02 January 2011


SNOWBIRD. I was a resident of southern Arizona from 1969-1989. Like most who live in an area which hosts seasonal tourism, I tended to look down on snowbirds -- people from colder parts of the U.S. who spent their winter months in the milder climate of the desert Southwest. In my youthful hubris, my thoughts were, "If they can't take the heat of summer, they shouldn't be here. All they do is import their lawns and non-native plants, trying to turn the desert into wherever they came from, destroying the very thing they came here to enjoy."

There is objective truth to the latter notion. Water tables across the region have been sinking lower and lower, at a rate faster than nature can replace the loss through rainfall (a desert by definition is a habitat which receives less than 12 inches of rainfall annually). Humans waste precious water on golf courses and lawns, and use water to support the ever-growing population of the Sun Belt. In passing, they introduce exotic plant pollens which are the bane of allergy sufferers. Xeriscaping helps, but it is not enough to restore the balance in the desert's water cycle.

Another obvious shortcoming in my attitude toward snowbirds is that they contribute significantly to local economies. The question becomes, is that contribution sufficient to justify the destruction of habitat and the increases in pollution which accompany the cancerous spread of cities in the Southwest? My personal answer is no, but yours may differ.

Hence my current dilemma -- I'm retired, living in the cold winters of Montana, and am seriously considering becoming a snowbird myself. What bliss it would be to these aging, aching bones to spend three or four months a year in my beloved desert !! There is even a way of doing so without actually owning a home in both locations -- vacation rental services like this one would allow a northern resident to simply rent a house during the winter only, perhaps in a different city each year, while maintaining primary residency up north.

Another solution would be to move to a new, year-round home in a temperate climate which has no extremes of heat or cold. The problem is, most such places within the U.S. have already been discovered, and are experiencing their own population surge. So, one wonders, what about outside the U.S.? A recent NYTimes article took note of the fact that many retirees are discovering the benefits of relocating to Latin America, particularly those countries like Costa Rica with stable governments, affordable living, good health care, positive environmental records, and pleasant climates. I must admit, the thought is tempting.

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