As we move into the final days of summer 2012, George and Elaine have completed another one of those “Bucket List” items on their personal agendas: Flying an old airplane across the USA. Along the way, they made some interesting observations about America – what we are and where we’re going.
So this week, we dish up some thought-provoking observations as George went looking for the “Wright” stuff in his quest for an ideal retirement location.
Beginning at the Beginning
It was still dark when we rolled for the airport on June 30th this year. Warm – temp was 75 – but the weather to the north was good as we began what would eventually turn into a 5,092 –mile adventure, with 48.2 hours of flying time and flying over millions of square miles of America. We touched down back home again on August 12th.
The trip began as a wild idea “Why not fly over the whole country from our own plane?”
I’d gotten to thinking about this in 2010. We’d done a lot of other neat adventures, including living on a sailboat and cruising offshore from Canada to Mexico. But after being land-bound for some period, we were ready for the Monty Python “Now for something completely different….”
We wanted to get out, see the country, maybe find somewhere to live a bit closer to the kids and possibly outside of tornado alley. Sort of like a couple that goes idly shopping for a new car on a Sunday afternoon, not necessarily looking to buy, but seeing what’s out there. It was that kind of trip.
Dodge City, Kansas
Our first stop was Dodge City, Kansas at the height of this year’s drought. It was nearly 100 degrees when we touched down, well before noon thanks to our daybreak departure from East Texas. After a quick drive through town, though, there was little to be excited about except the Boot Hill Casino and leaving, which we did the next morning at sunrise.
Dodge City is small and dusty. If you like hot dry summers, this is your pick. It wasn’t for us.
Kansas may be critical to producing the world’s food supply – and the hard work of local farmers was evident as we looked over their fields, many of which were fallow and waiting for rain. But there were still crops, just not as much as normal. Working our way up into Nebraska, the evidence of the drought became more obvious…the patches of occasional green became fewer and further between.
By the time we were into the Dakotas, the winds which had been blowing smoke east/northeast from the Colorado hot spots had reduced visibility to almost nothing over some of the Bad Lands, which we did catch an occasional glimpse of, but not well or particularly often.
Rapid City, South Dakota
A few hours of eating smoke aloft later, Rapid City, South Dakota was a pleasant surprise. Most people don’t think about the place unless it’s about their floods a few years back, or when it becomes an overflow/bedroom community for the annual gathering of Harley aficionados, since Sturgis is just 29-miles up the road.
People don’t give themselves much freedom to pick where they live in America and if there was a “D’oh!” moment to the second day of the trip it was to remind ourselves how much freedom we still have in America – the quiet freedom that people don’t think much about.
Like folks who choose to live in Rapid City. Recovered from floods, with both the Crazy Horse Monument and Mount Rushmore nearby (locals just call them “the faces”) relatively nice summers and decent rainfall (flood years excepted) the city and the hills to the west of town (but north of Rushmore and the national park area) are ripe for development and might make a dandy retirement selection if one is open-minded about such things and has a few years ahead.
From the Dakotas we turned west (and a bit south to clear the heavy smoke from fires) and took a quick look at Gillette, Wyoming.
Honestly, we couldn’t see much to recommend this place. If there had ever been livable land (outside of town) there was little evidence of it now. There’s a big what looks like a strip mine coal plant East of town and the land around here is rugged and rough, except for a few golf courses. Still, it might be just the ticket if you’re looking to retire to golden years of rock climbing and ATV’ing. Again, though, it wasn’t for us, so we pressed on.
A few hundred miles up ahead and to the northwest, we shot this gap between Livingston and Bozeman Montana and were greeted by our second pleasant surprise: Montana’s pretty neat, barring the bit of turbulence in that pass getting there.
Once over the pass, and looking around a bit, we were very favorably impressed. Over dinner, Steve Quayleand his wife filled us in on the location. Seems a lot of people worry about being close to Yellowstone, but as Steve pointed out, there are something like 600+ “pressure relief valves” around the park, and his point that it takes a LOT of pressure to blow up a mountain was well-taken.
To sum up: This part of Montana has scenic views, low taxes, fairly low government overhead, lots of wide-open spaces, clean air and good farming for about 2 ½ seasons if you pick your crops right in the home garden.
Unfortunately, Elaine had a bit of frostbite years ago and that makes her very sensitive to cold…so we’ll have to keep thinking on this one. Still, it’s inland, the elevation is nearly 4,000 feet in most of the area and the people honest & enterprising.
Pappy had always been struck with that, by the way, since he noticed when he was young and studying life that innovation generally comes from people who live with a “four seasons” world around them. To his way of thinking in really temperate climates, there was no serious work incentive, while in extreme climates there wasn’t time to think creatively…so the land in the middle (30 North to 50-60 North) was where a tremendous amount of innovation came from.
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
A real gem of a place visually is Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, which from the air is simply magnificent and not too far from big city alternatives (“features”) offered by Spokane, WA.
We didn’t get too interested in the country between Bozeman/Livingston and Coeur d’Alene simply because while it had tons of trees, wide open spaces and killer mountain views, it also has winters. Long, cold, get-me-to-Florida winters.
San Juan Island, Washington
Between the UrbanSurvival site and the BackdoorSurvivalsite, we probably should get funding from Northwest Chambers of Commerce, but as Elaine, SurvivalHubby and Gaye (below) will attest, the Northwest IS pretty neat, especially summers in the San Juan Islands. NY Times rated it #2 in America a while back.
