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Dennis Portenier
(Photo by Tom Parker)

A Very Good Move
California professional couple trade the fast life for the country life

By Tom Parker
Dennis and Angie Portenier’s friends thought they were nuts.

No, not nuts as in the funny-jacket-with-the-extra-long-sleeves and squalid-one-room-dormitories-in-industrial-strength-block-houses-where-the-doors-are-all-locked-and-the-inmates-shuffle-around-with-slackjawed-expressions, but nuts in wanting to trade the sun-drenched California beaches, cloud-snagging Sierras and wind-hallowed deserts for, well, for what—Kansas?

Think of what they’d be giving up, besides the natural amenities no other state in the Union could match: an established chiropractic practice for him, a certified massage therapist practice for her, a nice home on a quarter-acre lot in Norco (“Horsetown U.S.A.”!), exquisite shopping, world-renowned dining, limitless recreational opportunities and a climate the rest of the world would give anything for but couldn’t because this was the Golden State and it was as much a state of mind as it was a place. What did Kansas have to offer? Tornadoes? Cows?

Indeed, Dennis and Angie considered what they’d be giving up: a small urbanized rural enclave sandwiched between I-15 and the Riverside Freeway, ceaseless traffic and noise thrumming in the background unabated by the clock or holiday or any other thing, rising crime rates, cancerous growth and the encroachment of an outside world they wanted no part of. The world was changing and they wanted off. Out. Gone.

“When I got out there, it was different,” Dennis says. “That was 20 years ago. And then it sort of grew. And grew. It’s like the rat thing. You get a few rats in a cage, they’re fine; you get a few more, they start crawling on each other; you get a few more, they start eating each other.”

Their friends argued and cajoled. They’d say, what about the desert, didn’t he love the desert, and he’d say, sure, but when was the last time we went there, the traffic’s too bad and there’s no place to park and it’s too crowded—so we stay home. Their friends would try a different tack, substituting the mountains, or the beach, or the zephyrs wafting in from the Pacific, and each time Dennis and Angie’s reply was always the same. After a while, their friends realized their minds were made up. They were already gone.

It just took a while. And a family reunion.

In 2002, the search began. Sometimes while on vacations, when traveling, or searching the Internet, they looked for a quiet place where they could continue their work, keep a few horses, have some room to stretch, and breathe clean air. One year passed, then two and three. Finally, it happened. They attended a Portenier reunion in Washington, Kansas. Suddenly it wasn’t just family and old friends but something more, something richer and deeper. The country—the real thing—reached out to the distant horizons all but un-peopled, the draws and gullies heavily wooded and the uplands grassy and the sky a blue unmarred by smog or the endless procession of low-flying jets approaching or leaving the four airports that surrounded their home in Norco.

It was, Dennis says, “a rediscovery.”

Not new, but close. He and Angie had been raised across the border in Nebraska. They’d met at school in California, so the rural Midwest wasn’t a complete mystery. He knew his cousins and uncles and others were there and had visited a time or two, but this was different. They saw it with fresh eyes, with a new outlook entirely. And then they found the house.

A few miles from town, the proverbial 40 acres, the right price. Angie saw it first and dragged him back to see it for himself.

“Oh, no,” he remembers saying. “We’re moving to Kansas.”

If one fact can illustrate the differences between the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area and Washington County, let it be this: the latter doesn’t have a single traffic light. Not one. Nada. Zilch. The greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, which includes Horsetown U.S.A., spans a total of 33,954 square miles. Within which are as many traffic lights as stars in the night sky.

So, Dennis and Angie’s rural commute was a bit more pleasant than they were used to.

And the quiet? Well, it took some getting used to.

“My ears would ring at night,” Dennis says. “I was used to the constant roar of the freeway, and it was like my ears were listening for something to hear. And there wasn’t anything.”

Other adjustments had to be made. Waving, for one. Strangers waved at him even though he knew they didn’t have a clue who he was, but he started waving back until it became second nature. Going to the grocery store was no longer a quick trip but took some serious time management, mainly because it’s the single most important establishment for socializing. “A two-minute errand takes an hour,” Dennis says.

