How I lost my town
by George Sibley
- The land was ours before we
were the land's ...
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
- Robert Frost, "The Gift Outright"
I know I'm starting to lose it. My sense of place. It really hit home last summer, the day I neglected to stand up for Snow Days.
I had just finished making a presentation about our local economic-development corporation to a local leadership-training group. I live in a mountain valley that, like most mountain valleys in the Rockies, has two principal towns, one upvalley and one downvalley. I've lived in both towns, enough to know that both are a long way from being that "society to match its scenery" that Stegner talked about in The Sound of Mountain Water. But we keep trying, and one of the most consistent efforts toward improvement on the part of each town is to frequently criticize the other.
That is what the leadership meeting that day had devolved to: Most of the people in the group were from the downvalley town, so they were providing a critique of the general business practices of the upvalley town, practices they believed were not sufficiently rigorous and disciplined. "You go up there," one person said, "and you never know if you're even going to find a business open." "Yes," chimed in another, "especially if it's snowing."
Well, that jogged a few memories of my own days as a businessman in the upvalley town. If it was snowing - especially the way it only can up in the high mountains, that straight-down drowning thick fall - there was no uncertainty at all about whether a business, including my newspaper office, would be open: It wouldn't. I kept the "Snow Day, back by 4:30" sign taped to the door jamb, ready to slap up quickly in a snow emergency. Other days, especially on a Thursday or Friday after the week's paper was out, I might tape up the "Out on a Story" sign and go up for a couple of chairlift interviews in the late afternoon. But Snow Days: They were as sacred as Sundays used to be and a big piece of why we were there.
But at the leadership meeting that day, I was quiet. Save it for a better time, I thought to myself, a better forum. But this was the anointed future leadership of the valley; where would there be a better forum? I said nothing, and let the criticism roll, and thus am probably becoming part of the problem that is my topic here: sense of place, and the subtle war, usually civil enough, waged over it in a homogenizing, global society.
For the past 37 years, I've lived in a real estate development called "Colorado." Colorado has been a real estate development from the time it was designated a territory, 140 years ago: four straight lines laid down on a map, a surveyor's wet dream, unnatural laser lines attached not to geography but to the abstract concept of property, easily subdivisible with liberty and license for all.
When Americans talk about "place" today, and "sense of place," it's often in the context of real estate, because that's the way Americans think. But if you are going to really consider "place," you must distinguish it from the concept of property. Both place and property are matters of possession, but it's who and what are possessed, and how, that's important. "Property" is a cultural convention whereby a person has the belief, confirmed by a piece of paper, that he or she possesses a piece of land. "Place," on the other hand, is something related to the land that comes to possess a person.
People in farm communities seem to understand this. In a long-time farm community, when Jones buys Smith's farm, it doesn't become "the Jones place"; it's still "the Smith place." But if Jones works that property long enough and well enough for everyone to forget Smith, then it becomes "the Jones place," even when he dies or sells it to Garcia.
"No place is a place," said Wallace Stegner, until two things have happened: one, "things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments"; and two, "it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we call poetry." So geography only becomes a place when some set of humans becomes all bound up with it in some way.
The "sense of place" people have about a place doesn't necessarily have much to do with the natural environment in which it is located. In the American West, a place is a base from which to extract or otherwise exploit nature in order to trade with the parent culture. The places we carve out of the natural environment usually have a lot more to do with the baggage we carry from our parent culture than with "the nature of the place."
This has been true from the time the American West was way back on the East Coast. We say, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Well, to a culture with the belief that Jefferson articulated - that "farmers are God's chosen people" - everything in nature looks like a farm. So the people who thought of themselves as "New Englanders" struggled stubbornly for a couple of centuries to convert acid coniferous forest land with rocky undeveloped glacier-ground soils into the English farmscape they knew God really meant it to be.
But it didn't work well, and that has a lot to do with why the "sense of place" one picks up on from multigenerational inhabitants of a lot of New England places has more to do with stubbornness than pride, and a kind of sullen antagonism that comes of generations of not quite succeeding in a war against nature.
