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Four jobs in the Wet Mountain Rat Race

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – September 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S A SOURCE OF WONDER to me how a life intended to be lived simply could suddenly become so overwhelmingly busy and complicated.

I like to joke that I have four jobs, but it’s really no joke. The irony, of course, is that while most people move to the mountains to escape the rat race I’ve somehow created my own right here in the Wet Mountains, albeit without rush-hour traffic. While the neighborhood has grown considerably in recent years, the actual “working class” consists only of about a dozen at last count.

For several years I had a pretty cushy situation, editing a newsletter, website and books for a company that sold health and fitness products. It was a great deal, allowing me to earn a decent income in about 20 hours a week from a spare bedroom. The rest of the time I could spend dinking around with some freelance writing, training for pack-burro racing and concentrating on my cooking.

That gig began swirling around the corporate toilet bowl about the time my son Harrison arrived in 2004, and my life seems to have been spinning out of control ever since.

To make up for the loss of income, I took a part-time job editing news copy for the Pueblo Chieftain. Editing is not exactly the best use of my talents; in fact, I don’t think I’m that good at it and would give myself a “B” for effort. But it does pay the bills. In addition, my managers have been very flexible in recognizing the distance I live from Pueblo and allowing me to “telecommute” most evenings of the week. I like the association with the newspaper and appreciate the work.

Lately, they’ve also shown some interest in my writing, allowing me to select some topics that interest me and parlay them into feature stories and opinion pieces for the Chieftain’s Sunday business and editorial sections. Recent articles include lengthy pieces on the Beneficial Farm and Ranch Collaborative and the merits of the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Oddly enough, the work I was doing for the health and fitness company reincarnated in the form of a much smaller company called First Organics. I am a part owner and produce much of the direct marketing materials for the company. We make dietary supplements from organic foods that have been prepared by a special low-heat freeze-drying process that preserves associated phytonutrients as well as the vitamins. These certified-organic supplements include a Daily Multiple, Immune Complex, Vitamin C Complex and Vitamin E Complex. Three of our formulations carry the USDA Organic logo, and we recently had labels translated to Japanese in an effort to enter that market.

Tired yet?

Then there’s my care-taking business. I manage a small ranch just up the road for a couple who live in Evergreen. This ranch comprises about 850 acres of private and leased land, two houses, seven horses and 22 Maine-Anjou/composite cattle. We recently leased a red angus bull to breed to our cows, so he, too, is my responsibility for a few weeks.

In addition to this ranch, I also feed five Trakener horses, two goats and two parakeets for a woman who is in the process of moving here from North Dakota. While her animals are full-time residents, she and her husband are trying to sell their restaurant in Fargo so they can move here and finish building their home. Until then, I’m flaking out a bale in the morning and another in the evening for this bunch, and looking in on the birds.

Still with me?

One other regular care-taking job involves checking in on a house owned by a Florida couple, friends who visit for a few weeks each summer, and maybe a week in the spring and fall. Mostly this involves making sure pipes are not freezing in the winter and flushing toilets regularly to keep the P-traps from drying out, a problem in that it allows sewer gas into the house.

Occasionally I am called upon to write a column or do other freelance word-smithing.

IT HAD BEEN SUGGESTED recently that I visit the First Organics office, which is “centrally located” in Gallup, N.M., for reasons that shall be explained. I arranged for a week off from the Chieftain, found someone to look after the horses and cows at the ranch, and a teenage neighbor girl to feed the Trakaners, goats and parakeets.

And so I found myself driving south with my family one summer day. We spent a night and morning in Taos, before continuing on, arriving in Gallup that next evening.

Why Gallup? Our major investor, Dominic Biava, made his success in Native American jewelry there. Not only did he provide the startup capital for First Organics, he also has the business infrastructure we needed to get the venture off the ground — office space, warehouse, phone lines, etc. The office itself is next to a jewelry vault in a building across Route 66 from the train depot. Dominic’s grandparents came to Gallup in the late 1800s to work in the nearby coal mines.

Upon our arrival, Anna, Dominic’s daughter and another part owner in the business, accompanied me to the hotel to check in with the company credit card. While we were waiting in the lobby, an angry customer stormed in, shouted that “Gallup sucks,” and threw the card key at the poor guy behind the counter. Ranting that the key did not work, he continued on his tirade, using the F-word quite liberally. Probably just a meth-head trucker.

We were treated to dinners at the Biava home, where we discussed marketing strategies. I spent one morning in the First Organics office where we did more of the same. We lunched at the El Rancho, where many stars of Western movies stayed while filming in the area.

At night, the trains, some Amtrak passenger traffic and others heavy-haul freight including double-stack railcars, nearly blew us out of bed with their horns as they reached the west end of town. Out the window of the hotel room one morning I noticed the Navajo Nation Diabetes Project office was unfortunately located next to a distributor for a popular line of junk food snacks, bolstering my theory that the town might be the syndrome X capital of the world.

Gallup also, I am told, has the highest per-capita number of millionaires in the country. Its Ford and GMC dealerships lead the nation in pickup truck sales. And last year the Wal-Mart sold the highest number of Direct-TV hookups in the country, winning the store a visit by Paula Abdul.

Just to the east of Gallup we found the Red Rocks State Park, a surprising retreat from the rows of Indian jewelry outlets, pawn shops, motels, fast-food franchises and convenience stores that make up the town. Here we found the Pyramid Trail, which led to the top of Pyramid Rock, a local landmark. My wife and I took turns hiking with Harrison in the backpack while the other jogged ahead and then back. Backpacking with the boy, now 2, raised the heart rate more than running. The trail itself wound through a beautiful area of multicolored and uniquely shaped sandstone formations.

THE LAST MORNING THERE, on the way out of town, I reached the summit of Pyramid Rock and took in the entire vista surrounding Gallup. It was the high-point of the trip. This was, perhaps, a working vacation, but I needed to get back to my busy life.

We drove straight home, blazing through Albuquerque, which is a Southwestern-style Denver, and past Santa Fe, which is frankly an obscenity. We stopped only for dinner at El Paragua in EspaƱola, and for coffee in Taos. Later that night we slept in our own beds and there were no trains blaring through the night.

Many people say I should stop all this nonsense and concentrate on my writing. They have not seen my bills. But it’s possible that in the near future I might cut back. Two or three jobs seems manageable.

But for now, job security here in the Wet Mountain rat race means having four of them.

Hal Walter and his burro Spike won the Leadville pack-burro race on Aug. 6. He and burro Laredo finished second in the Fairplay and Buena Vista legs of the Triple Crown.