In the Orphan

IMG_1743That 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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The Long Goodbye

free speech

In the 1940s we were embroiled in a world war fighting against cultures and nations that were fueled by ideologies that were anything but open, humanitarian or free. Japan was in the throes of a theologically based monarchy supported by an authoritarian military class. Germany had been consumed by Nazi ideology drunk on world superiority and religious hatred of Jews. The Soviets were little better but having been attacked by one of our enemies, became as a result of that, one of our allies against the Japanese, Nazis and Italian Facists. After millions of casualties which destroyed cultures, countries and philosophies and produced mountains of bodies, the war ended and a new world emerged.

We all know the general story of what followed: the cold war, revolutions and coups in distant and mysterious places, the never ending drive by Islamic hate groups to continue the Nazi work of killing all Jews, decline of certain former world powers, the ascendance of others, the self destruction of communism in most parts of the world. On the positive side, we saw the steady advance of science, medicine, literacy and humanitarian movements, counterbalanced of course by the entrenched forces of conservatism, fundamentalism and ignorance. There has been much good and much evil since that world war ended, but until recently, the overall trend had still been positive. But now, it seems, all that human progress may have been an aberration, a momentary high in our civilization, and we are seeing many movements adopting the oppressive and ignorant values of former ages. Are we now saying a long goodbye to tolerance, intelligence, freedoms and appreciations of real differences, and instead breaking into absolutist, self-absorbed and intolerant social tribes?

Religion

Perhaps the most divisive and harmful of the forces that continues to captivate the minds of most of the world’s human population is religion. There is little doubt that millions upon millions of otherwise sane people on the planet feverently want everyone to share their own particular brand of medieval theology or be punished, perhaps killed, if they do not. And, to bring their point home, many of those millions are now engaging in outright warfare against and the torture and execution of those who oppose their beliefs. Worse, killing non-believers is believed to be sanctioned by God to the extent that those who die in God’s service will be amply rewarded in the afterlife, a sure fire ticket to heaven.

As far as I can tell, all religions that posit a divine creator who concerns him or her self with the daily affairs of humans, especially their sexual practices and possible thought crimes, is intolerant of all others who refuse to believe in their stories or follow their prescriptions. Most are openly hostile to anyone who refuses and refutes all religions. Atheism is a curse. This is not a problem in itself except they can’t leave others alone and insist on trying to impose their particular religious requirements on everyone else thorough local and national politics, among other means. Some are worse than others as the current global struggle with armed Islamists will attest.

Science

It is almost beyond belief that there exist millions of people, religious and otherwise, who not only do not understand basic science, but who are skeptical of it, suspicious and mistrustful of the role science has played enabling us to live longer and healthier lives, cure disease, provide machines and technologies to enable us to lead better and less stressful lives, travel almost anywhere on the planet, grow enough food to feed ourselves and provide the tools to more deeply understand our world and the universe we inhabit. We have actual medicine and rational, science-based health care, but sadly we also have “alternative” medicine. Alternative to what? If it works to prevent or heal illness and disease, it is called medicine. If it doesn’t, or is too complicated for the simple minded to comprehend, it is called “alternative”. Non-medicine (that’s the “alternative”) must be more of a religion, an article of faith, for its believers because even if a so-called alternative medical practice cannot be demonstrated to actually work, that doesn’t seem to matter. Certain people will continue to believe it works because they want to think it works. Acupuncture, for example, has never been realistically proven to do what its practitioners claim, but still many people ‘believe’ in it. Actual, science-based, peer reviewed studies show no actual medical benefits from acupuncture beyond a placebo effect. Believing doesn’t make it true.

Thousands of people, perhaps more, I don’t know, believe that contrails left in the air from airplane engines when the hot exhausts cause water vapor to condense into trailing clouds believe these contrails are actually chemically loaded clouds dumped at the dictates of some shadowy Illuminati group to either control the weather or our minds. Perhaps both. These people don’t (or won’t) understand basic high school science. Their minds are so open their brains have fallen out.

YouTube, for example, is full of chemtrail crap along with even weirder stuff like the flat-earth people. Yes, there are people so ignorant or stupid or willfully obstinate that they  will try to convince you that the earth is actually flat and anyone who says otherwise is part of some huge and evil conspiracy. One mindless splinter group thinks (and I use that term loosely) that this is a result of a conspiracy to hide the existence of God. Which god they mean isn’t too clear as they haven’t given that aspect much thought either. One rut at at time for them.