In the same way, when Brigham Young looked over the gray-green desert lands between the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake and said, "This is the place," he wasn't seeing what was there; he was seeing what would be there as soon as the Mormons earned their "beehive" emblem by irrigating that desert and turning it into Deseret.
And then there are these mountain towns. They were all built in the most vigorous repudiation of local nature imaginable. The false-front building - a two- or three-story front backed by a one- or one-and-a-half-story building - was designed to establish a convincing facade of the urbanity the "unsettlers" wanted to reconstruct there. The first public building (after a dozen bars or so) was not a simple church to celebrate God's beauty, but an elaborate hotel where avatars of back-East money could be made to feel at home. Most of these towns were founded by megalomaniac dreamers envisioning cities, and copying cities, creating places grounded in what all cities are grounded in: the concentration of wealth.
Everyone arrives in the mountains with a prepackaged "sense of place," a calendar-art sensibility grounded in years of exposure to the soft-core airbrushed ecoporn of "place" artists ranging from Currier and Ives to Adams and Fielder; they've all read the Thoreauvian musings on mountain places cranked out by dozens of writers like Abbey, Bass, Ehrlich and the whole bibliography, down to yours truly and, of course, Thoreau himself.
More to the point, they all arrive with a well-developed sense of what civilized people do once they get to the place they've chosen. The more money they come with, the stronger their sense of what a place should be, and their place in the place.
And since one major component of our cultural education regarding mountain towns is the absence of a whole lot of other people (especially people who are "other" from our kind of people), the first thing we do, once we're in place, is become a Friend For the Preservation of the Place. Once we've built, we want the building to stop - certainly within our viewshed. We want the historic-looking little old town to continue looking as historic as it did the day we first saw it; we talk up covenants and architectural reviews; we cultivate the favor of the handful of remaining old-timers, working as hard to get them to smile on us as we ever worked to win over a customer or employer back in the real world.
And so we work to change our place into a generic representation of what the dominant culture stands for and nurtures. This is what civilization is all about.
There is, however, a more subtle "sense of place" that comes to those who inhabit a place long enough. This comes from a growing awareness that things there are just what they are, and are not going to change to accommodate our civilized sense of what the place ought to be. Thus the North Woods slopes and glacial gravels of New England, once 80 percent cleared for farming, are now about 80 percent forested again. And a lot of impudent "Capital City"-type places in the mountains have melted back into high meadows, marked only by the occasional pile of rusty cans. Sometimes retreat, with or without dignity, is the only way.
Even where the people stay, they sometimes change their civilized ways - stop building buildings with flat roofs in snow country, for example, or clear-cutting on mountain slopes, or running low-country cattle breeds in high-altitude meadows. It stands to reason that those who come to a place more or less empty-handed, maybe empty-minded, will more readily sense the innate and intrinsic qualities of a place than will those who come with the full baggage of civilization.
Over in the Smith Fork Valley, north of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, there's a beautiful ridge above the town of Crawford, called Mendicant Ridge. I've never been able to track down the source of that name, and to be honest, haven't tried that hard, for fear that it traces back to something mundane, like a homestead at its base built by old Fred Mendicant.
Better to think that it is so named because someone came there with a truly mendicant spirit - not poor because of a failure to strike it rich, like those who named all the Poverty Gulches and Busted Flats of the West, but poor on purpose. A true mendicant like St. Francis, coming deliberately uncluttered enough to see what might really be there.
I may just be saying this, however, because I had - not cleanly and deliberately, but through an escalating series of screwups - reduced myself to a kind of mendicant state when I was possessed by a place more than three decades ago.
There's no need to put a name on the place. Just say it's a typical enough Colorado mountain valley: longer than it is wide, beautiful with the orthographic diversity that comes of relentless gains in altitude, and occupied by a few thousand people in a couple of towns that aren't "a society to match the scenery."
The people, including me now, are occupied in selling a growing variety of mountain experiences, including, of course, property.
