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Know the West

Snowbound? Take a virtual tour of the West


If you live in the mountains, or near them, or you have to fly over them,  you know that the holidays aren't just about visiting family, stuffing your face, or dropping into a prolonged eggnog coma (IMHO, that must be why the stuff is called "nog" in the first place).

They're also about not being able to get to your holiday destination for the aforementioned festivities, thanks to gnarly mountain weather in these, the dark months. If you reside in Colorado's Elk, West Elk and San Juan Mountains or on the Grand Mesa, the National Weather Service warned on Monday, "CONSIDER STOCKING UP ON NEEDED SUPPLIES... SNOW ACCUMULATIONS MAY REACH AS HIGH AS 6 TO 8 FEET BY THURSDAY AFTERNOON." Meanwhile, another killer storm is dumping rain and feet of snow on the Sierra in California, complete with downed trees, mudslides and high avalanche danger. And God forbid you're one of the poor souls trying to get in or out of Europe, which has apparently decided to become Siberia.

YouTube videos of animals with British accents can only fill the travel-delay void for so long. So since you can't hit the ACTUAL road, why not use the New York Times' new "Mapping America: Every City, Every Block" to take a virtual tour of the West and see what's changed since the last census in 2000. Here's a brief guide, in order by map section, with screen shots from the Times' online app (well worth exploring on your own):

1) The not-so-white rural West -- You may not be able to tell this by driving through a typical rural Western town, but mouse around in the "Race and Ethnicity" maps and you'll find that much of our region is right there with the Southeast on overall non-whiteness. That's primarily because of burgeoning Hispanic populations in the Southwest and California, as well as in pockets of southwestern Idaho, southeastern Oregon, northern and extreme southern Nevada, and the fruitbasket of central Washington. Many of those agricultural areas with high Hispanic populations also lead the West in foreign-born residents. In Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, meanwhile, relatively large populations of Native Americans concentrated on reservations break up the overwhelming whiteness of surrounding counties. Not surprisingly, though, the West is universally pretty low on black and Asian folks (with the exception of a pocket around California's Bay Area): There's less than 20 percent of either throughout the region.

Darker green means higher percentage of white folks

2) The unexpectedly wealthy rural West -- Scroll over our fair region in the "Income" maps and you'll find the havoc wreaked by the Great Recession: An almost uniform downward trend in median household earnings between 2000 and 2010. Everywhere, that is, except energy country. In Sublette County, Wyo. -- home to the massive, booming Jonah and Pinedale Anticline natural gas fields -- median household income rocketed up a whopping 48 percent to $74,224. This while neighboring Teton County, home to ritzy Jackson, the sort of resort economy that's struggled these last three years, dropped 5 percent to $67,073. Even that epicenter of rich, liberal Californitude that rural Westerners so love to bash -- San Francisco County -- can't quite meet Sublette's wealth at $70,040, a 2 percent drop from 2000. Other areas notably buoyed by energy development include Sweetwater County, Wyo. (more gas drilling), Campbell and Weston County Wyo. (coalbed methane drilling in the Powder River Basin), and much of western North Dakota (wait, didn't this used to be one of those depopulating places where seniors traded home-canned goods for medical care?!), where drillers are rushing the Bakken oil formation.

Darker blue is a decline in median household income; darker yellow is an increase

3) The have/have not divide remains -- Let's not forget that the really rich people are still pretty darn rich. Just check out the Times map that shows the percent of households with incomes over $200,000. Pitkin County, Colo. (home of Aspen), boasts 14 percent; Teton County, Wyo. (home of Jackson) boasts 9 percent; and to continue picking on those Californians, San Francisco County boasts 11 percent. Meanwhile, in most of the rural West, 30 percent or more of households bring in less than $30,000 a year.

Darker red means higher percentage bringing in less than $30,000 year

4) But what about the housing crisis?! -- Get ready for a double-take in the "Family and Housing" maps. Somehow, despite all the economic hullabaloo, the West managed to see astronomical overall increases in median home values, with almost everywhere in the region gaining value by 20 percent or more. Huh?

Darker yellow means a higher increase in value; darker blue means a larger decrease in median value

5) A new way to plot the 100th Meridian? -- But wait! There's another double take to be had. For some odd reason (possibly a statistical fluke owing to low population), most of the counties with the highest percentages of same-sex couples living in the same house fall roughly along the 100th Meridian -- you know, that line beyond which "the west" really becomes "the West." Six percent of Borden County, Tex.'s 256 households are apparently home to same sex couples -- the highest percentage in the country. From there, our line wobbles up through Cottle County, Tex. (2 percent), Smith County, Kans. (3 percent), Arthur County, Neb. ("small sample size"), and Sheridan County, N.D. (3 percent). Even that hotbed of gay culture, San Francisco doesn't compare, at least proportionately, with just 1 percent...

Darker green counties have higher percentages of same-sex couples

What? Information overload? And you still can't ACTUALLY leave? Well, as long as we're "traveling," why don't we cruise around on a street view tour Banff, Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies? It's summertime there, at least in these photos...

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News.

All images are screen shots from the New York Times application, Mapping America, which is based on new 2010 Census data.