Essay by Martha Quillen
Modern Life – May 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
IT’S THE MERRY, merry month of May — a good time for Central Coloradans to return from Arizona and Texas. Or in my case — since I haven’t gone anywhere this winter — it seems like a good time to quit musing about world history and international events and turn my thoughts toward home.
(Besides, I suspect everyone could use a vacation from speculations about the president’s peccadillos and the hazards of Y2K. And more to the point, I’m really not up on Balkan policies, politics, or history.)
So this month, I’ve decided to focus on the here and now.
The off-season is over; Central Colorado is coming alive, and soon our roads, woods, and towns will be crowded with tourists. Thus, right here at home, we’ve got a number of pressing issues to ponder.
Unfortunately, though, I’m not real eager to ponder them.
Maybe that’s because — when you exclude local issues and politics — living in a small mountain town is great, especially during mud season. The traffic is light, the store clerks are friendly, the lines aren’t too long (except at grocery stores and Wal-Marts on Saturdays). The faces are familiar, and oftimes a trip to pick up a few items on your shopping list results in a surprise reunion with old friends. The scenery is spectacular, and everything you need is a mere ten minutes away by car (or a half-hour on foot).
So if you don’t worry about growth, development, fire protection, street repairs, the town budget, your county’s plan, the environment, rising utility costs, local schools, proposed damns, potential water grabs, community controversies, or your water and sewer system, life in a little town is darn near perfect.
Thus, every year, right about now — when the grass is greening up and the trees are budding — all of this political stuff strikes me as more trouble than it’s worth. And then I start wondering why people don’t just scurry off into the hills to live like lone coyotes.
Actually, though, I guess that’s what a lot of us have done. We’ve escaped to the very edge of civilization.
— And even that hasn’t worked.
It doesn’t seem to matter if you draw your own well water, generate your own electricity, order propane from a private dealer, and mind your own business. You still can’t escape.
Suddenly, someone wants to put a real estate development on the ridge above you, and a jetport in the valley below you. Some front range city wants to suck the water right out from under you. Your neighbors haven’t spoken to you since you disagreed with them about firing that coach (or teacher, or policeman, or fireman). And all anyone in town ever talks about is that new recall election.
It just doesn’t seem fair.
It’s not supposed to happen here — not here where the wilderness rises right outside the window and the livestock outnumber the people. Not here in rural America, far from the traffic, congestion, crowds, and youth gangs.
Intellectually, of course, I know that it has to happen here, and that it has always happened here.
Obviously, the rural west isn’t exempt from complications and controversy. This is where the range wars flared, where cattlemen and sheepherders turned into gunfighters, where water disputes became legendary.
In actuality, we seem to be handling things in Central Colorado much better today than they did in the 1870s — when a dispute over a ditch resulted in murder, and that murder was answered by more murders (and shootings, and barn burnings) until the episode — known as the Lake County War, even though it occurred in what is now Chaffee County — culminated in the murder of Judge Elias Dyer in his courtroom in Granite.
Moreover — although that siege of mayhem was certainly impressive — spates of violence over water, property, and mining claims were fairly commonplace back then.
So clearly I should be thrilled with how peaceful and businesslike this place has gotten.
Except the issues just keep mounting up. Chaffee County needs a new jail. Salida’s negotiating for nine new golfer holes. There’s been a big tumult at the Salida airport. At this point, I haven’t the foggiest idea what happened with that Deytel thing in Buena Vista, or with their police chief situation, or what that has to do with the Chaffee County sheriff’s department, or whether the dispute at Mesa Antero continues, or where the negotiations between Poncha Springs and Salida stand.
It’s a good thing it’s not November, because if I had to vote right now, I’d be clueless. At the moment, though, the city of Salida seems relatively calm.
But if there’s one sure bet in this world, it’s that it won’t stay that way. Instead, with a strong economy driving us, there seem to be more issues all the time. A mere decade or so ago, nobody wanted to build anything, buy anything, or start anything here. Now, everybody worries about getting totally overrun.
Yet if the economy slumps, I suspect there will still be major public issues, (although they may be fewer and further between as more people struggle with their personal lives and finances).
But either way, political discord is a sure bet.
SOMEWHERE, or more likely in many somewheres this summer, there will be new issues that will turn into new battles that will have citizens railing at their government officials.
Then one or two government officials will lose their tempers and raise their voices, and a few citizens will shout back spouting a curse word or two, and an official will threaten to clear the chambers by police force if necessary.
At that point, all manner of stories will circulate about nasty phone calls, threats, secret meetings, and petty vandalism, and no one will know what to believe.
Finally, name-calling, stereo-typing, and paranoid theories will mount, angry letters in the local newspaper will triple, and the whole thing will start feeling so vexatious and mean-spirited that a lot of people will wonder why they don’t just move.
For some citizens and officials alike, the issue — whatever it happens to be — will turn into something very personal, and they will spurn everyone they perceive to be on the other side. Likewise, a few people will retain their anger long after the issue is resolved. And inevitably, some people will be deeply and sincerely hurt.
I wish there was something I could do about that, or say about it — some magic bullet, some words of wisdom. I wish I could offer a ten step guide to avoid political brouhahas, or a handy video to circumvent political pandemonium (for a mere $29.95).
But no matter what I say, I figure contentious issues are going to disrupt our rural lifestyles — again and again.
But why? Why do people get so upset, so passionate, about water lines and roads and subdivisions? Why can’t we just compromise and put in half a road or half a subdivision? Why are we fighting?
WELL, SURE, I KNOW what the big issues have been in Central Colorado — water, a pink pyramid, a jetport, flyovers, subdivisions, loitering laws, recalls, schools, firings, zoning… But what are we really fighting about?
Personally, I figure we’re fighting about what people in the west have always fought about. I think we’re fighting about how to divide the land and the water.
— And also about the big issues, about the limits of government and the limits of democracy. To me it seems like we’re trying to work out some pretty basic issues, things like:
What laws should the government be allowed to impose? When does the majority’s interest surpass a citizen’s personal rights? In a democracy, at what point do our rights supersede the neighbors? Can he raise sheep? Use barbed wire? Obstruct views? Fly annoying aircraft overhead?
I guess there are just some things we still have to work out — huge things, things that strain the temper and incite emotions.
But we are getting better at it. All in all, I’d say we’re getting damned close to civility. Now, if someone will just remind me of that when the next controversy explodes (and I start dreaming about how romantic it would be to live in a little igloo up on Baffin Island).