Go Stake Your Claim

PRAIRIE

The neighbors—and the view—in California's Owens Valley     Photo: Sian Kennedy

IT'S AN ADMIRABLE FANTASY: You drinking tea on the porch of a turn-of-the-century farmhouse surrounded by rolling acres of buffalo grass. Just beware the potential trouble that can come with living in farm or ranch country. Intrepid is the man, for instance, who homesteads downwind of a hog farm or a cattle feedlot. Stagnant water can sully the air, too. In states with "open range" laws, livestock can wander freely, and if you want them to stay off your sanctuary you have to pay for the fence. And, as Barry Chalofsky points out in his book The Home and Land Buyer's Guide to the Environment, long-lasting residues of cropland pesticides and herbicides can invade adjacent land by way of surface runoff, tainted streams, and contaminated groundwater. If that seems probable, private labs can test soil or well water. Get a clear understanding of who your neighbors are before settling into your prairie dream.

OWENS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
THE PITCH: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia, as well as the alpine lakes, bristlecone-pine forests, ski trails, and primo granite climbing routes of the eastern Sierra and White Mountains, are all within a quarter-tank, in a valley of affable climate where folks still leave doors unlocked. The catch: Los Angeles, 270 miles to the southwest, has been gobbling up land (and water rights) here since the 1920s, and anyone seeking the proverbial foothills cabin on five acres and a creek has a Homeric search ahead. The fix: Snag a chunk of semidesolate ag land upvalley from Bishop, plant some Arizona cypress and pi-on, and call it a homestead. Also, memorize this phrase: "Lots of potential."
RECENT LISTING: Five flat sagebrush acres 14 miles out of Bishop, bordered by BLM land, with a well and wide-angle views of the White Mountains, $79,000. High Sierra Realty, 760-873-6227, www.highsierrarealty.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Pulling an all-nighter with the telescope—taking advantage of the nonexistent light pollution—to watch the Perseid meteor shower every August.
FORGET IT IF: You need a job.
SOUTHERN BLACK HILLS, SOUTH DAKOTA
COMBINE BOUNDLESS GREAT PLAINS with evergreen Rocky Mountain outcroppings, 1.2 million acres of Black Hills National Forest, and such perennial visitor magnets as Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Wind Cave National Park and what do you get? Four million tourists, for starters, most of them in summer. Stick around after Labor Day, however, as increasing numbers of modemites are doing, and discover what locals have known for a while. The southern end of the Black Hills, around Hot Springs and mile-high Custer, enjoys a balmier, drier climate, averaging just 38 inches of snow a year. And the farther you look from the region's population centers (Rapid City, Custer, Spearfish), the lower the prices for good-size acreage.
RECENT LISTING: Sixty secluded acres of pines and meadows, ten miles down a gravel road and walking distance from national forest, $75,000. Black Hills Land Company, 605-673-3167.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Investing in a pet buffalo.
FORGET IT IF: You still have nightmares about family vacations. This is the land of Flintstones Bedrock City, Reptile Gardens, and chuck-wagon cookouts.

CASCADE COUNTY, MONTANA
IN 1960, THE POPULATION OF GREAT FALLS, Cascade County's seat, totaled 55,244. Forty years later it had, um, ballooned to 56,690. So much for overcrowding. In this time-warp cocktail of Old West and Midwest, Lewis and Clark and rodeo cowboys are local heroes, and winter wheat and the four-year drought are conversation staples. The plains give way to mountains and buttes here, a commingling of geography that encourages fishing and paddling on the Missouri, and hiking and biking in the nearby Little Belt and Highwood Mountains.
RECENT LISTING: Pheasant farm and preserve on 505 acres and a mile and a quarter of the Sun River west of Great Falls, with log house and two stocked ponds, $525,000—about the price of a two-bedroom fixer in Pasadena. Holiday Realty, 406-761-8630, www.holidayrealtymt.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Paddling downstream on the Missouri, packing a dog-eared copy of Undaunted Courage.
FORGET IT IF: You seek New West glitz. Letterman owns a ranch nearby, but he's not exactly known for throwing lavish celebrity clambakes.

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