Trading in the city life for lots of land, but where?
June 29, 2009 7:24 AM   Subscribe

Sorry Austin, but we just can't do it anymore. Your 100+ degree muggy summers and allergy laden weather have been put up with for 10 years now, but its time to move on. These two techo-hippie, computer nerd gardeners are selling the house, living lean and looking for some nature in the American West. Where would you suggest we move?

My partner and I live in Austin, Texas. In the last 10 years our tastes have changed and we have found ourselves more interested in the outdoors (hiking, farming) and less interested in a big-city lifestyle. Seems like we have too much stuff and not enough stars and sunsets in our lives. Austin is great in a lot of ways, but half the year it is too hot to really enjoy the outdoors (it was 105 yesterday), and the city seems to become more densely packed with every passing year. We work from home, so we can make our living as long as we have an internet connection (which we can get almost anywhere with satellite). We'd like to move out west and could really use some potential location suggestions from anyone more traveled than we are.

Our primary desires, abbreviated and prioritized:
  • Enjoyable weather: for us, this means sunny skies (we get bummed out with rainy/overcast weather) but with temperatures mild enough to have a reasonable growing season. In Austin, allergies are will slay you and your baby seal and will show no remorse; we'd like to be somewhere that isn't the case.
  • Ample land: part of this will be used for growing food, just enough for us. The rest will be for scenery and to keep our nearest neighbors a good distance away. We can spend about $350k on the land.
  • Within 10 to 30 minutes of a city big enough to support a Costco and a Whole Foods (or equivalents) and a few tasty restaurants
  • Fewer people and more nature (hiking, wildlife)
  • Any nearby communities are preferably liberal/laid-back
We've been to Bend, Oregon, and it's a great example of a city we'd like to live near... large enough to have some well developed amenities, but still somewhat small, and the population density drops off rapidly. However, we worry about the cold winters and short growing season. We've also heard good things about the areas in California northeast of Sacramento, but, without having visited yet, we assume there would be too many people and high land prices.

Do you know anywhere like this? We're looking for places to visit this summer, so your suggestions could help us out a great deal.

posted by article to Travel & Transportation around Austin, TX (39 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe Utah? Nevada? New Mexico? They all seem low key, beautiful, dry for allergies, and different. Sorry, I've never been to any of them, but they do seem wonderful.
posted by dasheekeejones at 7:27 AM on June 29, 2009

It's strange. I've spent my whole life living west of the mountain ranges that run down through Washington, California, and Oregon. In my experiences I've noticed a direct inverse relationship with land prices/open spaces and political and social conservatism. I.e. the cheaper/more open spaces the more conservative. This is of course a BROAD generalization and I'm sure pockets of what you desire exist somewhere; I've yet to find them. You might want to make a sliding scale for yourself, a list of things maybe a little more specific including areas of your desires that you'd be willing to compensate on to get something close to what you desire. Also we're not sure how far your term 'west' extends east. The Rockies? The middle of the Great plains? You mention Cali, so I presume you mean the extreme west. Also, if allergies are a large issue for you life you might want to consider traveling to your chosen area for a while during each season of the year to figure our how you react. My wife moved from Northern California to Western Washington to escape debilitating allergies. Her allergies now are the worst during the winter here, or when someone cuts their grass close by.
posted by ZaneJ. at 7:39 AM on June 29, 2009

Sacramento is the west coast equivalent of Austin. It was 109 yesterday. There isn't much northeast of here that isn't mountains (cold winters) or that doesn't have pretty much the same summers as we do (e.g. Chico).

How about Colorado?
posted by elsietheeel at 7:43 AM on June 29, 2009

How about the outskirts of Charlottesville, VA? The area is liberal, there is plenty of land, the people are friendly, open-minded and intelligent. There are many farmer's markets... and yes, a Whole Foods and a Costco.

You would have very easy access to both Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, so hiking options abound. The area has tons of wildlife, too.
posted by MorningPerson at 7:45 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Please don't move to Sac (or the central valley). It is also very hot, dry and a magnet for allergens of all kind.
posted by special-k at 7:50 AM on June 29, 2009

Best answer: How about Fort Collins, Colorado?

The weather is pretty temperate, it's not too large (around 120,000) and there are national parks and skiing pretty much everywhere you look. There's also Colorado State University, so there's a nice intellectual vibe thing going on.

