When Shannon Monteith got a promotion last year, she packed up her things, said goodbye to San Francisco, and headed to the big time - Benton County, Arkansas.
Ms. Monteith couldn't find Northwest Arkansas on a map before she moved here. But as a saleswoman for candymaker Hershey Foods Corp., she was familiar with her new client: Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
"It's the biggest company in the world - if you're in sales you always want to be on the biggest customer," she says.
Benton County wasn't the backwater that Monteith feared it might be. She eventually bought a home in Shadow Valley, a gated community that hums with activity - from tennis games to roving golf carts to kids playing in newly landscaped yards.
Just a few years ago, Shadow Valley was Ozark pastureland and forest. But as thousands of people move to Benton County, drawn by an economic boom fueled by Wal-Mart, the region is being rapidly redrawn - with an influx that puts it among the nation's 70 fastest-growing counties, according to the most recent US Census Bureau report. About 7,500 people moved to the area between July 2003 and July 2004, pushing the population to roughly 180,000.
Most of the growth shown by Census data has been in counties that ring big cities, with more than 80 percent of the fastest-growing areas located in Southern and Western states. The reasons for growth are as varied as the places themselves. Some are retirement havens, others are home to booming companies. But all of them are being transformed by new residents who seem to pour in every day.
Of course, population growth isn't confined to suburban boomtowns or cities in the Sunbelt and Rocky Mountains. It's affecting far-flung spots as well, culminating what demographer Robert Lang calls the "triumph of the exurbs" - new communities so far outside of cities that they almost stand alone.
The suburbs built in the 1970s now act as "anchors," he says, projecting population growth even farther away from urban cores. Now, people are moving farther and farther afield to attain the American Dream - or at least buy their piece of a new American exurb.
"Your typical suburbanite still wants to live in the biggest lot they can buy for the least amount of money," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "The common thing about all these counties is that the most affordable land in all these areas is out in the periphery."
Another commonality, says Mr. Frey, is the counties' steady race to build the new roads, water-treatment plants, and schools to serve a growing population. "Growth is a two-edged sword," he says. "If anything, some of these counties want to restrict the growth."
Residents of Rockville, Utah, are of that mind-set, opting not to build a water-treatment plant for fear it would entice more people to move there, says Mayor Dan McGuire.
"The people here have elected to stay little, and we can benefit from the growth of the other communities," he says. "We just have to travel there to take advantage of it." They've dubbed their town "Utah's last treasure" - precisely because they have avoided the kind of growth that's transforming much of their county.
About 5,000 people moved to the county between 2003 and 2004, boosting the population to 110,000. Much of that growth has happened in St. George, the county seat, where retirees and others are drawn to the streams, mountains, and golf courses.
"It all has to do with the sunshine and weather," says alderman Rob Orton. And it's left the city council preoccupied with how to supply its booming population with new roads and fresh water.
For Lincoln County, S.D., growth has meant not only roads and water, but high-end subdivisions popping up on what used to be pastureland. About 2,200 people moved to Lincoln County between 2003 and 2004, bringing the population to 31,400 people, and helping to make it the nation's the ninth fastest-growing county, according to Frey with the Brookings Institution. The flood of newcomers consists largely of commuters who work in Sioux Falls, a city that lures businesses in part because South Dakota has no income tax.
They're drawn by beautiful scenery and a slow pace of life, says John Schutte, president of the Canton Economic Development Corporation in the southern part of the county. But all of that comes at a hefty price: New homes cost between $250,000 and $1 million, he says.
Lincoln County land prices have quadrupled in the past decade alone, according to Mr. Schutte, making life tougher for farmers who were once the area's economic backbone.
Back in Benton County, too, growth is upending the traditionally rural way of life.
Tina Bates lives just outside an earthen wall that separates Shadow Valley from the country homes around it. Growing up, she knew the plots of land around her trailer home by the names of the families who lived there.
Now, that land is being divvied up into subdivisions with names like Hearth Stone and Emerald Heights. Like many of her neighbors, Ms. Bates says she is selling her home and moving away from the traffic and noise.
"Most of the people that lived out here don't live here any more. I guess they don't like living in the middle of a city," she says.