Welcome To Rural Colorado
Out here the sky is bluer than blue, the wind whispers through the gamma grass secret stories of shy wildlife, the earth smells deliciously of livestock both domesticated and wild that has roamed the prairies for centuries and centuries, and on most days you can see the continental shield wall of the Rockies marching across two-thirds of our state standing majestically off to the west like sentinels of geologic timelessness. It’s a truly beautiful place: serene and deceptive; most people call this “fly-over” country. Denver’s International Airport sits out here like some bizarre circus Big Top (it’s supposed to look like snow-topped mountains…the Rockies…but it actually looks like lopsided circus tents, which fits in with our Weird Colorado theme of installing strange art like Blucifer and the brand-new talking gargoyle Greg). Oh, and speaking of Weird Colorado, there is a whole book on that. I will get to that later.
Over the past couple of weeks, Colorado’s Attorney General, Paul Weiser, has shared a story from The New York Times about rural life in American small towns. Although an extremely poignant piece about the very valid relevance of living as an average midlife adult in rural America in today’s economy and social climate, that wonderful piece is written from the perspective of a woman from Minnesota. As I read that article, I felt moved to write my own piece specifically from the perspective of someone who has lived in rural Weld County Colorado for quite a while; someone who chose rural Colorado for very specific reasons and worked very hard to make it a home. In America we take fierce pride in our homes; in our land; in our roots. In my blog I talk a lot about my childhood and my upbringing. By now I hope it is apparent that I had absolutely no home, no land, and no roots. I was an Air Force kid. I moved around so much that the one “home” I had was really only for a smattering of years, and it was the farthest thing from happy or even comfortable or safe any human could ever possibly hope to have. I didn’t even really have neighbors. And when I did turn to those not-close neighbors for any sort of bonding or help, my parents were angry. Because they themselves had been uprooted from their own hometowns and felt lonely and out-of-place, they did not attempt to form bonds in their new locations very much. I was an incredibly lonely and isolated person my entire upbringing, and the attitude of my parents was both angry that I was not making friends and popular and that it was my fault it was that way. When I joined the Navy myself, I had decided very firmly that in my own life that would never be the case. So when I had my own family, I was extremely community-engaged wherever I went.
My husband and I met in Italy. We were transferred to New London, Connecticut in 1996 and for the three years we were stationed there we were extremely active in our community. During that time, since we knew we were leaving Navy life for civilian life, we spent a great deal of time preparing for the transition. The military does it’s very best to help servicemembers in this transition, and we took advantage of every class, program, and assistance they had available. We learned a lot, and I cannot stress enough to any outprocessing servicemember how important it is to prepare for your transition. Your last year of service is a whirlwind, and it behooves you to use every single resource the military and VA has for you, because those resources will be there for you for the rest of your life. I was a Navy wife when my husband outprocessed, but since I had gone through the outprocessing thing already I knew what to expect (in my case, I took advantage of a special exemption for pregnant women stationed onboard ships, so I had an accelerated outprocessing process, but since I paid attention when I did it, I was prepared). We chose Colorado as our new home state because my husband was going into the information technology field, and Colorado in the late 90s was bursting at the seams with IT jobs and companies. There were other reasons, too: we had a list several pages long why Colorado was perfect for us. Since I am originally from the west coast and my husband is originally from the east coast, it was also a weird sort of synchronicity for our parents: they would have to come to US in a mutual compromise, and no-one’s parents would feel they were being slighted. After over a decade of globe-trotting on my husband’s part, his parents were pressuring him mightily to come home to the south and settle down and take his business there. To this day, neither one of our parents are satisfied with our choice of home state, still insisting we should have chosen either California or South Carolina as optimal for our life choices, both economically and for child-rearing. We both maintain that Colorado has done the best for us, in spite of everything that has happened. Just look at that sky, those mountains. Those kids who are now amazing adults. One is working on his own small business while still maintaining his active status as an IBEW worker, and the other is pursuing a dentistry degree in order to open her own practice with a specialty in treating special needs people (focus on children). We may not be independently wealthy or anything even close to it. But we are sane most of the time, and functional, and happy, and thriving. And we work every day to do better. For ourselves, and for others who need it.
When we moved to Colorado, our son was not quite three, and we didn’t even have a daughter. We were working on kid #2, but only sort of. We had decided to start trying over a Fourth of July weekend while we were having a camping vacation along the White River in Vermont. It just took her a while to get here, I guess because she wanted to be a Colorado native. I got pregnant the month after we got here. We bought our house in Fort Lupton when she was two, a few months before she turned three, kind of along the same timeline as when her brother became a Colorado resident. I had become weary of living in apartments; when we lived in Connecticut we rented an “apartment” from a former sailor (a grizzled old salt who had been either a rigger or some other form of haul-away hard labour sailor, living with another old salt former sailor who had been a boiler tech) who had turned his historic old whaler’s captain house into apartments he rented to…you guessed it, sailors. He lived in the basement apartment and we had the ground floor. Mr. Palmer had been an amazing landlord who did things like agreed to let us refinish the beautiful old floors in that apartment and gave us the equipment and materials to do so, and let us put in a raised veggie and flower garden in his yard. He also kept his rent at manageable rates for the pay the sailors received (the sailor who lived above us was single and got different pay than us, so his rent was lower than ours). In Westminster, where we had our last apartment, we were at the mercy of our corporate landlords.