Anyway, I think you should check it out. Of course, the whole thing is moving somewhere you can find a job, so there's that to consider as well.
posted by elder18 at 7:52 AM on June 29, 2009

East of the Cascades, "liberal" communities are going to be few and far between. "Laid back," though, is a lot easier to find, as long as you are cool with semi-libertarian, go-along-to-get-along arrangements where the ranchers and the dope-growing hippies and the weirdo gun-nuts and the Mexican immigrants all rub elbows at the local bar. So you can have laid-back, mostly of the don't ask/don't tell variety, but you won't be able to find huge conglomerations of Democratic voters.

So if that appeals to you, I'd suggest looking at the huge swath of the intermountain west, from the border between Oregon and California all the way up to the Canadian border (and beyond, obviously, but then you are dealing with visa issues), and from the eastern slopes of the Cascades across to the Rockies, plus down into Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Costcos can be found in most medium sized cities; Whole Foods are going to be extremely scarce but any place with enough hippies will have a food co-op, and anywhere with enough wealthy second home buyers will have some upmarket gourmet stores; high-end restaurants follow along with places that attract the second home buyers, too.

My guess is that you would be happiest in, or near, any of a dozen little towns that have a connection to the arts (eg Taos, Joseph, etc) or near a town with a college or university (eg Pullman, La Grande). That will give you the largest concentration of liberal voters outside of a major metropolitan area that you'll find in this part of the world, while still giving you the big spaces and easy access to public lands that come with the area.
posted by Forktine at 7:56 AM on June 29, 2009

Keep in mind that satellite internet kind of sucks -- if you depend on low-latency for VOIP or anything else (routing through a satellite in geosynchronous orbit is SLOW), or need lots of bandwidth (most plans I've evaluated have very stringent daily caps), it may not work for you.

You might look into New Mexico, particularly the mountains outside of Albuquerque. A friend of mine grew up in that area, and says the people were relatively liberal. We're all in AZ now, and my friend constantly points out how much more liberal she found NM to be. Since there's elevation, the climate should be mild, but I'm not sure about suitability for farming.
posted by Alterscape at 7:58 AM on June 29, 2009

Albuquerque -- we don't have humidity, but we do have the allergens.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:32 AM on June 29, 2009

I'd definitely check out Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. It's pretty high up on most lists of awesome outdoorsy towns. I can put you in touch with someone who recently moved there from western MA if you're interested in more details.
posted by rachelv at 8:33 AM on June 29, 2009

I met a farmer in central Utah who was loving his life having moved from the Central Valley, CA. However, he'd gone from having up to 3 seasons a year to barely one and had to deal with temperature swings of 120° over a year.
posted by i_cola at 8:34 AM on June 29, 2009

As an allergy sufferer who used to live in the Pacific Northwest, I can assure you there is no relief there. They have plenty of trees, grass, and mold.

Perhaps take a look at Missoula, Montana. It's a more liberal university town, and Montana has an arid climate that should be at least somewhat better for your allergies than more humid parts of the country.
posted by Fleebnork at 8:36 AM on June 29, 2009

Best answer: I'm in Fort Collins, Colorado. It hits most of your recommendations - stunning nature access, 300+ days of sunshine, small-town but liberal, community-oriented vibe. Great farmer's markets and CSAs; very bike friendly. Thriving craft brew culture, if you're into that. The winters are milder than you would think - it gets fairly cold, but the state's got its act together pretty well about keeping things accessible even in biggish snow (and the snow is nothing like what you'd get in upstate New York or even out on the plains). I think you can still buy some pretty big parcels of land, too, for not-outrageous sums. Denver and Boulder are about an hour away.

It's a nice little town, full of aging hippies and first wave feminists and young families and college professors. Downsides: It's full of college kids. It's a little liberal enclave in the middle of conservative ranch and farm land. There are a lot of restaurants in the cute little old town area, but there are very few good ones. The growing season is fairly short, and you need to water a LOT because it's so dry. And you have to drive a long, long time to get anywhere else - I'm from DC, and the lack of light rail connecting the Front Range towns with Denver is completely baffling and infuriating to me. We've been talking about moving to Denver when our lease is up next year - but it might be just your speed. Come and visit!
posted by peachfuzz at 8:37 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Heh. Second-wave, I mean - it's not a town of centenarians :)
posted by peachfuzz at 8:39 AM on June 29, 2009

How bout the Ozarks? I've heard there are pockets of hippies out there, and the land is definitely cheap.
posted by libraryhead at 8:39 AM on June 29, 2009

Las Cruces NM is lovely -- I lived there for 29 years, born and raised. Employment is difficult there, however, so shop for jobs first.

I'm vetoing La Grande, OR. I lived there for about 5 years, and it's a small town too far away from anything "real". 2 hours to the nearest city without an airport... 3 hours to the nearest airport... it's a great place to land if you really like the small town living thing and can stand "being without" a lot of the time. But if you crave any amount of urban interaction, it's NOT a good place to live. You want a Costco or a Whole Foods? La Grande is not for you.

