They'll be coming round the mountain

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Maggie Whitehouse and her husband Jonathon shocked their friends, sold their house and threw in their careers to open an English teashop in Bozeman, Montana USA. It's a paradise on earth of horse whisperers, kindly cowboys, organic farmers and the odd psychotic gunman...

THIS MORNING'S letter from a cousin sums it up. She simply cannot believe that we are going to live in Montana. How can we give up all that we have worked for here - our security, our jobs, our mortgage, our families? Why do we want to live halfway across the world, with a load of cowboys who eat half a pound of meat for every meal and then go out and shoot someone? At the end of the letter comes the most-asked question of all: "Have you ever been there?" Oddly enough, we have been to Montana. Several times in fact. We liked it. That's why we're moving.

The next remark is usually a variation of the following: "My mother/butcher/hairdresser/cousin/masseur/vicar/sister/hamster thinks you're mad." To which the only appropriate answer is, "Good thing they're not going then." The comment that wrings my heart is the third one. It is usually said quietly and with feeling: "I wish I had the courage to do that." This comes from people younger than us (we're in our early forties); from those who fight with the rush-hour, work until 9pm and only have time to socialise on Sundays. They wince when we say that "mortgage" in old French means "grip of death". They sigh when they hear that you can buy 20 acres of land in Montana for $60,000 and live comfortably on $20,000 a year. There's far less crime than in England and you can leave your house unlocked. What's more, you can watch the sunset over the mountains from your own front porch. Those older than us say "It's too late now, but I would have loved to have done something like that when I was young." Right now, sitting in our rented flat in London, waiting for the visa to come and looking at the beauty of an English summer day, I wonder if we are crazy. But I know that if we don't go, a little bit of us will die.

Jonathon and I first wanted to emigrate in 1992, when we went to Colorado on honeymoon. We did not follow it up for the reasons that other people never go at all. Jonathon wanted to be around for his eldest son, Robin, and in case the two younger children from his first marriage might forgive him for leaving and get in touch. My father had left home - and then died - and I felt that I could not abandon my mother at such a vulnerable time. So we stayed for the sake of other people, worked hard and wondered why we were never really happy. We first went to Montana two years ago, on holiday. "Let's just stay," we said one night as we lay in a hot-tub gazing at the Milky Way, a sparkling path of diamonds in the star-filled sky. But, of course, we did not. We went back the next year, to see if it had been a flash-in-the pan. If anything, the feeling was stronger - but we still did nothing. ("You can't just up and go; life isn't like that. It's only a dream.")

Then came the day when Jonathon threw his latest financial management journal across his office in grief and despair at yet more regulations, restrictions, backlogs and inefficiencies. It was the end of a series of similar crises and he was at the end of his tether. Slowly but surely, over seven years of self-employment, we had been going potty dealing with too many telephone firms; too many financial companies offering too little service; too many reluctant bill-payers; too much traffic; too many people who didn't do what they said they would do; too much stuff.

"Give it up and sell the house then!" I shouted. A half-worried, half- hopeful face looked round my office door. "Do you really mean that?" he said. And then we were dancing together and laughing. We could be free! Yes, of course there will be similar issues in America, but if you dump as much clutter as you can and have mountains and blue skies to look at, it does make life easier. I gave up the magazine I edited; Jonathon sold his business. We got rid of the second car and the house went on the market. This alone was a big enough shock to our families. ("You're pulling up roots! You can't possibly go to Montana! There's six feet of snow in the winter! You'll get eaten by a Grizzly Bear! What are you going to do?")

We couldn't tell them the whole plan to start with - because we didn't have one. You can't just walk into the USA (even Montana) and say "Nice state, we'll take it." You have to have a visa which means getting a job - or buying a business. What did we have that America might want? What can we do that they can't? Well, they sure as hell can't make a decent cup of tea. How about an English Teashop? I once read a book which said we are best suited in our career to doing the things we most loved as a child. I adored my mud-pie restaurant - so I became a journalist. Jonathon loved cooking and his teachers said he should go into catering - so he became a chartered accountant. ("But you know nothing about teashops! What a waste of your qualifications! Anyway, you'll never find a cafe to buy.") The teashop was on the Internet. I was surfing "Montana" one morning and there it was: "Cafe for sale, Bozeman, Montana". Just 50 yards from the ideal location in the whole world. Later that week, we sold the house at just enough profit to buy that cafe. Our purchaser was a builder named Whitehouse from Lordswood Road, Harborne, Birmingham. As my father was a builder called Whitehouse from Lordswood Road, Harborne, Birmingham, it seemed a fitting completion to a cycle.

Two weeks later we were in a tiny rented flat in London. ("Your beautiful home! The lilacs! All the work you've put into it! You had four lavatories! How will you cope in a flat? The dog will hate it!") Apart from the litter, living in London is a pleasant novelty. We like each other enough not to feel cramped and Hampstead Heath makes up for almost anything. But, if you are going to buy a business, it's a good idea to take a look at it, so, within weeks, I found myself walking, rather doubtfully, down Main Street, Bozeman with a real estate broker. It has to be the oddest feeling in the world to go halfway across the planet, walk into a cafe and fall in love with it.

Bozeman is a university town in the area where Robert Redford set his two Montana films A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer. The Gallatin Valley, 20 miles to the south, has its own micro-climate with areas that are 90 per cent snow free. It is so like paradise that Southern Californians ("those damn tree-huggerrrs") are flooding in by the hundred. There's a huge organic co-op, a fabulous annual arts festival and complementary medicine therapists falling out of the trees.

In Montana, they get a little surprised to see people of a different nationality. Lashings of film stars own ranches in the hills and tons of tourist traffic flows around Yellowstone National Park and the ski resorts - but they don't expect Brits. Montanans look at you and listen to your voice, then think a while and say "You're not from around here, are you Ma'am?" Then they offer to lend you a horse, to build you a house on a handshake, teach you fly-fishing or put you up for the weekend. I nearly did not buy the cafe. It was all so strange, so frightening, so risky. Instead, I went for a walk in the mountains and watched the eagles in the huge sky and I knew that if I did not find the courage to say "Yes!" I would spend the rest of my life thinking, "Today I could be in Montana."

Our parents have reacted with incredible dignity. They were very upset, as is only natural. Perhaps we should have gone earlier; perhaps we should be going later. "But there would never have been a good time for you to go," said Jonathon's mother. They know that we are not leaving them. If they would come, we would take them with us, gladly. But then, there's the dog. ("We'll never see little Didcot again! You can `t put that dear, sweet beagle in a crate!") When it comes to pets, the airlines are very helpful in a "For God's sake, it's only a dog," kind of way. The crate that Didcot will travel in is delivered a couple of days beforehand so that she can get acclimatised to it - and she gets a tranquilliser so she won't be scared. There's a rabies jab and health certificates to get but there's no quarantine in the US. ("What if they lose her and she ends up in Chicago? What if she dies in transit?") "Don't worry, Madam," said the patient woman at the airline. "We've never lost a dog yet. Perhaps we should tranquillise the owners instead," she added, thoughtfully.

We leave in September so now we're on a countdown. Everything's for sale and I'm a regular at car boot sales (I never knew how little you could get for a Black and Decker Workmate). It's been a summer of rehearsing too - of planning menus, trying out recipes and filling the flat with a dozen people to feed at a time ("But you won't want to do that for real, every day. You're crazy. Can I have another slice of cake?") My mother and I are practising writing to each other; old friends are looking us up for last meetings; Robin, who's 20, is thrilled ("Great holidays! Long- legged American blondes! Skiing! A beer called Moose Drool!"). Only today he put in a bid for the duvet - to add to the TV, the sofa and the video. He will be there for his grandparents. Maybe the other two boys will get in touch with them, too, once we have gone. My mother has my brother, his wife and two grandsons. They'll all be fine.

You can tell us we're crazy if you like, but it's an adventure and life is for living. After all, how many beagles ever get to see a buffalo? We'll think of you as we sit by the river behind our home breathing the clear air and watching the elk on the hillside. Come by sometime and have a slice of fruitcake and a decent cup of tea. We'll give you a real Montana welcome.

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