My husband and I had a friend when we were in the Navy, by the name of Mik. Mik served during Gulf Storm and everything later, and had Gulf War Syndrome; it took him a very, very long time to get a diagnosis for this and adequate treatment, and during the bureaucratic hoopla over this, he often went through extremely painful and physically debilitating symptoms. Mik also had Huntington’s Disease and because Gulf War Syndrome and Huntington’s attack the same area of the brain and sometimes the same proteins, his Huntington’s presented a lot earlier than most people with the disease. If you don’t know anything about Huntington’s, I will simply say that it is fatal, untreatable except for some palliative care, and there is no cure. At the time of his diagnosis, the only research available was cut off due to Bush’s federal mandate of denial of stem cell research. While we were living in Westminster Mik came to live with us because his illnesses became unmanageable and he became a danger to himself; he was not receiving any assistance through social security or the VA, and he had just been fired from the job he had gotten after outprocessing from the Navy. But our corporate landlords argued with us over adding an unrelated adult to our household, and would not even listen to our story. It was a black and white issue to them, and there was absolutely no wiggle room permitted for any human empathy. No room for a family of veterans to give assistance to a fellow veteran they had served with and formed bonds with half a world away over years. We still kept Mik with us in defiance of our lease. And when he accidentally overflowed the toilet because he flushed his underwear (because he soiled them), and I called maintenance to fix it, we were penalised. This apartment complex was also where my husband and I witnessed our first act of racism and xenophobia post-9/11 when some white men and women were harassing some Middle Eastern people sitting outside their apartment right after the towers fell. They were shouting racial and religious epithets at this peacefully sitting group of men and women, who were not wearing anything other than perhaps some vaguely ethnic clothing and looking olive-skinned and dark-haired. Maybe a couple of them had beautiful aquiline noses. And these bigots were laughing at their own obscenities. My husband and I were coming home from an outing with our children, and saw this, and we both immediately told those bigots to stow it and get out and never come back. And if they did, we would call the authorities because what they were doing was illegal and absolutely uncalled for, and as veterans we did not offer to put our lives on the line to defend the constitution only to come back and see American citizens acting like Nazis, which our grandparents had actually DIED fighting against. Those people slunk off like mangy dogs and we did not ever see them again. Those Middle Eastern people were the neighbors directly across from us, and they thanked us quietly and went back inside their apartments. That was good enough for us, and we went about our business. But we were ashamed, and shocked. It is a measure of how few people seem to have been actively doing that sort of thing, when today the number of people who feel entitled to act like those bigots who bullied our neighbors so many years ago fill our neighborhoods and city streets but go unchallenged and are even supported by so many others. That is not my America, and that is not the Colorado I chose to make my home and the home of my children. And I sit outside on my front stoop every day, and watch to make sure it doesn’t happen here, in my neighborhood, because while I may not be a sailor anymore, I am still on duty. Every citizen is on duty. It is our duty to protect those who cannot or will not, for whatever reason, stand up for themselves. Whether those who are doing wrong are stealing trinkets and handicapped placards from cars on my streets or mysterious camera equipment dropped at police stations in the middle of the day.
Rural Colorado has gone through some really hard times over the decades. The photo that opens this piece is one I took a couple of springs ago of an old farm homestead shack off Highway 52 on a farm across from one of our ubiquitous house farms. An expensive McMansion house farm. The farmer who owns that farm was pretty pleased to see me tromping around this shack taking pictures that beautiful spring day, and he took a few minutes to tell me about it and how long it has stood there, weathering the vagaries of our Colorado plains atmospheric snits and bipolar moods…and shifting winds of time. He and his crew came out to do the initial work on the field the shack is on the edge of while I was out there, and because I am a polite photographer I introduced myself and told him I sure hoped it was ok I was on his property as I had not noticed any “no trespassing” signs. He was a swell guy, and told me it was no problem at all and he was glad to see someone enjoying that shack. I finished up my shots and got out of his way. Rural Colorado is absolutely FULL of gems like this shack, and I have files and files of pictures of them. I have sheafs of notes on even more that I find while I’m driving (or being driven, since these days my health makes me an unsafe driver so I’ve voluntarily given up my privileges until I get healthier) to go back to at appropriate times to shoot. Rural Colorado gets the short end of the stick when it comes to Americana Beauty. We are considered flyover country or That Place Where The Farmers And Ranchers Live. The Big Empty. The piece in the New York Times puts a whole new light on rural America, but rural Colorado is special in an indelible way. Most people see it as a bastion of the conservative right, but it’s actually this amazing place where all sorts of people live and work side-by-side in an amazing synergy where the food and fuel of our nation are born. Most people who live and work here want exactly the same thing for our nation and our people, we are just oh so confused about how to make it happen. I have been a political and human rights activist since I realised what those things were, as a baby teenager. I started out acting globally, but when I came home from living overseas and settled down, I realised that I had to act locally if I wanted to really effect change. After all, when I came home from overseas, I was gestating a baby my husband and I desperately wanted. Our family was planned. Planned at lightning speed, but still planned. We were a FAMILY, and we were determined to make a good family. Both of us came from really messed-up family dynamics. Both of us came from military families, and neither one of us wanted that anymore. We wanted roots. We wanted home. We wanted local culture, local history, local people and local friends and local connections. We didn’t want to move anymore. Moving sucks. Moving with your kids sucks even more. And when our friend got so sick he needed help (and we were the only help he had; his family was so terrible his own father stole his identity to get money, so he drew up legal documents saying my husband was the only person who was allowed to legally speak for him, and was his legal beneficiary; he also gave me legal power of attorney), we did everything in our power to keep him from having to be uprooted as well. When we found the Old Rice House in Fort Lupton, we were honestly shocked we could buy it. It was the third house our real estate agent showed us, and we could not believe it was all one house and that we could buy it. But buy it we did, with a special veteran’s loan through the credit union we had been banking with since we had both joined the Navy.
