Column by George Sibley
Government – November 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine
I’M WRITING FROM JUST OFF U.S. 50, the east-west highway for Central Colorado, but I’m well beyond Central Colorado — out in La Junta, sitting in the shade of some big old trees in their city park, while my partner does a grants workshop at Otero Junior College for Southeast Colorado.
We drove around La Junta a little, early this morning — to see the town beyond the highway. Here, U.S. 50 is lined with the standard general-issue American strip you see everywhere, including the Super 8 we stayed in last night and the 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter where we went to get something my partner forgot; it looks just like U.S. 50 through Salida or Gunnison. (Although Gunnison has fended off one advance by the Supercenter forces, it still sports the standard G.I. strip.)
What surprised me a little, however, was how much La Junta beyond U.S. 50 looks like Gunnison beyond U.S. 50, with wide western streets lined with big old trees and mostly modest older houses with the patina on them of maintenance and re-maintenance and caring. What I’ve read in the newspapers and some other publications had led me to expect worse — a dusty dying burg whose future was drying up as fast as its river.
I know enough of Colorado’s geography and history — especially its water history (“Touch water, you touch all” ) — to know that the river that runs through this place carries the same water that runs through Salida, but it’s a different river here. This time of year, slow pools of water lurk through thickets of willow and cottonwood.
I also know that the Arkansas valley in Southeast Colorado is a valley with a lot of water problems. Irrigated agriculture is the economic base here, but it is a fairly “fragile” agriculture, with quality and quantity problems in both the soil and the water. I know that Kansas proved to the courts that the Colorado irrigators in this part of the Arkansas were taking too much water, and now the irrigators here have less water (and the state has a big water bill). I also know that the megalopolis to the north is working aggressively to tap into this Arkansas valley ag water — legally, and as creatively and non-destructively as possible, but still removing water from a valley that has never reliably had as much as it could have used.
There’s further knowledge discernible by comparing the evidence of mine eyes to analogous places I know. The empty buildings on Colorado Street are like the empty buildings on Main Street in Salida or Gunnison, related to the “mallwarts” on the U.S. 50 strip — the La Junta Wal-Mart Supercenter alone appeared to be the spatial equivalent of about four city blocks all under one roof, explaining why the sidewalk mosaic proclaiming the “La Junta Hardware” now advertises an empty building, along with some other more anonymous empty storefronts.
Nonetheless, the Copper Kitchen Cafe down on Colorado Street, half a block south of the train station, was as busy as it probably ever was in the 1930s or 50s or 70s or 90s. In a few blocks of walking I passed more men with neckties — a couple with full suits — than I’d see in Gunnison all day, and nearly all the cars in the Otero Junior College parking lot, where I dropped off my partner for the workshop, are within a few years of being new and, like the old houses, all show evidence of being cared for. For all its more published troubles, it looks and feels like a place that is surviving. It looks and feels like a “place.”
I’m trying to figure out why. What makes a place “a place”? Wallace Stegner said that no place is a place until it has a poet, but that sounds a little esoteric for places that don’t exactly hang wreaths of laurel on their poets, at least not until they are safely dead. I think maybe it’s simpler: maybe a place becomes a place when it has old trees, obviously planted by humans but older than the humans living there now. On a more complex level, a place might become a place when most of the people who are living there decide to stay and try to work through their problems rather than just moving on, in the American tradition of the wand’rin’star, while their trees grow old and tall around them. Maybe a personal sense of place is just a personal sense of responsibility for the planted trees until they are finally tall enough to shade.
I’VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT THIS because I’ve been thinking about this year’s Headwaters Conference, which is about survivability in resort communities. Whatever we might wish to believe about our local communities, they aren’t very “local” in any economic sense of the term. We are almost entirely dependent on imports of energy, food and all other material goods — and heavy imports of money from elsewhere to pay for those imports. Resort towns and tourist towns — which is what most of the towns in Central Colorado are to some extent, like it or not — get that money carried here in person by tourists, resort patrons and second-home builders. But it’s only the way we import that money from the world beyond that differentiates us from towns like La Junta that are not tourist towns (not yet, anyway, although they too are trying). In terms of absolute dependence on the “larger world,” the ag towns of the Midwest are not very different from the resort towns of the Rockies at this point in history.
The conference (at Western State College in Gunnison, Nov. 2-4) will be considering, among other things, an updating of Henrik Ibsen’s play of a century-plus ago, “The Enemy of the People.” This is the story of a European health spa — the first incarnation of the modern resort town: a local economy built around a hot spring whose waters are claimed to be therapeutic. The “enemy of the people” in this town is a doctor who discovers that the town’s spring is polluted by a nearby mine, and who argues that the town needs to close down the spring (and its economy) until the problem can be corrected. Rather than biting the bullet and facing up to the problem, the people decide to “kill the messenger.”
The parallel with Colorado’s resort towns is not hard to see. Our economies have lots of “enemies” in town and out — or at least “major irritants.” In addition to the ones who seem to be opposed to anything resembling growth, we now have the enemies who, on the one hand, are predicting climate changes that are going to undermine our ski seasons and diminish our spring and summer river flows, and on the other hand, are predicting a peaking and declining energy situation that will seriously impact our auto-mobility, and more important, the flow of affordable goods and services on which we depend.
And what are we doing to address these challenges (and the opportunities lying beyond the challenges, the way mountains lie beyond foreground hills)? Not much, if anything at all. We may not be killing the messengers, but we’re trying to ignore them. There is always something more immediate to occupy our attention — a new subdivision or a ski area expansion to oppose, someone draping the river, whatever. Take care of the little things, and the big things will — well, whatever.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE La Junta City Park: The whole park is surrounded by low stone walls, too low to be useful in keeping anything in or out, good for nothing really but to look at, for they are truly beautiful work. Anyone who knows 20th century American history knows what they are: New Deal stone walls, WPA work, built by a small army of men, mostly from Southeast Colorado, paid a dollar a day plus “three slops and a flop” to haul rock, mix concrete, and lay up unnecessary stone walls.
Those same armies also built water systems, sewer systems, roads and bridges, campgrounds and parks — all that infrastructure of modern America that is now described as “crumbling.” Then, when there was no more essential infrastructure to build, they built low stone walls around parks for their dollar a day while the nation struggled to think of something better for them to do. What we finally settled on — and it does look final now — was building the most impressive war machine the world has ever seen, and that is what we are still building.
We tell ourselves that it is necessary, because people all over the world are building similar machines. But I can’t help looking at this beautiful stonework, in this place that has become a place because people have clearly taken responsibility for it, and thinking that it could all be different, and better.
When he’s not traveling along U.S. 50 during his retirement, George Sibley writes from Gunnison.