I am standing on a bluff in the Badlands, looking over a sprawling prairie so vast it appears endless. A towering cumulonimbus cloud blots out the sun as it advances across the plains in a slow, angry march. Thunder rumbles across the prairie, echoing through the canyons and castle-like spires of red-striped rock so intently I can feel it rattling my bones. I am transfixed, lost in awe and humbled by the power of nature. We do not have storms like this back home.
A cooling gust of wind tickles my skin, marking the storm’s imminent arrival. I scurry back to my car as the first fat drops of rain plunge earthward, jagged streaks of lightning ripping seams in the sky. The heavens open up and day is transformed briefly into night as sheets of rain and hail pummel the landscape, forcing me to the side of the interstate. Ten minutes later the sun is shining brightly once more, wisps of steam evaporating from the asphalt and an ominous black wall of clouds to the east the only evidence of nature’s furious deluge.
This was one of my favorite moments on my solo road trip in 2011. At the time I never imagined that this place I had called home decades earlier, in a long-ago life that seemed impossibly foreign to me, would once again be the place I’d hang my proverbial hat. But come next summer it will be, evidence of life’s impossible-to-predict twists and turns.
Upon hearing the news, most people are supportive but curious. “Why on earth would you move to South Dakota?!” is a fairly standard response, often followed by, “But you love it here!”
I’ve got answers to both.
Why Rapid City
While others view the weather of the Northern Plains as a drawback, to me it’s a draw and I wanna go back. I miss those big, powerful summer thunderstorms; they are a rare commodity in the Pacific Northwest. Ditto the snowstorms that sweep across the prairie every winter. I can’t help it; I’ve long been a weather geek and crave excitement. As a teenager I used to keep detailed climate stats and yearned to become a meteorologist, until math reared its ugly head and I settled on writing instead. But that fascination never waned. The PNW climate is far too monotonous and predictable for my tastes: nine months of gray skies and drizzly rain, followed by three months of sunshine. Wash, rinse, repeat. Tara is sick of hearing me grumble about the lack of thunderstorms and our too-infrequent snow. The real reason we’re moving is so I’ll shut up about those things already.
I kid, of course.
Our main consideration centers on livability, and Rapid City kicks ass in this category. It boasts a low cost of living (4.8% below the national average) and affordable housing. The median home price in Rapid City is $181,400; compare that to Portland ($345,500) and Vancouver ($289,100) and you can see why the area is so attractive to us. A house is our single biggest priority these days, and we’d rather not go broke buying it.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Like Washington, South Dakota has no income tax, and Rapid City’s sales tax (6.5%) is 1.9% lower than Vancouver’s. Unemployment rates are super low (3.1% in SD currently, 2.9% in Rapid City), job growth is strong (3%), and wages are on the rise (up .8% in Q1 2017). In 2016, livability.com named Rapid City the 16th best place to live in the U.S. Other national rankings include:
- #9 for making a financial fresh start (based upon employment, wages, cost of living, and job growth)
- #9 best places to retire
- #14 most secure places to live in the U.S. (small towns)
- #19 best cities to pursue a business or career
And South Dakota is the third-best state for general health and well-being. Damn you, Hawaii and Alaska. (Kentucky and West Virginia finished #49 and #50, in case you were wondering).
Size matters. Rapid City’s population is 73,569; it’s the perfect size, big enough for the essential amenities but small enough to avoid problems like traffic and homeless people on every corner. Tara, especially, has been struggling with all the people in the Portland Metropolitan Area. She’s used to much smaller towns! Downtown is charmingly quaint, with a historic Old West vibe, and easy to navigate. There are good restaurants and bars and a surprisingly robust local food and craft beer scene. There’s even wine! And Main Street Square is like a miniature version of Portland’s Pioneer Square; it’s the city’s unofficial living room and home to festivals and events throughout the year. In the winter, they turn it into a skating rink. Should we long to get out of town, there are a million things to do nearby. The Black Hills are scenic and beautiful, chock full of outdoor opportunities like hiking and camping and looking at dead presidents carved into rock. The walleye fishing is among the best in the country; the Badlands are just an hour’s drive to the east; and should we ever yearn for the Big City (or better still, a Broncos game), Denver is a mere six hours away.
There’s a certain appeal to the Upper Midwest, anyway. It feels exotic to me. And when we retire, buy an RV and travel around the country, that central location could come in handy.
Yes, we’ll be making some sacrifices. Rapid City doesn’t have a Trader Joe’s or Costco, but if you love Target, you’re in luck. The ocean is two days away versus 90 minutes. And it’s a good thing we’ve been to roughly a million concerts over the past five years, because our choices in that department will be far more limited.
But look at all the money we’ll save.
Honestly, the biggest negative I can think of is the politics. It doesn’t get much more conservative than South Dakota, and that’s unfortunate. I’ve always preferred the color blue to red. But if I think of us as infiltrating the enemy’s camp in order to spread a bit of liberal propaganda, it almost sounds enticing. And we did spot Obama and Clinton bumper stickers on a pickup truck with South Dakota plates at the farmer’s market (yes, they’ve got one of those, too), so there are pockets of resistance there. I have hope.