I first came to this valley 35 years ago this winter, as an industrial worker in the mountain-experience industry that we call a ski area. At that time, I wasn't expecting or desiring to be possessed by any place or anything. I'd been more or less bumming for the previous couple of years - ski-bumming in the winter, construction-bumming in the summer. Prior to that, I'd been caught up in the accumulating chaos and disorder of about half a decade of dropping out, without tuning in to anything significant, and turning on primarily with excessive quantities of beer. This long quasi-deliberate fall had culminated in a close encounter of the worst kind with the United States Army over legitimate wars, a situation that had ended in a way that, according to everything I'd been taught about American society, meant that I probably had no future at all and could count on bumming all my life.
But I made the mistake no true bum ever makes; I went back to the same place twice because, well, they invited me. The ski area took me on early, in September, to putter around the mountain on all the tasks that are part of turning a big tumbling-down hunk of rock into a bourgeois adventure spot not too obviously marred by the general untidiness of nature. Three of us - the ski patrol leader, the mountain manager, and Private Last Class Sibley - wandering all over the mountain, cutting off stumps, blowing up rocks, changing wheels on the lift towers, fixing up the marmot-chewed patrol phone cables, et cetera.
I'd never been that close to a mountain, or anything else that big in the natural world - day after day, wandering over it like a gnat on a pumpkin, seeing something new every day, even in places where we'd been the day before.
It was also my first mountain autumn, and to the best of my knowledge, nature has come up with nothing in the way of sheer overwhelming mindless beauty that quite compares with a Rocky Mountain fall. A "Pacific high" tends to settle in over the Colorado Plateau after the Labor Day doldrums, and when it really settles in, it pushes incoming weather north or south of the Southern Rockies for as much as a month; a day of clouds or rain or snow might sneak up around from the southern edge of the plateau, or an early front might spend its way down from the Arctic for a day or so, but the high usually prevails, and it did that fall. Day after day of pure blue sky, and the mountains going from late summer's heavy somnolent greens to the psychedelic intrusion of yellows among the green, then the yellow aspen regnant, turning the darker greens of spruce and fir to black in contrast.
I remember going back to work at the ski area one day after a two-beer lunch in town, and watching a whirlwind from out of nowhere run up through the aspens on the mountainside, spinning a column of gold maybe a hundred feet above the trees from which it was lifting the leaves.
Or sitting up on a lift tower one day checking telephone cable connections, when a bear walked down the service road, right under the tower.
Or sliding and stumbling down a slope, checking the cables for the patrol phones, and seeing a marmot sitting on a rock, and getting into an involved discussion with the patrol leader about whether it would be better to come back in the next life as a marmot, or as the rock a marmot sits on.
Or looking up one day into a sky so clear that we could still see the planet Venus at 10 in the morning.
And always there - almost surrealistically present in both detail and completeness on the brilliant cloudless days, but somehow both more real and larger on the days when clouds gave only partial views - was the mountain, a jagged hook of a mountain. It hooked me.
The mountain's town (the upvalley town) also seduced me that fall. Like all places out on the margins of civilization, that town was, and continues to be, marginal in many ways. The town had one small, struggling hardrock mine still operating, but its "mining heritage" was pretty clearly not a "mining future." The ski resort was also struggling; it had just been through a foreclosure and "financial reorganization" the year I got there - the reason it was so easy to get a job there.
But economic marginality is a relative thing. If you came to the town in retreat from civilization, then you could measure its economy by its old bio-anthropological definition: whatever the life in a place did in order to keep living there, the only two standards being one, better alive than dead, and two, you're still here.
Embraced and environed as it was by that brilliant autumn, the whole town felt revolutionary in ways unique to my limited experience. In the larger swirl of things, it was the end of the "Summer of Love," the beginning of the serious anti-war season (of which my inept lonely revolt from the Army had been a kind of a pale personal foreshadowing), on a deeper level the beginning of a serious, if short-lived, re-evaluation of American civilization. And all of that was present in my mountain valley.
