The Code of the West

Church on shaky ground
Church on shaky ground.
Church on shaky ground

While perusing my county’s official website, I came upon a small e-book just 17 pages long. It is full of practical and (to me) amusing information for those people who move to our remote and unpopulated county to enjoy the country life.

Realities of Rural Living

The western author Zane Grey first wrote about the ”code of the West.” It’s an unwritten code of conduct that bound the people who came to this part of the country during the westward expansion. In the booklet, the term is used to acquaint the urban newcomer to the realities of rural life.

Our county elevation ranges from 520 to 14,162 ft. and takes up about 6,300 square miles. That is more than 4 million acres, of which only about 12,000 acres are urban. With a population of 44,900, that comes to about seven people per square mile. Add that we enjoy all four seasons here in the mountains and you can see why newcomers might need a reality check.

The booklet goes on to describe the different geographical areas of the county—the history, activities, and attractions of each are outlined. I had to laugh when I got to one historical description. “Sawyers Bar boasts the oldest Catholic Church north of San Francisco. Built in 1855 and still in use, the church sits atop an estimated $200,000 in placer gold, surrounded by huge hydraulic cuts and preserved from undermining by the tiny historic cemetery adjoining it.”

Several years ago, Bob-O and I went to a wedding at that church. When we were all seated in the old, shaky pews looking at the slightly tilting walls, the groom gave instructions. Starting with, “In the unlikely event of a water landing...” and ending with, “So, if the person next to you starts to drop through the floor, grab them firmly and quietly by the shoulders and hold on till the end of the ceremony.” Good times. The last I heard, a priest from the valley comes over one Sunday a month for mass and to hear confession on the tailgate of his pickup.

Self Reliance

In rural life, you are responsible for many things that are covered by other entities in urban living. Clean water, sanitation, and access are your responsibility. As the whole county is open range, we have the right to fence out the ranging livestock. If that livestock tears down your fence and eats your tomatoes, you have the right to rebuild your fence and replant those tomatoes.

We have a “Right to Farm” ordinance here in paradise. Basically, this means if you move next to a farm, logging operation, cattle ranch, or just a neighbor with goats and chickens, you don’t get to complain about the noise, smells, or view.

Water, the Real Gold

Mark Twain was supposed to have said, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” Without water, you can’t live. Water is in short supply here and drought is common. You have to be realistic in your expectations of your water source.

While a well producing five gallons per minute is enough to support a couple with a small lawn and garden, it will not accommodate a family of six with a horse pasture and large garden without a water storage tank. All of our plantings, orchard, and vineyards are on drip, soaker, or low-flow mini-sprinklers and timers to utilize all the water available to us in the dry months.


There is a quite informative section on sanitation. Out in the country, we all have an ISDS (individual sewage disposal system). “The urbanite expects whatever they flush to go away. Locals expect the flush to end up underground in the back yard.” Care and feeding of said septic system is covered fully.

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