The history of Fort Lupton is not so different from dozens of small towns scattered across the plains of Colorado. You can read a pretty thorough and well-done one by Adam Thomas for the state Historical Preservation Board here called Crossroads In Eden. You have to get to the very last section to read anything about my house, though, and although this wonderful nonfiction novella (I’m sure there is a scholarly word for it) is scattered with photographs, there is not a single one of my house even though it is specifically mentioned, and so is Jennings Lee Rice, the superintendent of the Labour Camp Fort Lupton is (in)famous for. His widow, Ruth (now deceased), was interviewed and cited for Mr. Thomas’ piece. She sold the house to the man we bought it from, and I mourned her when she died. Several of the oral historians cited for Mr. Thomas’ work are people I have talked to many times in my years, that have a great wealth of knowledge of my house and it’s surrounding property (the Lancaster subdivision); one of them has been the curator of the Fort Lupton museum for a long time and showed me many pictures of the city and a couple of my house in it’s heyday. In all the years I lived there, almost a dozen, random people drove by all the time to take pictures of it. One time I even had a person from the Peace Corps come up to me while I was gardening to tell me about the training camp the Peace Corps had operated at the Labour Camp for their volunteers going over to places like Afghanistan. She brought with her two elderly people who had met at the Labour Camp and married. They were still married, and had decided on a whim while visiting Colorado to see if the camp still existed and visit where they met for nostalgia’s sake. That year my kitchen garden flowerbed was amazing; we had had a terrible hailstorm that spring and my baby flowers had been reduced to green stalks, so in woe and desperation I doused my beds in Miracle-Gro. I ended up with wildflowers so huge and prolific some people were afraid to come to my door because the bees were a non-stop happy hoard of pollinators. This elderly couple and their guide and I spent maybe an hour or so that afternoon chatting happily, and they ended up touring my garden in delight and getting some beautiful vacation photos in wildflower paradise to remember their nostalgia side jaunt out to rural Colorado one fine summer day. I live for that. My kids were enchanted, and thought it was the neatest thing. They learned about the Peace Corps that day, and to this day both of them think the Peace Corps is a worthy endeavour they would both find rewarding. I don’t have many photos of my house, because most of them were lost when it burned down a little over six years ago, but I selected a couple to share while writing this (which was like a fun scavenger hunt, because I found some hilarious and sentimental snaps of the past many years along the way).
Along came a blizzard, I think this is 2009
This lilac hedge has been growing and renewing itself since the house was built; the deed says 1918 but I honestly think it was started a lot earlier. City Code Enforcement came by about every two weeks to make sure I kept the thirty feet from the corner cut down to three feet; they allowed us to make it three feet from the ground they grew on instead of three feet from street level because our house was “historic”, otherwise we would not have been permitted to have those lilacs there at all. We had so many issues with Code Enforcement in the City of Fort Lupton that Judge Sacco knew me by sight, disliked me for “defying the spirit of the law”, and it was not uncommon to see me doing community service at our local Weld County Food Bank, local food banks, library, police station, or elsewhere, to pay my debt to society for having an “unsightly” yard. Although Judge Sacco himself has suffered terrible tragedy in his life, and my heart has always gone out to him, he never sought to find compromising ways to help the people in his community who tried to work with his community. Today, he runs a debt collection agency law firm. You can see the Shaker porch that my husband and son escaped from during our fire. That porch provided the best birdwatching vantage. But below, you can really see that porch, which I always hung a flag from. And on Memorial Day, I always put up something special for Remembrance. The first time, someone noticed and called the paper.
When snow happened, this alley created between the house and the garage the former owners added made a really sweet wind tunnel, and the snow would create the most fascinating sculptures and icicles. During big blizzards, the drift overhangs would almost reach all the way across from the house roof to the garage roof. This was the original front of the house and visitors would walk up Harrison Avenue across the property toward the front door, a nice big one.
This is a catalpa tree in full bloom; hummingbirds love these trees. They are also excellent climbing trees as their limbs grow perfectly for monkeys (otherwise known as children) to grasp and swing up upon. Adults as well; I spent many a pleasant time up in our catalpa trees (we had three) both alone and with my kids. After the fire the biggest of the three had to be cut down due to excessive damage, and my son and I took one of the sections for remembrance. We use it for a variety of things, from seat to armouring. Look at that amazing blue sky.
The story of Fort Lupton is the story of Everytown, America, and I am honoured and privileged to tell my little tale of trying to put down roots there, even though it ended in so much sadness. When we moved there, I instantly fell in love with it. The place only had a tiny mom and pop grocery store when we moved into our home, and the side of the building has a beautiful mural painted on it. That store closed a few years after we moved to town, pretty much right after the Safeway opened up. Thankfully, when a dollar store bought the building they agreed to keep the mural as long as they owned the building, and then the city went and declared it a historical landmark so it can’t ever be painted over and has to be kept up. The artist that painted it has a beautiful painting hanging in the library also. But if you read Mr. Thomas’ work, you will see that is just one more step in the progression of how America has gone from a land of individual freedom and camaraderie and neighborhoods (yet connected) to one of corporate autocracy with little individual freedom or expression in pursuit of oligarchic ideals instead of familial ones, with neighborhoods full yet empty because they are not connected to anything. The internet has us wired up to information, but has not actually connected us because real people are not actually motivated to emotionally connect with each other in their physical environments. I loved going into our mom and pop store; I hated having to shop at that sterile, ugly Safeway even though the selection of items was larger. If I ever wanted a specialty item I could hop into my truck and go on an adventure to a specialty store (or hit up a King Soopers or Vitamin Cottage when we went on a homeschool outing or other Trip To Town). Rural people fall into the habit of Stocking Up. And when you have kids, Stocking Up becomes second nature anyway. Especially when one of those kids is a very mobile tank whose mobility is vertical, horizontal, underground, on roofs, tree-to-tree, and occasionally necessitates a visit to the emergency room (he currently holds the family record in stitches, in case you want to know, and before he came along his dad was well-known among the hospital corpsmen); my son still eats anything that is not nailed down and is not avocados or raw spinach. I never got many Mommy Naps. The “drawbacks” of rural life never bothered me at all. I chose to stay home with my kids; I chose to homeschool them; we chose to buy that amazing house on a quarter acre corner lot for a hell of a good price at a great interest rate. I turned everything into a life lesson, and my kids were sponges, and today they know how to do an amazing variety of things. And they don’t argue very much, or complain very much.
