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Looking at the dark side of paradise

Article by Allen Best

Mountain Life – July 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

TO MANY OF US who know Granby, or even mountain towns in general, the bizarre type of explosion that happened there was surprising, but the explosion itself was not. In case anyone has forgotten, which seems doubtful, Marvin Heemeyer, who had once owned a muffler shop in the town, tried to demolish Granby by knocking down the newspaper office, library, town hall, Gambles, an electric co-operative, concrete plant, bank, and private home with an armor-plated bulldozer on June 4.

Some people say they expect violence in the cities, but not in little towns. That’s wrong, though. Cities have random violence and organized violence, in the form of gangs. But mountain towns have dark sides, and the real question seems to be whether mountain towns attract people with the potential for uncorking or whether there’s something in the towns themselves — the geography or the climate or the bad chemistry of the inhabitants — that produces it.

True enough, Granby had managed to survive 99 years — largely without incident. Named after a railroad attorney, Granby Hillyer, it was nondescript enough that Denver newspaper reporters misspelled it Grandby with some regularity, perhaps confusing it with the name of the county, Grand County.

It has also been described as a little ranch town, but that description is as wrong as calling Denver a big ranch town. Ranching hasn’t been a big economic power in the Granby area for about 50 years. Restaurants named the Longbranch Saloon and the Chuck Wagon said more about what the town aspired to than what it was.

But neither was it ever really a tourist town. True, resorts are found all around — Hot Sulphur Springs to the west, Winter Park ski area to the south, and Rocky Mountain National Park and its gateway, Grand Lake, to the north. But Granby itself was never more than a place on the way to someplace else, despite the slogan that appeared on the front page of the local newspaper for several years. The Sky-Hi News proclaimed, this was God’s country, “dedicated to his majesty the tourist.”

Such bold kowtowing aside, what Granby has been for decades is a service center and bedroom for those who sell scenery, snow, and rubber tomahawks to tourists. Yet it had a blue-collar mentality that persists to the present. That mentality was reflected in a town vote during April. The main street, called Agate Avenue, had been looking tired in a Last Picture Show sort of way. So town officials proposed to borrow money to gussy up the streetscape (or put on a bit of lipstick and mascara, if you will).

More than 6,000 acres of land recently annexed into Granby promises a strong economy of weekend and vacation homes for people of upper-middle and high incomes. And that, in turn, promises strong business for a new grocery store which is being built, and that in turn promises healthy increases in municipal finances. But the town residents said no — not yet. Not until the money is in the bank.

THE DISPUTE at the core of Marvin Heemeyer’s anger was also essentially blue-collar, although it was about zoning. If the story had laid out simply, like many expected, Heemeyer would have been the property rights advocate who had been told by municipal officials that no, he could not do whatever he pleased with his land. It was just the opposite, however. Heemeyer’s neighbor had been given the green light for an industrial use, and Heemeyer had objected, saying it harmed his business, a muffler repair shop.

After all, little mountain towns are filled with people who don’t particularly care to be told what to do. This is clearly true in the blue-collar, lower-income towns, but it’s also true of many fancier resort towns.

Telluride, says Seth Cagin, the editor and publisher of a newspaper there, is filled with people who have, at one time or another in their lives told somebody to take their job and shove it. “There’s a strong streak of anti-authoritarian attitudes in this place,” he says, even if it is a strongly liberal enclave virtually assured of voting Democrat — unless the Democrat is too mainstream.

Reading about politics in Aspen, you halfway expect a shootout in front of the Hotel Jerome some day. Even in Vail, a government official says only the bulldozer wouldn’t happen. A violent rampage? It’s all too possible. In some of the smaller towns alongside the major resorts, town governments have been the fulcrum for behavior that can only be compared to a dysfunctional family.

TO FULLY UNDERSTAND what happened in Granby, it’s probably necessary to examine Grand Lake, 16 miles away, where Mr. Heemeyer lived. It’s the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, splendid in its beauty, snug in its isolation. It is an anomaly in various ways. A knotty-pine sort of resort, it’s the snowmobile capital of Colorado, and for about seven months each year, drinking and snowmobiling seem to be the primary avocations. But it’s not entirely an Old West kind of place; in fact, at one point it had a fair-sized gay population.

For whatever reason, gateway communities to the places of peace and tranquility are themselves often anything but peaceful and tranquil. Rivaling Grand Lake in its zeal for snowmobiles has been West Yellowstone, in Montana. Cooke City, Mont., on the northern border of Yellowstone, was once home to a bristly church group.

John McPhee, in his book Coming into the Country, about Alaska, described a small town on the Yukon River. Visiting it twice, he was struck by the unrelenting back-biting, arguing, and general annoyance of people with one another.

Writing in The Denver Post, Ed Quillen addresses much the same point. “Our little mountain towns often attract cranks, misfits, anarchists, survivalists — just about any sort of humanity that has trouble living closer to civilization,” he says.

All this became most clear to Quillen in the early 1980s when he reported on a proposed ski area near Leadville, and the locals regaled him with stories about threats, vandalism and their growing fear. Quillen quizzed a local official about it. “People do not move to little mountain towns because they love their fellow man,” explained the late Ken Olsen Sr.

