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Locked out in the New West

Column by Hal Walter

Changing Times – December 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

AFTER DRIVING PAST without so much as a wave, the man in the pickup stopped at the gate and was standing in the road waiting.

“How did you get in here?” he asked.

I pointed to the gate and told him that I had climbed over it to go running on the subdivision roads.

“I’m going to have to ask you not to do that any more,” said the man. And thus the conversation ensued.

I explained that when we saw the gate had been closed and locked my wife had called neighbors — yes, this is close enough to home that residents of that subdivision are “neighbors” — that own a house in the subdivision. Their return call had not only left permission to run on the roads on our voicemail, but also the combination to the gate. Just in case he didn’t believe me, I recited the magic numbers.

At this, he seemed almost in disbelief and a little disarmed. But he also seemed more agitated — not with me per se, but rather with the neighbor who had given out the permission and the combination. He then explained that he was in fact the president of the homeowners’ association. It was “nothing personal” but just a matter of liability. If someone fell down on the roads and was hurt everyone who lives there could be sued.

Furthermore, the homeowner who had given the permission, he said, was the association member who had raised the biggest stink about liability. “He really gave you the combination?” he asked.

I affirmed that I indeed had been given the combination, but thought, “Well, how else did I get those numbers? Telepathy?”

I suggested that if there were a problem he should talk to the neighbor who had given me permission and told him that I had been running on those roads for 14 years with the grace of the property owners from the get-go. If I were no longer welcome then I would stay out.

We left on a friendly-enough note but something about the interaction bugged me. I would guess there are less than two miles of road in this subdivision, but on days when I didn’t want to run very far, it was a nice, peaceful diversion, and I could make a 4-mile run from my house. It’s not exactly like I was losing that much of my routine, but I was not exactly happy about being locked out, either. There is rarely any traffic and none of the homes are right on the road. So as a running route it’s quite secluded with views of meadows, aspen groves and spruce woods. From the crest of the subdivision’s road, a great view of the Sangre de Cristo range jumps up to meet the runner. Plus, I wasn’t bothering anyone and only left tracks behind.

OVER THE YEARS I have seen numerous elk and deer in this area. I once found the remains of a deer killed by a mountain lion right next to the road. Even afterwards I occasionally ran in the dark on that road, wondering if I might feel fangs in my neck after each new step. Two summers ago I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake on this road.

Through the years of running in this subdivision I also have met some interesting residents, including two retired college professors , who sometimes stopped to say hello. One even liked to discuss politics and was of the liberal persuasion, a rarity in this area. I also remember returning a stray dog to its home in that subdivision, and returning home from runs to call neighbors about horses and cattle that I had noticed to be on the loose. Countless times I have kicked out of the roadway nails and screws that have bounced out of construction workers’ vehicles, thus saving my neighbors the hassle and expense of flat tires.

So I must admit I was a little miffed about being locked out. When I returned home and told the story to my wife, she calmly looked up from our peacefully nursing baby and said: “What an asshole.”

Well, yeah. The more I thought about it, the notion of a “gated community” in this neighborhood really gave me a pain in the ass.

We also live next to another subdivision that has many more miles of road. I remember when I first moved here this area was nothing but vacant ranchland. Back then one oldtimer told me that I should definitely stay out of there, noting if the rancher who owned that land ever caught me trespassing he would “throw your ass in jail.”

Things change. Soon that ranch was subdivided and the roads were graded. But the herefords stayed and not long afterward the rancher who owned the subdivision appeared at my doorstep asking if I might know where a stray cow was hiding. I’d often wave to him while running the roads on his former ranch and he knew I had as good an idea what was going on around here as anyone.

LAST WINTER while running on these roads I took a bad fall. Ironically I was jogging slowly and carefully down a steep hill. Since the wheel-wells were snowpacked I thought I’d find better traction in the center and so stepped into the loose snow. Unfortunately, there was ice underneath and the next thing I knew my feet were at eye level and my head was still exactly 5 feet, 11 inches above the ground. I landed on my right shoulder and hip simultaneously and slid a few feet down the hill. I just sprawled there in the snow for a good long while, ascertaining whether anything was broken. Nothing was, but I got up and walked back home. It was several months before I could do a push-up but I didn’t consider filing for a disability, much less suing anyone.

Over the years I have earned the trust of most landowners in the area. I’m the caretaker for a vacation home in the neighborhood, and also have full access to Bear Basin Ranch’s land conservancy, where I recently paid a neighbor to brushhog some overgrown trails. So the notion of being locked out of our neighborhood’s newest and only gated community seemed ludicrous.

One evening while hunting elk on a high ridge on Bear Basin Ranch I looked around at this area that is my “neighborhood.” Parents met their children at the bustop. Snow covered the ground. Residents drove to and from their homes. Horses grazed. The elk stayed out of sight. I watched as lights came on in some of the neighbors’ homes, and looked down on my own little ranchito that seemed to be right at my feet though it was more than a mile away.

I thought about how much had changed since I first moved here so many years ago, yet how much was still the same. Yeah, there were a few new pendejos in the neighborhood. But for the most part the neighbors, both old and new, were friendly and accommodating, and the landscape was still wide open.

Hal Walter was relieved to have read in the last issue of Colorado Central that he’s Slimly considered to be “more or less a regular sort.” He writes from his home in the Wet Mountains near Westcliffe.