eyes. I haven't seen stars since my childhood."

Dr. Crews's tale of manifest destiny is a story being repeated in lives across America. In the past five years, 1.6 million Americans have moved from crowded California and the East Coast to the mountain West, the Upper Great Lakes, the Ozarks, and the Appalachian foothills. Some are seeking clean air and the simple life. Others are tiptoeing into retirement.

The rural rebound marks a significant shift in American migration patterns. With the exception of the 1970s, the rural US has not seen a growth boom like this one since the turn of the century. For most of the past hundred years, in fact, small towns and back roads of America experienced an exodus or stagnation.

Behind the latest shift are factors that make it easier for Americans to live far from the maddening crowd. Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at Loyola University in Chicago who identified the new migration pattern, says the back-to-the-country movement is made possible by new communication technologies. Manufacturers, in search of lower costs and cheaper but educated labor, now can find those advantages outside of urban centers, he says.

"Rural areas are not as isolated as they once were," says Dr. Johnson, co-author of a recent study on rural migration. "I've had manufacturers [in Chicago] tell me, 'I can get things faster from southern Wisconsin than from the South Side of Chicago.' "

The small portion of American towns that rely on agriculture has, for the most part, remained in a slump. Many farm communities have been unable to provide jobs for young people as farming becomes increasingly mechanized. But 75 percent of the nation's rural counties have seen rapid growth, much of it through a combination of newcomers and natural increase of the local population - and this influx bears a definite imprint of the 1990s.

From their summer homes in Maine or Montana, professionals are making Monday-morning decisions by fax and driving to work the next day. "More Americans are finding a middle ground between retirement and vacation," Johnson says. "They're making a three-day weekend into a permanent way of life."

Coping with newcomers

The migration has had some unintended side effects as small towns suddenly burgeon. Deschutes County, Ore., for example, has become a Shangri-La for outsiders. Between 1990 and 1995, the wooded, mountainous region added 20,000 residents to its 75,000 population.

Such an influx can take a toll. But officials in Bend, Ore., the county seat, say they have kept pace with the growth thus far. They've widened roads and restored the old downtown shopping district. They've added 1 million gallons of water reserves annually for the past five years. And they are considering a metro transit system - urban-style buses to bring 100,000 workers into and out of Bend.

"Folks who have the ability to move want a place with a higher quality of life," says Larry Patterson, Bend's city manager. "Bend happens to be one of those areas."

In Bend, many of the newcomers are Californians who sometimes bring distinctly urban values and habits with them. But "even if you took away all the Californians, we'd still have major growth," says Greg Bolt, city editor of the local newspaper, the Bend Bulletin.

Elsewhere, such as New England, rural growth is occurring at a slower pace, mainly in recreational and retirement areas. But outsiders are steadily changing the quaint Northeastern coastal towns where they settle.

In Ellsworth, Maine, a few miles west of Acadia National Park, water rates have doubled over the past five years as a result of growth, and rates may go up another 10 percent in the next few months.

"People always grumble about that sort of thing," says town manager Timothy Cain, "but fortunately we've had commercial development. Some shops are opening, and that's relieving pressure on the taxpayers."

One of those shops is the Riverside Cafe, owned by sisters Barbara Guida and Beth Fendl. They had always wanted to run a restaurant together and didn't hesitate when an opportunity arose to buy a lunch-counter cafe in the resort town of Ellsworth.

Horses and snow shovels

"It's beautiful up here; there's no comparison," says Ms. Guida, who came to Ellsworth four years ago and now owns eight acres outside of town. "The pluses are that we can have horses. My husband would say that the minuses are having to shovel the roof in the winter."

Guida confides that she worried at first that Mainers would be frosty toward outsiders, but she has found them to be warm. "It's a slower lifestyle here," she says, "although what we do is quite hectic." Her sister, Beth, still misses New Jersey. But in terms of quality of life, she says, "Maine has it all. A similar home in New Jersey would cost three times as much."

Meanwhile, down in Trenton, Dr. Crews is saying goodbye to the veterinarian, the dog groomer, the green grocer, and all the people who made the inner city seem like a sweet little town. But most of all, she marvels at her generation, the baby boomers, as it tries to redefine the concept of success. "I'm fascinated by how many of my peers are looking at their successful careers and saying, 'There's something else for me to do.' "

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