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Ranching the Scenery: how the new settlers rule

Column by Hal Walter

New West – June 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

The battle is basically over, and by all accounts we’ve lost both it and the war.

But even as we stand in the rubble of development gone awry, there’s still time for us to define our sense of place, still the necessity to speak up for what we feel is right. It’s not over until they evict us. Even though it seems they’re dreaming up ways to do just that every time the local zoning board meets, we’re still here, like a pack of varmints, just waiting to see what happens next.

There’s a trophy home on every ridgeline and the highways are crowded by sport yuptility rigs with colorful decals and expensive bicycles that are hardly ever ridden, but instead seem to be mounted as permanent bug-catchers. The river is lined with neoprene-legged khaki-clad casters who wield $700 flyrods but don’t eat the fish they catch. Thousands of horses stand around in pastures, burning up hay and not getting worked. This is the new West, and much about it stinks.

The huge herds of elk that used to gather to the west of my ranch in the fall do their thing somewhere else now, cut off from traditional migratory paths by development. Still nobody seems to know how the land pimps got away with this without filing an Environmental Impact Statement. I guess the Division of Wildlife was too busy publishing magazines to concern itself with protecting habitat.

We have all kinds of new businesses — coffee houses, brew pubs, fern bars, Wally Worlds, strip malls, new groceries, and a whole slew of other attractions we never dreamed we could have without a nerve-numbing drive to the Front Strange. It would be difficult to find a long-time Central Colorado resident who doesn’t make use of these new amenities, but some of us actually know firsthand that we can live without them, too.

The demographics are like this: Pretty much everybody works at one of the prisons. If not, then you are either independently wealthy or you are actually in the joint. If you are none of the above, then you must be a seasonal employee in the industrial-tourism racket, or a builder. Barely a blip on the graph are regular working stiffs.

Not even registering on the graph are those of us along the main range who should be committed for our commitment to filling sheets of paper and film with words and pictures. It’s up to those of us who can to write, film, photograph, draw, and paint what’s really going on here. Some are good friends, colleagues or acquaintances of mine: Artist Marsha Carter who used to draw cartoons to go with my editorial columns when I edited the Herald-Democrat in Leadville; filmmaker and fellow pack-burro racer Curtis Imrie; photographer Bob Thomason who, with writer Mary Jean Porter, recently published a photo-essay book on the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness; painter Steve Smalzel; cartoonist Patrick O’Grady, and wildlife artist Sarah Woods.

Ed and Martha Quillen have done more to define this region by publishing Colorado Central than all of us combined. It’s time to get to work. The mainstream media are too firmly latched onto the sweet bosom of growth to seriously question anything going on around it.

We still have a strong ranching economy, but instead of raising cows or hay or horses, we’re raising property values. This is a concept that until the early 1990s was unheard of in this geographical locale. We’re ranching the view in a region where over the years many people have lost their shirts in real estate.

They say people of the anti-development persuasion just want to move in, put up a wall and keep everybody else out. Well . . . yeah, that’s the idea isn’t it? Otherwise you might just as well resign yourself to living on the banks of the Colorado Springs cesspool. Besides, exclusivity is more noble than moving here with elsewhere attitudes and pushing them on the natives. We never needed uniform building codes until recently . . . or bigger schools, weed ordinances, curfews, parking regulations, bigger jails, more cops, or even paved roads in some cases.

What I think we really need now is an ordinance against too-big houses.

Me, I like the idea of trailers. Instead of outlawing trailers, covenants should require that newcomers live on their property in a trailer for a year or two before building their 7,000-square-foot honkey chateaus. As a child I lived in a trailer, the front of which looked like Wilma Flintstone’s hairdo. What I like about trailers is that they have wheels and can be easily removed. Even with some of the Chinooks we get around here, the trophy homes are going to stay put, though some of those wall-sized windows may get blown out by the odd 140-mph gust.

There’s a trailer house just down the road that has been on its side since an early winter windstorm. A pick-up truck is usually parked outside and it makes me wonder if someone is actually living there, a tricky proposition depending on which side of the trailer the doors and refrigerator happen to be mounted. Just when you think God’s on your side, he rewards greed and spanks some poor person who lives in a trailer.

The old timers keep talking about the big snowstorm or the bad winter that someday will flush the trophy homers like stool pigeons and send them winging back to the dream coasts. But it never happens. And even if it did, the mere fact that some of these birds actually own backhoes and bulldozers would render it moot. These pilgrims have enough resources, money, and time to wait out the entire winter in Cancun.

If you’re really depressed about losing the battle, and you own property here, there’s always the notion of selling out and moving on. But where to? There’s a tendency to get radical and to start looking out of state, or even out of the country. Also attractive are nearby counties such as Hinsdale, where the cowplot of development hasn’t really hit the fan yet, but undoubtedly will.

I sometimes entertain thoughts of selling out, moving to the southern tip of Texas, of all places, and becoming a fishing guide in the Laguna MadrĂ© where porpoises swim right up to your boat while you’re casting for redfish and speckled trout. Other times I think of the Desert Southwest, where the winters are less cold and the springs a lot less muddy. New Mexico has more square miles and half the population of Colorado. Then there’s South America, where some say the frontier is as wild as this West was 100 years ago.

But I suspect that if I spent any amount of time in these places they would turn out to be even more jacked up than Central Colorado.

As the bumper sticker says, no matter where you go, there you are.

This thought process always leads me back to where I am, where I seem to, in some strange way, belong. Full circle. Only I know the place in the woods near here where I buried my dog Frisco seven years ago this month. When I call a local rancher about hay, he knows who I am and what I’m feeding it to. If I get a wild hair and need to get away from here, I have a friend who will stay in my house and take care of things. In the spring the wind will blow and blow and blow until it snows. There are secret trails leading to places where the fishing is good, and hidden away in my mind are those high-country haunts where the elk bugle in early autumn.

I understand the thorium deposits here have a certain magnetism that attracts loonies like myself. It’s home, all right. That may be the reason I continue to stick around and point out what I think is right and what I think is wrong. Because this is home.

Free-lance writer Hal Walter has been trying to save Central Colorado from itself since 1984. He would ideally have a burro ranch near Westcliffe, a cabin south of Leadville, a condo on South Padré Island and a mud hut in some mudless Arizona arroyo. In reality he has only a mortgage on the ranch.