For years, we’ve gotten calls from reporters from Outside and other glossies, wondering if Paonia, Colo., HCN’s hometown, is worthy of a Top 10 designation. "Oh, yes," is our standard reply. "If you don’t mind the coal trains that rumble through the middle of town 24 hours a day from the mines up the road, it’s a great place to live. You’re not chemically sensitive, are you? Because the mosquito district sprays malathion once a week all summer long, whether we need it or not. And there is the matter of Delta County’s crystal meth problem — we’re tops in the state. Just tell your readers that if they buy land, they should check that they own the mineral rights, too, because there’s a natural gas rush on …"
By the end of the conversation, the writer usually wonders if we have any other towns to suggest. We’re happy to point them in another direction, preferably to one far away.
It’s not that we don’t love this town of ours — coal trains, problems and all. And it’s not that we couldn’t use an economic shot in the arm. There are empty shop fronts on the main drag, and businesses come and go with the seasons.
The problem is that people tend to see Paonia — and other small Western towns — as an escape from the world’s ills. They’re not. As a medic on the local ambulance service, I can tell you that our small-town smiling Mayberry façade hides all the darker issues — poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, suicide — that plague larger towns.
And it doesn’t help that an increasing number of people see places like this as a part-time escape. They buy second homes that sit vacant for much of the year, driving housing prices out of the reach of local working people. They pay their property taxes, but contribute only sporadically to local businesses and civic organizations. (Ambulance driver, anyone?)
So it was with some horror that we read the latest Forbes magazine, which declares Delta County to be "the best-kept secret in Colorado’s second-home market." The writer waxes eloquent about the former residents of Aspen, Vail, et al, who are bringing us "the cultural and social atmosphere, plus that unique Western lack of pretension, that made their former hometowns so attractive in the first place." It quotes the county’s tourism coordinator as saying that "outdoor farm parties under moonlight with a string quartet playing and food and wine" are commonplace.
Uh, right. You can hardly hear the coal trains over the cellos and violins.
Of course, the attention isn’t all bad. Just ask my former neighbors, Corky and Arlene. Corky grew up on a farm in Arvada, Colo., back when it looked more like Paonia does now, and less like Denver sprawl. They sold their house in Paonia recently for a handsome profit. Last I talked to them, they were headed east, to a moribund farming town on the Plains, where the real estate is dirt cheap. They plan to live the rest of their days there, on the money they got from selling high in one of the West’s most recently "discovered" boomtowns.