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for people who care about the West

Top 10 reasons not to move to Bozeman

 

In my role as a journalistic curmudgeon, today I'd like to tell you some of the drawbacks of living in a trendy Western town that often makes the Top 10 lists drawn up by the likes of Outside magazine, Entrepreneur magazine, and Livability.com.

I'm talking about Bozeman, Montana – and how the conventional wisdom is only part of the story. In the 19 years I've lived in Bozeman, I've watched my town gain an international reputation as some kind of paradise. Click on any award-giver in the first paragraph – along with the American Planning Association, CNN Money, Fodor's Travel, National Geographic Adventure magazine, and the American Cities Business Journals – to get a sense of the distant experts expressing quick and easy attitude about my town.

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Bozeman, Montana. Photograph from Flickr user Dan Nguyen.

Of course there's a lot to like about Bozeman – a Western university town in a scenic valley rimmed by mountains, near ski slopes and fishable rivers. We have a nice downtown, a small airport that's surprisingly well-connected, few traffic jams, and tech entrepreneurs mixing with conservationists and hipsters -- and a few actual cowboys.

On top of that, our homegrown entertainment includes a group of local women who create edgy comedy routines – check Broad Comedy on YouTube, singing "I Didn't F*ck It Up" or imitating inner-city rappers in "Soccer Mom Ho." You can even buy a Bozeman T-shirt letting the world know that you're a supporter of our very own Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus.

But any town has drawbacks, whether we're talking Paradise, Utah, or Paradise, Calif., or Paradise, Nev., or the various versions of San Francisco and Aspen and so on. That's why many local governments have adopted a new "Code of the West" officially warning any paradise-seeking immigrants of the problems they'll encounter when they move in, such as – egads! – rough roads, dangerous wildfires and the aroma of cattle.

The hyped-up Top 10 lists don't admit the drawbacks of my town. They just encourage paradise-seekers to move in – and thousands of people have apparently followed the advice by moving to Bozeman since I got here.

So, tongue in cheek, here's my rebellion against the hype: The Top 10 Reasons Not To Move To Bozeman.

(1) Begin with the town's name – it's lame. John M. Bozeman was a grandiose hustler who helped establish the town in 1864, while he was promoting the "Bozeman Trail," a dangerous shortcut for white settlers traveling through Wyoming and Idaho to Montana gold camps. John M. Bozeman hoped that his new town would "swallow up all the tenderfeet ... from the east, with their golden fleeces to be taken care of," one immigrant reported. But the whole Bozeman Trail quickly became a fiasco, as tribes including the Lakota Sioux, the Northern Cheyenne and the Northern Arapaho resisted the intrusion on their turf; within only four years or so, Native warriors wiped out 81 U.S. Army soldiers in the infamous Fetterman massacre and shut down the trail for good. As for John M. Bozeman himself, he had abandoned his wife and three young daughters in Georgia when he headed west to seek his fortune – setting the pattern for all the schemers and lone wolves who've come to this town since then.

John M. Bozeman had some good qualities (handsome, muscular, a crack shot). But fundamentally he was "a reckless man (who) never could see danger anywhere," according to one of his own friends back in the 1860s. He dressed like a dandy, in "the black beaver-cloth cutaway coat and striped dress trousers favored by gamblers," according to historians and friends, and made his living as "a speculator" who "farmed a bit, got in a few fights, gambled a lot, dreamed up business schemes, and was out of town for long periods of time."

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A new bank will be built in the field on the right, at the southeast edge of Bozeman, half a mile from any other commercial development. Photograph by Ray Ring.

John M. Bozeman's ventures included investing in a hotel and a river ferry, and delivering mail himself between Bozeman and the Virginia City mining camp, for 50 cents per piece (more than $18 in today's dollars) – apparently shameless price gouging. "His conscience was very elastic," a friend reported, and "to beat a man out of his wages or to neglect paying a bill or jumping a claim were matters of very little moment with him. ... His faults were produced by his education, or the lack of it rather, and the social system of the South, where labor was a disgrace to a white man. (He) had no use for money except to bet with, and the most congenial place to him on earth was the saloon, with a few boon companions at a table, playing a game of draw."

And John M. Bozeman only lasted a few years in Bozeman. At the age of 32, he was murdered – either by more hostile natives or by the jealous husband of a woman he was having an affair with. It was "the universal suspicion on the part of the husbands of the few women in town" that John Bozeman was a philanderer chasing the local married women, in the words of one historian. After he was killed, his estate wasn't worth as much as his outstanding bills.

