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8162X: No place I’d rather be
On living in a top 10 listing

What a difference a year makes! Last year around this time, it was hot, dry, and I was watching Basalt Mountain blow up from a safe (but still stressful) distance. This year, although it’s early July, the rivers are still up, the hills are still green, Sopris is still holding snow, and my tomato plants are stalled like it’s still May.

It was a cold and wet spring. My son’s Little League team was barely able to practice before the game schedule started, and several games were cancelled due to sub-40 degree temperatures and standing water (or snow) on the fields. Unlike many springs in memory, our fruit trees did not get the usual early “head fake” of a false summer, but did still get a dose of frost in June. However, it seems now like summer has finally arrived, albeit barely a step ahead of the monsoon season. The local hay crop should be strong though; if they can get it out of the fields between rain showers.

My Fourth of July was wonderful. I called it Serendipity Day. As I passed the Carbondale Rodeo grounds mid-morning, I noticed there was still one unclaimed vehicle spot along the fence. That’s coveted territory; people line up at 5 a.m. to get those spots. On returning after I completed my errands, I noticed that the spot was still available. So I had no choice but to slide in and take it.

But now I was without a ride home. With only 15 minutes until parade time, I hefted my bag of cold groceries over my shoulder and hung a thumb in the breeze. After just a few cars passed me by, I had a ride downtown, just in time to catch Carbondale’s signature diminutive Main Street affair – two fire trucks and a passel of kids. The parade is followed by a watermelon social in the park.

Lacking fireworks to watch from a picnic blanket, the rodeo was a fine alternative for the evening’s entertainment; the patriotic bunting and earthy smell of livestock invokes a time and place with deep roots in the American psyche. The sweat and dust a reminder that those roots still lie close to the surface in places.

After more than 20 years of living here, I still pinch myself at my good luck. 

It’s a sweet place at a sweet moment in its arc of fortunes. Yes, there are some real problems with affordability and other social and economic challenges. But there are few places on earth with our combination of scenery and amenities, where we can ski and bike in the same day, or summit a mountain and still be home in time for dinner.

At some point after settling in to the valley, many of us have an “I can’t believe I live here” moment. With luck, that feeling persists. And, with luck, it deepens, as it has for me.

I recall an exercise a local developer undertook many years ago, drawing circles on a map around regions with attractive amenities like ski areas, to try and find a similar place to invest in and get ahead of the process. I believe they found one, in Montana. A town in Oregon came up as well.

There are some interesting unifying human resources in a place where most residents came from somewhere else. Regardless of whether we were running away from something or towards something when we left our home towns, we are as a group self-selected in our willingness to embrace change, take risks, and believe in a better place.

The result in this gumbo of seekers is a dynamic, creative and interesting place. If not one where we sometimes fight like siblings over a few lines in a building code. It’s a small-town rural region that punches above its weight culturally and socially. And it’s a bubble. Undeniably, blessedly, and we hope, sustainably, a bubble.

Oh sure, the valley has changed immensely since I’ve been here, and more so since before that. The introduction of the internet, along with other communication and energy technologies, as well as the general influx of Big Money, have taken the “remote” out of rural living, and with it a newer wave of service entrepreneurs and economic migrants has taken root. And even if wildfire and drought, interspersed with blizzards and flooding, remind us that we still live in the shadow of risk, our comparative wealth allows us to buy our way out of many of the sacrifices often associated with rural living.

My wife and I play a game when we travel past other small towns; wondering what it would be like if we had settled there instead. Many otherwise attractive places lack critical elements we find here, particularly centered around schools, culture  and overall resources, not to mention a set of expectations and orientations more suited to our own values.

We take the train from Denver to Chicago every year, and I watch the small towns pass by with a model railroader’s nostalgia. The change in farm and retail economics, particularly the brain drain and limited youth opportunity, as well as the overall outward-facing character of the economic engine is palpable. What little new investment exists is inevitably clustered outside the towns, in metal-sided warehouses and sprawling sorting facilities.

I pass through these small towns with their vacant and decaying brick Main Streets that did not catch the wave of interest and investment that we enjoy here, and I see sorrow, coupled with opportunity. I dream about what I would do with a magic wand and several billion dollars.  Someone, I hope, will sink their taproot in and invest in the place once again. But not me. I’m here, and there’s no place I’d rather be.

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear.