Take the Western boots off Don Colcord, add more trees to the main street of Nucla, Colorado, and you’d have the movie set for “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Colcord, a pharmacist, playing Jimmy Stewart’s role as the principled banker of a small New England town.
But Colcord lives in arid western Colorado, in a town of 750 people, where he owns The Apothecary Shoppe. It’s two doors away from a little grocery that sells the bare essentials but little more. That’s Nucla in a nutshell.
The town was founded as an agricultural commune, but the commune disbanded. Agriculture continued, augmented at mid-century by uranium mining and processing. Colcord grew up at a nearby camp called Uravan in the 1950s and ‘60s, watching Sputnik inch its way across the star-filled night sky.
These days, Uravan has disappeared, following a lengthy Superfund cleanup, and Nucla, like so many small towns, barely hangs on.
“There’s not much there,” Colcord said of Nucla at Mountainfilm, a festival in Telluride, located 60 miles to the east.
Colcord had just been celebrated in a short documentary called “The Apothecary,” inspired by a profile written by writer Peter Hessler and published by The New Yorker in 2011. Hessler lived for a time in southwest Colorado and set out to describe a small town and its dynamics. Colcord emerged on the pages as the sort of selfless everyman who glues a community together.
Hessler’s piece revealed Colcord and perhaps Nucla as more complex than might be evident from a casual visit. For instance, Colcord is a loyal member of the National Rifle Association, which fits into the pattern of life in Nucla. Last year, the town board passed a law mandating ownership of guns. The law might be impossible to enforce, but it certainly mirrors local sentiments.
Colcord also has his own plane, and when he took Hessler up for a ride and put in a tape by the Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli, it made a deep impression on Hessler. The profile also made a deep impression on many readers. David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, called it one of the top magazine stories of the year. In Telluride recently, I asked Colcord how The New Yorker profile had changed his life.
“I had no idea the magazine had so many readers,” he said, adding that some of them had sent him money -- $3,000 altogether. Colcord had revealed that he writes off a substantial number of bills for prescriptions. In Nucla, times have been tough for decades. Yet many of the readers getting in touch with Colcord shared their wish to live a life like his -- in a small town community -- so long as there were jobs.
The film spawned by The New Yorker’s profile was an intimate picture of the druggist’s life. Filmmaker Helen Hood Scheer spent eight days with Colcord, showing him cracking jokes with customers, and later, reviewing some of their unpaid bills (“I must have ‘sucker’ written across my forehead.”) He also cleans his own house. (“I’d make somebody a good wife.”)
After the film was shown, Colcord talked about his guiding philosophies: “If people didn’t give, you couldn’t get.” And then this: “The only happiness you will ever have is making other people happy.”
His wife has been bedridden for several decades. In the film, he laments his own inability to relieve her pain. But in Telluride, he also revealed that, at age 63, he’d like to do other things with his life.
“Like everybody else, I’ve got a bucket list,” he said. With his wife incapacitated, though, he can’t travel. He also has a grandson to finish rearing. Anyway, he doesn’t know who would take over as the lone pharmacist for this on-the-edge town an hour from the nearest emergency room doctor.
Colcord is a hugger, and at one point he left the microphone in Telluride to hug one of his customers, who had just effusively thanked him. In his role as George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart reluctantly agrees to run the savings and loan in Bedford Falls, leaving others free to go off on more worldly adventures. It takes Clarence, the angel, to get Stewart to understand the good he has accomplished. After 20 showings, my eyes still brim with tears at the conclusion of this Hollywood story.
At Telluride, tears often filled Colcord’s eyes. It was a reaction to all the praise, but pain was mixed in. He seemed torn by the needs of family and community and by his own desires. Life on a pedestal is hard.
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. From the Denver area, he publishes Mountain Town News.