(2) The weather. Yes, when you mention Montana, most people understand the weather is often bad here – as in, cold. And thanks to global warming, the cold spells seem to be getting a bit warmer and less prolonged. But still. I've had to deal with more than a foot of heavy wet snow that fell in my yard one day in mid-June several years ago, collapsing many of my leafed-out deciduous trees and crushing the mirage of summer.

The most recent seriously cold spell, a snowstorm in early December, generated these daily low temperatures, measured at the Montana State University campus near my house (with the late sunrise this time of year, these were the below-zero temperatures you would've faced, if you were in Bozeman commuting to work first thing in the morning):

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A recent snowstorm competes with Christmas decorations in downtown Bozeman. Photograph by Flickr user Craig Dugas.

Dec. 3  -  2 below zero F

Dec. 4  -  9 below zero

Dec. 5  -  14.2 below zero

Dec. 6  -  16.1 below zero

Dec. 7  -  19.3 below zero

Dec. 8  -  19.4 below zero

Dec. 9  -  10 below zero

Three of these days, the high temperature in late afternoon didn't even break zero. This all came down a couple of weeks before the official beginning of winter.

(3) The movie theaters. Movies can be intellectually and emotionally stimulating, a great cultural fix and an enjoyment -- but lately they're in short supply in Bozeman. When I moved here, we had two historic downtown movie theaters and a multiplex with about a half-dozen additional screens. Then another national theater chain opened a second multiplex, adding more than a half-dozen additional screens. At that point, a wide range of new movies showed in Bozeman, beyond the standard blockbusters aimed at teen-agers and families with young kids. But since then, both downtown theaters have stopped showing movies, and one multiplex closed.

So now we're down to only the newer multiplex, which is run by the biggest national chain, Tennessee-based Regal Entertainment Group – part of billionaire Philip Anschutz's empire. Anschutz is a politically active conservative Christian, opposing gay rights and backing various right-wing causes, and Regal Entertainment not only seems to have his conservative philosophy, the company also seems ignorant of basic facts like, Bozeman has more than 38,000 residents, and tens of thousands more live just outside city limits. Many of the locals are intelligent adults making careers not only in the university, but also in dozens of local high-tech companies, Montana's biggest ski resort (Big Sky), Yellowstone National Park (also nearby), or doing their own creative work in art, writing, photography, music, dance including more than one local ballet company, the local opera company, the local Shakespeare company, and so on.

As I write this blog post, these very good new movies have not yet shown in Bozeman's multiplex, even though they've been showing elsewhere around the West for weeks or months: 12 Years a Slave (a true story of 19th century slavery in this country, by the famous director Steve McQueen), All is Lost (Robert Redford suffering a solo shipwreck), Inside Llewyn Davis (the new Coen brothers flick), Dallas Buyers Club (Matthew McConaughey playing an early AIDS victim), Nebraska (same director as previous hits Sideways and The Descendants), Philomena (another British gem starring Judi Dench), Blue is the Warmest Color, Kill Your Darlings, Blue Jasmine (directed by Woody Allen, starring Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin), The Great Beauty, and Wadjda (a Saudi Arabian girl struggles for her rights).

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Fox Searchlight Pictures poster for the new '12 Years a Slave' film, which has not been shown in Bozeman's multiplex theater, even though it's been in wide release around the country for nearly two months.

Many of those movies have already won awards and will soon be nominated for Academy Awards, but somehow they're not appropriate for Bozeman? Or they can be shown here long after most other audiences have seen them? Give Bozeman a break, Regal Entertainment Group, or more like, give us what we're due.

I better acknowledge, two nights per month, a small nonprofit group called the Bozeman Film Festival brings some of the ignored-by-Regal movies to an auditorium in a former school that's now the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture. The auditorium has been lovingly restored and improved to be a theater, but the screen is small and the sound can be difficult to decipher. That's a noble effort – thanks very much, Bozeman Film Festival and Emerson Center – but it's not a substitute for a state-of-the-art movie theater providing longer runs in better conditions.

(4) Lack of cultural or ethnic diversity. There is none in Bozeman, unless you imagine that white ice climbers are way different from white skiers who are way different from white fly fishermen. In the whole county, 95.5 percent of the residents are white, reporting no mixed blood at all. Hispanics make up roughly 3 percent, Natives about 1 percent, blacks less than half-a-percent. So for this kind of diversity, Bozeman is very boring. Pretty much anywhere I travel, other than Wyoming, I'm always struck by how much more diverse – and interesting – other communities are.

(5) Isolation. Bozeman is a long distance from any real urban area – the nearest is the Salt Lake City metro area, roughly 430 miles away. This has to do with fact that Montana is the only state that doesn't even border a state that has a city of one million. To get to Salt Lake City, you have to drive through hundreds of miles of Idaho. To get to Seattle, you also have to drive through Idaho, and to get to Denver, you have to drive across all of Wyoming. And so on. So when you want a city fix, it takes some doing.

(6) Wildfires. I used to tell friends who might like to visit Bozeman, the best time to come is during July and August, when the weather is most reliably good. But largely due to climate change, those months are now wildfire season, with a high risk of smoke filling the air, blocking views of the mountains and causing headaches and other health complaints. Now I tell friends who want to come during the warm weather, it's a gamble – they might experience air quality similar to inland Los Angeles.

(7) Occasional bad land-use planning. The city and county planners based in Bozeman, and their supporters, have good intentions and would probably do more to protect the landscape and the current residents who like things as they are, but they're constrained by local politics. They also, like all of us, make mistakes within what the politics allow.

As a result, we have a great deal of random sprawl – residential developments popping up on agricultural land outside the city, straining taxpayer-funded public services including law enforcement and road maintenance. And in the city, we have a large car wash that was allowed to wedge itself into a modern smart-growth neighborhood of houses, apartments and office buildings on North 15th Avenue, where there are no other commercial enterprises – as if the neighborhood residents would like to walk to a car wash instead of to a coffee shop or a cafe or small grocery. It's apparently a fine car wash, but does it belong in this neighborhood?

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A smart-growth neighborhood in Bozeman, interrupted by a new car wash business. Photograph by Ray Ring.

Meanwhile, at the central sports-field complex, we have an array of super bright lights on tall poles whose bothersome glare extends for miles – the opposite of the "Dark Skies" movement taking hold elsewhere in the West. Banks are being allowed to build new branches around the city's fringes, like the one going in now, all by itself, in a streamside field on Kagy Boulevard, where horses grazed until recently (shown in a photo around #1 in this blog post) – as if we need more banks in a town already saturated with them (an indication of the affluence here).

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The car wash, which has a neighborhood pedestrian crossing right in front of it. Photograph by Ray Ring.

In arguably its biggest mistake, last August the city government had to pay $2 million to settle a dispute with a wealthy developer who felt burned by a city manager's land-use decision. There are other obvious planning and land-use debacles, but this writing is long enough.

(8) Microbrewery suppression. Montana now has nearly 40 craft brewersranking in the top three states in breweries per-capita – making wonderful beers and ales, like Moose Drool and Cold Smoke (as in, windblown snow). But Montana microbreweries are suppressed by the hard-liquor saloons that are organized as the Montana Tavern Association, making it unduly difficult to drink a fresh draft microbrew.

It works like this: Under state law, the hard-liquor saloons must have state licenses. The state also limits the number of those licenses, so bidding wars erupt and a license can now cost more than $100,000. Microbreweries don't have to buy those licenses. The Tavern Association thinks that isn't fair, so it pressures the Montana Legislature to pass laws ordering that microbreweries can only serve their product in "tasting rooms" for limited hours – 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. "Microbreweries here operate under some of the most restrictive regulations in the country," says the head of the Montana Brewers Association. As a result, when I venture into any of the good microbreweries in the Bozeman area, last call is 8 p.m.

(9) Restaurants. Maybe due to the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity, Bozeman has no restaurants specializing in Indian food, none specializing in Ethiopian or other varieties of African food, no Peruvian or Brazilian or Spanish cuisine, and so on. We have some good restaurants, including sushi, Thai, and a co-op that serves from steamer trays, but overall Bozeman's fare tends to be middle-of-the-road. Maybe more important, Bozeman also has no restaurant open 24/7, and the coffee shops don't stay open late, so night owls seeking community, you're out of luck here.

(10) The supervolcano near Bozeman. It underlies Yellowstone National Park, generating the heat for all the geysers and hotpots, and as anyone who's watched the supervolcano documentaries on the Discovery Channel and PBS, it could erupt anytime. And when it does generate its next eruption – actually the term is supereruption, and some experts say this is "overdue" – it will obliterate Bozeman, along with ruining the whole planet's atmosphere. So despite the influx of wealthy people driving up the prices of Bozeman real estate, our property values are really iffy, long-term.

I could list more than these Top 10 Reasons Not To Move To Bozeman, but like I said, this is long enough. And like I also said, I'm writing this tongue-in-cheek, because I do like living in Bozeman, despite the drawbacks. But those who are thinking of moving here, keep this list in mind. And fellow Bozemanites, if you'd like to chime in, please do.

Ray Ring is a senior editor of High Country News, and he is based in Bozeman. The descriptions of John M. Bozeman for this post were found in Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley: A history, by Phyllis Smith, and John M. Bozeman: Montana Trailmaker, by Merrill G. Burlingame. The list of new movies that haven't shown in Bozeman's multiplex theater is derived from months of the multiplex's ads in the local newspaper.