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for people who care about the West

This must be the place

How I came to love a small town and run a community newspaper.

 

I live in one of those Western dreamscapes that, well, most people dream about. You know the kind of place: You stop, get out of your car, look around and say, “My God, I have to live here.”

My place is a magically beautiful valley that spills out of the North Cascade Mountains in Washington state. For 20 years, I vacationed here every chance I got. I dreamed, schemed, obsessed, fretted about growing old too soon and never making it happen. Hoping to stay current and feel local, I subscribed to the valley’s lively weekly newspaper for years.

And then one day I bought it.

That wasn’t entirely whimsical. I’ve been in the newspaper and magazine business for 40 years, in markets large and small. Still, my experience hardly mitigates the digital-age “you-must-be-out-of-your-mind” challenges of owning a small newspaper in a remote, thinly populated area that lives and dies on tourism dollars.

Don’t underestimate mortality as a motivator. After surviving cancer and then a scorched-earth staph infection that almost killed me, and then wallowing through a scary, depressing stretch of prolonged unemployment, I took a now-or-never leap of faith and bought myself a job. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

So, yes, today I’m living the dream and working the reality. The flinty truth, which everyone here accepts, is that settling in the valley on purpose can be a daunting, edge-of-survival journey if you are a working person who isn’t already financially self-sufficient.

In our valley, that typically means you either own a business (a small one, because there isn’t any other kind), work for the government, semi-volunteer for a low-wage nonprofit, or cobble together a bunch of seasonal jobs to make ends meet. There’s an old joke here: How do you earn $1 million in the valley? Show up with $2 million.

Yet we keep coming. Everyone who is not a native has a story, and often it goes like this: Saw the place. Fell in love with it. Moved here. Finding sustainable employment, though? That may take a while. People who have been all over the world, in exotic and intoxicating outreaches, wander into this place, make a wide-eyed assessment, and start figuring out how they can stay -- another day, another month, a year, a lifetime. Then follows a succession of return trips for deeper explorations, of short immersions in search of profound localness, of absurd schemes and dreamy extrapolations, and finally, bedrock commitment, even from a distance and over decades, to being here.

We see the look in visitors’ eyes, the wondering, the speculating, the plotting, the semi-desperate clawing through real estate ads. What will it take? Can we do it? You will either understand this at a molecular level, or you won’t get it at all.

For all of that, some don’t stick. They cling and scuffle for a while but then quietly fade away. Nobody judges them.

There are more than a few places like this around the West, each with its entrenched devotees, yearning wannabes and disillusioned expatriates. If you live in such a place or have ever been there, you are already nodding your head in agreement.

Like most idyllic places, we are a long ways from anything urban, meaning that this beautiful seclusion comes with a cost. In your 270-degree-view dream home, whether it’s a log McMansion or a rickety yurt at the end of a half-mile of scratched-out serpentine driveway that skitters up from the end of a rutted gravel road, you may be more than two hours away from a hospital emergency room, assuming your road is plowed and the ambulance can get to you. If the ER can’t take care of you, it’s a helicopter ride to Wenatchee or, if things look really grim, Seattle or Spokane. There are places (including my own cabin, six miles out of town) where cellphones and televisions and Internet service work poorly if at all. Commodities you take for granted may be hard to come by. Cougars eat your pets. You will hit a deer sooner or later.

On the other hand, it is gorgeous every day, recreational opportunities abound all year, and this place has a fierce sense of community. You can belong here, if you want to.

Someone once asked me why I like it here so much. Because, I said, I’ve never had a bad day in the valley. I even named my newspaper column “No Bad Days.” Talk about tempting fate. But I figure if you’re going to live someplace where everybody wants to live, you’d better come equipped with a good attitude. Otherwise, you might as well be anywhere.

Don Nelson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is the owner, publisher and editor of the Methow Valley News, a 110-year-old weekly newspaper in Twisp, Washington.