Another Perspective

An Open Letter to Californians

Defeat Gray Davis, please. Otherwise the Rockies will crumble from another exodus of the overtaxed who will never figure out local ways.

By 8.9.02

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I would like to take this opportunity to implore you to do your civic duty and save your state and yourselves by voting for Bill Simon in this fall's gubernatorial race. Despite the recent faux pas plaguing the Simon campaign, the re-election of Governor Gray Davis would be catastrophic for you, and especially for me.

You see, my support of Simon is a double-edged sword. On one side of the blade, a conservative should support conservatives, and I do. But that other edge is sharpened on the whetstone of true altruism. I want you to vote for Bill Simon because a Simon victory will spare me any more of you people moving to the Mountain West -- especially Wyoming --to escape the torments of statist liberalism, as I have done. I'm frankly sick and tired of Californian's coming here to get away from the Golden State, and then doing their damnedest to turn it into La-La Land all over again. I'm for closing the barn door behind me.

As you know, your present governor with a sweep of his liberal magic wand and his deft handling of your 2001 energy crisis, has managed to turn a $13 billion surplus into a $24 billion deficit in a mere four years. Consequently, despite his protestations to the contrary, a re-elected Gray Davis will be forced to raise taxes (you are already one of the most heavily taxed and regulated states in the nation) to deal with that metastasizing deficit.

Ex-Governor Pete Wilson did exactly that to the tune of $7 billion in 1991, sending the California economy into a tailspin that it only recovered from thanks to the high tech boom of the late '90s (which has itself since tanked). This resulted in an eastward migration of "Californicators" to the Mountain West that made it America's fastest growing region through the '90s, posting a 25.4 % population increase between 1990 and 2000. Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Reno and Boise all broke records. Even places that used to be thought of as rural are filling up with subdivision sprawl. Cody, Wyoming, is a good example of the latter.

If you -- the typical Californian -- decide to move here, please be advised that the winters are ferocious, and that our idea of upscale shopping is Wal-Mart and Kmart. And your new neighbors down the road may welcome you with housewarming gifts of wild game meat. Otherwise, on social occasions they can be taciturn to the point of rudeness, and have a maddening trait that will not allow them to introduce themselves until you introduce yourself. If there is a third party present who knows everybody, don't expect him to be of any help. I've attended parties and barbecues where I patiently went around and introduced myself to a dozen or more people, garnering blank stares all the way. So much for western hospitality. In truth, your new neighbors can be extremely rude SOBs who don't give a damn who you are.

BUT YOU CAN ALWAYS COUNT on that taciturnity. There is nothing obnoxious about these folks when they're sober. They will maintain a polite demeanor even when they drop by to tell you they've just shot your dog. Now don't get upset, because it's your fault. You should've kept him penned or tied up. Just because you've moved to wide and wonderful Wyoming doesn't mean Rex or Buddy can run anywhere he pleases. For over a century ranchers have been routinely shooting dead stray dogs that they catch chasing or otherwise harassing livestock. Forget about a lawsuit. This law's on the books here, and no self-respecting Wyoming judge will offer you an ounce of sympathy. Knowing that you're newcomers will elicit a phony sympathetic response from the nice young lawyer from whom you've sought legal advice. But in the end, he'll just shrug his shoulders.

There's an amusing Cody story about a newcomer who went to complain to a rancher neighbor about the latter's dog slipping his chain and doing some sort of minor damage to the newcomer's property. The stoic rancher looked at the greenhorn with a mix of puzzlement and contempt, and quietly asked: "Why didn't you shoot him?" This illustrates a related point.

In liberal parlance, your new neighbors could be described as, well, "Gun nuts". In fact, it seems like everybody's armed. I have a friend who owns sixty firearms (I'm comparatively in the bush leagues with just two). He's ready for anything from rabbits to elk to al Qaeda. Wyoming's relatively low crime rates testify to the fact that if you're a street thug you are going to think twice about breaking into a home to rob an old lady, if there's a chance that that old lady sleeps with a loaded Beretta on her nightstand. I know people who can't drive to the grocery store without a revolver in the glove compartment. In Wyoming, the NRA isn't an advocacy group as much as it's a secular religion, and of course was partly responsible for the 2000 Bush-Cheney ticket garnering the largest plurality of any state in the Republic: 69%. Our sainted ex-Senator Alan K. Simpson once defined "gun control in Wyoming" as the act of "shooting straight".

Which brings me to hunting. If you're an anti-hunting advocate, please remember that Wyoming has one of the highest percentages (17% as compared to 6% nationally) of hunters in the nation. We even put (gasp!) 12-year-old kids soon to hunt through mandatory firearms safety courses.

But don't worry, if you are anti-hunting, you soon may change your views, probably after you wake up on that dark, snowy, subzero December morning to discover that all the evergreen shrubbery you so lovingly planted around your new home the previous summer has been eaten by winter-ravenous deer or elk. You'll know this by the telltale stubby sticks protruding from the frozen ground, and by the many cute cloven-hoofed tracks and round pellets of scat in the snow. If you have horses and keep hay outdoors, the deer will visit the haystack too.

