I was standing in one of my favorite stores in Salida’s lively downtown this afternoon, debating about whether the cropped jean jacket I’ve been eyeing for the past month would fit into my budget, when a nicely dressed woman nearby spoke,
“Excuse me, do you live here?”
“For how long?” she asked.
“Almost nineteen years on the same block,” I said.
She was curious, she said, because she and her husband were looking for a retirement place, and basically, she wondered why I live in a rural town of just 5,200 people, itself the seat of a county boasting only 18,000 or so permanent residents. A town with a thriving arts community, a lively independent bookstore, excellent restaurants, a good public school system, an excellent small hospital, and a serious shortage of affordable housing.
A town located two scenic-but-sometimes-treacherous hours drive through the mountains to the nearest interstate highway, shopping mall, commercial airport, or traffic jams. In a county bisected by the most popular whitewater river in the country (the photo at the top of the post is that river, the Arkansas, and our downtown whitewater park with Mount Princeton in the distance), including Colorado’s longest stretch of Gold Medal trout water; a county with more peaks over 14,000 feet elevation than any other county in Colorado, a nearby ski area known for its powder snow, and hundreds of miles of hiking/biking/horseback riding trails through nearby public land.
That description lists some of the reasons: I love this landscape, from the high-desert valley bottom with the river flowing through it to those peaks, white with late-winter snow now. I love the art and cultural scene, the restaurants, the lack of traffic jams (a traffic jam here is when a herd of deer ambles across the road in the evening and the cars have to wait their turn), and so on…
I mentioned those things, but then I gave her a more personal, deeper answer.
What holds me here is the community, and the way we support each other. We disagree about all sorts of things, from gun rights to religion to presidential candidates, but when someone needs help, we pitch in.
Because we’re a small town and there aren’t that many of us. Because we know each other, or at least we’ve said hello in the line at the Post Office, the polling place, the grocery store, or at the high school games. Because we all remember what it’s like to need help. Because we care about each other as human beings, regardless of the labels that are so divisive in American life today.
“I lost my husband to brain cancer almost five years ago,” I said, my voice choking a little. “And a lot of people asked if I would move home to Wyoming, where Richard and I met.”
“I thought seriously about it. But I didn’t. Because going through that–losing the person I loved most in the world–showed me what mattered most. The community enveloped us with so much caring and compassion. I couldn’t live anywhere else. This is home now.”
She expressed her condolences, and then her husband came to meet her with their dog. We chatted some more, she thanked me for my thoughts, and off they went.
I tried on the jean jacket, talked it over with Stormy, who was my next-door neighbor for much of her childhood–now in her 20s, Stormy is learning the trade from her mom, who owns the store. I asked Storm to hold the jacket until tomorrow, when I’ll come back with my checkbook, saving them the charge card fee.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We appreciate it.”
I walked up the block, stopping to talk to a friend whose husband is recovering from heart surgery, congratulating another friend on her forthcoming book of poetry, and then waving at my electrician and his wife, a forester, out ambling with their golden retriever.
I stopped at the health food store and bought some organic romaine lettuce, and chatted with Gina, the owner, about her need for summer staff.
Then I walked the two blocks home, baked some wild-caught salmon for dinner, chopped and dressed the lettuce, and added some Pueblo Sweet corn I put up last summer. I sat down to eat as the shadows of the peaks began to creep across the valley.
And thought how lucky I am to live in this small town in a spectacular landscape, a community with a very big heart.
Some of the dozens of luminarias with messages placed around one of Richard’s sculptures after the celebration of his life, December 2011