Heard around the West

  • Clancy, Mont., resident Karole Lee was backpacking in Colorado when she and her canine hiking partner chanced upon this list of warnings. "It made me nervous to continue in any direction," said Lee



Some people in rural subdivisions worship the wandering moose on their doorstep; others go for their guns. Jack Fenton, a worshipper in Summit County, says he was thrilled when a yearling moose moseyed up to his front door to nibble on a wreath. But his neighbor shot and killed the moose — and also sent a stray bullet through Fenton’s door, into his living room. The shooter may face charges of illegally killing wildlife and firing guns in a subdivision, reports the Park Record.


What with mad cow disease and depressed markets, it’s tough for cattle ranchers to find anything to laugh about. But Tam Moore and Peggy Steward, writing in the Capital Press, found jokes circulating in cattle country. After one rancher told another he had to shoot a cow, he was asked: "Was it mad?" "Well," said the rancher, "it wasn’t very happy about it." The writers also note that the word "downer" has entered the language in new ways. It used to mean sick yet still-walking cattle headed for slaughter. Now it means anything on the fritz, from downer cars to downer computers. And, of course, there’s the inevitable T-shirt with an up-to-the-minute slogan: MY COWS ATTEND ANGER MANAGEMENT.


It’s a tall order, living in a house that’s smarter than you are,so controlled by computers you can order doors to open, heat to come on or water to move, and they will oblige. That might just be why Don and Charlene Zwonitzer are having a hard time finding a buyer for their Atlas-E missile site in Kimball, Neb. Or maybe it’s the idea of living Hobbit-style under the prairie, some 60 miles east of Cheyenne, Wyo. The remoteness is a plus, insists Don Zwonitzer, a retired engineer, who says the treeless property is a snap to defend, ideal for "protection from natural and man-made disasters like tornadoes and civil violence." The "house" is built to withstand a one-megaton nuclear bomb exploding as close as 1.6 miles away. The couple spent five years sprucing up their concrete and steel bastion, glassing over the silo’s "flame pit" — a three-story vent originally intended for exhaust gases coming from a fired nuclear missile — to make a greenhouse. Underground safety doesn’t come cheap: The Zwonitzers are asking $25 million for their home under the range.


Meanwhile, in the hot and dusty Smoke Tree Valley of Southern California, a former newsman with a bad attitude, who admits he "was not a good employee," lives on a 10-acre homesite he calls Rancho Costa Nada — "It costs nothing." That’s close to the truth: Phil Garlington bought the land for $325 at a tax sale five years ago. Then he built a shelter of sandbags faced with salvaged lumber for $300. Garlington "is what Huckleberry Finn would have been like had he lived to be 60," says the San Francisco Chronicle. Life on the "ranch" — 53 miles from the nearest traffic light and reachable only by 17 miles of washboard road — isn’t easy. Summer temperatures can soar to 120 degrees; sex is like water: "You have to go to town to get it;" and there’s the occasional warplane practicing bombing runs. But Garlington loves the surreal stillness that descends on the desert at night. As for others following his lead, he says, "If you are not broke, you are not going to do this."


"This is wonderful," gushed tourism boss Anne LeClair, upon hearing that 400 reporters would converge on Burlingame, 15 miles south of San Francisco. She and other residents predict the press will spend money like water while covering the lurid trial of Scott Peterson, charged with the murder of his pregnant wife. San Mateo County in Silicon Valley has languished economically since the dot-com bust four years ago, which helps to explain LeClair’s jubilation. "You couldn’t hear us screaming?" she asked the New York Times. But if another town hosting a hot trial — Eagle, Colo. — is any guide, the press can be a cheap date. Eagle is the town where basketball standout Kobe Bryant will be tried for sexual assault against a local woman. Even though 60 photographers and reporters crowded the courthouse for preliminary hearings, Eagle Town Manager Willy Powell told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that sales tax revenues stayed flat. The reason: "They’re probably buying a lot of fast food."

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated and often shared in the column, Heard around the West.

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