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Vacillation and Isolation

Essay by Martha Quillen & Columbine Quillen

Sept. 11 events – November 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

ED STARTED THE Letter from the Editors this month after rereading Jihad vs. McWorld, a book he picked up years ago on remainder. In Jihad, author Benjamin Barber writes about the new global economy and how it’s fueling a growing clash between religious fundamentalists, tribal cultures and hidebound traditionalists and the corporate culture that gives us fast food, Wal-Marts, pop music, and theme parks.

In lieu of recent events, Ed thought some of the book’s contentions were not only interesting but apropos. The book started him musing about how we who live in Central Colorado fit into all of this, but apparently it didn’t lead him to enough conclusions to write five or six pages.

So I guess that letter will have to wait for another day. And that’s pretty much what happened to me this month, too. I’ve read everything that Annie wrote and collected about the Salida school district and the current mill levy override proposal, and I talked to some school board members, and I did a little web research on mill levies and mill levy overrides, and I never did come to any conclusions.

No, that’s not quite right. Four or five days ago I decided I’d vote Yes.

Our school board says it’s been having trouble hiring people after a couple of qualified applicants for district positions felt that they just couldn’t afford to move here, and that’s not too surprising. Some years back, the candidate the city council liked best for City Administrator decided he couldn’t come here — after he found out a two-bedroom house in Salida would cost him as much as his four bedroom house back home.

And housing is not the only drawback in coming to Salida; it can also be a hard place for a spouse to find work.

But no sooner had I decided to vote Yes than I thought, “Wait a minute. Hardly anyone I know can afford housing in Salida, and higher taxes will just add to the already ridiculous cost of housing hereabouts.”

And I decided to vote No.

But then I thought about how we were going to have to agree to a mill levy hike sooner or later — since wages for some of the district’s cooks and secretaries seem downright mean-spirited. And I decided to vote Yes again.

Until I thought: “But teachers here do better than most small town reporters and editors I know — and for that matter they do a whole lot better than the average Chaffee County resident. Salary hikes for some employees would be great, but Salidans can’t afford raises for people who already make $40,000.” So I decided to vote No…

And then Yes, and then No, and finally I thought, “Why not get it over with, and I decided to vote yes — once and for all.”

Except then I thought about the little changes between this mill levy override proposal and the last one: this one is for $664,635 and raises only teacher’s pay, whereas the last one was for about $475,295 (4 mills) and some of the money was supposed to go for programs. And I liked the last proposal better — but unfortunately I liked it with this year’s six-year sunset clause — so I thought maybe I should vote No and see what the next proposal brings.

With my luck, though, the next proposal would be for even more money and even less improvement. Anyone want to go for $750,000 for teacher and administrator salaries only?

But on the other hand, maybe this proposal is better. It’s for a dollar amount instead of so many mills, so the amount I’ll have to pay in taxes won’t go up if property values do. And this would cost me a mere $10 a month. So Yes, I’ll vote yes. But what about downtown businesses, it’ll cost them….

It’s obvious — at least to me — that I am really undecided about a lot of things right now. I don’t know what to think about wars, anthrax, Afghanistan, whom to vote for, what to vote for….

So I really wasn’t any more inclined to write a letter than Ed. Therefore instead of a Letter from the Editor this month Ed and I have opted for a Guest Letter, which just happens to be by Columbine Quillen, the Vice-President of Colorado Central Publishing Company.

So here we present:

A Letter from One of Our Corporate Officers.

Cut off in New York

THE CITY NEVER SLEEPS. In huge cities like New York you can get anything you want at any time of the day.

Whereas, rural Colorado hardly ever seems to wake up. In some little mountain towns you can barely buy anything — even on a Wednesday afternoon.

After living in Salida and Gunnison for most of my life — and waiting tables for far too much of it — I was in shock when the cook at a Denver eatery I was working at announced that there was no tenderloin left.

But as it turned out, the restaurant hadn’t really run out of tenderloin — at least they weren’t out of tenderloin in the way we would have been in Salida. When I worked at the First Street CafĂ© in Salida, if we were out of something, we were out of it until either Tuesday or Saturday when the food order came in.

Thus, I assumed that in Denver we would be out of tenderloin for at least a day or so, and it was Saturday night. So I started thinking about cheery, optimistic ways to tell people that their favorite menu item was not available that evening, when, wallah… News spread that we once again had tenderloin.

THAT IS THE WAY of the city. There are 24-hour pharmacies, restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations. You never have to wait for anything. If you need new shoes, you buy new shoes. If you need a medicine cabinet, a toilet, printer paper, a computer, or just about anything else, it can be yours in a few short hours — even if it’s Sunday.

That is not the way of small-town Colorado. When I was a child I waited months to get the latest toy, and to see ET, and to get those cool hot pink leg warmers. The Sears catalog was the best present we got each season, but sometimes things took a week to arrive; I knew that.

Every couple of months, we would go to the “city” — that vast metropolitan area of Colorado Springs — to buy computer supplies for my dad. At the time, it never occurred to me that such items could be bought on the same day that you realized you needed them. For me, waiting was a fact of life.

But children who grew up in New York no doubt assumed that when you needed something, you could go get it that very same day.

Now, however, — perhaps for the first time in New York City’s history — New Yorkers can’t just hop on a subway to go buy what they want. And recently, a good friend of mine who grew up in — and still lives near — Manhattan, brought this to my attention.

He was annoyed because he couldn’t bank for three days. For the first time in his life, he couldn’t get money out of the bank at the snap of a finger. But that was the norm for my bank in Gunnison. If there was any sort of holiday — be it Secretary’s Day or Independence Day — my bank in Gunnison was closed, and on business days it closed religiously at 4 p.m.