Phoenix is hateful and will be out of water in 10 years. Albuquerque is great if you can get a place in the older parts of town near UNM, but Rio Rancho is a cancer upon the land.

Coeur d'Alene ID is very close to Spokane, WA, which is also lovely. You'll find the winters a bit harsh either place, and the growing season is VERY short (June through September, if you're lucky.)
posted by hippybear at 8:45 AM on June 29, 2009

Oh - a thought: Is diversity an issue for you? Much of the midwest and the mountain west is super-monolithic in terms of culture and ethnicity. I never thought it was an issue for me - I've always thought of myself as pretty well-adjusted about my relationship as a child of Korean immigrants with the majority population - but I had no idea how much living in a diverse place mattered to me until I moved to Colorado. I'm just now getting used to always feeling slightly out-of-place at first and being "the Asian girl" in any given situation (and this is true in the big cities out here as well as the small towns).
posted by peachfuzz at 8:53 AM on June 29, 2009

Grand Junction, CO is nice, really the entire western slope of CO fits into your description of wants and needs. My cousin really liked Mountain Home, Idaho, and my best friends father stands by Tillamook, OR.
posted by Gravitus at 9:23 AM on June 29, 2009

Pacific Northwest winters aren't all that cold, compared with what's on the eastern seaboard. It's more of a foggy, dreary mess, most of the season.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:27 AM on June 29, 2009

My first thought reading your question was New Mexico. I have friends who live there and I used to visit a lot when I lived in Texas. I know exactly what you mean about Austin allergies--they plagued me for 5 years--and I personally did not feel nearly as bad when I visited NM (Santa Fe- Los Alamos area for the most part). I found the summers to be much nicer in NM as well.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:41 AM on June 29, 2009

Allergy datapoint: I lived in Seattle for 7 years and now live in Portland, and I can tell you that my allergies have been terrible ever since I moved to the Pacific Northwest (I'm originally from the east coast). Mild winters = things grow year-round here and there is a LOT of stuff to be allergic to. Plus, we've got the rainy thing going on and you said you needed sunny. Don't move to the Pacific Northwest.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:48 AM on June 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would recommend Boise, ID

Decent size town but you can quickly get away from it. 4 distinct seasons with mild winters and hot (but not humid summers). I don't know how many days of the year are sunny but it must be well over 200 (If it rains two days in a row it becomes a big topic of conversation). Winters are directly proportional to your elevation in this part of the state. Down in the valley it rarely dips into the lower 20s and spring comes fairly early.

I get some cottonwood allergies for a few weeks in the summer, but nothing like I suffered in Michigan growing up.

We have great hiking, mountain biking, skiing, kayaking, and rock climbing within an hour of downtown. Within three or four hours we have even better places for these same activities. Within a day's drive you can get to just about anywhere in the PacNW/Intermountain west. Many people end up staying here specifically because of how accessible the outdoors is here. People don't golf, they ride bikes or kayak or backpack.

There are active farming communities within an hour of Boise (Garden Valley), and I think a pretty large percentage of Idahoans still make their living from agriculture. This isn't something I know a lot about, but I know that farming is definitely viable here.

Idaho is a notorious red-state. But Boise is a liberal bastion (though state politics are sometimes hilarious). I'm about as unstereotypically Idahoan as you could get and it hasn't been an issue even once in my 3+ years here.

Boise also has low cost of living (rent, housing, utility costs).
posted by nameless.k at 10:48 AM on June 29, 2009

Spokane is fantastic and there is plenty of cheap, beautiful land within an hours drive. Short growing season for sore but you can really extend it with a greenhouse. PM me for details.
posted by LarryC at 10:49 AM on June 29, 2009

If you need sunny, avoid the PNW, and by PNW I'm including Pullman/Moscow and Couer d'Alene.
posted by HotToddy at 10:51 AM on June 29, 2009

My wife and I live in Austin and were just discussing the same thing last week with a friend who lives in Seattle, and we've all decided to form the "other city committee" and consider other places to live.

So far we've found: Greater DC Area, Seattle, Portland, and Little Rock. Our friend tells us that Seattle winters can suck the life out of you, but anytime there's a sunny day you're reminded why live in Seattle; it's a perfect sunny day (like, all summer, as opposed to three days in March for us).
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 11:09 AM on June 29, 2009

Tucson's the liberal stronghold of Arizona, but summers top 100. And I'm not too sure about farming there, either.
posted by Precision at 11:22 AM on June 29, 2009

Don't forget Northern California -- mountains and ocean. There are some beautiful towns up there.
posted by heather-b at 11:35 AM on June 29, 2009

I lived in Seattle for 6 years, and never got use to the winters. It's true, the summers are Spectacular, but the grey haze last for the other 9 months of the year. I could move back there just because of that (YMMV, though).

