Dating in the Rural West

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in the Washington Post. For those of you hitting a paywall, here you go!

Maddy Butcher is the author of “Horse Head: Brain Science & Other Insights” and director of Buck the Trend, a mental health forum for the horse community.

MONTEZUMA COUNTY, Colo. — The key to finding the right person for a long-term relationship, according to intimacy expert Emily Nagoski, is to “meet a lot of people a small number of times.” That helps explain common symptoms of today’s online dating scene: swiping fatigue and perpetually feeling like you could do better. Or at least those are the complaints from people in cities and suburbs.

But how can you meet a lot of people if there are not a lot of people to meet?

That’s the question here in the rural West, where — along with the skills of driving in spring mud and building a fire — being okay with being alone is a prerequisite for getting by and finding, if not a partner, contentment.

I live in Montezuma County, Colo., which has a population of about 26,000, but that’s spread across 2,000 square miles — or 13 people per square mile. Dolores County, to the immediate north, has just two people per square mile. If I’m looking for an unmarried man who is active, taller than me and within 10 years of my age, there are theoretically a few hundred to choose from.

The reality, though, is something different, as my Montana friend Nicole knows. Noting that you first need to cull the felons and those with substance abuse, weight or health issues, Nicole says, “It’s like screaming into the void of a sagebrush sea.”

My friend Caitlyn lives in Grand County in northern Colorado, where there are about eight people per square mile. From what she can tell, those who find partners are most often Christian and conservative. If you’re not one or both, you may be alone for a long while. When she uses dating apps, she most often gets tourists or hunters passing through or men she has known (and not wanted to date) since middle school.

Kevin Lewis, a University of California at San Diego sociology professor who has studied online dating, cautions against trying to rely on dating apps in rural communities. Before apps such as Bumble and Hinge and the supposedly rural-specific site Farmers Only came along, folks in thinly populated areas may have been better able to maintain the hope that eventually someone would come along. Now, when you get to the screen announcing “That’s Everyone!” — no more matches for you within 100 miles — it arrives with a certain desolating finality. “It seems like that’s the end of the line,” Lewis says. “But you still never know.”

The old-fashion, in-real-life possibilities of meeting someone are still there, he notes. Still, in my experience, the chance of bumping into someone new and exciting is about as likely as finding that pair of fencing pliers that fell off your saddle earlier in the day.

A consolation, a small silver lining, for those of us in the country, he says, is that the paradox of choice belies the notion that more is better. Research shows that the more options you have, the harder it is to decide and the less satisfied you are with your choice. Maybe fewer choices could be better, Lewis suggests. Travis, a man I know in Denver (more than 4,600 people per square mile), says that sounds about right: “I think people here are getting more picky and more noncommittal.”

That isn’t the scene in the rural West. Sara, a Wyoming detective (her county has four people per square mile), says she recently circled back around to a man she dated 11 years ago. She told him, “If you’re single and I’m single, let’s give it another try.” It’s been great, she says, but notes that he does live several hundred miles away.

One friend told me she was looking for a guy she could spend maybe 20 percent of her time with. She’s a rancher and one of the most independent people I know. Then again, most of the women I know are independent and can do everything, not just fixing a flat tire but changing the brake pads and rotors. Not just putting food on the table but putting meat in the freezer. I imagine it can be challenging for men to balance more traditional roles with gals like her. And me.

If you’re not straight and if you’re not interested in someone White, your dating journey here may be like the road to Jarbidge, Nev., one of the most isolated places in the continental United States. I ask Chris, a gay man in his 40s, if he’s depressed about the paucity of prospects. “Depressed? Resigned is probably a better word,” he says. “It’s part of the sacrifice of the lifestyle that I have here.”

That lifestyle is one of open space, mountains, desert and big skies. The first area designated as an International Dark Sky Park is about an hour’s drive from my house. On clear nights, I can see the Milky Way, including the constellation Cassiopeia (a queen in Greek mythology), and some 15,000 other stars. I feel for people in cities, where you can see only a few hundred, if you’re lucky.

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  1. Great article! I’m impressed how you captured so much about the struggle in a moderately sized missive. Rural life has so many upsides to the downsides, perhaps Chris is right – we are resigned because the locale is worth a little loneliness.

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