This Sense of Place

By Hal Walter

Bumper stickers claim that no matter where you go, there you are. And mystics will tell you that you are exactly where you need to be. For me, the better part of 30 years has been spent in Custer County, with 23 of those years here in the Bear Basin Ranch area near Westcliffe. For 20 of those years now I’ve been writing for Colorado Central Magazine.

As I recall, Ed Quillen contacted me, having heard I was some sort of local hell-raiser, wanting some writing for his upstart magazine. I set about trying to prove him right, portraying the local development industry as a scam in my first essay. Looking back on it after 20 years, much of what I projected has proven to be correct and continues to this day. What started with a rail hub in the 1800s, then continued with a questionable ski resort and a faddish housing boom in the 1990s, has resulted in what a friend in the real estate profession recently told me is a 15-year supply of homes. That means it would take 15 years at current rates of sale to sell all the houses now on the market. And people are still building houses. Other than that, little else about the local economy has changed, including the prospects for employment and income. The price of real estate was so low when we bought this property that we could not even begin to think about living here at current prices, though we have paid the price in other ways, like gasoline, time and social isolation.

From my earliest beginnings, it seems clear I was not cut out for the urban or suburban lifestyle. Thus it seems fitting that I would wind up where on a regular basis I see herds of elk and deer, coyotes, bobcats, the occasional mountain lion, and countless hawks, eagles, ancient ravens, and all manner of other animals, birds and reptiles. In fact, my recollections of life here are a collage of encounters with the natural world: a kestrel on a fencepost pulling at the breast of a fresh-killed horned lark during a spring snowstorm; thunderstorms that turned my pasture into a raging torrent; a herd of elk splashing through sparkling snow crystals in the below-zero winter air; a bolt of lightning arcing overhead; the buzz of a rattlesnake alongside the trail; a seven-foot snowstorm; a bobcat hunting rabbits in a pile of rocks near the house; idyllic golden autumns that seem to last forever; curious deer peering right into the living room windows; countless sunsets that defy description.

I graduated from the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism (RIP) in the spring of 1982. Four days after graduation, I was working on The Pueblo Chieftain’s night copy desk. Pueblo had some interesting points, but it was really hot there in the summer and there were no mountains. After my first year I quit and moved to Frisco to start a newspaper with my journalism mentor Miles F. Porter IV. The arrangement didn’t work out, mostly because of a ridiculous quarrel we had over a dog I had found on the highway while moving. I ended up calling the Chieftain and asking for my job back. And then I moved all my stuff back to Pueblo, taking up residence in an apartment in a house in the West Park area on the western outskirts of town.

After less than a year in that apartment, a friend at work offered for rent a house in Wetmore, 26 miles away at the foot of the Wet Mountains, and I happily picked up my stuff, much of it still packed, and moved again. It was February 1984, and I was officially a resident of Custer County.

I ended up purchasing that house in Wetmore. It worked out fairly well as a base camp for many activities I enjoyed. I was training for marathons back then, running burros, trail running, and cross-country skiing. And I could get to work at the Chieftain in an easy no-traffic half-hour. Mary and I were married in 1986, and with both of us working 3-11 evening shifts – she at St. Mary-Corwin Hospital – we could carpool.


My relationship with the Chieftain took some strange turns over the years, and I quit there again in 1988, hoping to make a living as a graphic designer and writer. This worked out for the first few months, but then times got lean and I began looking for work elsewhere. There was a stint as a lumberjack on a trail crew at Devil’s Thumb Ranch near Fraser, where I traveled to work while Mary stayed back in Wetmore. Then I signed on as editor and general manager of the Leadville Herald Democrat, and we both moved to Leadville for 10 months, renting the house in Wetmore to a family who said they wished to buy it.

With weekly trips to Salida for production of the newspaper, I grew well acquainted with the Upper Arkansas River Valley and Central Colorado in general. In fact, I spent a lot of my free time driving around Lake County looking for a place to set up home with my burros. I never found that place; and when word came that the family had vacated the Wetmore house and left it in shambles, I knew we could not afford rent in Leadville and a house payment in Wetmore. So we moved back.

As luck would have it, an opening for an adjunct professor at USC soon materialized, and it also was not long before I found myself back at the Chieftain part-time. Plus I still had some freelance work. We cleaned up the Wetmore house and did some remodeling – and began to look for a place with more land. I was determined not to move again unless I had a place for us and our animals.

We traveled back up the Arkansas Valley, looking at real estate in Buena Vista and Salida. But prices had risen faster than wages and there was the question, as always, of where I would work. As a registered nurse, Mary always seemed to have options. But I, as a journalist, not so much.

We began to look at properties closer to home base. The Westcliffe area seemed to have a bigger selection of newer homes on acreage at more affordable prices. Though a longer commute, it was still within driving range of places where we had a track record of making money. Ultimately we found this ranchito with a house, barn, garage and 35 fenced acres for what then seemed like a fortune: $91,000. We sold the Wetmore house four days after posting a “For Sale” sign, and we moved here in May, 1991.

Looking back, this turned out to be the longest period of time I’ve ever lived in one place, and my columns for Colorado Central the most consistent writing I’ve ever done. The future, as always, remains unpredictable; but this sense of place remains somehow constant.