Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Stranger in my own Town

Essay by Ron Baird

Growth – September 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

I KNOW IT SOUNDS LIKE A BAD DREAM or even the plot to a third-rate science fiction movie. But a couple of months ago, I “awoke” to find myself a stranger in my own town — Boulder, Colo. — a place I’ve lived near and worked in for 20 years.

I had just quit a reporting job I held for 10 years, a job in which I wrote about the foibles, peccadilloes, felonies and misdemeanors, scams, triumphs and trends of the populace.

Yet I was oblivious to the truth which was that I knew fewer and fewer of the people I came in contact with outside my job. And that’s because these days the average resident stays in Boulder four years.

It’s not an unusual story in the West’s destination cities or towns. A few old timers hang on while city hoppers — people of independent means searching for the next “last best place” — move in and then move along. It’s often lost on them that the traffic, congestion, crime, crowded schools, increasing prices, and taxes they complain about are often exacerbated by their arrival.

Soon, you have a town full of strangers whose only interest in history is their credit history. Some people, unkindly but not necessarily inaccurately, call them carpetbaggers.

As kind fate would have it, I was traveling soon after that and pulled into the Village at Chama, New Mexico, on a cold Sunday night. The streets were quiet, snowflakes were in the air, but something grabbed me about the town. I spent several days there in early April, and liked it so much I returned in mid-May to look for a place to live.

I make no claims to have delved into the heart and soul of the village. I’ve barely scratched the surface, But some things are exceedingly clear — Chama is not Boulder. In fact, Chama could accurately be described as the anti-Boulder.

Let me explain. In Boulder, consumerism — the God-given right to buy anything you want whenever you want it — has become the dominant “ism.”

Boulder is a micro-brewery town. Chama is a Bud Lite kind of place. There are no overweight, balding, white men with pony tails sitting in coffee shops talking loudly on cell phones to their brokers or accountants in Chama. In fact, there are no coffee shops or espresso bars at all. (There may be one in the tourist end of town. If so, it’s not prominently advertised.) But then, the tourists who come to Chama aren’t, for the most part, latte drinkers.

In Chama, the supermarket closes at 6 p.m. on weekdays and 3 p.m. on Sunday during the winter. (OK, they compromise and close at 7 p.m. and 5 p.m. respectively, during tourist season.) There are no chain stores or restaurants in Chama, and people here don’t seem to think there is anything strange about this.

THE PEOPLE IN CHAMA wave at each other and even strangers when they pass on the street. In Boulder, if people look at you at all these days, it’s to see if you’re likely to jack their SUV, steal their Gucci bag, or ask for spare change. Not surprisingly, people in Boulder whine a lot about the place.

No particular “ism” seems to hold sway in Chama except “placism; people here are really into their place, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to stay. I struck up a two-hour conversation with a guy in a bar during a Bulls-Indiana game (when the cable station crashed) who explained: “You’ll never get rich here, but if you hustle you can get by pretty good.” Hustle is the name of the game. Most of the people I’ve met have a couple of businesses and a job or some combination thereof.

In Boulder, nearly everyone appears to be young, white, beautiful and economically comfortable (or at least two out of four of those conditions). Chama appears to be fairly equally divided between blue collar Anglos, and Hispanics, young, middle-aged and elderly, with a smattering of folks dropping in from the Jicarilla Apache reservation nearby.

Boulder’s economy lives and dies by the cutting edge in technology (and rich college kids) while Chama’s economy is driven by technology that became obsolete a century ago — the Cumbres-Toltec narrow-gauge railroad. If for no other reason, I have to love a town that can pull that one off.

Recently, Boulder was named by Money magazine as the most livable mid-sized city in the country. Chama was not mentioned.

To be honest, there was something about Chama that bothered me for a little while. Some people around here seem to like to toss beer cans along the road and at campsites and trail-heads. At first, it occurred to me that this might be a conscious effort to keep Yuppies and city hoppers away, and then I realized, conscious or not, it probably served that purpose and therefore was no big deal.

You get to thinking like that after you’ve been around Chama for a while.

Ron Baird is a freelance writer operating from Chama, New Mexico. He is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado.