That Rocky Mountain high feeling begins to run thin as you travel south of Denver and Colorado Springs on Interstate 25. Passing through the small city of Pueblo and its silent steel mills one rolls through terrain more like New Mexico or maybe the Texas panhandle, the plains stretching out to the east, broken by broad, ancient river valleys flanked in the distance by low mesas and rimrock canyons. Trees cluster along these infrequent river valleys and scattered water holes worn down by thousands of cattle hooves. The highway runs just west of the Wet Mountains which are clustered around Greenhorn Peak, named for the only Comanche war leader to have been defeated by the Spaniards. That happened in 1799. The Spaniards went back to New Spain. The Comanches stayed until the late nineteenth century. Climbing out of the last long rise from a deep but usually dry river bottom the highway climbs to slightly over a mile higher than sea level before unfolding a view that extends almost to New Mexico, about fifty miles further south. Dominating that view are the two massive Spanish Peaks standing apart from the more distant mountain range the Spanish explorers called the blood of Christ, the Sangre de Christos.
Dark must have the imaginings of those early explorers, stumbling around the Comancheria, concerned, no doubt, about returning safely to Santa Fe with their skins intact than in delving deeply into the nature of the country. Between the Spanish Peaks and New Mexico, flowing out of the mountains and through the arid badlands to the east is the last major river in Colorado. The Spaniards called it the river of the souls lost in purgatory. El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatoiro. Later, the mountain men and Santa Fe traders, butchering the language along with the buffalo, dubbed it the Picketwire.
Souls lost in purgatory. Perhaps the Spaniards were referring to themselves, lost and wandering the Comanche lands. Although the Comanches are finally gone, fighting now with alcohol and drugs, struggling to pay the rent or the loan on the new F-250 four wheel drive, the land here still harbors many lost souls. The name is still fitting.
From that high point looking south, two smaller features catch the eye. About six miles distant, four massive, white wind generators crowd close to the highway. Their builders sited them almost due east of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve which lies just beyond the Sangre de Christo range, perhaps thirty miles distant. The Park is centered around a massive 19,000 acre field of sand dunes, some reaching 750 feet high. The dunes are formed by the winds flowing across the San Luis valley, picking up sand from the Rio Grande river then dropping it as they slam into the mountains’ eastern walls. Building up speed in the big, open valley, they often tear over the Sangres, rip down their eastern side, blowing for days or weeks across the plains. This is not always a good thing since the winds can gust up to 80 or 90 mph at times. When this happens, the giant blades are locked down, thousands of tumbleweeds rocket across the landscape piling up in long dense rows along the fence lines and the big trucks hide in the rest areas or truck stops along the route.
Two miles south of the generators stands an ugly, fractured pile of blocky volcanic rocks crowding the south bank of the Huerfano River, a river that is really a creek, but here on the northern fringe of the vast, dry southwest country, any natural watercourse that can support grass and trees is often called a river. The pile of rocks stands 6158’ above sea level but rises only 181’ from it’s base. Still, it is immediately obvious that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the scenery. The towering, usually snow topped Spanish Peaks and the Sangres, as they are often called here, dominate the scenery in the distance, but the little rock pile can’t be ignored. It has served as a landmark for generations of travelers long before the white man ventured out onto these plains. I have no idea what the old Indian tribes called it, but the Spaniards, seeing its isolation and stark contrast with the rest of the land immediately named it the Huerfano. The Orphan.
Long after the Spaniards were gone and the white men came from the east, the ones who stayed and surveyed the land, and created townships and counties naturally named the land around it, Huerfano. Huerfano County. Today, people who live here just call the area “the Huerfano”. The orphan.
The Orphan county is the second poorest county in the state. It occupies 1,600 square miles but supports only 6,500 people. The median income per household is $27,775 and the per capita income is $15,242. 18% of the county population is below the poverty line. In places, basic services are hard to come by or nonexistent. Most of the roads are unpaved. Getting enough clean water to drink can at times be a serious issue. Entertainment and recreation is mainly focused on the outdoors when the weather is decent, and runs mainly to hunting and fishing. Lately, with the legalization of recreational marijuana, extreme volume country metal bands assault the summer air and their stunned fans with music that more resembles a continuous car crash. Summer tourists bring in a substantial part of the county’s annual income. There are no major industries or commercial enterprises that employ more than a token number of people. Want to see a current hit movie on the big screen, then get set for a two hour round trip to Pueblo, that is if the weather is reasonable and the roads are open.
There are few jobs in the Orphan and fewer still that pay a decent wage. There are hardly any career opportunities for young people graduating from, or just dropping out of school. The biggest employer caters to the sick, elderly and veterans who need continual care. The pace picks up between June and October when the tourists and travelers come through, hit the shops, art shows, music festivals and cute local events built and run especially for them. The rest of the year, the cold, the wind and the snow moves in filling the vacant holes left by the tourists. Shops close or curtail their hours. Want a hot coffee at one of the two coffee shops in the area? Best check the day and the time to see if one might be open. When it snows in my little town, walking is really not a problem. We just use the street. The town doesn’t have the manpower or budget to keep the sidewalks clear but the state plows Main Street, which is Colorado Highway 12 so it is usually passable.
The county seat of the Orphan is in Walsenburg, Colorado, once a thriving coal and railroad town, but after WWII ended and the demand for coal fell, so did Walsenburg’s fortunes. The train still runs through the middle of town in such a way that traffic on US 160, the main highway, is blocked in two places multiple times each day while the long freights and coal trains creep through on aging tracks. On the occasional bad day, something breaks, the trains halt and traffic doesn’t move for hours. Living is hard. Real estate is cheap and the local liquor stores carry 40 oz. cans of cheap beer selling for $1.40. They can’t keep it in stock in the summer.
