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for people who care about the West

Down on the ground looking for culture

 

The topic for the Gunnison, Colo., master-plan meeting not long ago was "community culture," and the rambles of that discussion have been lurking in my mind ever since. The talk went fast to complaints about a really junky property on the west approach to town, a collection of shacks and sheds with stuff lying around. From laments about the impression this created for visitors, the discussion broadened to a general lament about other "eyesores" around town, and the difficulty of getting such places cleaned up despite a city ordinance enabling the city to clean up messes and bill the owner.

You might gather that tidiness and a pretty appearance are high on the list of qualities we care about in this college town. But this does nothing to explain that, for the four decades I have been living in or near Gunnison, that same collection of shacks and junk has been rotting away. That property was probably the poster display for those citizens pushing the anti-mess ordinance when it was passed sometime last century. So, if it is our community culture to maintain a neat and clean property, why do we have these eyesores?

I have an answer that comes out of a brush with that law. Back when I was still hanging onto middle-class origins by my fingernails, I had two vehicles awaiting repair in my yard: a classic 1941 Jeep pickup that wouldn't start and an $800 Honda I'd bought to replace a $300 Toyota, which had thrown a rod on Monarch Pass. And, when it wasn't moving, my still-running Toyota looked abandoned itself.

One spring day, a policeman showed up at my door and politely told me the city had a special deal: It would haul my "abandoned vehicles" to the junkyard at no charge, thereby putting me in compliance with the law.

I told him, as politely, there was a mistake; the vehicles weren't abandoned, they were just awaiting repair. "Oh," he said, a note of skepticism lurking, "They've been there so long...." Only a year or so, I pointed out, and said I was sure I'd find time to get around to them that summer. So he retreated and that was that.

The summer after that summer — both vehicles still there, unrepaired — I faced my fully employed reality and found homes for both the vehicles. But in the interim year, I'd never heard another word from the city.

That makes me think that there is another, deeper strain to our community culture, and that's a "live and let live" philosophy. I might not like what my neighbor does on his or her property, but it's his property. And when it comes to resolving the conflict between those two aspects of the community culture, "live and let live" trumps a neatnik town.

My VAR collection (Vehicles Awaiting Repair), for example, didn't hold a candle to that of any respectable rancher. You can tell how established and stable a ranch is by the size of its VAR lot. And other stuff too; a rancher friend told me once (shaking a piece off his boot), "If you need a piece of wire, just take five steps in any direction."

That's community culture, too, or was, anyway. Today, there's just too much stuff, and most of us don't have the kind of storage a rancher does. A lot of stuff is made to be thrown away when it malfunctions, though the cost of disposal isn't built into the price. I'm embarrassed to say I have three old telephones, two phone-faxes, an old MacIntosh computer and a few other electronic items in a closet, and no idea when any of it will ever be useful. But you never know till you need them.

Today, I acknowledge, this might be just personal idiosyncrasy, not community culture. So I won't, as it were, come out of the closet with it. And I keep a reasonably tidy yard these days. But I'm not going to lead any charge to make everyone else keep a tidy yard, too — and if that results in some newcomers being so offended that they decide to build their retirement mansion in Bend, Ore., or Tucson, Ariz., instead of Gunnison in western Colorado, that's fine with me.

George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer and teacher in Gunnison, Colorado.