YOU MAY REMEMBER THAT PRETTY creek that ran through or bordered your "ranchette." When you bought the land it was one of the much touted "amenities" in the real estate agent's hard sell. That bubbly brook was one of the main reasons you bought your twenty acre piece of paradise. You could lie in bed on summer nights with the windows open and hear it lull you into bucolic dreams. Well, not exactly.

You see, in the West -- like anywhere else -- water is a commodity, and "senior water rights" go back a century or more. Put simply, you own your creekbed, but not the creek, and one fine summer day it will mysteriously dry up in a few hours, not to be seen again until mid-autumn, when it will promptly return and shortly freeze. The water is being diverted upstream to irrigate hay and alfalfa fields. One rancher owns "senior rights," and a handful of others "junior rights." You -- being a newcomer -- have no rights. This is because the rancher who subdivided the ranch that your house sits on sold his water rights to one of the guys upstream. Think of the water as a pie being sliced, but there isn't a slice left for you, and this is reflected by the once sumptuously gushing creek now reduced to a dry creekbed with a muddy streak running down the middle of it. Mark Twain wasn't kidding when he quipped: "Liquor's for drinking; water's for fighting over." You don't like any of this, and you go to town to visit the nice young lawyer. He offers you coffee in his office, and listens to your tale of water woe. He nods sympathetically, and then gives you a short stock lecture on the nature of western water laws. Then he shrugs his shoulders again. You seem to be writing a lot of checks lately for legal advice that's not doing you any good.

Oh, speaking of writing checks, it's time to order more hay. Your horse is doing fine, you just didn't count on the nightly deer visits. The rancher who sells and delivers the hay is one of the "junior water rights" guys living upstream from you. He has a nice sideline selling hay to newcomers who own horses. From his point of view this is good because he's been dealing lately with a depressed cattle market.

So now you are starting to figure out life in the "New West." You buy hay from a man who you believe steals your creek water to grow the hay that you involuntarily feed to the deer, which the local Wyoming Game and Fish guy has advised you not to do, because even as deer lack overt communication skills, it's odd that there are more of them every night. You may have to build a small barn for your hay.

That's okay. You still have your cozy modern-rustic 4,000 square feet "log cabin" with a big stone fireplace, cathedral ceilings, skylights and an elk antler chandelier on your twenty acre ranchette, with only a scattering of neighbors across the valley, and a great view of the mountains. You can sit on the deck and watch the sunset over those mountains, and think how wonderful it was that you built your beautiful new house with only half the equity you gained when you sold your last house in San Jose. Nice, huh?

WELL, NOT REALLY. SINCE YOU DIDN'T bother to read the fine print on your land deed, and the real estate agent didn't bother to tell you, nor did the building contractor who also knew (but then again, it's none of his business) : it turns out that the rancher (you remember him, the one who unloaded the water rights when he subdivided) retained the mineral rights beneath your twenty acres of paradise. You may get a polite letter in the mail from an energy company like Arco or Amoco informing you that a drilling rig will be erected in an empty pasture down the road, and just outside the legal perimeter of the 100-yard buffer zone between your property and the rig. The letter tells you that this will probably only be temporary (a few months) as the energy company's geologists study the feasibility of tapping a possible natural gas reservoir deep under your house. Don't worry, with modern technology they can go at this "laterally" from that distant rig site. The energy company will regret any inconvenience to you, such as that ugly drilling rig and accompanying trailers and trucks that will mar your view of the mountains. Also the annoying grating noise, and all the dust the trucks will raise going up and down your unpaved subdivision access road. Not wishing to belittle their own employees, the company letter doesn't mention the handful of hardhats who will be on site everyday. "Roughnecks" have a scruffy, tattooed look about them that makes you think that this may be their first good job since being released from prison in Arkansas a month ago. Folks don't call them "oilfield trash" for nothing. If the company is prospecting for coal-bed methane, the end result could mean a pumped-out aquifer and your well going dry. Though this is unlikely because the legalities are rather complicated.

Which is why you go visit the shoulder-shrugging young attorney again. He tells you that lots of new folks living in western Colorado and near Bozeman, Montana, are going through the same thing lately, so you're not alone. He advises you to join the new Homeowners Association lawsuit (that he is filing) against the energy company, and to start attending the weekly townhall meetings related to this controversy. Congressman Such-and-Such will be there next week, and you can join your neighbors in bending his ear all about it. You're starting to get nostalgic for your former California life. The comforts of stringent rules and regulations. You even miss the California Coastal Commission.

The following evening as you're climbing into your SUV to go town to attend your first meeting, you hear an unearthly scream. It's your wife, and she tells you that she just observed a large rattlesnake crawl under the deck. The meeting is in twenty minutes, but your wife insists -- rather hysterically -- that you kill this dangerous snake before you leave. You remember that when the real estate agent told you about all those wonderful "wildlife viewing opportunities," he didn't mention rattlesnakes. You also remember that you don't own a gun.

Then it hits you. You'll call the neighbors. Being good neighbors, they will help you. They have lots of guns. Remember? They shot your dog.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.