A newer business in the county is based on the opiate, heroin and marijuana trade. DrugRehab.com reported, “Huerfano County has consistently ranked among the counties with the highest drug overdose death rates for the past 12 years.” Few people. No money. Big drug problem. This is not good news for the people in the Orphan. When unemployed dope fiends need money to buy drugs they often take it from others, and this leads to more crime and more violence. Some of the area law enforcement people I have talked with say that with the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, a kind of drug migration is occurring in which increasing numbers of street people looking for cheap and legal dope and people with financial backing who are looking for places to grow pot and the water to sustain it are moving into the Orphan. Interstate 25 which connects Mexico, New Mexico, Colorado and branches off to points east and west has long been a major drug highway into the US and it runs right on the eastern skirts of Walsenburg, which is no stranger to drugs of all kinds.
But, travel fifteen miles west from Walsenburg on US 160 and jog a little south off Colorado 12 and you will soon arrive at a village of 800 year round souls spread around the tiny Cucharas River flowing through lush river bottom pasture land. The little town is called La Veta, which means the vein in Spanish. No one is really certain why. Theories abound but the origin remains a mystery, as does the reason why the locals pronounce it la veeda, not in the Spanish way, la vey tah. This anglo emphasis is so pronounced that one is sure to be corrected by one or another of the locals, even if their last name happens to be Garcia. In character and attitude, La Veta is almost the opposite of it’s neighbor Walsenburg.
The town has six churches, lists nine real estate offices, five art galleries (this number tends to fluctuate with the season), one bakery restaurant, one micro-sized deli (soon to go out of business after one year), two diners, one bar restaurant and one up-scale restaurant, a coffee shop, a market, two gas stations, one hardware store, three general tourist gift shops, an award-winning library, a sporadically active live theatre, a wine bistro and a US Post Office that doesn’t deliver mail to town residents. Residents also include a local mule deer population that hovers around 150 animals, foxes, skunks, the occasional mountain lion attracted into town by the deer and a fluctuating number of black bears, depending on the weather. Dry years means more bears in town, and by more, I mean the first year we lived here I personally saw twelve bears in town. Questioning the local wildlife officer I learned that the Orphan has more black bears than any county in the lower 48 states. When we walk at night, and the town is so small that it doesn’t make sense to drive everywhere, we always carry flashlights and stay out of the alleys. Dumpsters and bears have a mutual attraction and dumpsters tend to live in alleys. Many residents also carry a firearm at night.
La Veta and its immediate environs are home to a diverse people. Except for race. La Veta is predominantly white anglo saxon, and, given the five churches, protestant. The Catholic church uses a rotation of traveling priests and opens on Saturday nights. There are a few hispanic folks around, but unless our son is in town, there are only three black people here, and one or two asians. We have no immigrants from Syria or the middle east as far as I know. If someone moved here who wore a hijab, or was an openly practicing Moslem, the ripples would spread far and wide. Would they be hostile ripples? Waves? Or, as many westerners do, would they be treated the same as any other individual and judgements withheld pending behavior? We may find out some day.
La Veta is home to many older and retired people, people from all backgrounds and experiences. I believe the median age is slightly over 55. Lawyers, artists, ranch hands, old refugees from the original 60s hippie communes, young people searching for a way to live off the grid, lost souls holding down minimum wage service jobs waiting for the dream that never comes, locals who were born and raised here, commercial pilots, retired military, software developers working online for companies on the west coast, corporate executives out to pasture, former physicians, active medical professionals, farmers, widows on social security. The low profilers, those who live on the edges, scuffling here and there, buying for a dollar, selling for two, maybe cooking that killer meth out in the county, or tending large marijuana grows in the national forrest.
The thing we don’t have here, so far, is a solid awareness of the changes taking place in the outside world, the world outside of the Orphan. The battles on the college campuses for and against free speech. The fluid and confusing sexual identity conflicts. The impacts of the new atheists, the radical Moslems, the resistance to science, fact and reason. These powerful social forces don’t yet lap up to our borders. They are present primarily through the TV screens on the evening news, at least for those who still have TV, and through newspapers and gossip sessions at the market or post office. A few La Vetians do not have television but choose to be connected informationally and intellectually through the internet. In fact, the twenty-first century information culture here is so far removed that for many, especially the older and elderly, using a “smart phone” is a major challenge. I have met more than a few people here who think that these “new” smart phones are beyond their capabilities, and who needs one anyway? Even more unfortunate are those who are given Windows based computers and hand-held devices by well meaning relatives. They are mystified and confused which isolates them even further than they were before.
The Orphan is probably representative of many other small American communities, places off the main track, tied closer to the land, culture and practices of a receding era, loosely hooked into the global information network, the social media firestorms and anytime access to different ideas, morals, discussion, hatreds and ideological communities that are part of daily life in the mainstream. The Orphan is one of those legacy interfaces to the madly accelerating world, a place of comfort and isolation where it has been possible to dismiss and forget the tides of culture and political change and the warfare of ideas. But this can’t last. When elderly widows and long retired ranchers seek help in using their newfangled devices in order to access their grandchildren’s email, get on this Facebook thing and explore the wonders of Google, the Orphan’s semi-isolation is coming to an end. My intent here is to explore this vanishing world and note some of the people and their stories as this happens.