Opening a chiropractic practice in Washington, the county seat, was also something of a surprise. He estimated a minimum of one year before getting established, maybe two. Instead, customers started showing up the first day. “We hit the ground running,” Dennis says. “People here have a lot more common sense. Farmers get banged up, they know they have to be on their tractor the next day, they come in and tell me to fix them up. Partly it’s that strong work ethic. In California, everything’s a trend. First it was chiropractic, then it was New Age crystals, next it’ll be chicken guts. A higher number of people in the Midwest go to chiropractors than anywhere else.”

But it was the people that might have been the biggest surprise. In California he’d shied away from joining organizations because they never seemed to get anything done. In Washington he found a caring community that pitched in to help one another. “Even the high school kids join in,” Dennis says. “If I compare them to kids we’ve seen in other places, I’d say they’re more intelligent, more rounded and compassionate. We have better people here.”

The chamber of commerce, which he and Angie joined, was also something of a novelty. The group actively promotes businesses and assists the community in a number of ways. Recently members spent two weekends priming and painting a one-room schoolhouse belonging to the Washington County Historical Society.

“There’s nothing like volunteerism,” Dennis says. “It’s good for your mind. It keeps you young.” It also keeps you busy, busier than you might want to be. One of the myths of rural life is that there’s nothing to do except laze around the front porch and watch the sun set in the evening. That idea was summarily abolished. “We’ve always got something to do here,” Dennis says. “It’s a good busy, but it does keep you busy. I’d like to spend a little more time with my horses.”

Which might be more difficult now that he’s opened a gun store.

Portenier Chiropractic Clinic is undoubtedly one of the very, very few—if not the only—clinics to serve double-duty as a health center in front and a hunting store in back. As Dennis ushers a visitor through a doorway and into a small room festooned with rifles, shotguns, pistols and assault rifles, he smiles wolfishly and says, “If I can’t fix you, I can always shoot you!” Hardly comforting. Dennis sees it as a logical next step.

Wal-Mart, he explains, put out the small mom-and-pop outdoor stores. And then Wal-Mart got out of the firearm business, leaving large sections of the middle part of the country stripped of hunting supplies. This he discovered when he went looking for a box of ammunition, a search that proved elusive.

“I like guns,” he says. “I started thinking, maybe I could have a little place, some guns and ammo, and even make some money on it. And then I got carried away.” Business has been good. The hard part is distinguishing between the walk-in who needs his back realigned and the walk-in who needs 50 rounds of .40 caliber ammo. On a recent visit, Dennis offered to show a visitor the gun department. “Give me a minute to get my uniform on,” he said, and disappearing into his office, came out a moment later wearing a Ducks Unlimited baseball cap.

Not long ago, Dennis and Angie returned to Norco to visit friends. Some had lost their jobs or had been reduced to part-time status. Many of the houses were abandoned or boarded up. The traffic was still crazy and the noise noisier, and they realized that they’d got out at the right time, just before California’s economy tanked big time. “It was really sad,” Dennis says.

He also had to unlearn newfound habits. Waving, for one. And no eye contact. “I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in the country anymore,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get back home.”

There are a few facets of rural life Dennis still bristles at, one of them being Excessive Friendliness at Four-way Stop Signs. He relates one such incident in which he and three other drivers met almost simultaneously at an intersection, but not so simultaneously that it wasn’t apparent which driver had the right-of-way, if only he would take the initiative. “In California,” Dennis says, “a four way stop is a suggestion. If it looks like someone is going to beat you to the stop sign, it’s a race.” These three drivers opted instead to wave at one another, and Dennis followed suit, hi, hello, how are you, go ahead, no, you go first, good to see you, hi, lots of waves, lots of smiles, while Dennis gritted his teeth and waved and waved and muttered under his breath, “Would someone just please go.”

No, no going for him. He's home to stay.
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Last Updated October 28, 2009
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