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Where to Live and Play:
Boise, Idaho
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Where to Live and Play: Boise or Bust!
Welcome to Boise, Idaho, the last great place in the American West—where housing remains affordable, Western culture still thrives, and access to the nation's wildest state begins within city limits.  
Text by Dan Koeppel   Photograph by Woods Wheatcroft

Photo: Climbing in Boise, Idaho
HANGING AROUND TOWN: A quick climbing fix by the muraled wall of the Boise Co-op grocery store.

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Adventure Guide: Boise, Idaho  |  30 More Towns Perfect For You

That was my own reaction when my friend Dave Yasuda first mentioned the city to me eight years ago. For years I'd contemplated joining America's urban-to-rural diaspora—the demographic shift that, for the past few decades, has been repopulating the West's smaller towns with equity-rich city dwellers in search of their own private utopias. I was a classic case. Dissatisfied with having to commute to both work and play in Los Angeles, I fantasized about giving up the crowded city for a place with lower home prices, less traffic, and rapid access to the sports I love.

On one Saturday afternoon ride in the Santa Monica Mountains, Dave told me he was planning to move to Boise with his wife and young daughter. It turned out that Idaho was his home state; his Japanese grandparents had settled there as potato farmers after being interned in Oregon during World War II. Growing up, Dave had yearned for the cultural diversity of California and a faster career track in marketing, so he headed south. But now, with a toddler, he wanted a less frantic lifestyle. "If we stayed [in L.A.]," he says, "I might not have been able to have everything. I would have had to give up my job, or my family life, or my biking." It was far easier to give up Los Angeles.

"Boise really is a cool place," he said. "You'll see, if you come visit."

A few months later I showed up at his door—and within hours I was convinced. Boise had good ethnic restaurants and smart, engaging people. Dave and I hung out at a dark bar that had once been frequented by Basque sheepherders who worked in the mountains north of town; one sip of thick red wine and a bowl of bean soup later, I was sure I'd landed in the Pyrenees. There were nice, affordable homes within five minutes of downtown. Dave and his wife, Jodee, had just bought one that adjoins city parkland, giving them my own particular version of the holy grail: no-commute trail access. (The house itself is the kind of mid-century streamliner that goes for $800,000 in my Los Angeles neighborhood, but costs less than $300,000 in Boise.) Another couple I met, "equity refugees" who made a profit selling their house in New York City's suburbs and buying one in Boise, had purchased a second home in the mountains two hours north of town, complete with an on-premises hot spring.

Boosting Boise's spot on my relocation list was the weather—it's cold in winter, but the place is dry and nearly always sunny, with just 12 inches (30 centimeters)  of rain and 234 cloudless days a year—and the city's connectedness to western and midwestern metropolises (daily nonstops fly to Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle). Back in California, the more I talked with other would-be emigrants, the more I realized that the entire state of Idaho is becoming something of a relocation mecca. As mountain towns in Colorado and Montana see real estate prices go through the roof and sprawl creep in, potential urban refugees are looking to the Gem State. The result: In the first quarter of 2006, housing prices in Idaho appreciated faster than anywhere else in the Rocky Mountains. Places such as McCall and Sandpoint are attracting folks looking for a big little town rather than a small big city, such as Boise. The perception is that life is still easy, cheap, and fun in Idaho. You get the feeling that you're in the real West, not some mini-mall encrusted artifact of it.

I visited a few more times, mountain biking, paddling the Payette and Salmon Rivers, snowboarding the Bogus Basin Ski Resort, and taking a lazy flatboat float on the Snake River, where I saw peregrine falcons diving for chimney swifts, striking them at high speed, and then catching them in midair before they hit
the water. I learned that Boise's name comes from French trappers who dubbed it Le Bois, or "the woods," and that the town had once been a waypoint for an earlier wave of migrants—pioneers on the Oregon Trail. On my last visit I noticed that Boise's arts scene had progressed considerably: There were new music venues and museums, all centered around the Grove, a downtown pedestrian area that mixes restaurants, nightclubs, and cultural attractions.

For Dave, 47, even the career issue has been settled. He has found employment as a marketer in the local high-tech boom, working for companies ranging from small Internet start-ups to Hewlett-Packard and Micron. Based on his experience, Boise jumped to the top of my relocation list. And this was before I'd even heard of the wave.

