13 Miles: That's A Commute -- Small Towns' Lower Prices, Open Spaces Lure Seattle Workers

An hour before dawn, when the air is cold and crisp and the cows have yet to be fed, seems an odd time for a crowd to be gathering along this lonely wayside near Stanwood, 60 miles north of Seattle.

Soon comes the explanation. A blue Snohomish County Community Transit bus appears at the top of the hill. It's the 6:05. The crowd, which had been silently enduring the cold, shuffles aboard. The reader board flashes "SEATTLE" as the bus pulls away.

One of the riders is Sean O'Meara, a U.S. Park Service ranger who commutes 168 miles round trip between Bellingham and his job in Seattle's Pioneer Square.

"I either snooze or read," O'Meara said. "You get used to it."

In Cle Elum, about 85 miles east of Seattle, a steady platoon of commuters drives through town in the pre-dawn darkness.

They pass the bakery and the butcher shop, their tires crunching in the snow. The tail lights fade as they head west on Interstate 90.

"I do it because I love my job and I love where I live," said Bonnie Granger, who commutes to Tukwila. "They just happen to be on opposite sides of the mountains."

Granger and O'Meara are part of a growing band of workers who are stretching the limits of the daily commute - and perhaps the definition of suburbia.

Many of them live far from their jobs because they prefer the quiet. But others, like Abraham Gonzales, are pushed out by the high cost of living in the Puget Sound area.

"What I can buy in Seattle is very limited," said Gonzales, who commutes from Mount Vernon to his job with the Social Security Administration in downtown Seattle, 70 miles each way. "In Mount Vernon, I can afford a new house."

Gonzales paid $101,000 for his three-bedroom home.

Increasingly, those seeking greener pastures are commuting across Snoqualmie Pass. Bill Couey and Dennis Struck are two of them.

Couey, 31, commutes to the Boeing plant in Renton from Ronald, just north of Cle Elum.

His day begins at 4 a.m. with a van-pool ride with seven other people. He gets home just before 6 p.m. and tries to get to bed at 7:30.

"I never have time to do anything, which makes the home situation hard," said Couey, who is married and has three children. "It's especially bad when I'm working overtime on weekends."

Many of the long-distance commuters say they are obsessed about making sure they get enough sleep. And many vanpool or ride the bus to reduce the high cost of driving such distances daily. What they do spend on gas and wear and tear, though, is more than offset by what they save on housing.

"You really get a lot more bang for your buck in terms of housing," said Struck, who commutes to the Boeing plant in Auburn.

Struck moved from the Seattle area to Cle Elum four years ago with his wife and four children. Last April, they moved into a new log house they had built on 11 acres, fulfilling a lifelong dream to live on a small farm. They paid $55,000 for the land, then spent about $112,000 building a 2,250-square-foot home.

"We're still getting the land ready," said Struck, who plans to raise a few head of cattle along with a garden.

The average cost of a house in Kittitas County, where Cle Elum is located, is $78,000, compared with $192,000 in King County, according to Wes Lynch of the Washington Association of Realtors.

Many people, Lynch said, commute to Seattle jobs from Shelton in Mason County, where the average home price is $92,000, and from the Centralia area of Lewis County, where the average house price is $80,000.

The phenomenon of long-distance commutes first came to the attention of realtors about four years ago with the Cle Elum drivers, Lynch said. It's been expanding to other areas within 100 miles of Seattle ever since.

"It's amazing that people would drive that far to own their own house," Lynch said. "But what's really kind of tragic is the fact that they have to."

Couey for one, is priced out of the Seattle market. His long commute from Ronald is a sacrifice, but one he's willing to make for his family.

"Raising kids is expensive anywhere, but it's a lot cheaper to do it over here," he said.

A world away

Cle Elum is a town of 1,795 people. But to be there, standing in front of the Longhorn Tavern or the feed store, where the sign says "Yup, We're Open," or to see the curbs that are still raised high from the buckboard-wagon days, you'd think you were a world away.

"That's why we like it here," said Sylvia Howard, who works at Cle Elum Bakery.

"You've got normal time, and you've got Cle Elum time," said Howard, a transplant from the Seattle area who came to Cle Elum three years ago. Cle Elum time, as one might guess, is a lot slower.