And they learned, living in rural Colorado, to help everyone cross the street and look out for livestock trucks and hay trucks. They learned that the people who ran our corner gas station were really awesome people and their whole family worked there; when my daughter ran smack into the doorframe and hurt herself, they gave her an ice cream to calm her down while my husband and son got their treats and chilled the dog out. We were regulars of theirs until we left, and we didn’t care if they had different political beliefs or religious beliefs or whatever. They were our neighbors and our friends. My kids grew up knowing their librarians because we were there almost every week, and we knew them all by name, and we did the summer reading program every year. They volunteered for the summer reading program sometimes, just because they were there anyway, and because I volunteered for just about everything so they saw volunteering was cool and fun. The librarians took some of their ideas and put them into action, and some of them are still used today. Kids have a voice in their communities, make no mistake. Whether they are students in elementary school or customers at their local 7-11, what they say matters. As responsible adults, we can never dismiss what they have to say, because kids don’t mysteriously turn into functioning adults at age 18. It is functioning and rational and attentive adults who turn them into such. My kids also spent time talking to the local police from time to time; both casually and as victims. It was me that victimised them the most. Crazed, unbalanced, alcoholic me. Being an undiagnosed, untreated person with bipolar and PTSD came to a head in 2006 when I attempted suicide and my husband had to call the Fort Lupton Police on me. I only remember this in pieces, because that is the truth of mental illness. But I distinctly remember the female police officer who came to me; she is no longer with FLPD but I will always remember her. She told her successor about me, and her successor is no longer with FLPD either, but she is the one who caught my daughter when she had to jump off the roof in our fire. (The media reports of our fire don’t ever mention she had to jump, only that I did. My baby girl had to jump, and I will never forgive myself for not installing the fire ladders I always wanted to; those media reports also give you an idea of what sort of conditions first responders have to deal with, and why I love and respect them so much, and why I say “thank you” to every single firefighter I see.) There is a reason I have respect and honour for the badge. Law enforcement and our first responders do jobs the average person has no inkling of. I say it often, and I say it to a lot of people, and I say it in a lot of places: our badges get a lot of bad press, and sometimes for good reason, but we need to find out why our first responders are not getting enough support in the right ways, and fix it. Because it makes a big difference on stress and performance levels. Those guys and gals do one hell of a tough job. When I attempted suicide in 2006 I was pointing a shotgun at myself, and my kids were there. My husband had me committed, and I am so damn glad he did. I spent our wedding anniversary in the looney bin. I hated every second of it just as I knew I needed to be there and fix what was wrong; when the doctor told me I had PTSD I laughed at him because I thought he was joking. As he explained, I realised what was wrong. I had always thought PTSD was for people who had been to wars and through terrorist attacks, but living in an abusive household and surviving things like gang shootouts counts too. Thank goodness for that officer who knew how to handle someone who was experiencing a mental breakdown and had a weapon.
When our house caught fire six years after my first sad and terrible encounter with the city police, I had already had more than any citizen’s fair share of experience with them. By that time our dear friend and shipmate Mik had come to live with us for good after being forced out by those corporate landlords; he lived in an ADA-compliant apartment repurposed from the two-car garage…at least for several years until he went to hospice to die forgotten by the VA and abused by his feduciary, and die he did (but building his apartment was done with a ton of help from the community and not a little confusion from city officials because our house was so special) for years until he had to go to hospice to die and die he did. His apartment is all that stands. I am pretty much a walking morality tale, and I often use myself as such to educate people on a wide variety of subjects, from sobriety to how to dress and act for court, to how to treat your local police (and all police, actually), to basic civics. Most people look at me and see a freak: fire engine red hair and face full of metal; stereotypes get me dismissed nine times out of ten. When I interviewed for the position of City Councilmember for my ward in Fort Lupton, I didn’t have the dyed hair or the facial piercings, but I was still the same freaky “broken” person, and that is probably why my application was denied. Mental illness and alcoholism is nothing to dismiss lightly, and the recent investigations into mental health care facilities show how lacking available care is in rural Colorado. The stark difference in care between Weld County and Boulder County is shameful. As I peruse the history of Weld County, and specifically the portions of it I inhabit, I am continually at a loss as to why the people who live here (and especially the people who keep moving here) aren’t paying attention to the story of what this place is telling us. I have been sitting in the AA rooms around this area for years now, and everyone’s story is basically the same: everything is changing pretty much for the better, but too slowly because the old dinosaurs are not listening to the regular folks. And it causes so much pain, people are doing some really dire things to themselves. And making some really bad decisions. Some of them have turned things around, but a lot of them haven’t. Or else things are changing too quickly, usually the wrong sorts of things or the right things done the wrong way or in the wrong order, so change is implemented inefficiently or in an illogical way so instead of making things work better for the regular folks, it just ends up making it turn out like that chocolate bon-bon assembly line malfunction on that “I Love Lucy” episode.