N. California is pretty nice, and when I drove through the Ozarks last summer I was pretty impressed with how lush it was up there (lots of dry counties out there though, which bodes ill).
posted by Pecinpah at 11:54 AM on June 29, 2009

If you don't move to Seattle, rain and all, you will live an empty life.

That said, St. George, Utah, is supposedly turning into a tiny, little hip corner of the world.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:01 PM on June 29, 2009

Sacramento is the west coast equivalent of Austin. It was 109 yesterday.

I moved to Davis (~15 miles from Sacto) from Austin about 10 years ago. And while I can verify that it was indeed 109 yesterday, and is supposed to be 105 today, and that it SUCKS, I'd also like to point out that summers here are nowhere near as interminable as the 6-month Texas summer. For one thing, it's not humid. That makes an enormous difference. For another, it almost always cools off at night. There are only 5-7 nights a year when I leave the AC on instead of opening the windows. (And yeah, two of those nights have been this week.) It's nothing at all like Austin, where you walk outside at midnight and are immediately drenched in sweat because it's still 87 with 90% humidity.

The growing season is -- get this -- 12 months long. Head too far north (say, Eureka or Arcata, which are great little towns too), and you'll get maybe a 6-month season. Our winters have rainy stretches, but that translates into snow 90 minutes away in the Sierra, so hey, bonus. And during the really hot stretches, it's about an 80-minute drive to Pt. Reyes National Seashore or other beautiful coastal towns, which will be cooler -- if not downright cold and foggy.

Davis is a small, laid-back college town that I HATED after moving here from Austin. There's really no nightlife to speak of, no live music, and none of my favorite bars. (I miss you, Ego's!) But it has totally grown on me, and it sounds like a place that you and your partner would like. There's lots of recreation within an hour or two's drive. Plus, when you're feeling citified, you can zip down to San Francisco (and then leave again, which is my favorite part).

I'd suggest that you check out the small town of Winters, about 10 miles from Davis, or other towns in the surrounding Capay Valley. You can rent a house in the country there quite a bit cheaper than other places around, and it's pretty country.

Memail me if you're out this way this summer and I can show you some of the good food.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:34 PM on June 29, 2009

Although I half agree with Blazecock Pileon's assessment.. the half of the PNW which lies to the West of the Cascades isn't that cold. East of the Cascades is an entirely different weather entirely. We had nearly 100" of snow in the Spokane, WA area last winter, and temperatures down to negative F at night. Summers are longer, sunnier, and have less rain than the West side.
posted by hippybear at 3:44 PM on June 29, 2009

Forget Arcata or Eureka. It's foggy all the time and the allergy season is year round..

Davis is a small, laid-back college town that I HATED after moving here from Austin. There's really no nightlife to speak of, no live music, and none of my favorite bars.

That makes me so sad. I went to Davis back in the day and it had a rockin' music scene.
posted by fshgrl at 6:53 PM on June 29, 2009

I miss Albuquerque, and New Mexico in general. Albuquerque is the closest thing there is to a big city. You could live near Santa Fe for relatively inexpensive. Great weather, mild winters (there's snow, but not much), beautiful sunsets, great arts scene.

If you want to be out in the middle of nowhere, there are places like Jemez Springs, Pecos, or Pojoaque. If you want to be nearer to Albuquerque, there's Corrales (horses, trees, some agriculture).

Go to New Mexico.
posted by rybreadmed at 10:43 PM on June 29, 2009

I can't believe no one has suggested Boulder yet! There's plenty of land available outside of town, and Colorado sounds to me like the ideal state for you- less hot, but still sunny, and not as dry as New Mexico. I've lived in both states for years, and New Mexico doesn't really have a "growing season" to speak of, unless you want to take a pickaxe to your entire yard and purchase tonnes of dirt that you'll have to replace constantly. Not even to mention the water-usage nightmares. Albuquerque is a little more humid than Santa Fe, but, despite my love of New Mexico, one of the less pleasant Western cities I've been to (think strip malls and half-empty late 80's skyscrapers).

Culturally, Colorado also has the advantage for you folks in my opinion. If you're tech-savvy and green-spirited, you'll have a lot in common with most Coloradans, who tend to place a pretty high premium on outdoor, healthy lifestyles and protecting the gorgeous environment around them. New Mexico is a little different, being less generally health-oriented (if you're curious, look up the health indexes of each state- I could be wrong but as far as I remember New Mexico is toward the bottom and Colorado is toward the top).

