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City Mouse or Country Mouse?

Don Lobo Tiggre

Many people who value their privacy share a common dream of moving out to the country where it's quiet and just disappearing. Ruby Ridge has made many Americans think twice about the potential prices to pay for the benefits of living in an isolated rural area, but an important thing for folks who want to lay low in any country to consider is that it can make privacy more difficult to come by. It seems hard to believe, unless you've lived in rural areas and know what I'm talking about, but the curiosity your neighbors have for your doings (and perhaps the time to investigate them) is inversely proportional to the number of people per square mile where you live.

This only makes sense; if you only have one neighbor within 20 miles, wouldn't you want to know something about him or her? But it's more than that. Small communities seem more laid back in just about every culture on earth, and gossip is a favorite pastime in every one I've been in. Think about it--if you move to a small community (or to land of your own in the middle of nowhere, and the nearest community is a typically small one) looking for privacy, you are, by definition, new and hence interesting. Whether you want to or not, you'll rub your newness in the local noses by the way you talk, the way you dress, and other things you don't know about their way of doing things--and probably couldn't know unless you could afford to hire the CIA to prepare a detailed dossier on the locale for you. You and everything you do, everything you buy, everywhere you go, and everyone you are seen with will be news, even if not of the sort that gets published in papers. It's just human nature.

There is a way around this: a good cover story.

If there's no search on for you, your cover story might even be true, as far as it goes. Fabricating falsehoods is a tricky business and getting caught in some kind of lie among the natives could have them all up in arms in the blink of an eye. They may not storm your castle with torches in hand, but they sure won't ever trust you or lend you a hand, and they might decide that every other thing you do is so suspicious that it's time to call the Sheriff's office again. Sometimes, the best way to keep a secret is to leave it out in the open; tell the truth, but not all of it. That way, you don't get caught up in any lies, and the locals have no reason to suspect that those new folks working the old Kaufman farm are actually the nefarious characters who hacked the White House web site. If that won't do for some reason, you need to keep your cover story as simple as possible and make sure you've rehearsed it well before you open your mouth for the first time in the community. Any friends or family who visit will have to be coached on what to say--but face it; no one is going to care about your privacy and security as much as you do. The fewer visitors you have, the better. And if you simply must have the in-laws over for Thanksgiving, for Life's sake, don't take them to the local diner for dinner!

If this sounds like I'm down on country livin', that's not my intention, nor my opinion. One of the best things about rural living is that it can be pretty cheap. A modest garden can feed a lot of people. A few acres of woods can provide a lot of firewood, to help reduce your reliance on the grid. Sometimes even a small pond will have fish that are good to eat. You might live close to a cheap source of fresh eggs and milk, too. I love clean country air and being able to go weeks or even months without hearing a single siren.


Do you know how much work and time goes into planting, weeding, spraying, picking, etc. in a large country garden? Do you know how long it takes to knead dough by hand to make bread? Do you know how long it takes to chop and split firewood, even with the help of a chain saw (or just how much time you spend bringing firewood in from the pile if you buy it cut)? And fishing is fun relaxation, but is a bit unpredictable a thing to count on for dinner when the family is hungry. Self-sufficiency costs time anywhere you embrace it, but out in the boonies, you have to add a huge amount of travel time to everything you do, every project you undertake. Depending on your hourly pay rate (or equivalent), driving to town for groceries and other supplies can cost more than the groceries and supplies themselves! In short, if you want to go to the country and simply exist, the country can help sustain you, but if you have a mortgage on that land or have other substantial cash obligations (credit cards, child support, medical bills, college loans, etc.), it becomes a serious drain on your work time. To be spending many hours daily on the manual labor one must put in, in order to do without the "conveniences" the greens are so fond of sneering at, is a serious price to pay for the "cheap" and "free" benefits of rural life.

On the other paw, we have city life, full of noise, pollution, crime, and the weight of the misery that can be felt wherever human beings are massed in great numbers. Ah, the joys of sirens screaming by in the night, the musical tones of the neighbors stomping around in their Russian army boots at 3:00 a.m., hours spent breathing the fumes of the car in front of you in traffic, etc., etc., etc. Sigh... And yet, it is precisely this chaotic, rushed, fear-filled environment that affords such easy cover for people seeking privacy. Heck, if you don't meet anyone's eyes, you can go years without really speaking to anyone, other than to order your burger and fries, pay for gas, or ask for the number seven to be pressed. I have lived in apartment buildings where it wasn't necessary to tell any falsehoods to keep my cover because it was never necessary to speak to any neighbors. The more people are piled up one on the other, the less they seem to care or want to know about others--as long as no one is mugging them or stealing their stuff. LA, New York, Paris, Mexico City... Even in the suburbs of such large cities people can slip past one another with no meaningful contact, the urban jungle covering their tracks far more effectively than the dripping leaves of the rain forests ever could.

Cities have other benefits as well. If you don't want to own or operate a car--which is a major and often costly link between most people and the state--it is much easier to get by on foot or on a bicycle in a metropolis where everything one needs in order to live can be bought within a few miles. There's usually public transportation too, if you can stomach cooperating with such government interventions into the marketplace. If the city is big enough, you could even use teller machines--a different one each time and never the same one twice--without giving away your exact location (just knowing you're in NYC still leaves anyone looking for you with many millions of people to sort through). Big cities also have more services that are open late, or all night, and "Doc in a Box" urgent care clinics that will take cash and phony names. If you travel a lot, being in a big city usually means easy access to air and ground transportation terminals. There's city life too, if you're into movies, dance clubs, eating out, lots of book stores, etc. More importantly, perhaps, there are also many more potential employers within reach.


The very suspicion and fear that protect your privacy have their own associated costs. It's easy to get complacent about your privacy with such a strategy, and tip your hand unexpectedly. It's harder to find people who are willing to do business in cash and on a hand shake (unless, perhaps, you are willing to compete in some lines of business predominantly operated by criminal organizations). Minding your own business doesn't make you the least bit less likely to run into cops who want to see your ID. You can't shoot in your back yard in the city, and, well, big cities just have more government, more laws, and more things you can get into imperial entanglements without even realizing it. Things are also typically more expensive in the big cities. And don't forget all the crime, pollution, noise, and other general quality of life factors that may be important to you.

What about suburbia? It's probably more of the worst of both worlds than the best, I'm afraid. Things are spread out more, making it harder to get around and take care of business without a car, and they are typically pretty expensive. Neighbors in nice neighborhoods want to know all about the new folks who move in (got to keep those property values up!), and the rules, covenants, and regulations of many neighborhood associations often make Cuba look like a free country. You can't lose yourself in the crowd, but there are enough people all around you that maintaining good cover can be very difficult--your eccentricities will start to get noticed after a while.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, you've got good, honest, and open people, willing to help their neighbors... Well, not always. I've had a house out in the sticks broken into when I left for a few days, and there wasn't anyone around to see anything, of course. It might even have been the guy in the next house down the road who I'd asked to keep an eye on our place while we were gone. Who knows? What I do know is that one size does not fit all, and I can't tell you which would be better for you, the city or the country. Hopefully, some of these comments will help you make your own decision. Good luck!

(c) 2000


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