When I went through my court-ordered alcohol education program, everyone in there except for me and one other person was a repeat offender. And every single one of those people blamed “the system” for them being caught and put in that class and having to go through the ridiculous motions of paying their hard-earned cash for a stupid class that will teach them things they already knew and wasted their precious time that they could presumably be spending doing other things like watching television or cruising around town, since they could not drink (mandatory sobriety screening, the intensity of which depended on your number of offenses and blood alcohol level, I think). It was farcical. The people running those classes are often recovering addicts and alcoholics themselves, drawn to that profession out of a deep empathetic calling to help others recover. I know something of that feeling; you don’t ever put your hand up volunteering to be someone’s sponsor if you don’t. But to actually make a career out of it takes something special. The burnout rate is high. And there I was being taught these incredibly valuable classes by two people who had that gift, and 90% of the people in those classes…people who desperately needed them…were trashing them up one side and down the other. It disgusted me. The officer who arrested me said I was the most polite drunk he had ever arrested, and said I had told him I was doing historical research. I still laugh at that, eight years later, because it was a very typically me thing to say, but I also want to cry because I will never remember any of it. It is physically impossible for me to do so, because of what I chemically did to myself that night. Recovery is hard, but although I am sometimes afraid of the truth, I will not let my fear master me and so I will face that truth even though it is frightening. That leads back into the addiction. The people in that class who spent their money on actively refusing to learn because they were afraid of their actions, and their addictions, were the ones who continued to drive under the influence. I consistently discuss DUI offenses with other citizens, and the general consensus is that harsher punishment is necessary. I have mixed feelings on this. The purpose of the judicial branch is rehabilitation; if an offender goes through their classes and never offends again, they have been rehabilitated (if I ever drink again, I am doomed, and I deserve what I get). If an offender goes through their classes and treats them with disrespect and disdain, it’s akin to treating the court with disrespect and allowances should be made to kick the person out and have them reappear before the judge. Just recently a judge in Ohio increased a man’s sentence after a shocking display of disrespect and disdain before his sentence was completely handed down, so outright derision for active treatment/rehabilitation during the course isn’t unprecedented; prisoners have increased sentences and are sent to prison boards and courts for crimes and offenses committed while incarcerated. Or, alternatively, they should then be free to offend again and then be sent straight to a not-so-cozy jail cell. Considering I remember quite well what spending three months in jail is like and am not anxious at all to repeat it even twentysomething years later, this might encourage some few people to try a twelve step program or two. I have talked to a few law enforcement folks who think that sounds like a pretty decent idea. And a few neighbors all over Weld County in general. Weld County has an awful lot of DUIs. And not a few alcoholics and addicts in recovery. On the other hand, there have been quite a few reports lately about how woefully un-humane and quite un-Geneva Convention inspired our jails and prisons are…far too many for one hyperlink. Lately the opiod addicts outnumber the meth addicts, but since I am also a meth addict with a couple decades of recovery under my belt, I have seen the meth flow in and out of my county too. As a matter of fact, my daughter and I just went on a little ride-along with the Frederick Police about a month or so ago because some meth junkies decided to get into our truck at night (right in front of me) and steal my handicapped placard and some other basically worthless stuff and we had to go identify them a few blocks over. Once you’ve been a meth junkie, you know one jonesing for the stuff when you see one. It made me sad. I hocked my own stuff when I needed a fix, but I never stole anyone else’s, much less rifled strangers’ cars. And that was in California, the toxic center of the West. I have watched a lot of these people growing up here, and most of them are using for the same reasons I did: they are in a lot of emotional pain, and they want to numb it. In any group of alcoholics and addicts in recovery rooms, a huge percentage of them are going to be suffering from some form of mental illness, trauma, or PTSD. All of those overlap and blend into each other, and both men and women suffer pretty much equally, although in slightly different ways and they express them in different ways. Our youth, especially our rural Colorado youth, feel a great deal of pressure from their grandparents and parents to be certain ways they do not want to be. The age-old shadow play of the young wolf versus the old wolf and the generation gap is explosive in today’s culture like it rarely has been in human history, if ever. And our society is really feeling that pressure; the high school right down the street from me has consistently had the highest suicide rate in the district for many years now, and is a failure at inclusion and diversity mainly because of familial pressures. The cultural divide in our county is extremely stark, and the class divides are even starker. Those things always make a fertile breeding ground for substance abuse, and it is almost always an outside force that is the supplier.
Our county out here may look dry and dusty and boring, but it is not. It may seem like it is blowing away like all those tumbleweeds, but those are just the non-stop winds of the prairie. The persistent prairie that has laid open to the big blue sky for so many thousands and thousands of years. Before there was an America this prairie was here, inhabited by a people who were thrifty and wise and fierce and beautiful in their ingenuity. Our children in our schools out here are not taught about our local native tribes. There used to be a Native American Museum in Fort Lupton, but it burned in a fire before we even moved there. I was always intrigued by the pink cinderblock building with the Thunderbird Totem painted on it. But I never took a picture of it because the soot stains marring the mural made me sad and scared and pained. The tribes of the prairies are not recognised nearly enough in Weld County despite what has been done to them; their treatment at the Labour Camp my house was the center of is erased from history. But the prairie is still there, available for so much if we could be inspired by their ingenuity and heed their wisdom. The farmers in Weld County have, over the years, had a hard time of it. Round about the middle of the county is one of my favourite Colorado ghost towns. If you have lived in Colorado for any length of time you know ghost towns are a Colorado item. Most of them are in the mountains, scattered along the Continental Divide like tiny forgotten loot dumps in a video game, and almost as hard to find. There are several websites out there devoted just to ghost towns, and Colorado has pages and pages of information on them. Avid ghost town hunters should pay attention to these sites, because not only do they give pretty good directions, but they tell you which ones are on private property (and thus who to contact if you wish to go, which is VERY IMPORTANT: DO NOT TRESPASS! COLORADO PEOPLE CAN LEGALLY SHOOT YOU IF YOU SEEM THREATENING AND YOU ARE ON THEIR PROPERTY!), which ones are accessible in what sorts of weather, what sort of vehicle you may need, and most importantly: DO NOT REMOVE ANYTHING FROM ANY SITE, EVER. Always practice Leave No Trace guidelines, because these sites are precious history of our state, and time and weather take enough from them (and sometimes animals, like when the deer and elk shed their antler velvet). Take your cameras and as many photos as you want, but always tread with care. Once in a very great while I will take a small stone or twig from nearby, but only once in a while. And never from near the structures. But our mountains are not the only places that have ghost towns, and one of my favourites is Dearfield. Dearfield pretty much represents to me, right now today, what is happening to our county. It’s story is so woeful. There is a museum in Five Points in Denver called The Black American West Museum that tried so very hard to preserve this town, but due to lack of funds they were only able to put up a chain link fence around the most vulnerable building. If I won the lottery (and I only buy maybe one ticket a year), I would give them enough money to preserve Dearfield. The buildings they were not able to preserve have been turned into occasional squats for the type of people I hung out with in my more desperate and unsavory days.
August 2018 in Dearfield: the remains of the service station and the apartment behind it (lower right), looking into the general store and graffito on the back wall (upper middle), and the collapsing structure of what I believe was a combination stagehouse/blacksmithy for draft animals working the fields. The disarray and loneliness is haunting; the town is surrounded by shrinking farms and ranches and expanding fracking sites.