Since my Gunnison bank didn’t open at all on Saturdays, I knew that if I didn’t get to the bank by Friday afternoon, my weekend plans could be squashed. My friend’s bank in New York, however, is open until 7:30 p.m. each night including Saturdays, and it was even open on Columbus Day.

My friend was also annoyed because he couldn’t use his cell phone for four days because the transmitter towers were located on top of one of the World Trade Center skyscrapers.

Two summers ago, I hiked half of the Colorado Trail and was lucky to get cell phone service 10% of the time. It’s a really good thing that I didn’t break a leg, because to get phone service I usually had to hike up about one to two thousand feet. But on the other hand, I’d never seen any reason for having a cell phone until I made that trip.

Salida didn’t even get cell phone service until long after the irritating overusage of cell phones was a standard joke on sit coms.

That’s when Salida got ATMs, too. ATMs weren’t available in Salida until after Hollywood assumed that all Americans were addicted to them.

And even today, very few Salidans seem immersed in the cell phone craze, or particularly inclined to use ATM machines, either. Instead, Salidans actually seem to know the tellers at their bank.

I HAVE A FRIEND who recently moved to Manhattan, where she hasn’t met one person without a cell phone — because cell phone service is cheaper than a landline in New York City. Apparently, New York is one of the few places that charges phone users by-the-minute rates for local calls.

So even though my friend moved to New York from Durango, she has succumbed to the madness. The last time I called her she answered her phone at the supermarket and when we finished our conversation she was in line to purchase a movie ticket.

But perhaps the most startling inconvenience my New York friends have had to deal with in recent weeks was the airport closures. Suddenly, all of the airports in the New York metro area were closed, and New Yorkers were trapped in the city (except for the few who own cars — and how many people in New York City own cars? I’m not sure, but I don’t know any).

The idea that all of the airports might close — for days and days and perhaps even indefinitely — probably never occurred to most New Yorkers. What other city has three gigantic airports serving it?

My friend who moved to New York from Durango has parents in Denver, and the reality of the matter is that in some ways she is closer to her parents in New York City than she was in Durango.

Yes, you can fly from Durango to Denver, but it is expensive and deemed extravagant. And the drive from Durango to Denver is easily six to seven hours when the weather is perfect — and you don’t stop for meals. Whereas the flight from New York to Denver takes a mere three and one half hours (although on bad days — be they due to security snafus or weather — you might spend many times more hours than that waiting at the airport).

BEING CUT OFF is such a reality in the mountains that the locals rarely fret over it. When I was seven years old, there was a gigantic snowstorm which closed Highway 50 and U.S. 285. It happened on Christmas Eve, right before my family was supposed to leave for the Front Range to spend the holiday with my grandparents. Although our gifts had already been sent down ahead of time to be opened on Christmas Day, we couldn’t get out of the mountains.

So we barely had any gifts to open on Christmas morning (except for the weird stuff my parents scrounged together and wrapped that night — pencils, paper, books). And because we planned on being away for a week, we barely had any food in the house. So my mom cooked corn bread, beans and bacon for Christmas dinner, and we had cookies and ice cream for dessert.

That was a little odd, but at the time I didn’t know there was a place in the world where stores were usually open — or where mountain passes didn’t occasionally close.

Of course not, I was a child. When I was older and attending Western State College, I spent many a winter’s night waiting for overdue friends who were caught on the wrong side of Monarch Pass or Cerro Summit — unable to come home because of the weather.

Although it rarely occurred to me that I couldn’t get out of Gunnison, that was a fact. It was also a fact that I couldn’t visit my family whenever I wanted to, even though they lived a mere 60 miles away. It was 60 miles that crossed over 11,217 feet — and in a storm, that is not the place to be.

Only last year, I tried to return to Denver from Salida, and ended up spending a night in Fairplay because Kenosha Pass was closed and Trout Creek was too scary to cross back over to get to my parent’s home. The inn keepers of Fairplay were not oblivious to their newfound luck, and one of them charged me $80 for a dingy room, but even a dingy warm room is better than a cold, dark, icy highway.

About four years ago, the weather changed suddenly, and a friend and I got stuck in Ouray in November — whereupon we managed to get a room at a hotel where we were the only guests that night. But by the time we realized we were stuck, it was 7:30, and the only restaurant that had been open in Ouray that day had closed at 7 p.m.

Over the years, I have been stuck in out-of-the-way places more times than I can remember due to winter storms. And I suspect it will happen again — since I never plan on moving to New York City where I could give up our potentially dangerous highways for their potentially dangerous subways.

Cell phones, ATMs, department stores, and good restaurants seem like pretty petty things to dwell on in light of recent events. But I suspect that most people do tend to dwell on the little things which make up the basic conveniences and inconveniences of life.

Man really only needs a few things to survive: food, shelter, water, and companions.

But on September 11, bistros in lower Manhattan closed and some people probably weren’t sure what to do. Bistro-free days are not easy for people whose kitchens are smaller than their hall closets (which is pretty standard in Manhattan).

But New Yorkers had far worse things to worry about after September 11.

And one of the things that they no doubt thought about — as I have in the last few weeks — is how great it is to live in those cut-off, hard to reach places, in valleys where cell phones don’t work, and towns where you can’t get blintzes or sushi or designer clothes.

How wonderful it is to be on the west side of a mountain, in the dead of winter, when nothing much is going on. How nice it is to stand on a mountainside and breathe air that nobody else is breathing. How marvelous it is to live away from the factories, the malls, and the teeming masses.

So will hordes of New Yorkers soon move to the hinterlands?

Well, I suspect some of them might try it. But it probably won’t be too long before they head back home to go shopping.

–Columbine Quillen