Though I suppose I'd recommend Colorado, really you could find what you're looking for in either state- though if Whole Foods is a priority as a brand there's one in Santa Fe and a couple in Albuquerque and as far as I know none else in NM, while they're a little bit more spread out in Colorado.

Good luck!
posted by libertypie at 5:34 AM on June 30, 2009

I forgot to mention -- you can eliminate the allergy part of the equation if you start taking Flonase. It was a totally life-changing experience for me, and has zero side effects (for me).
posted by mudpuppie at 11:54 AM on June 30, 2009

The sad fact, unfortunately, is that pollen is everywhere. You might feel a bit better when you arrive somewhere else, because the pollens there are different from Austin, but after a few years your bodies will have identified them and developed hay fever to them too. (Example: When I moved to Colorado I wasn't allergic to sagebrush, but soon was.) For me, the best solution to the hay fever equation was to go to a really good allergist and try the various treatments, then sticking with the one that worked best for me (turned out to be an nasal spray, ymmd).

I think you two need a break from living in Austin. Take a long, leisurely road trip up through Fort Collins to Coeur d'Alene through WA and OR down to northern CA and check it all out. Talk with the locals, find the Whole Foods stores, see what looks good to you. Best wishes, and let us know where you end up!
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:26 PM on June 30, 2009

I forgot to mention -- you can eliminate the allergy part of the equation if you start taking Flonase. It was a totally life-changing experience for me, and has zero side effects (for me).

Flonase didn't work particularly well for me, but Veramyst has done wonders. Which is interesting because they're both fluticasone, but have a couple different chemicals mixed in.
posted by Fleebnork at 8:48 AM on July 1, 2009

Response by poster: You guys have offered a lot to think about and we can't thank you enough!

It looks like the Boise, Idaho and Ft. Collins, Colorado areas might be the real winners we hadn't previously thought about. Thanks nameless.k, peachfuzz, and elder18!

Coeur d'Alene, Idaho looks like a very neat place, and is definitely going on our list of places to visit, but the growing season is probably to short for us for living.

New Mexico and other desert suggestions are great for our allergy/sun needs, but since we'd like to be growing a lot of our own food probably wouldn't work out so well in that regard.

Seattle, which sounds all sorts of awesome during the summer, would absolutely kill us with 9 months of drizzly gray. Our poor brains need year round sunny love!

All of your observations have been incredibly helpful in getting a better feel for all these areas, and especially adjusting our expectations for northern California. Special thanks to mudpuppie for the mention that you do get the colder nights there to balance out the hotter summer days, which would go a long, long, way in tolerating the heat for us.
posted by article at 9:15 PM on July 2, 2009

I'm late to the party and the decision might already be made, but I just found this question today and thought I'd chime in.

We've also heard good things about the areas in California northeast of Sacramento

You might have been hearing about Grass Valley and Nevada City (home of the late Utah Phillips). I'd be surprised if they were Austin-liberal, and they're both pushing the limits of distance to a Costco, but they're otherwise pretty cool places that I've had decent experiences doing day visits to from the Sacramento Area. I'd guess housing is more affordable there than Sac as well (and Sac is much more affordable than the Bay area or LA).

Placerville and Auburn are also cool little towns, are much closer into the greater Sacramento area, but probably trend more conservative if the number of McCain signs here last year were any indication.

All of these areas tend to be at least a few degrees cooler than the Sacramento valley, and in particular tend cool of pretty good at night except for maybe a few weeks in the summer.

I've also heard pretty good things about Chico, that it's laid back and has a bit of a hippie vibe, but I haven't been. It probably has a central valley climate, but it might be cooler than, say, Fresno, given that it's a lot farther North.

If you do tend towards Colorado: check out Salida. You might be pushing the Costco distance, and I suspect your growing season's going to be shorter because they're at 7000 feet or so, but it's probably longer than Coeur d'Alene, and I don't think I've been to a small town that had a more charming or cohesive identity.

I'd love to be able to recommend some spots in Utah, I have a deep soft spot for it as my home state, the outdoor recreation is fantastic, and there are places where the growing season is long, and Salt Lake City has some good culture and liberal-ish enclaves. But the conservative culture and politics is a large part of the social landscape and coexisting with it is probably not a casual task for people used to something else. Still, you might find it not that different than some places near Boise (which I could also tentatively recommend). MeMail me if you ever decide you're interested in details.
posted by weston at 5:37 PM on August 1, 2009

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