Dearfield seems to represent rural Colorado because the founder came there with a burgeoning, promising dream and it almost worked. It would have worked if his timing had been just a little better…or rather, if the timing of society had been better. The farming communities and ranching communities of the eastern plains faced a sharp decline after the second world war when our national economy veered suddenly away from a generally self-sufficient household toward one that depended more on food made in factories and imported from all over the place, wrapped up in metals and other materials we formerly used to make weapons and other wartime goods. In order to keep our economy flourishing, we had to keep all of our productivity going somehow, and we ended up creating a very strange, very slow-growing, yet impossible-to-sustain economic bubble. The only thing that prevented multiple collapses was the introduction of either new goods from outside our borders or new technology. Out here on the eastern plains, our small towns slowly withered away while all that stuff was happening in the big wide world. Your average farmer, field hand, ranch hand, small town business owner (like those people who owned the auto dealerships and the motel and cafes along the main drag in Fort Lupton) and their families didn’t pay much attention to the big picture. They just wondered why the sugar beet factory kept laying people off. When the oil and gas companies moved in from the 60s through the 80s, it was a godsend. And the farmers wiped the anxiety sweat off their brows, because they got a little extra money to help keep their farms going when wellheads were drilled on the back forty and land they really couldn’t afford to put in seed got paid to just sit there with a derrick on it. And the ranchers got to breathe a little easier too, because the health craze fads that took over out of the belt-tightening (not to mention all the people deciding Twiggy was the New Desirable) got to balance their budgets as well.
I grew up in the desert of California, where a lot of Colorado’s water ends up. And there are an awful lot of farmers and ranchers out there, too. Dry farming is practiced a lot out in California deserts just like it is practiced out here on the eastern plains, a nifty practice we learned from the native tribes. The farmers and ranchers and their neverending plight and battle against the red ink, the bankers they usually owe most of their assets to, and the unknowable Mysteries of Weather, is not a new concept to me. It is terribly frustrating to hear the incessant battle between old technology and new. But when you sit out on your porch, or in your hammock, or putz in your garden, for over a decade in the same place, you start to get a pretty good perspective that it isn’t so much that no-one wants to change, they just cannot reach an equitable compromise on how to change. And it’s mostly because a bunch of slick smooth talkers are filling the regular people out here with some stuff and nonsense. People are terribly confused. They simply want to work their land and feed their families and have a pleasant day. They want to get along with their neighbors and not have a bunch of economic and social externalities bogging them down so much that they cannot think straight enough to make a fried egg sandwich out of that delicious egg their hen Mable laid this morning.
Several years ago my son had this crazy idea about vertical farming, and he started coming up with all these ways he could buy some land out in the boonies of Weld County and start a vertical farming enterprise. He has some seed capital he has been holding onto for his own small business, and all through his life he has always come up with these amazing ingenious ideas. When he was maybe ten it was this intense injection molding idea that was way ahead of his time, and I tried so hard to get him to go down to the Young Americans Bank with a business plan and request a loan, but he wasn’t having any of it. Since this was shortly after our homeschool group had gone through the Young Ameritowne/Internationaltowne program that bank has available for elementary school kids for the second time, I figured he would be all over the possibility that he could get a loan from an actual bank for his idea instead of trying to wheedle the money out of his mom and dad, but he decided it sounded too much like a school project and went back to turning his idea into a comic book instead. I guess I can’t be too upset, because now his seed money is an even larger figure, and his current buisness idea is something he really believes in and is committed to, not the half-baked idea of a ten-year-old. He also was not quite ready to follow through on his vertical farming idea, although he really had the whole thing fleshed out. But that’s ok; there are a couple vertical farmers in Colorado now, and one of them is Altius Farms, who launched in October of last year and is already so wildly popular she can’t keep up with demand.
A lot of the farmers and ranchers out here in Weld County got terrifically spooked last year when the voters of Colorado put a measure on our statewide ballot to require the various oil and gas companies who operate in our state to restrict drilling operations to outside of 2500 feet of buildings, especially buildings where people live, go to school, and work. This was a direct result of something truly horrible that happened to an almost-neighbor of mine last spring. I was out in the backyard of the house my family and I rent right now in Frederick, the next town west of Fort Lupton, when I heard a big boom. I grew up on and right outside an Air Force base, and when I was a kid the Air Force at George Air Force Base in the High Desert of California flew jets above Mach 1 all the time. Sonic booms are a part of my subconscious repertoire; I heard that boom and a part of my brain said someone was flying jets, and then I thought that wasn’t right because I was not on an Air Force Base, and in fact I lived along flight lines for a very busy airport, and something was up. I went out front to make sure everything was ok in my immediate area, and a few minutes later the trucks from the fire station up the street went screaming by. All of them. All the first responders in town went whipping by my house, because I live on the main drag and the designated emergency response route. My dogs were going nuts, because one of them is plentiful in the hound dog DNA department and his ears don’t like the higher-pitched sirens very much so he is a howler. My other dog seemed to think this was an invitation for a duet when our pup started this behaviour, so he chimes in from time to time. I think of it as Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing to me for a few seconds, because there isn’t anything I can do about it (and since I like Dolly and Kenny sometimes I sing along); on this particular day they got through about half of “Islands In the Stream”. Our tri-town area will never, ever forget the day Erin Martinez almost died when her house exploded. She lived, but her husband and brother-in-law did not. Her son had to perform an incredibly traumatic escape with the help of regular people doing heroic actions. As a survivor of a house fire, only alive because her son woke up through some miraculous act because the lifesaving devices did not work, I know a little how this woman feels. I already had PTSD when the biggest fear of my childhood came to haunt me one night right after Christmas, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Ms. Martinez came out of her own nightmare with a tinge of PTSD herself. That she had the strength and fortitude and courage to stand up in our state legislature for our new proposed legislation that would rewrite our current, standing regulatory agency’s priorities is just short of miraculous itself. I am not sure many people have taken the time to adequately put rural Colorado (and Ms. Martinez’ experiences) into adequate perspective.