Rental houses in town were all full that fall, months ahead of the ski season, and the tenants were mostly the spitting image of those San Francisco hippies being portrayed in the national press. What was blowin' in the wind had blown some our way. Dope first hit the valley in a noticeable way that fall; that was when marijuana began to seriously compete with alcohol as the Dionysian drug of choice in the mountain valleys - which, of course, horrified the old retired miners tanking their beer in the bars all afternoon and evening.
But the hippies weren't the only characters stirring the pot, as it were, that fall in Crested Butte. The ringleaders were a retired Marine officer become jeweler; a couple of professors from a nearby college, both living with their families upvalley rather than downvalley; a Midwestern businessman with a hitherto latent imagination who found himself running a marginal ski resort; a former government secretary who'd given into an urge to carve wood; and a brilliant but difficult man who was both a licensed doctor and a licensed lawyer, and who had already set up a summer forensics "academy" in town.
This consortium of individuals, separately, together and in shifting constellations, held all kinds of open meetings that fall to talk about the future of the place. The meetings were imbued with the sense that civilization had retreated, abandoned the valley, and that this was not a disaster, but, in some strange way, a blessing.
The future, it seemed, could be whatever we decided it should be: a little skiing, a little mining, sure. But there was also support for a lot of education of a certain sort: The retired Marine become jeweler had, in an impromptu way that summer, found himself hosting a small jewelry-making class for one of the state's universities. Surely there were hundreds, millions of others like them, looking for a real place for learning - for workshops and festivals celebrating art, music, dance, writing, politics, revolution, whatever, all in the shadow and reflected glow of the mountain, and all celebrating the mountain and the place it created. We were the people of Mendicant Mountain, surely all possessed by the place, that beautiful brilliant fall.
Out of those meetings came an organization, and the organization leased an old abandoned school building for a dollar a year. One translucent Saturday morning, everybody - old-timers who had gone to school there and didn't want the building to fall down, us hippies who weren't much good for anything but laughs, a few people recruited because they actually knew what to do - turned out to put a new roof on the building. That day may have been the high point of my life, roped up on the roof (because I already knew how to use a hammer), people milling around below kidding each other, some hippie chicks in granny dresses lugging a big pot of some kind of healthy goop down the street for lunch, and all of it surrounded by this glorious blaze of leaf death, watched over by the mountains.
For the first time in my life, I consciously felt something I hadn't even recognized as missing from my life: a sense that there might be hope for the human species.
Civilization of course came back. Not charging hard, banners waving, to overwhelm our impertinence: It came back sort of like the Spanish came slinking back into the Southwest after the Indians had revolted in 1680 and kicked their civilizing European asses all the way back south of El Paso.
The ski resort's financial breakdown had led us to think, naively I now see, that the world of money had abandoned us. But civilization never abandons anything that has any remote possibility of profitability. It just occasionally has to withdraw and regroup for a new assault in the effort to make every place part of its marketplaces.
So before we really knew what it meant, someone with money owned the ski area. The hippies were replaced by (or just became) hipsters selling real estate - some of them a bit apologetically, "but you've gotta do what you've gotta do" - and the cost of renting, investing, living in general began a slow steady rise in a curve that looked like the slope up to the hooked peak of the mountain - except the cost of living just kept climbing.
Without ever meaning to, or even realizing it, I contributed to that re-entry of civilization. I bought a newspaper - basically just a masthead and a list of 300 delinquent subscribers - for one dollar and a six-month printing contract, from a printer who had inherited the paper for unpaid bills in the ski resort's earlier meltdown.
Why a newspaper? Because the town didn't have one, and my residual semi-conscious sense of what a place ought to be said it should. I felt the damage I could do to the fragile possessed soul of the place was limited by my lack of training; my whole stock of publishing experience was in the circulation end - I'd had a paper route when I was a kid. But anything you get into for a dollar, you can afford to play around with.
I decided my job was not so much to report the present as to invent the future, along the lines we'd dreamed that fall. So I was probably guilty on occasion of what one American media historian called the problem of "representing things that had not yet gone through the formality of taking place." But by violating most of the stuffy precepts of civilized journalism, I succeeded in getting enough of my own persisting possession by the place down on paper to make the town and the valley seem really attractive to a lot of people - not all of them, unfortunately, possessed crazies like myself.
