Essay by Hal Walter
Mountain Life – June 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine
I knew I was on the edge when I actually sat down with paper and pen to diagram how I could spell out a certain two-word expletive using wrecked car bodies.
I calculated I would need 22 smashed autos, perhaps utilizing some shorter models — brightly colored Volkswagen Beetles or Ford Festivas — for branches on some letters. Older, longer American classics would form the letter stems. I wanted to haul them all in and assemble them on the hillside behind my house.
Why on Earth do I have this overwhelming desire to defend my First Amendment right to free speech from every right-wing fundamentalist Focus-on-the-Family fanatic in an airplane? To keep the fellow from Texas who bought the property behind me from building a honkey château on the neighboring rocky hilltop and raining on my seclusion from a considerable height.
I figure the price of wrecked cars to be a pittance compared to buying the adjacent property myself — especially since the Texan last year paid nearly twice as much for his land as I paid for mine four years ago. And I got a phone line, electricity and a county-improved road. He got a dirt track that runs like a desert wash every time it rains hard. That, and one hell of a view from the top of that rattlesnake den.
Supply and demand. It’s the reason I never made any money as a writer. In this society there’s little demand for essays that sell honest ideas rather than products. Supply and demand is also the reason that the only real money I ever made was from selling a house that I bought with no money down at the blind age of 24. Lucky roll. Supply and demand is the reason I’ve often considered selling the place I own now. Perhaps at a later date I could buy it back with the profit. Also, if I wait until someone builds on the hilltop, the demand for this property may decline.
Any unimproved granite farm in Central Colorado is fetching top dollar right now. I thought we paid a lot for this little ranch when we bought it, but now it’s worth half-again the price. It will probably be worth less after the crash.
Anything bad for the economy is good for the environment, and vice-versa. Our current cycle of development is a blight brought about partly by a teeming economy and four years of low interest rates. Also, the exodus from major metropolitan areas. But when will it end?
SOME SAY NOT IN THE NEAR FUTURE. It’s been pointed out that Los Angeles was essentially a century-long real-estate scam that is only now on the decline. Still, we’re not wise enough to require Environmental Impact Statements from land developers. Why not?
Anyone who knows anything at all about Colorado history knows the state’s economy has always been cyclical, even whimsical. But there’s no predictable time line. Remember those inexpensive little Victorian houses in Leadville ten years ago? They cost a lot more now because the serfs that serve the Kingdom of Vail need places to live. The feudal society is alive and well. That’s why I’ve always made it a point to live in places largely not valued by the masses. I never really thought land values in Central Colorado would rise appreciably. I was wrong.
When you look at Colorado’s past booms, those inspired by minerals stand out. Just look at all the tides of silver, gold, and molybdenum Leadville has ridden from riches to ruin to riches to ruin … to tourism. But even before that there was the beaver-trapping rush. There was the railroad boom. Recently there’s been the boom and-bust oil-shale scam of the late 70s that has developers in Battlement Mesa dealing properties to senior citizens. It went bust when somebody figured out that it took more energy to get the energy out of the rock than there was energy in the rock in the first place. Duh. There were the steel booms in Pueblo, the coal boom in Craig. A boom in downhill skiing gave us the “I-70 Ghetto.” There was the computer technology boom in Boulder, the military boom in Colorado Springs. There’s the prison boom in Frémont County.
All of these booms have found, or will someday find, their way into the cycles of Colorado history. They will be squelched by market conditions, by supply and demand. The prison phenomenon is oddly like the oil-shale boom in that it is an exercise in futility and inefficiency, based purely on ignorance and the fallacy that crime rates have risen in recent years.
How long until we figure out that if building more prisons actually stops crime, then we wouldn’t need to build more prisons? Duh again. Personally I’d rather see the release of all perpetrators of victimless crimes and the lockup of real criminals — those who destroy earth, water, and sky.
BUT WHAT ABOUT this alleged information boom? The so-called lone eagles are about to learn they are just another flock of turkeys. How do I know this? Just look at their tools. Past booms have been carried out by burly folks carrying black-powder weapons, repeating rifles, sledgehammers and steels, rock drills, and heavy explosives. The limp-wristed, pencil-necked, carpel-tunnel victims of the information boom are settling this land with little plastic boxes; telephones, fax machines, modems and computers. It’s these tools they say will allow them to make a living here — and they may be right.
But what kind of a living? I’ve actually been doing this information gig for seven years. Last year I grossed a whopping $15,000, and no small portion of that was excised from the payers’ bank accounts through great pains. I’m sure other information-based professions are similar.
Think about it from the corporate executive’s point of view: Why pay the guy when you can’t actually see him getting brain cancer from his VDT? The only publication that pays me in a timely manner is this one, the same publication that is interested in honest ideas rather than products.
So be honest. Can you really picture some computer jock fresh from the land of yogurt stands walking out and dispatching a cottontail for dinner the first time he’s told the check is in the mail. I don’t think so. Other settlers did, however, and as a freelance writer, I still do. The difference is that I made my stake here when making a stake here was a radical notion.
And there’s the long list of other mitigating factors, the kind that I laugh at. These are the qualities that really make Central Colorado what it is: The average mean daytime temperature between October and April on my back deck is 38° Fahrenheit. There are no real shopping malls inside of a two-hour drive.
Much of the produce in the local groceries looks as though it came from the DumpsterTM behind a Front Strange supermarket. The restaurants and taverns either serve up lousy food or are frequented by rogues just like me who tend toward drunkenness and talk with their mouths full.
Every garden that I have planted here has either been killed by early frost, flattened by a summer hail storm, nibbled to the ground by deer or buried by early snow. Per-capita rates of alcoholism and domestic violence are rather high. The natives are restless.
PACKS OF COYOTES will carry off your first-born. The wind tends to howl. The owls will eat your cat. A shotgun loaded with Number 8 lead shot should work fine for both the mosquitoes and the horseflies, no license required and you don’t even have to say “pull.” There is less crime here, but since we have far fewer residents it is more likely to happen to you. The bears raid your garbage cans whenever they feel like it.
The altitude can be tough on your health. Likewise the water — there are no fewer than three EPA welfare-for-lawyers programs on the banks of the upper Arkansas River. Judging from the number of monosyllabic conversations I’ve had with some area residents there is something dreadfully wrong with this agua fria — it makes some people mute.
Yeah, it’s scenic. But I wouldn’t exactly call it a resort. Unless, as in the Eagles’ song, it’s your last resort. In fact I’ve decided for now to place that idea about the wrecked cars into my folder on “strategic planning.” I’ll keep it on file just in case I see the Texan surveying a homesite on the hilltop. I may have to reconsider if the cost of junk cars rises but I seriously doubt I’ll ever need it. Sooner or later the realities of supply and demand, cyclical economies, natural-, weather- and geography-related inconveniences will save this region from the people who frankly just don’t belong here.
As for selling out, I’m obviously happy where I am — the appraised value notwithstanding.
Hal Walter, who raises donkeys near Westcliffe, is a free-lance writer not taken seriously by the mainstream media. In some dictionaries, his caricature appears next to the word that means “boorishly rude and bad-tempered.”