The reason Colorado is so adamant about changing our state regulatory agency’s priorities is complicated, and has far-reaching potential impacts. Impacts that will go well beyond our rather central and square borders. Last presidential election, Colorado was a swing state, and since then we have been a very visible presence on the national stage. It is rather surreal to sit here in my little cottage in sleepy little Frederick and think that wide open Weld County is sitting as a fulcrum for a national hot-button issue, but we are. This Little House On the Prairie piece of Americana is going to be a pretty amazing place to be over the next few decades if all of us hokey folk out here can just sit down around a table and listen to each other and take turns talking like the old native talking stick parable. Tolkien wrote these funny creatures called Ents into his Middle Earth fantasy that endeared us to not “be hasty”, lest we wound the forests and living creatures dependent on them. Oh, and please do not forget The Lorax. I’m a child of the 70s, remember. I speak for the trees. Smokey the Bear is also among my pantheon, and even though trees are few and usually serve a stark purpose out on the plains, fire is still a menace when it is not a tool and any form of destruction for chaos’ sake is just distasteful. It’s rather unAmerican as well, isn’t it? Currently, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (our state oil and gas regulatory agency) does not have to take into account the public’s health and safety ABOVE the development of the fossil fuel industry. That’s some Erin Brockovich shit right there. (Remember her? In case you forgot, she lived in Hinkley, California, which is basically Barstow. I lived part-time in Barstow, California, and I lived there at the same time she did, and maybe that poison water is part of the reason I am sick today.) And This is a very recent ruling. It needs to be pointed out that this ruling was against teenagers, minority teenagers. The case was in court for over three years. The article I link to is from a national service and mentions the truly heinous actions of one of the judges, whom has since resigned and had a formal commission recommend her removal from office. Why our state’s highest court has allowed this ruling to stand in light of this discovery and the commission’s recommendation is both baffling and insulting to the citizenry of Colorado. At the very least every single ruling this woman passed down should be investigated for signs of bias. A judge’s very status is dependent on their ability to hand down judgements with clear objectivity. It is the basis for law in our nation. However, in the interim, our state legistators, such as that smart and effective Mr. Weiser and his staff and a whole host of other people in our state government, have crafted a piece of legislation that will change our regulatory agency’s priorities so they must take the health and safety of our citizens as their top priority, and not the development and profits of the fossil fuel industry they are there to regulate and oversee. Heading this whole powerhouse is our brand new Governor, Jared Polis. It is a simple thing; with the founding of the EPA and other federal legislation that has been put in place over the decades since science has evolved to show humanity both how our Earth functions over time and how we humans and our technology affects our planet, a balance has been sought between industries of every sort and how to protect ourselves from their by-products.
Human beings are very intelligent animals, and very adaptable ones. We are also very stubborn. And very impatient. Most of us need to be faced with some sort of painful lesson one or two times before we learn that something is bad for us. But overall, we as a whole tend to see the error of our ways once they are pointed out to us. It just takes most of us some time to get over our initial shock and dismay reaction and get down to the meat of things. Unfortunately, we as a whole are also very easily distracted, and there are an awful lot of people out there trying very hard to distract people these days. In rural Colorado, I have seen a lot of people move here over the past several years because they are choosing to not be so distracted. They are enchanted by the wide open spaces and the amazing views of the Rockies. But then they start to drag with them all those things they wanted to stop being distracted by. It doesn’t help that in Colorado our innovative industries are exploding so rapidly that people are moving here from out of state, so there aren’t enough houses for them, so housing developers have to build them too quickly. And since there aren’t enough inspectors to inspect the insane number of oil and gas wells, wellheads, holding tanks, lines, etc. everywhere because of EPA funding cuts and reduced contributions from oil and gas companies (they don’t pay taxes anymore), there are mistakes made. Mistakes that cause houses to blow up or things to go wrong while employees are working in the oilfields…wrong with fire, lots of fire. Most oilfield fires are due to faulty equipment. Which would not happen with better regulation. Which would happen if health and safety were the TOP priority.
The lawsuit the Colorado Supreme Court won over the group of teens early this year is not the only one young Mr. Martinez, the lead plaintiff, is involved in. He is also one of 21 young plaintiffs suing our government in Juliana v. United States, a landmark, cutting-edge lawsuit in environmental law. I encourage everyone to read about this case, as it bears on each person’s fundamental liberties. Not only those of each citizen in each state and territory of these United States, but each future citizen. And each person on this beautiful glowing blue orb hanging in space. I often find myself in a conundrum when I think about the environment and my status as a consumer, because I am and always have been a consumer of the very things I dislike. I must always seek a balance. I have been trained since I was a child to always conserve as I use, because I remember very distinctly the energy crisis of the 1970s and sitting there waiting at the gas station so we could fill up for the week. We would do it on base, so we could take advantage of our military status. Military bases always got gas. We still had to wait in line at the pumps, but we filled up on base so the civilians in town could get their fair share. Once my mom forgot and she cried in the car because we had to wait so long, and she felt guilty for using civilian gas when she could have gotten gas on base. I trained myself to always turn the lights off when I wasn’t in the room because I loved Woodsy the Owl so much, and I Gave A Hoot. I feel absolutely no compulsion to live like a First-World Glutton right now and have not in the intervening years because I am not greedy for more than I can use. I learned very early on that Edison was a mean bully and Tesla was the real genius and a very kind man, and also that if Edison had not been a corporate idiot he would have had a wealth of innovative ideas to develop instead of being stuck with only a few.