Not that they’re wrong, but there are certain problems with pulling up stakes to the San Juan’s that worry me. One concern is earthquake and tsunami risks, another is long supply chain issues of island living, then there is continuing radiation from Fukushima, although that’s not the biggest obstacle.
The BIG one is cost. Washington has relatively high property taxes and desirable homes in the better parts of the islands are just about 2X whatever the same square footage would cost in East Texas. Blame Canadians but more so California refugees for bidding things up.
Plus, there are all kinds of regulatory rigmarole constraints which simply wouldn’t be allowed back home in the Republic. So we headed for Oregon.
Oregon Coast, Oregon
Although we didn’t stop there, the Portland area (shown here looking over Hillsboro) had grown by shocking amounts. Lots of land, relatively cheaper homes than Seattle and a lot of interesting industrial build-out that includes an assortment of high tech, forest products, and generally people making things. Oregon doesn’t have a state sales tax, so that makes it an interesting place to investigate further, which we did.
After a delightful evening learning about the weather modification experiments of Trevor James Constable, we took off from Creswell, Oregon, southeast of Eugene, and were totally impressed with all the land and landscape on the western side of the Cascades before getting over into the high desert.
What you can see is obvious: Lots of trees, vertical elevation change, water, and (in summertime’s) sunshine. Being closer to the Pacific, this area is still something of a “sleeper” I think.
Just an hour’s flight later (even in our 46-year old plane) we were in Sunriver, OR which was one of the earliest large-scale resort communities in the Northwest. Started in 1968-1969.
To be sure, Sunriver is a dream location: High desert warmth in the summer afternoons, but down to 40-degrees at night even while we were there. Cool enough for hard workouts in the morning (lest you die of exposure!) but beer-drinking warm afternoons perfect for golf.
The local activities include summertime horseback riding and river rafting – that’s if you get bored with three grand golf courses – and in winter there’s some of the best skiing in Oregon close-by.
But as a retirement spot? Meets some of our criteria (close to kids) but it’s still way more pricey than Bozeman, the areas east of Spokane, or even southwest Washington or rural west-central Oregon. A $450,000 house there would go for maybe $225-$250K in East Texas.
Once you get out of the resort area, down toward LaPine, the land is still interesting, winters still cold, but there is water and the Deschutes River runs peacefully some places.
As you may be able to tell, most of the trees here are second growth and they aren’t very big. This is why much of what used to be the USA’s logging industry has now moved on to places like Siberia where old growth can still be found. The problem we had looking at this area was it is fairly remote and once you get down to Klamath Falls, then you’re into drier land, although you might still be able to snipe a waterfront retirement home on a lake for $300K or less, depending on where it is.
Still, not a lot of Big City amenities in Klamath Falls. We didn’t get over to Lakeview, Oregon, which is east a ways, we’re saving that one for a further adventure. We didn’t make it up to Crater Lake since it’s up around 8,000 feet and that’s gas we didn’t want to spend.
Moving to the southwest, the Mount Shasta national wilderness area seems like it would be a fine place to go in retirement, a little warmer than the high desert, but most of the land is locked out of development by BLM and other agencies the odds of a retirement boom there are slim to none.
The other problem, once you get out of the National Forest lands is then you’re in California and while we have friends up in this area who are cool, this is not the place to be if major socioeconomic problems ever beset the bigger cities to the south.
We could show you some pictures of Redding, more forest fire smoke over Chico, and what life’s like in Modesto where we stopped quite by accident due to the smoke-caused rerouting of our plans. So the next logical step in terms of retirement is Las Vegas.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas is still on sale! Yep, home prices were still very reasonable, although our cab driver (Dawn) told us she and her boyfriend were still counting themselves lucky to be driving cabs and making less than $20K per year. “Unemployment is running around 16.7 percent according to the radio” she reported and without the continued slight recovery, LV would be back in the pits again.
There were plenty of problems with Las Vegas, too. One of them is that there are still thousands of homes which have been foreclosed on but which are not on the market because banks are trying not to flood the market in order to keep prices from dropping further. On the other hand, a home there is about equal to what Texas homes are bringing in terms of cost, or slightly less.
Still, we look at Las Vegas as a risky pick. Prices on the strip are still astronomical. “O” (a show) at the Bellagio would have cost us $250 bucks for two of us if I had been that culture-consuming. (I’m not). And the shopping at the high end shops at the Bellagio and Caesars’s? Well how many formal dresses can you buy and use?
There are still damn good buffets, Bellagio’s was $21 each and no doubt about the spread being huge. But for real retirement and growing you own veggies? Water bills are a bear. And crime hasn’t completely dropped back since meth is still a quick and dirty (emphasis on dirty) way to skin a few bucks.
We looked, but only briefly, at the Scottsdale area on our way up to Payson, AZ. Prices in the hills north of Phoenix have come down, but even now they are running 1.5-2.5 X what similar spread outside of the Texas metro areas would run. Prices are crime rate/neighborhood dependent and cops are everywhere.
While there were some interesting eye treats, neither Deming, NM nor Pecos in west Texas had much to offer. Both are just too damn close to Mexico and the haze driven up over El Paso from Cuidad Juarez way just as bad as ever on our way through there.
Summing It All Up
We got what we were half-looking for: a kind aerial of survey of what is out there from the Mississippi and West. Before we make a decision we’ll maybe do a tour of the Northeast yet this fall, perhaps in time for “colors” up that way.
For the rest of this weekend, we may spend some time kicking around a few ideas, towns that reignited some interest and a process of clarifying where we’d like to really settle down. The quest for a perfect retirement spot is still an active project.
Hang on and enjoy the ride,
The Two G’s – George & Gaye
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