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Find it at the Big Rock Candy Mountain

Letter from Clint Driscoll

Idealism – February 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine


Although at first reading it was easy to sympathize with Ken Wright’s complaint in his modest proposal in your January issue, further consideration leads me to believe Mr. Wright has become the victim of one of the West’s many illusions, i.e. an idyllic, rural lifestyle can be led forever in the Rocky Mountains.

Mr. Wright’s lament, that the impact of technological change has altered his simple, country life by allowing new settlers with a more urban outlook to move in, is not new and should not be surprising. This is a cycle which has played out in the Rocky Mountains and much of the interior West for 130 years.

I believe Mr. Wright is wrong in assuming the rural ethic, yeoman farmers, and ranchers carrying on the Jeffersonian ideal, is the norm for this region. With the exception of the Mormon settlement of Utah and the basically feudal colonization of New Mexico, the Rocky Mountains were settled thanks to new technology which allowed the exploitation of underground mineral lodes or timber. With the development of efficient compressors, pumps, mills, dredges, and railroads, towns like Leadville, Fairplay, Breckenridge, Central City, Salida, Alamosa, and Durango came into being.

These towns existed not as agricultural supply points but as industrial centers serving mineral extraction, processing, and transportation. As Duane Smith demonstrates in his book, Rocky Mountain Mining Camps; The Urban Frontier, the ethic of those towns was in no way rural. There was a conscious effort to provide the amenities of eastern city life in what was considered a howling wilderness. Citizens of the time came not to commune with nature but to work.

Much of mountain agriculture began in response to mountain urban enclaves. It was only after the demise of mining and the scaling down of the railroads that some of the towns held on by emphasizing their agricultural support services to a shrinking group of farms and ranches which only survived because railroads could transport their products. Others died or stayed on minimal life-support by providing cheap properties, low rents, and a bare-bones lifestyle for those who rejected urban life and were unwilling or unable to survive by farming or stockraising in truly agricultural areas. But, it is my belief the urban ethic of these towns never really died, rather it hibernated, waiting for an opportunity to awaken in a new economy.

Like it or not the new economy is here. The new influx is driven, as Mr. Wright correctly points out, by the fact people move here because they can. Yes, the newcomers have more urban expectations and will make demands to upgrade existing infrastructure and basic services. Over time many of those demands will be met, but not all; economics and the land and climate themselves will limit them.

Mr. Wright’s proposals, like Swift’s proposal to eat Irish children, are overblown but serve to point out the worries not only of long-time residents but the newcomers themselves. I would hazard to say both groups would welcome some improvements which would make their lives more convenient and more economically stable. At the same time neither group wants to lose the amenities and natural resources that drew them here in the first place.

This is a point Wright chooses to ignore. The new settlers are not moving here to increase industrialization or to remake the West in their total urban image, but to find a balance between the facilities of an urban center and the amenities of open country and communities of a more human scale.

Granted, a lot of boosterism and hype reminiscent of the hucksters of the nineteenth century is seen today. Instead of calling the gullible Brave Pioneers, Forty-niners or Sooners, they are Lone Eagles, Exurban Pioneers or Pathfinders on the Leading Edge. A lot of them are searching for something (or being sold something) they will never find, and, like their forebears, will fail or become bored out of their skulls and leave with the modern version of “Busted, by God” pasted on their sport utility vehicles.

But those who succeed intend to stay. They have chosen to live here, not just use the resources and move on. They will help get the heavy metals out of the rivers and streams. They’ll help defeat or modify major transmountain water diversions, and they’ll fund the conservation easements which guarantee the open space and wild places everyone values.

Since most have urban wants, they will tend to cluster in higher population areas where telephones, supermarkets, cable TV, and Internet hook-ups already exist. Most will not impinge on Mr. Wright’s rural simplicity any more than the seasonal tourists do now, but Mr. Wright will see more yardlights when he looks over his valley and there will be more traffic on the highways in the off-seasons.

Ken Wright’s real options are as old as the West he loves. He can, like the coyote, adapt to the changing situation and use his knowledge and values to help preserve what is important based on the present situation. Or, in the great tradition of the West, pull up stakes and move on to his next Cbola.

Clint Driscoll