Is how we’re living gross?
by Alan Kesselheim
I lapse into smugness when someone visits me early in the summer. The mountains around Bozeman, Mont., are dazzling white, the fields emerald, the rivers boisterous, the air clear. I first came here in the spring. I remember how staggering it was.
It happened again recently. A friend who had never visited passed through and spent a day with me. A very pretty day. We decided to go for a bike ride on the outskirts of town. He kept asking the names of mountain ranges that came into view. I was busy being tour guide. The usual magic was working its spell.
Then he was quiet for a while. We were about five miles past city limits when he burst out, "This is really gross!"
"What?" I said, startled.
"These houses! What are people thinking, building these huge homes all over the hills here — and even on the ridges?"
Jarred out of my reverie, I started looking around at the development I'd grown used to over the years, the subdivisions and ranchettes that used to be hillsides and fields and pastures. I started to notice things the way he did, seeing it all for the first time. When I put that lens on, he was right: Everywhere I looked there were houses, roads, manicured lawns, pretentious and oversized architecture. I considered the less-visible layer of impact as well — the septic tanks, the wells tapping aquifers, the pavement, and the additional traffic.
My friend was doubly sensitive because he'd recently been overseas. "You'd never see this in Europe," he said. "When a town ends, that's it. You go immediately to forest and fields, until you come to the next town, which also starts very abruptly."
For our entire 20-mile loop we kept encountering the developments that now sprawl five, 10, 15 miles from town. Farm fields and open spaces had become rare punctuations on the landscape. It was shocking — both the extent to which the area has been built up, and the fact that I have allowed myself to grow blind to it.
I remembered how, two decades ago, you could ride for miles without being passed by a car. But every person in every one of these houses is wedded to a vehicle. They don't have a choice. Every errand — taking kids to school or soccer practice, going to work, going grocery shopping, meeting for coffee, taking in a movie — requires a 20-minute drive. Multiply that by a couple of trips a day, and it doesn't take a calculator to figure out that you've lost a big chunk of your life to sitting in a car going nowhere special.
As we continued to ride, I began to fantasize a different way of life. I imagined not only living in a beautiful place, as I do, but having the city end at a definite boundary and leaving the countryside to be countryside.
I thought about a town where people could walk to the grocery store for the odds and ends they needed, or to the post office or library or swimming pool or movie theater. I thought about going to work via an easy bicycle commute. I thought about all the gas, time, traffic aggravation, and hectic-lifestyle blues we'd be able to save.
Instead of spending 20 minutes lurching towards an errand in city traffic, people would be having a second cup of coffee with the morning paper, or playing catch with their kid, or getting some exercise, or gardening, or playing the piano, or sitting still, looking out the window. I thought about what a luxury that would feel like to the people now spread out across the landscape.
Then this, the other side of my fantasy picture: I imagined going to the edge of town and having it really end. Shedding society and entering landscape where elk graze, mountains sparkle in the distance, and the smell of spring is perfume in the air.
I imagined that it was early summer again, and that I was falling in love all over with the beautiful place that I am lucky enough to live in. I thought about sharing the experience with a visiting friend, and how smug it would make me.