The Strucks had considered moving to the Graham area about 10 miles south of Puyallup, or even to Centralia, but the thought of battling traffic on Interstate 5 scared them.

"The I-5 corridor is just getting too crowded," Struck said. "The way I saw it, I-90 was the best way to go."

The lifestyle difference between Seattle and Cle Elum is more vast than the miles between them, according to Struck.

"Here, people seem more friendly and able to get along better. Maybe because it's less crowded," Struck said. "Like if we go to the lake or the Yakima River, even on a hot summer day, we pretty much have the place to ourselves. When we were in the Auburn area, we'd go to the Flaming Geyser State Park, and there were always problems with crowds."

Nationwide, the rural areas of America are enjoying a resurgence, outstripping even metropolitan areas in net growth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Two million more people have moved to rural areas than to metropolitan areas in the 1990s. By contrast, the 1980s had a rural net loss of 1.4 million people.

Here, the rural migration has brought unprecedented growth to many towns. Mount Vernon has grown from fewer than 18,000 residents in 1990 to more than 22,000 today, and Granite Falls, also in Snohomish County, has grown from about 1,000 to more than 1,800 in seven years.

Eatonville, about 30 miles south of Puyallup, is attracting Boeing workers, said real-estate agent Deanna Simons.

"Almost everyone who walks through our door is from those congested places, like Kent, Auburn, Federal Way," Simons said. "I ask if they're sure they want to make that drive, and they all say, `Just get me out of there.' "

Nationally, rural migration is largely driven by businesses locating in rural areas.

In the Puget Sound area, though, the strong economy and a high-octane real-estate market are responsible. There are people who work in the Seattle area but can't afford to live there, while others are financing the slow pace of a rural lifestyle with their big-city salaries.

"I really have the best of both worlds," said Robin Troepper, who commutes from her 160-acre spread in Port Ludlow via the Hood Canal bridge and the Edmonds-Kingston ferry to her job at a downtown Seattle law firm. It takes about two hours each way to make the 52-mile trip across two bodies of water, but she does have has the companionship of several other people in her vanpool.

Troepper's employer is understanding when the ferry is late or the bridge is closed to traffic, but that rarely happens, she said.

"I have the city's razzle-dazzle and rush-rush during the day, but get to go home to the fresh air and peace and beauty of Port Ludlow."


There are drawbacks, though. The most obvious being the commute. The trip, which is simply mundane under normal conditions, can quickly turn treacherous, particularly over Snoqualmie Pass in the winter. Recently, Couey and his fellow travelers were trapped on the west side of the pass for three hours because of avalanche conditions.

"Traveling the pass definitely isn't for everybody," said Struck, of Cle Elum. "You need to be a confident driver, especially in the snow."

They all learn tricks of the trade. Granger always carries an overnight bag, just in case she gets stuck on the Seattle side. Struck bought a citizens-band radio to keep in contact with truck drivers.

There are other drawbacks, too. The children's schools lack the level of computer training found in the Seattle area, Couey said, and Struck complained about the lack of shopping. "You really can't even get a good pair of shoes here," he said.

But the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, they say.

"One big one," Couey added, "is we don't have to worry about locking the doors at night."

Some in Cle Elum resent the influx of newcomers, who are derogatorily called "coasties" and "206ers," after the area code for Seattle.

Struck said he was called those names at first, especially from old-timers. But eventually, he said, people accepted him and his family.

"You have to break the ice with them," Struck said. "You do that by getting involved in the community or helping your neighbor put up hay without charging them. They can tell if you're a person who's wanted to live in a small town like this all your life."

Couey has learned to keep the salutary aspects of Cle Elum to himself. Instead, he emphasizes to coasties how rough the commute is: "I tell them it's awful. I don't want a whole bunch of people moving over here."

Too late, said Judy Moen, who manages the Cle Elum-Roslyn Chamber of Commerce. The word is out. And, as long as people are willing to stretch the outer limits of commuting, small towns like Cle Elum will grow, she predicted.

"Eventually, we knew it would come to this," Moen said. "We can't hide out up here forever."

Stephen Clutter's phone message number is 425-745-7808. His e-mail address is: sclu-new@seatimes.com