Freedoms

The gods help you if you should offer any real or perceived disrespect or discomfort to certain individuals or self-defined groups. Some of these groups are composed of privileged unemployed college students pursuing incomprehensible and realistically useless courses of study in our more expensive and prestigious schools. They are encouraged and supported by the faculty and administration in these universities. Want to highlight racism or poverty or religion with some satire? Better wear your earplugs and body armor because that isn’t “safe” and you will be disrespecting something that someone doesn’t want to be made fun of.

Have a different opinion? Be prepared to be insulted, vilified and shouted down, hounded through the halls of Twitter and Facebook, vilified with lies, distortions and profanity on YouTube. If you are unlucky enough to be employed in an institution of higher learning, you will probably end up being fired by weak and myopic administrators. Don’t believe this? Spend a little time on one of the social media outlets, especially Twitter and YouTube. See for yourself.

Look up the videos and Twitter streams about the disgraceful and probably criminal opposition to Ben Shapiro’s appearance at the University of California — on —. The university which should be a bedrock protector of freedom of speech and freedom of thought showed the world that it is exactly the opposite. This University is overwhelmingly liberal both in its student body politics and administration. Mr. Shapiro is a well known conservative. OK. Liberals. Conservatives. Different philosophies. Be interesting to compare and discuss these opposing views. No. Not going to happen, especially at a University for Christ’s sake. Mr. Shapiro might make someone uncomfortable, threaten their safe zone, become the object of aggressive opinion, maybe even have their ideas and cherished ideologies “attacked”. So, solution? Blockade the lecture hall. Assault anyone who might want to attend. Yell. Scream. Cry. Threaten. When that didn’t stop Mr. Shapiro from coming to talk, someone pulled the fire alarm in an unsuccessful attempt to stop him from speaking and empty the hall where he and his audience had gathered anyway. Didn’t work.

I do not agree with all of Mr. Shaprio’s politics or conclusions, but I listen to them first so that I can understand what they are. Then I decide. This is more than the regressive leftists can stand to do. They are offended. Perhaps I may be offended too. But I can handle that and discuss it, then perhaps still be offended. Even so I can still defend his right to express thhis opinions and his right to say them. As someone said recently, “Progressives self flagellate at the altar of non-offense.”  Substitute “self signaling” for “self flagellate” and I agree. One of the pathetic aspects of people shouting for their rights to free speech to drown out someone else’s right is that they are mostly signaling to their like-minded brethren (yes, I’m also including women in that category for purposes of non-turgid discourse) that they are members of that particular in-group. Look at me, I hate racists (facists, gays, white men, conservatives, etc.) too. I included gays because they really hate Milo Yiannopoulos who is openly gay, smart, funny and a conservative. The regressives may claim consistency, but they fail at this too.

As Mr. Shapiro noted, the left agenda appears to be stopping free speech. At Amherst, for example, students demanded that anyone who put up posters advertising “free speech” be prosecuted. I’m not sure how these people managed to qualify for a spot in higher education. At Mizzou the campus police wants a call from anyone whose “feelings are hurt.” Maybe this is part of a suicide prevention process. Or just stupid policy on the university’s part. Either way…

You may be a conservative or a liberal or an independent thinker and you may or may not like Mr. Shapiro’s opinions or politics, but you don’t have the right to stop him from saying them or anyone else from hearing them. That’s not being liberal, that’s being facist regressive babies. Go home. Come back when you are ready for an adult education.

It’s like working on Maggie’s Farm.

Not all groups who engage in this kind of social censorship are privileged youth attending expensive universities. Take Ferguson, for example.

The collection of memes tagging what happened at Ferguson as unfair, racist, as normal police brutality tactics still prevails on social media and in the minds of many who heard those memes but did not hear about, nor care to believe, the actual facts as they eventually emerged from that incident. (This is another attribute of the social justice police and social radicals: facts don’t matter. What they believe is all that counts.) The Ferguson facts are out there for those who would like to actually know. I won’t detail them here except to say that physical evidence and the testimonies from people who were actually there at the time show that the police acted within their rights and responsibilities and that the victim was not the gentle giant his supporters claimed. As they say, look it up. Have there been incidents of unacceptable police violence? Yes. Does racism still exist? Of course. But each incident must be evaluated on its actual merits and evidence otherwise we have the situation we are in today. Identity politics.