I not only lacked journalistic training, I also lacked any modicum of business sense. I loved writing the paper, but hated selling advertising, keeping the books and keeping regular office hours; there weren't just Snow Days, there were hiking days, biking days, afternoons instigating old-timer stories down at Starika's, Walt Whitman loaf-and-invite-your-soul days. I was still living on Mendicant Mountain.
But the town was changing around me. Businesses were changing hands right and left. Instead of more mendicants, the place was attracting the "ground-floor people" - the advance guard of civilization looking for good deals. They didn't look any different from us, but they worked harder, and I began to get the feeling that they didn't understand the place in some essential way. The word "quaint" began to be used more and more, and I realized that it wasn't just applied to the ramshackle architecture, it was being applied to me and my business practices as well.
My own life was changing, too. I got married and a family sort of happened. Eventually I sold the newspaper. It had a lot more subscribers than it had when I "bought" it - mostly out-of-town subscribers who, I suspected, were more interested in the real estate ads than my editorials. But it was still basically just a masthead, I'm proud to say: no building, no printing press, and the typewriter was a personal item left over from college.
But instead of selling it forward for the one dollar it was certainly still worth, I sold it for thousands of dollars, and so committed my first truly civilized act in that place - against the place, I would say. The guy I sold the newspaper to eventually resold it for tens of thousands of dollars, and it recently resold for a price in the hundreds of thousands.
That same thing, happening with houses and businesses all over town, is the way civilization effectively dispossessed the possessed and repossessed the town and the valley, remaking it in the image of our civilized "sense of place." And who can afford to close their doors for Snow Days with mortgages like that? We're now well into a whole different economy, a different world. In this economy, no mendicants need apply.
The thing is, it still isn't really working. By the standards of American civilization, the valley grows more marginal, not less so, especially as the economy contracts. There are financially successful people here, but most of them brought their success with them.
The general response is to try to do things more and more by the forms and formulas of civilization, as though what worked for New York and Chicago in the 20th century was some kind of a global recipe. I don't believe that, but don't know what to do instead.
I keep getting involved in attempts to try out ideas here in the valley, most of them fragments of the old ideas that seemed so brilliant that brilliant fall, but I'm not possessed enough now. I'm afraid I've gotten pretty civilized. After holding out until I was almost 50, I finally took on a full-time, year-round job, with salary, benefits, mortgage - "the full catastrophe," as Zorba said. I've gotten involved in "economic development," hoping that some day we will all begin to distinguish between "development" and "growth," but that seems to be a little like Jules Verne's vision of taking a train to the moon: We just don't have the right vehicle.
I go back to the mountain every now and then * Mendicant Mountain, as I still think of it. Steal time from my important work, and occasionally get lost for a couple hours. It's hardly what one would call a wilderness, scarred all over as it is with roads and clear-cut trails and blasted rocks and stumps, some of which scarring I had a hand in. But it's still a mountain, still bigger than any of the works scratched on it, and still my residual home of hope.
I was up there a couple months ago, on my way to a meeting with an hour or so to kill. I wasn't there long, but long enough to stop just seeing the scenery and to again start picking up on subtle things - like an aspen grove up on a little rise that seemed to summon me. I went up there, and presumptuously sat down in the middle of it for a bit, but it shut right up. I should have just stayed on the edge of it. Getting back down to the trail I'd been on required a detour to get past a willow thicket below the grove, and that led me suddenly into the edge of one of those ageless residual pockets of big spruce down in a soggy hollow. Ringing that pocket of spruce bog were more different kinds of mushrooms than I'd ever seen in one place in my life. I stopped, looked and listened for a sense of that place I'd never seen before on the mountain, and probably will never find again.
But then I had to get on to town for something I was already almost late for. So on down off the mountain, back to civilization. My sense of this place is that it doesn't find me much worth trying to possess anymore. It's lost me; I'm losing it.
The practical people are coming now.
- Thomas Hornsby Ferril
A version of this essay appeared in the newly revived Mountain Gazette, www.mountaingazette.com.