This afternoon, in the county seat of Greeley, one of our Representatives, Rochelle Galindo, held a round table meeting to talk with anyone who could or would come about the legislation working its way through our senate about the change in regulations, because there is so much hostility towards it in our county. I sent her a letter expressing my support and the support of the three other voting adults in my household and our regrets at being unable to attend, and got a very nice letter in return, but the commentary I made on the Greeley Tribune’s article online was fairly bombarded with hostile comments itself. Much like the commentary I consistently get whenever I speak publicly on the red flag bill currently wending its way through our legislature; that bill is also very frowned-upon in my county. In fact, our county Sheriff Steve Reams has said he will not enforce that law should the state pass it, and pushed very hard for Weld County to legally declare itself a sanctuary county. Sheriff Reams has repeatedly stated that he does not believe this law will actually protect at-risk individuals. He has also used funding as an argument against our county’s ability to enforce this law. I think it’s highly unlikely Sheriff Reams hasn’t heard of me, but just in case he hasn’t, I’ve been pretty vocal lately. I am not hard to miss. And my case is extremely pertinent to this bill. I have been in Fort Lupton’s police station, and they have quite a lot of storage in their little police station. It wouldn’t take much to modify some lockers in there for temporary storage just in case, say, a woman in town tries to kill herself with a shotgun and they need to lock it up. I never did find out what happened to that shotgun, by the way. It should have been destroyed, but we never got a receipt for it and never got a receipt for it’s destruction. I feel a tremendous amount of guilt for that, because guns that disappear into police stations like that have a high chance of ending up on a street somewhere being involved in a violent crime. I think a lot about the interconnectedness of things like that. Our rural towns in Colorado are much more connected to our urban centers than any of us really think, and while Weld County has for a very long time been sitting out on the edge of the metro area of our state capital, it is right along a main travel corridor between that capital and one of our most popular state universities. A university that specialises in nursing and education, and whose enrollment in the past few years has been increasing exponentially as those fields demand more and more people to fill a growing need in our population nationwide. The University of Northern Colorado in Greeley has a long tradition of being one of the most inclusive and diverse campuses in the nation, and it is in Weld County. It is a beautiful campus, and in the decades after World War II Greeley was a blooming town. It didn’t start to decline until the 60s, but eventually the entropy on the plains saw Greeley fade like old denim as well. These days, the innovation in tech that is bursting out all over Colorado is showing there as well; my daughter attended UNC last year and I was absolutely delighted at their STEM program.
In today’s young people I see a fire and a passion that makes me very proud and excited. By contrast, the older people in our nation are exceedingly cautious and very afraid to change. In the middle, there is my generation: confused and angry and very worn down by parents who threw us to the wolves of capitalism with a “pull your own self up” mentality and these crazy, insane, passionate young people who have about a hundred times more energy than we do. And boy, are they smart. And sassy. And weird (but it’s not really them that brings up and out that Weird Colorado I was talking about at the beginning). And not afraid to say what they think and feel. Being stuck in the middle of these two forces of nature is pretty exhausting. Being a rural Coloradan stuck in the middle is not only exhausting, it makes me feel like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The Obama Administration did a wonderful thing by encouraging alternate energy, but it was a wretched mistake to include natural gas in that, because it opened the door for the fossil fuel industry to circumvent the regulatory agencies with lobbying activities and subtle law changes here and there while they raked in the profits and the goods, all while we really didn’t need the goods so much. Our economy can only hold so much actual cash at once, and right now most of that cash is held up by only a few people, not being put into our economy in logical, rational ways. I have spent months, years, trying to have conversations with people all over this nation, from all walks of life, of all ages and income levels, explaining how the executives at various industries such as fossil fuel companies could take just a portion of their net profits and dump it into research and development of things such as hemp farming, Colorado’s mushrooming marijuana and CBD industry (And that is an enormous industry that the plant itself is just the face of: the machinery and support infrastructure is worth millions. It’s hard to quantify because the figures change so rapidly, but read a little about some figures in Pueblo County here.), the potential for solar farms (can you imagine the possibilities? Ranchers using solar panel sets as livestock shelters instead of having derricks and tanks? Solar fields covering parking lots sponsored by fossil fuel companies, even in cities so people can rest their dogs in shade instead of hot asphalt?), test wind farms, and probably a hundred other things I can’t think of because I am not a scientist. I think a few less yachts and a few more innovation investments would be better for every citizen, and better for our economy as well. It would probably make a few jobs the citizens of my county would appreciate. And the citizens in my county who currently work for the fossil fuel companies would probably feel a lot happier in their jobs, knowing the company they work for is actually doing something proactive, something good for the environment they and their kids and their grandmothers live in. It has already begun, with offgassing heat being used to heat greenhouses. The giant company that owns the natural gas power plant in Fort Lupton has been doing that for years and years, and even though that plant has changed ownership the various owners have done their best to keep funneling that waste heat to greenhouses. At one point there was even a hydroponics tomato plant inside and tandem with the power plant. All of us in town absolutely loved it, because we got the most amazing tomatoes all year round for a really sweet deal; we all moped around for quite a while when it closed. Wouldn’t it be something if all of our various industries could work together for something like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Something that will last as long as the prairie. Something that the lessons the people who lived here before we came along taught all of us, colonizers and descendants and immigrants all, that we can put into good practice and to good use for every single person that comes here to see the prairie poppies bloom or the prairie dogs run all fat and silly in the springtime. Where the deer and the pronghorn play (the name was antelope first, which is what Meriwether Lewis called them. Meriwether Lewis suffered from depression and killed himself with a gun).
Many people call me an idealist, and perhaps I am. I am also a realist, and along with my admonishment courtesy of Bill and Ted to Be Excellent To Each Other, I am fond of saying Shut Up And Listen, because the other person always has something valuable to teach you whether you agree with them or not. Something they have experienced, something they have witnessed, something they know, or some perspective they have, will give you wisdom and knowledge you did not have before. And it can be used to adapt how you do things or how you see things to make life more interesting, more valuable, more fun, and more profitable. Perhaps that profit is not in dollars, or yen, or euros, or goats, or cheese (Italians put parmesan in the bank). But it is profit nonetheless. If it can make us better humans, better Americans, better Earthlings, then it is profit.
I have a stone on my step. My husband and I wrestled it out of the White River of Vermont that weekend we decided to go ahead and have another baby. We have carried it all the way across this continent (and when you leave the Navy, your household items are paid for by weight, so I gave up my Bon Appetit collection for that stone); we went back to our burnt-down house to collect it and the ashes of our passed-on pets. We dragged it around two miserable apartments until we were able to rent this house (which we are trying desperately to buy). It is my altar stone, and I decorate it with things I find on my walks around these plains and these mountains and wherever else I go. Currently it has some rocks from our last camping trip, when we went to the Grand Tetons, along with some odds and ends. Sometimes my kids or my husband puts something on there. It is the stone where I put my thanks and my gratitude for this world, this land, this time. Be thankful. Someone helped you today, and someone will help you tomorrow. Return the favour.