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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


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

A live-and-let-live attitude and good outdoor access are powerful attractors. But knowing that a city is fun doesn't necessarily mean that it's easy to thrive there. A year ago Don Smith, 45, and his wife, Rose, 41, were living in Marin County, California, and commuting to San Francisco on weekdays. They moved to Boise in January after checking out several other towns—Salem and Portland, Oregon ("too small" and "too big," respectively), and Prescott, Arizona ("too old"). Their criteria were basic: short commutes, lots of outdoor activities, and enough like-minded community members to make the move a good one socially as well as professionally. When Don was offered a job at a Boise advertising agency, the couple decided to make the change, even though Rose hadn't—and still hasn't—found permanent work. The lower cost of living has, however, allowed her the luxury of spending time doing what she really wants to do: volunteering for local environmental causes.

After six months, the verdict is mostly positive. Don is thrilled about commuting ten minutes by bike to work and not having to drive hours to find a trail that isn't "overloaded with people." The Smiths love their new home—1,850 square feet (172 square meters), 1950s craftsman style, with four bedrooms—which cost a third of what a
comparable property would in Marin. And their living situation makes them feel as though they have the room, and the right environment, to start a family.

But the move has also been a little lonely. There's a bit of Californication backlash going on in Boise, where the population has nearly doubled since the 1980s and has increased 4 percent annually in recent years. "The first thing people want to know is where you come from," Don says, "and being from California doesn't always play as a positive. People are really nice, but there seems to be a worry that the town will be repopulated beyond recognition." Fitting in hasn't been tough—but making friends has. "We miss our social relationships from the Bay Area," admits Don, "and we've only recently begun to realize that if we want to have anything like that here, we're going to have to take the initiative."

On my last evening, I meet Dave and Jodee, along with their nine-year-old daughter, Lily, for dinner in Hyde Park, Boise's up-and-coming district. We sit at the Lucky 13 pizzeria, where families, loggers, college students, and visiting city slickers line up for freshly baked pies. Many of them carry the pizza next door to the Garage, the town's favorite bar. It offers ten kinds of beer, doesn't serve fruit-flavored martinis, and if you do dare to order a cosmopolitan, it comes in a plastic cup. Dave chides me for not buying a house seven years ago but points out that there are still plenty of good bargain neighborhoods in town. One such place is Garden City, which is across the river, where I watched the wave surfing. The area is still considered Boise's "other side of the tracks," but it's about as removed from downtown as my Los Angeles neighbor's driveway is from my own.

From an outsider's perspective, Boise proper has changed remarkably little in the past decade. There is sprawl, but most of it has been confined to the outskirts, along Interstate 84 and in the suburbs of Meridian and Eagle. And while some downtown motels are turning into trendy boutiques and a handful of warehouses are becoming loft apartments, there are still few buildings above six stories, commuting and parking remain easy, and the city retains its near perfect medley of lifestyles.

This mix is what I love most about Boise. We don't see many hunters on the trails around Los Angeles, let alone Mormon missionaries (kids from Boise's large Mormon community, wearing white shirts and ties, commute to their required good works via a trail so close to downtown that it's nicknamed the "Freeway"). I also like that Roger, who used to live two hours north of here, considers Boise the "big city" and marvels that his job requires him to carry a cell phone. I find it comical, in an absurd, jaw-dropping way, when Dave tells me that, as a Japanese-American, he is often called upon to appear in the workplace diversity films that the city's largest employers use during employee training. It is strange, but also a little elating, to see, on a single downtown walk, a Pilates studio and a taxidermy shop.

In Idaho it's reputed that people get along by ignoring each other. "The attitude is you can do whatever you want," Roger tells me, "as long as you let me do whatever I want." It's a part of that live-and-let-live attitude, which, as the Smiths have discovered, may make finding friends hard at first, but which ultimately preserves Boise's appealing heterogeneity. This diversity of viewpoints makes the city different from polished mountain towns such as Bend and Boulder, where it seems everyone is either a sponsored athlete, just back from the Himalaya, or training for the next Ironman. Roger loves how meeting Boise's various characters has expanded his world. Since arriving he's gotten to know a broad range of people, from Idaho National Guardsmen—he's been to Iraq to cover local troops—to trendy dudes on $5,000 mountain bikes. I don't ask whether this latter category includes me.

But will it, someday? Will I finally up and move here? Before leaving town, I do what I always do: I pick up some local real estate brochures. I've been reading these things for years, but every time I visit Boise, I'm always too busy playing to
seriously consider property. This time, loading my pack, I notice that about a dozen freebie homes-for-sale magazines are now published in town—that's three times as many as I'd seen on my last trip. It can mean only one thing: The word is out. A lot of folks must be looking to buy in Boise. Next time, I'll be looking too. 

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


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