Roger and I get to the 36th street dead end just in time. Burwell and a friend, Mike Burin, are walking toward their car, wet suits unzipped halfway. It turns out that Burwell, 29, had been roped into surfing by Burin, 56; both are originally from Oregon. Burin has been coming to the area for nearly three decades as a smoke jumper stationed at Boise's National Interagency Fire Center. Burwell is in his fifth season of the same job—the gig has both men shuttling across the West each summer, and the wave was something Burin had been describing to his friend for years.

"The last one was 1999," Burin says. "I boogie-boarded it then."

With Burin's prodding, Burwell brought his surfboard along this year. The two had scoped out the wave the day before. Burwell recalled hearing about another surfer pulling a similar stunt on the Willamette River, in his home state.

"I thought I could crack the nut," he says. Burwell's typical weekend activities—rock climbing and mountain biking—were fun, but surfing made him ecstatic. "It's about as exciting as it gets."

This from a guy who makes his living dropping into raging infernos.

"Hey," Burwell says jokingly, "it's how I relax."
Relaxation in Boise is all about unexpected juxtapositions: firefighters surfing in rivers, rock climbers pulling themselves up sheer walls topped with cell phone towers, the yin and yang of the area's contrasting terrain and meteorologic variability. Sometimes those contrasts come at high speed, all in a single excursion.

Sweet Connie is a classic mountain biking drop-off trail. It takes two cars: one to drive nearly all the way up Bogus Basin Road to the ski area, about
7,000 feet (2,134 meters) above sea level, and the other to wait at the bottom, 4,000 feet (1,219 meters)below.

"But this isn't a free descent," Scott Van Kleek tells me, as we fill a cooler with Coronas and load the bikes onto his car. "There's going to be some work."

Van Kleek has been on Boise's mountain biking scene for more than 20 years. He's ridden nearly every trail within a 45-mile (72-kilometer) radius and even has a trail nicknamed after him, Scott's Trail, which is part of the town's official Ridge to Rivers trail network. Dave and I leave my rental car at a turnoff, and Van Kleek takes us up the hill. As we drive I can see the remaining snowy runs at the just closed ski area and a cover of lodgepole pines that yield, below, to pastureland and rolling hills. I can also see a few groups of mountain bikers making their way along the trail.

After winding up to the drop point, we unload our bikes and start down. Sweet Connie is challenging—especially at the higher elevations, where we have to pick through lingering snow and ice—and it's varied. The trail swoops and curves through forest before it enters open country, rolling up and down over green rises. We take a break at the transition area between the two terrain types, and I ask Van Kleek whether this trail, like so many other mountain biking routes in the country, is subject to battles over access.

"We have that here," he replies. But he adds that the opponents are different from those that bikers face in my home state of California. Instead of various user groups—hikers, bikers, equestrians—fighting over who gets to use a trail, Van Kleek says, "you have conflict over what's above and what's below."

It takes me a moment to realize what he means, but as I stare into the fields and notice cattle grazing, I understand. In Boise, controversy over trail access stems from the ubiquitous Old West (mining, ranching, forestry)–versus–New West (recreation, development) debate that tends to accompany urban flight into smaller western towns. As Boise transitions into a recreation-based economy, the traditional economic linchpins of the West become less important, even as thousands of locals still earn their livings in extractive industries. The section of the local paper that my friend Roger writes for is an accurate reflection of these two communities: On a typical
outdoors spread, you'll find stories on both hunting licenses and river conservation. But perhaps because Idaho is a state that respects individualism—there's a classic Western live-and-let-live streak in almost everyone I meet—these conflicts rarely degenerate into angry name-calling, as they do in Los Angeles.

"Maybe that's because everybody understands what a special place this is," Van Kleek says.

For the next hour, we pedal along narrow jeep trails and rock edges, occasionally dodging cows (and cow pies). The dual-suspension bike I've borrowed keeps me from having to slow down, and by the time we get to the car, I have a full-blown case of Boise fever.

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Adventure Guide: Boise, Idaho  |  30 More Towns Perfect For You

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