Tips for a new code of the West

By Dave Marston

It’s not always easy living in the rural West, with customs so entrenched that everybody takes them for granted. What makes it hard for the newest newcomers is that they’re caught up in a mysterious culture.

Learning the Old West code was easy decades ago. Novelist Zane Gray’s “Code of the West” told men to wear a hat only outdoors, to never wave but nod at someone on horseback, and to treat women with chivalry. You — and you were always presumed to be male — were also advised to take your gun belt off before sitting down to eat.

But here we are in 2022, and from what county officials and some jaundiced newcomers tell me, the cultural confusion for newcomers almost always starts with private property. For example, the newbies tend to get huffy about their boundaries and can’t believe they have to fence livestock out.

Wyoming, of course, is a classic fence-out state where cows outnumber people more than 2 to 1. Irrigation is another area of contention, as water law can be murky. A ditch may run close to your property but that doesn’t mean you can take water out of it.

To make the urban-rural transition easier, I’ve collected 10 tips guaranteed to ease you into your new life. But first, know that you will never become an oldtimer, although with patience you might become what Western historian Hal Rothman dubbed a “neo-native.” Here’s hoping this helps:

1. Always wave at neighbors when you see them and make eye contact with everyone who passes you, either in a car or on foot. This is not a challenge; it means you’re neighborly. And be cordial to everyone you see at the post office because you will see them everywhere. You may even see their dual personas, as many locals must work two or even three jobs to pay the rent. 

2. Never go for a long hike with new boots. Take enough water and food for yourself and to share. Bring a rain jacket and sweater and waterproof matches. The saying “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes,” is dead-on accurate. And when someone on a hike assures you that “it’s all downhill,” it’s only partially uphill. “A little technical” means the mountain has hair-raising sections, while “just around the corner” means the end of the trail is not.

3. Realize that nobody is more important than anybody else. Rich and poor may sport raggedy clothes. Notable figures in town are probably dogs; learn their names.

4. Know that it’s considered rude to insult a person’s dog, but if it comes on your land and harasses your cattle, you can shoot the dog. If your dog chases wildlife, you’re in for a big fine and maybe worse.

5. Flashing your headlights to oncoming cars is good form if there’s a hazard ahead, usually a deer, or perhaps a deputy sheriff trolling for speeders.

6. Notice that law enforcement people are not the only people carrying guns, and a gun on the hip doesn’t necessarily indicate political party.

7. Always stop to help people on a trail or road because federal agencies are spread too thin for fast rescues. Locals would stop to help you, even if your hat logo fails to reflect their politics.

8. You might be bored senseless, but you will learn what local public service is all about if you sample meetings from school board to county commission. And immediately volunteer at a nonprofit or two, while also subscribing to your local paper if you’re lucky enough to have one.

9. Clean jeans are considered dress-up.

10. Forego saying you’re pretty good at something unless you have a death wish. For example, in Durango, Flagstaff or Jackson, saying you’re a “good” mountain biker or skier is an invitation to be politely left behind at midday.

Bonus tip: If you think about buying a house next to a yard full of old farm implements, don’t be tempted. That yard collection is permanent. Complaining, however, rarely works in the rural place you’ve adopted. A painful lesson might be that like it or not, you can only change yourself. Wagon wheels are always a safe decoration.

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He grew up in rural Colorado.

Image credit: Pat Hunter

This column was published in the following newspapers:

07/11/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
07/11/2022 Adventure Journal CA
07/11/2022 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
07/11/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
07/11/2022 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
07/11/2022 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
07/11/2022 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
07/11/2022 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
07/12/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
07/12/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
07/12/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
07/12/2022 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
07/13/2022 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
07/12/2022 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
07/13/2022 Montana Standard Butte MT
07/13/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
07/13/2022 Three Forks Voice Three Forks MT
07/13/2022 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
07/13/2022 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
07/13/2022 Delta County Independent Delta CO
07/13/2022 Taos News Taos NM
07/13/2022 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
07/13/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
07/13/2022 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
07/13/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
07/13/2022 Leadville Herald-Democrat Leadville CO
07/13/2022 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
07/14/2022 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
07/14/2022 Rio Blanco Herald Times Meeker CO
07/14/2022 Gunnison Times Gunnison CO
07/14/2022 Limon Leader Limon CO
07/14/2022 Eastern Colorado Plainsman Limon CO
07/15/2022 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
07/14/2022 Wyofile WY
07/15/2022 Trinidad Chronicle News Trinidad CO
07/15/2022 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
07/16/2022 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
07/16/2022 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
07/17/2022 Daily Interlake Kalispell MT
08/01/2022 Colorado Central Magazine Salida CO
07/15/2022 Denver Post Denver CO
07/17/2022 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
07/31/2022 Washington County Small Woodlands Association Washington County OR
07/19/2022 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
07/20/2022 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
07/19/2022 Arvada Press Arvada Co
07/19/2022 The Golden Transcript Golden Co
07/19/2022 Clear Creek Current Idaho Springs Co
07/19/2022 Highlands Ranch Herald Highlands Ranch Co
07/19/2022 Parker Chronicle Parker Co
07/19/2022 The Daily Yonder Whitesburg Ky
07/18/2022 Laurel Outlook Laurel Mt
07/21/2022 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
07/21/2022 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
07/22/2022 White Mountain Independent Show Low AZ
07/18/2022 Glendive Ranger Review Glendive MT
07/19/2022 Canyon Courier Courier Co
07/21/2022 Glendive Ranger Review Glendive MT
07/21/2022 Curry Coastal Pilot Brookings OR
07/15/2022 Aspen Times Aspen CO
07/18/2022 Onland Magazine Santa Fe NM
07/25/2022 Colorado Springs Gazette Colorado Springs Co
07/27/2022 Boulder Monitor Boulder MT
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Andrew Hudson Hudson
23 days ago

I agree with most, except about the Post Office. Anyone under 30 doesn’t know what a post office is. My son Nick was 20 before he knew what a postage stamp was or how to address an envelope to be mailed.

Bonnie Shumaker
21 days ago

My husband and I loved your article. We are still “newcomers” on our rural Oregon place after 44 years, but locals love us anyway. I am the editor of the “Forest Forum” a monthly newsletter of the Washington County Small Woodlands Association. With your permission, I would love to publish your article in our August issue.

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