Freedom of thought? Forget it. Freedom of expression? Not a chance. Freedom of the press? Who needs it? Freedom of speech? Call the cops.

Literacy and knowledge

It is a fool  who believes that complex problems have simple solutions. They do not. Complex problems are difficult to resolve because they are complex. How to put men on the moon? Simple, send them in a rocket ship with enough fuel to get them back again. How to resolve the problems inherent in the solution? Very difficult. And complex. How do we free ourselves from dependence on petroleum? Simple: switch to another form of energy like solar or wind. How to resolve the problems inherent in that answer? Difficult, complex, costly in money and in global societal impact.

In order to understand and address complex issues one must be able to know what relevant information already exists, which always involves reading, and reading to a level greater than that of following one’s finger along the string of words on the page, reading with comprehension and understanding. Reading many different sources both pro and con. Being able to acquire, store and understand information stored in written form is an essential element of the intelligent human brain. It goes deeper of course. Remember the complex problem problem. One has to be able to tell knowledge and fact from bullshit. Education and critical thinking are essential tools but it appears that those two components are in danger today. Education is not friendly to information and opinion that trespasses those held to be good by many of our universities. Even worse, those contrary ideas are not attacked in an intellectually fair arena by using freedom of speech and press, but are blocked, vilified and hounded out of contention by their opponents.

Long ago someone noted that information is any difference that makes a difference. A thing that rises above the random noise of existence and gets noticed. Some of these things are good, and some are not. Good is a relative and social construct that changes through time and is mutated and nurtured, sometimes destroyed, by the cultures it inhabits. Are there any human universal goods? This is probably one of the foundational questions of philosophy and remains elusive and relational to this day. With the dominance of the internet, we are now awash in information. Much of this is information that does not rest on any objective standards or evidence but ebbs and flows with the prevailing cultural and political tides, and those tides now are enormous and come at increasingly frequent intervals. Trusting to the social media or web-based opinion storms to provide reasonable and factual information is a fool’s errand. Real information, objective fact and evidence is available there, but one has to be armed with reasonable criticism and skepticism and the time and energy to dig and research in order to find the truth, or the most reasonable positions. Who does this? Certainly not the Twitter warriors or social thought police that have taken control of many of these media.

There are a few dedicated souls who continue to stand for openness, reason and evidence based decision making and truly suffer the slings and arrows of the internet thought police and social and religious thugs who assail their enemies with distortions and outright lies. I salute them will continue to support them and their right to freedoms of speech, thought and press.

A Liberal Says Goodbye

I’ve been a liberal since I discovered the City Lights Books store and the beatniks whose works they published in the 1950s. I am a Viet Nam veteran who thinks now, and thought at the time, that the war was wrong, that we were on the wrong side, but, having been committed we should have fought it better with full support, gotten it done and then let the politicians sort it out. I supported the civil rights movement in the 60s and later on,  and think that everyone should have equal opportunities, free education, health care and that the government should take a leading role in making sure that the free market forces did not get the monopolistic upper hand and enforce profit over human values and health. I value free speech, freedom of the press, the real spirit and intent of all the Constitutional amendments including the second one and inherently don’t trust government to have the best interests of the citizens at heart, that it requires close supervision and transparency by the people.

Now, things have changed. Too many liberals have adopted a self-righteousness that I find to be unappealing and counter to actual liberal values. Many have shifted far to the left and become regressively imperialistic and dogmatic and bought into identity politics to an extreme degree. This is wrong and unhealthy. When differences of opinion and healthy debate, even necessary political compromises are decried, insulted and vilified, the game has changed. It’s become “us” or “them” and “them” are likened to monstrous criminals against whom unprincipled, unethical and even illegal acts are condoned. This is wrong whether one is a liberal or conservative.

Being able to listen to, engage and evaluate differences in ideas and information, politics and social philosophies is the mark of a balanced individual, whether conservative or liberal.

Until something changes and sanity reappears, I am done. I will seek out, listen to and engage anyone’s ideas then evaluate those ideas for myself based on reason and evidence. In today’s political and educational environments, that doesn’t make me a liberal or a conservative. I’m declaring myself an independent.

It has been a long time since the 1950 and it has taken a long time to say goodbye to my self identity as a liberal, but the time has come.

Goodbye.