Do mountains attract misanthropes and misfits? Perhaps that’s the case, since the term “mountain man” seems to imply exactly that: wild, woolly, and unsociable. So do alienated people move into remote mountain communities to hide?

Or could the scenery itself be a medication, some sort of visual drug, to cover deep psychic wounds? In other words, do people move to places of extraordinary external geography to avoid having to examine their own internal geography?

Or perhaps it’s the lack of seasons. John Gunther, writing in a 1958 book, “Inside Russia Today,” tried to make sense of the violence in Russian history. One hypothesis was that after being frozen for months on end, Russia had brief and intense summers. This combination — which pretty well describes mountain towns (although some are darned frosty in summer, too) — was thought to create a manic-depressive routine that, in turn, caused violence.

TODAY, A SIMILAR COMPLAINT is usually called “seasonal affective disorder,” and is generally attributed to variations in light (which mountain towns are prone to — especially those towns surrounded by looming peaks where the shadows reach out each afternoon to steal the light and spread chills across the valley).

There’s also the isolation of small-mountain towns. Granted, people are not isolated like they once were. A century ago, people had to use sleds through the winter months. To get away from their secluded villages, people had to board trains, which in some cases were idled for weeks at a time by deep snows.

Even in the twenty-first century, lesser isolation continues. After weeks tramping the same, closed-in path through the dark, damp days of winter, moods sour, grievances mount, so that a minor offense — a neighbor pushing his snow onto your property, or a car parked in the wrong place — seems like a capital crime.

That may or may not be the story of mountain towns. As for the more immediate story, whether Heemeyer succeeded in teaching Granby a lesson, as a suicide note professed to be his intent, will take a much deeper analysis than can be attempted here.

But in an ironic way, Heemeyer has ensured that Granby will cease to be “Colorado as it used to be” sooner rather than later. Changes were coming anyway. Highway 40 across Berthoud Pass had been three-laned, making the trip from Denver 10 or 15 minutes shorter — but an hour shorter in the mind.

And the crowding along I-70 through Summit and Eagle counties, has made land prices there prohibitive. By comparison, land around Granby has been absolutely cheap — and it also appeals to a sense of “Colorado as it used to be.”

Two major real estate development projects — both with ties to the Vail area — are counting on Grand County’s rural appeal. First was Grand Elk; it was launched during an economic recession but seems to have landed on its feet, and now comes SolVista, something of a poor man’s Cordillera.

With all this going on, the big question was whether downtown Granby would join in this new economy or become inconsequential. Heemeyer’s rampage doesn’t entirely answer that question. But the destruction of downtown Granby does open the door for a serious make-over, which just may make Granby more alluring to investors.

This story has several other silver linings. The news about Granby flashed around the globe, so land developers may not have to tell people where Granby is located in the future. Now, it’s far less likely that reporters will be misspelling the town’s name. And the state of Colorado and other entities have promised financial aid.

FINALLY, ONCE THE PAIN IS GONE, Granby may be able to have some fun with their tragedy. The ideas began flowing rapidly. My mailman, Jim, passed through Granby the day after the rampage, and proposed that the town should someday celebrate “Dozer Days.” The tank could be preserved in the town park, and a demolition derby could be held at the rodeo grounds.

And why not? Just down the road a few miles in Hot Sulphur Springs, the killing of a 19th century badman, Texas Charlie, is reenacted every year. And many towns have Sherman tanks, rockets, and death-dealing airplanes placed in their parks.

Meanwhile, in Denver’s Westword, cartoonist Kenny Be had a page devoted to “Reinventing Granby.” “Marvin Heemeyer’s Bulldozer Rampage May just be the best thing that ever happened to Granby,” he wrote. “In 90 minutes he turned Colorado’s least interesting mountain town into what could be its No. 1 attraction.” Mr. Be envisions Bumper Bulldozers, bulldozer knickknacks, a self-guided “Stations of the Cross” tour where people can follow the bulldozer tracks to a Disgruntled Loner Hall of Fame, with other possible honorees being postal employees, Timothy McVeigh, and the Unabomber.

Despite these light-hearted musings, the carnage in Granby was tremendous and one person died; Marvin Heemeyer committed suicide at the end of his rampage.

And others may have died if local emergency response, allied with a dose of luck, hadn’t worked so effectively. Of special note is undersheriff, Glenn Trainer, who rode the bulldozer like a bronc-buster, trying to figure out a way to get a bullet inside the dragon.

Indeed, there appear to have been a number of heroes involved in this story, and they will probably all be part of the lore in years to come. Winston Churchill is said to have remarked that there is nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at without effect, and that may be the ultimate story in Granby.

But there is that secondary story: People get shot at in small towns, too — not just in inner cities.

Allen Best lived in trailers on the outskirts of Granby from 1981 to 1985. He admits to having been one of those people attracted to small mountain towns by both their beauty and because of his essentially anti-authoritarian nature. He prefers to hike off-trail.