Why Not Portland?
Umm, because we can’t afford it here.
That’s the biggie, but not the only reason. My parents, not to mention a few friends, were shocked because I have long professed a deep love for this place. But feelings change and relationships evolve. Portland and I are now in the friends-only zone. Here’s why.
On May 26, there was a fatal stabbing on a MAX train in Portland. You’ve probably heard about it as the story made national news. A white male passenger was yelling racial slurs at two young Muslim women; when a couple of good samaritans attempted to intervene, he pulled out a knife, fatally stabbing two of them and injuring a third. It was a brutal, ugly attack, and left me reeling. I still haven’t recovered from the shock and shame of this horrible crime.
This is not the town I know and love, I thought. Sadly, it was just the latest in a string of incidents that made me realize the bloom was off the Rose City.
It’s rare when one can point to a specific moment in which a dream dies, but I feel like that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.
The dream first took form decades ago. Back in high school, I had a whiteboard on my bedroom wall with a photograph of the Oregon coast. It was a lovely scene featuring rugged forested cliffs and pounding surf, and instilled in me a fascination with the Pacific Northwest, a place I had never been.
I could live there, I thought.
And when the opportunity presented itself a few years later, I jumped at the chance. In November 1994, my ex and I left the Bay Area behind for Oregon. 15 months later we purchased a house in Vancouver, WA. I have lived in that town ever since.
Those first few years were heady, exciting times. Everything felt like an adventure. I quickly fell in love with the area and all it had to offer: terrific scenery, a mild (if wet) climate, a plethora of outdoor attractions, and loads of culture. Back then, rents were low and housing was cheap. In the late 90s, Portland felt like a well-kept secret.
Unfortunately, word got out. As with all things that are too good to be true, changes occurred. They weren’t for the better.
I don’t remember exactly when this happened. The shift was subtle yet undeniable. The restaurant scene exploded. Those neighborhoods we had formerly steered clear of after dark suddenly became trendy. A dilapidated industrial area morphed into the hip, upscale Pearl District. Voodoo Doughnut opened. Food cart pods became a “thing.” Everybody started talking about Portland, and when “Portlandia” debuted on IFC, they wouldn’t stop talking about it. Portland became the place to be.
Eventually, Portland devolved into a self-parody of itself thanks to that show. I love you, Fred Armisen, but I blame you for its demise. Not only did we embrace our unofficial motto, “Keep Portland Weird” (which wasn’t even ours – we stole it from Austin, Texas), we tried to up the weirdness ante at every turn. A guy wearing a Darth Vader and kilt, playing the bagpipes while riding a unicycle, became a local celebrity, and nobody batted an eye. More people took to riding bikes. Unashamedly naked people of all shapes and sizes, and still, nobody batted an eye. Despite its quirkiness, Portland still retained a charm that made it easy to overlook the steadily increasing population of homeless people and the ever-worsening gridlock on the freeways. Because, Salt & Straw! Beast! Rimsky-Korsakoffee House! The Doug Fir Lounge! Powell’s Books! Lardo! McMenamin’s! There are so many cool places here, it’s ridiculous.
But with its newfound trendiness came droves of people, and they caused our housing prices to skyrocket. They clogged our freeways, overburdened our infrastructure.
And then Trump was elected President and all hell broke loose. Portland has always been a protest-happy place, but things got out of hand after the election. There were anti-Trump protests, and pro-Trump protests, and protests against protests. Everything was protested, and while I’m all in favor of free speech and the right to assemble, ours became violent, ugly affairs that – once again – made national headlines. Back in the late 80s, Portland had a sordid reputation. It was a mecca for skinheads and racists, and the city was christened “Little Beirut” by George Bush Sr. That stuff had been swept under the rug and largely forgotten for about 20 years, but following the election it all reared its ugly head again, culminating in the MAX stabbing.
And suddenly, Portland isn’t nearly as charming as it once was.
To be fair, Portland still has much to offer. But there are a lot of drawbacks that did not exist just a couple of years ago. The cost of homes has gone up 9.2% in the past year, an increase that ranks among the highest in the nation, and the trend does not seem to be slowing down. If you already own a home here, great – you’re golden! But Tara and I are not golden. The rent on our apartment is $1400/month. In Rapid City, we can buy a house, finance it for 15 years vs. 30, and still end up with a lower monthly mortgage payment.
All these factors added up, and we eventually reached the tipping point.
Yes, I will miss certain aspects of living here. More than anything else, proximity to family. But we plan on visiting once or twice a year. I mean, we will have to stock up on the essentials, like Wild Roots vodka and Jacobsen Sea Salt and Atlas Cider. And drop in to Shanahan’s for our fried pickles. So we may be going, but it is certainly not for good.
Here’s to fresh starts and new adventures!