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We can run but we can’t hide

Essay by Ed Quillen

Rural Life – February 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

“He moved here to get away from that.”

Those words, spoken by a friend, served as something of an epitaph for Richard Ellis, murdered on Jan. 3 in his convenience store on the west side of Poncho Springs. He moved to the mountains, the friend said, to get away from the crime in Dodge City, Kansas.

Much the same was said of Roger Coursey, the Hinsdale County sheriff who was murdered in November. Coursey, once a big-time undercover agent, had moved to Colorado’s smallest county to get away from urban violence.

Those are tragic ironies. But the growth rate in Colorado’s rural areas pretty well guarantees that there will be more victims of brutal crimes who “moved here to get away from that.”

Behind that phrase is a supposition that we live in a Here which is much better than a There which is full of That.

If That is violent crime, then we look pretty good. According to the FBI’s standardized statistics, Central Colorado’s annual rate of “serious crime known to the police” (basically, reported felonies) in 1991 was 4,360 per 100,000 residents. That compares to 6,048 for the state, and 5,928 for the nation.

As for “violent crime” (murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault), we do even better. We had 229, less than half the state rate of 557, and well below the national rate of 729.

But to say our crime rate is lower is not to say that it’s non-existent. We have violent crime; the rate hereabouts is about the same is it was nationally in 1966.

(It is interesting to note that in every national election since then, candidates have stressed “law and order,” and the violent crime rate has risen by 230 percent. So much for politics as a solution. But getting tough on crime is good for the economy, at least in those counties that have prisons.)

Your chances, then, of being a crime victim appear to be lower Here than There. But those comparative odds also depend on what we call There.

If There is another area of similar population density — say, Montana or one of the Dakotas — then our rate of violent crime is pretty high; 20 percent above Montana, twice South Dakota’s, almost five times that of North Dakota.

WHAT ELSE COULD That be besides crime? You often hear that rural areas “are a good place to raise children,” with the implication that Here is a big improvement on There.

A study published several years ago in The Public Interest showed that the most dangerous place to raise young males is the rural West.

The murder rate isn’t all that high. The shortened

life expectancy results from factors like these:

— Alcohol on its own. The Interior West leads the nation in teen-aged alcohol consumption. The death of a high-school student after a drinking party in Buena Vista in December brings this home.

— Alcohol combined with driving; the rural West leads the observable universe in drunken driving.

— Firearms accidents. We tend to keep a lot of guns around the house, and the more guns, the more chance of fatal mishap.

— Work. Traditional rural occupations like agriculture, logging, and mining are among the most dangerous trades known to the Census Bureau.

Nor is this much of a paradise for adolescent women. One way a teen-aged girl can optimize her chance at a lifetime of poverty is to bear a child. Nationally in 1988, about 12.5 percent of all births were to teen-aged mothers. In Colorado, 10.7 percent. In Lake County, 19.5 percent, and Chaffee County, 14.9 percent.

Thus Here, as opposed to There, your sons are more likely to die early, and your daughters are more likely to get pregnant in their teens.

Children are more likely to be reared in poverty Here. Nationally, about 17.9 percent of all children live in households whose income is below poverty level. In Saguache County, it’s 42.4 percent. In Custer, 24.4 percent. Only in Gunnison County is the rate lower than the national average.

But don’t we enjoy some social stability Here that they don’t have There? Between 1985 and 1990, 46.7 percent of all American households moved (ours included, though it was but three blocks). In Gunnison County, it was 66.7 percent, and in Central Colorado, only Saguache County was below the national average.

Ah, but Here we don’t have that Rat Race that they endure There. But 43 percent of Lake County drives across the Continental Divide to work every day, and 65 percent of Park County commutes to work elsewhere, spending an average of an hour and 20 minutes in traffic every day.

If that’s not hectic enough, think of the people you know who work more than one job, just to get by. Central Colorado offers ample opportunity to run with the rodents.

All this is not to say that Here is a bad place. Here has its merits. The point is that Here is not the best place to get away from the That of There.

MOST OF That is very present here. Although our current rate of violent crime is fairly low, we have a violent history of stage robberies, train robberies, bank hold-ups, lynchings, labor wars, water wars, county-seat wars …

We celebrate and promote that bloody past. Check our propaganda. This is Where The Old West Still Lives — and of course the Old West included Colt revolvers, Winchester rifles, Bowie knives, dynamite bombs, and Gatling guns. See the gunfight, every hour on the hour, at our recreated Buckskin Joe ghost town, check out the staged lynching on the half hour, and then tour the old prison and stand on the gallows platform.

We haven’t got much right to complain about how television promotes and celebrates violence, all in the name of profit, when we mine our own history to find violence to celebrate and promote.

Paradoxically, we also promote the reverse image: rural tranquility. All manner of real-estate developers advertise that the loudest thing you’ll hear in Upscale Mountain Estates is the bugling of an elk or the babbling of the brook. With your satellite dish and your cellular fax machine, you can both have it all while being away from it all. In that idyllic world, you can get the benefits of both being Here while enjoying the advantages of There without putting up with all of That.

Unfortunately, however, when it comes to violent crime, our lower rates are undoubtedly more attributable to lower population density, less traffic, fewer easy targets (such as all-night gas stations and convenience stores), and even to poverty — than to cultural superiority.

Rural poverty has assuredly played a part in protecting America’s heartland from violent crime. Historically, the rural poor have fled to the cities when the hinterlands could no longer support them. Traditionally, sparsely populated agricultural areas have provided less to murder and maim over.

But we’re catching up. We’re getting satellite dishes, televisions, computers, trophy homes, Ford Explorers, Jeep Cherokees, and numerous other luxuries which tend to inspire more avarice than Grandpa’s ’41 Chevy two-ton stakebed.

To look on the bright side, however, if growth alleviates some of our rural poverty, it may also alleviate our problems with teen pregnancy and alcoholism, but that, of course, depends on whether our present growth will give economic relief to the rural poor. Growth may, on the other hand, merely saddle the poor with higher taxes and rents.

Still, I, too, moved Here to get way from the That of There.

In my case, the first There was the Front Range of Colorado in the early 1970s. It was growing like crazy, and everything I liked about the place was being paved, populated, or otherwise destroyed. So I fled to the mountains in 1974, and eventually landed in Salida in 1978.

But twenty-one years later, it looks pretty foolish to have moved Here to get away from growth and change. They’re all over the place.

At some point, if we want to live in a better place. we’re going to have to stand and fight, rather than run. At least, it seems a little silly to search for a better place, in the hope that someone has built one that we can just move into, only to fail to maintain and repair our new home until it too falls down around us.

Recently, people have been getting together often to talk about population growth and how to deal with it.

But I suspect the process of adjustment will not be that easy, because the major change that seems to be eroding our culture in the last few years, even out here in God’s Country, is the steady growth of fear, hostility, anxiety, discord, anger, depression, and suspicion.