Saturday, October 8, 2011

On mountain towns

I’ve been spending a few days in the town of Salida, in Central Colorado’s Arkansas River valley. There are mountains in every direction, some rising above 14,000 feet. When I arrived on Monday, the valley was sweltering in 90 degree heat. Today it’s a snowstorm. Such is October in the mountains.

The mountains I’m looking at as I type this attract tens of thousands of people each year to Salida and its neighbour to the north, Buena Vista. These are not plastic resort towns like Aspen or Vail, which have been carbon-copied by Whistler, Mont Tremblant, Lake Placid and their ilk. Salida is a much more earthbound place, where people who were born in the mountains still live, drive their pick-ups to the Safeway, and work at agricultural or blue collar jobs. Those who visit come not for the après-ski (there is none), but to whitewater kayak and raft, to go rock climibing, to mountain bike, to fish for trout, or to hike the countless trails.

The mountains have also inspired a disproportionate number of artists to settle here, the consignment shops of the old town centres joined by a growing number of eclectic galleries, craft-jewellers and pottery shops. Even for non-artists like me, it is hard not to be inspired by this valley, its wet western slopes green and yellow with conifers and aspens, its arid-brown eastern slopes peppered with a few pines and a lot of sage, mesquite and low-growing cacti. It’s also hard not to love the mountain towns. Deer wander down the middle of the main streets of Salida and Buena Vista in broad daylight. The town parks have first-rate climbing walls for practicing bouldering, and there are boat launches and trailheads accessible right off the main street. It lacks the glamour of Aspen, but for the visitor, life in Salida or Buena Vista is a joy.

The original non-native settlers of Salida were also drawn here by the mountains, but for very different reasons. There are veins of minerals and semi-precious gems in the high country, and an amazing amount of energy and investment went into attacking those veins. I was out inspecting some abandoned mining towns this past week, following up on research I published recently on the process of modern settlement abandonment. A particularly neat ghost town is St Elmo, a town 10,000 feet up on the flanks of Mount Princeton that a century ago had 2,000+ inhabitants. It once had a railroad, a school, a church, a main street with shops, saloons and wooden sidewalks. But the quantity and value of the ore coming out of the mountain declined, the cost of maintaining the rails became too great, and the town lost its purpose. Many of the buildings have been nicely preserved, perhaps too nicely, making it seem a bit tacky and museum-like. It is only one of dozens of such mountain towns, villages and hamlets that have been abandoned in Colorado since the late 19th century.

Salida was more fortunate than St Elmo. It’s on the main valley floor, situated where the main rail line and the Arkansas River come together. Ore from the mountain towns was brought here to be smelted, and a large relict smokestack still stands to the north of town. Jobs in mining and smelting are largely gone now from this region. These were dirty industries, and the valley’s air and water quality are much better now that they’re gone. But, though dirty, they also brought a lot of wealth and jobs into this valley. Tourism is today the fastest growing sector of the valley’s economy, but the types of jobs it creates tend to be low-paying, unskilled and seasonal. Until the US economy tanked in 2008, the valley was attracting its fair share of relatively well-off retirees. The money they brought with them helped generate additional jobs in construction and services, and contributed greatly to the modern hospital facility. However, they also helped drive up property prices, creating a dynamic common to tourist destinations, whereby people from elsewhere end up owning the nicest places in town.

Tourist visits are still strong during the summer, but the pre-recession mountain tourism gold rush may be ebbing. Home-building has slowed to a crawl, fewer wealthy retirees are investing here now. It’s far from the crisis situation that many towns and cities in the eastern US find themselves in, and I’m in no way forecasting that Salida or Buena Vista are destined to become ghost towns in the foreseeable future. What I can say with some confidence is that, while it’s drop-dead beautiful, this is a hard place to live and to make a living, and it’s not going to get any easier any time soon.

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