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Know the West

When I knew I had made it home

I drifted around the rural West and country for decades. Until I reached a small corner of Colorado.

This is a story I’ve told many times before, or maybe I only think I have, because it’s so deeply written inside my blood and bones and skin. It is a kind of love story, because it is a story about looking and longing for home, and I believe all stories about seeking a home are, or ought to be, love stories.

I grew up in a series of cluttered, crowded cars, sandwiched in with brothers and pets and inaccurately re-folded road maps, smuggling hot plates into cheap motels and picnicking at green parks in unremembered small towns. We were Air Force brats, not a name we chose; it was just a packing label slapped onto us to identify us as the excess baggage the military saw us as being. Where am I from? I’ve often been asked. Sometimes I think: Well, nowhere. Other times I think: Everywhere.


We never went to Europe, and we envied kids who did, but we did see Wewahitchka, Florida, and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. We pinballed across the country on back roads year after year, from Spokane to somewhere south of Miami, bouncing between base housing in Moses Lake, Washington, to actual basement housing in Aurora, Colorado, with time in trailers, in middle-class neighborhoods and two years in a roachy north Florida house near a lake where an alligator lurked. We became connoisseurs of roadside attractions, especially the un-attractive ones, gawking at stitched-together jackalopes and mermaids, and extremely unconvincing shrunken heads. We deciphered bullet-riddled historic markers and clambered on concrete dinosaurs. We wandered through battlefields and overgrown cemeteries, trespassing, politely, when necessary.

In so many ways it was a perfect childhood, and in so many ways, it wasn’t. How we loved the excitement of those open-ended journeys, and how we dreaded the first day at a new school, wondering if we’d just be the weird “new kids” forever — which, after nine or 10 schools in 12 years, seemed like forever to me. We generally lived off-base, because, in fact, we were off-base, and no matter hard we tried to blend in, we always stood out as not local. Eventually, I realized that my family was just another invasive species, blowing across the landscape like random tumbleweeds.

Diane Sylvain
 Sliding through small towns at twilight, darkness pooling around the old car like deep cool water, we drove past houses where families lived, with warm bright windows and a comfortable feeling of reality.

And, eventually, inevitably, the novelty wore off. Too many meetings and too many partings. Sometimes I felt as if bits of my heart were caught and pinned by the wayside, held hostage to every tree and sunset and horse and passing train. Sliding through small towns at twilight, darkness pooling around the old car like deep cool water, we drove past houses where families lived, with warm bright windows and a comfortable feeling of reality. How greedily I stared at those windows, envying kids running home in the grass from kickball and hide-and-seek. They knew where they would sleep that night; I wasn’t always that sure.

But then Dad retired, I left home and finally settled, or thought I did, in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Back then, it was just a funky old mountain town, with 600 year-round residents, a short but desperate summer tourist season, and a lot more bars than my current hometown has churches — and believe me, this town has an awful lot of churches. I stitched a duffel bag to an Army Surplus pack frame and cobbled together a tent from a sheet of Visqueen, some rope and a ground cloth, and tromped every inch of that rocky rugged landscape, hiking down Long Hungry Gulch and climbing Nipple Mountain. I chopped firewood and learned to shoot pool and shoveled quicklime down the outhouse whenever it was needed. I was a hippie Mountain Mama now, and I reveled in my existence.

But even so, I never quite settled. In 10 or so years, I moved at least 16 times, as soon as the building sold or the summer folks came or the plumbing (or relationship) froze up and broke down beyond repair. I danced from job to job like changing partners at a Saturday night dance. And, inevitably, inelegantly, that life had to end.

Diane Sylvain

One weekend I was mountain biking, already planning my next backpacking trip; the next, I was sprawled at the bottom of a staircase in the far-from-up-to-code restaurant I waited tables in, still groping for a nonexistent banister and clutching a now-empty water pitcher. It’s one of those moments that linger in the memory: The goldfish gape on the face of the man at the table nearest the bottom, staring at me in wonder as I tumbled, with his fork frozen halfway to his mouth. Then the shock of gravity when I landed, and the electric flash of pain like a car alarm, followed by an even more frightening numbness as my backbone struggled to process what had just happened.

Well. Living in the mountains at 9,500 feet above sea level when you can chop your own firewood is one thing; finding yourself both broke, and broken, at the start of another nine-month winter — that’s another. And that year, my last winter there, was hard: hounded for bills I couldn’t pay for a not-quite-successful surgery, while my boyfriend took classes in Boulder and, as I eventually realized, pursued noncurricular “independent studies.” (He was a lovely man, but — tragically — monogamy-impaired.) There was a point that January, when the plumbing, which had been frozen solid for a week, abruptly thawed late at night during a blizzard, at the exact same moment that the wind dislocated the stovepipe. The old house flooded with smoke and water, and I felt like I had been abandoned on the Titanic, without a gallant orchestra to play “Nearer my God to Thee” for me as my ship went down.

Winters at high altitude were never easy back then. Winter Part I was just basic winter, cold and cozy and quiet, but after a brief intermission for mud, the sequel was released: Winter, Part Two: The Empire Strikes Back. For two months, bitter winds blew the snow sideways, baring ground in front of your house while a 6-foot drift sealed off the back door. Everybody, even dogs and cats, was in a really bad mood. And people started living like the country music on the jukebox was the soundtrack to their lives — all that drinkin’ and cheatin’ and goin’ back to Texas. Which was, coincidentally, where my boyfriend went, to visit his family, he said.

But that spring, he came home with a new teaching certificate and a list of Colorado jobs to apply for. Our plumbing had frozen yet again, this time out in the street; something the town dealt with by digging giant pits in the road, dropping a few burning tires in them, and then just leaving it all to smolder and stink until everything eventually thawed, maybe sometime in June. So, I was more than ready to go anywhere, sleeping in the truck, with R. tidying up at the nearest gas station before each job interview.

And I said, “I’ve heard of this place called Paonia. …”


Diane Sylvain

Paonia was a small town in a valley in the mountains and mesas of western Colorado, home to maybe 1,400 farmers, coal miners, ranchers and back-to-the-landers, the kind of place where old hippies go to die. All I knew about it, really, was that pot grew there. But more important, that fruit grew there as well: One restaurant I worked at got peaches from Paonia. And at this point I no longer believed that fruit, or anything, grew anywhere in Colorado. How many times I’d gone through Delta on my way to backpack in the red-rock canyon country, never dreaming there might be a reason to stop and look around. 

Oh. … That first glimpse of the sweet blooming glory of the town, the blue peak of Lamborn still white with snow, and oh, the fresh new green of the trees and the green green greenness of the grass, and oh, the blossoming of everything. A river tumbling underneath the bridge; maple and cottonwood trees; fruit trees blooming. There were barns; there were lilacs! Birds singing, and people smiling on the street— smiling as if their pipes weren’t frozen, as if they were happy to be alive. It was as if we’d wandered into a Ray Bradbury story after ingesting the highest quality psilocybin mushrooms. It was, in fact, exactly like landing in Oz.

And that was it, that moment: I knew. All my life I had been a compass, and never known it until the needle at last swung round, and pointed me here: led me here, at last, to the home of my heart.

All my life I had been a compass, and never known it until the needle at last swung round, and pointed me here: led me here, at last, to the home of my heart.

So, we basically just closed our eyes and jumped. We rented a cheap bank repo house, while the kindly bank manager urged us to buy something instead. “Who would lend us money?” I asked, what with my medical bills and all. “I would,” he said, having clearly modeled himself after Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life. “Because I think you belong here, and I think you’re gonna stay.”

Well, he was right — at least about me. We bought an old house, and that winter, I came home one day from one of my part-time jobs, library books tucked under my arm, dazzled by the rose-gold light on the sunset snowy mountains, as happy right then as I knew how to be. And that was the day that my partner accepted an offer to teach English in Japan, “just for a month,” he said — a very long month that ended half a year later in operatic remorse and an unnecessary amount of long-distance tears and flapdoodle. But many years later, we remain friends, and whenever he visits, he looks around wistfully and sometimes sighs: “Paonia.”

And then goes away, because honestly, funky small mountain towns are not for everyone.

But I’m still here. Even after three decades, I’ll never be a true local; that’s just the way these small towns work. But if I learned anything, it’s how to adapt and survive as an invasive species. And seeing as how that is what I am, I plan to keep making the best of it: be as busy and bright as a field of dandelions, but as hard to uproot as any Siberian elm. Because, invasive or not, I am rooted here. I am, at this point, just human bindweed, and like all bindweed, I guarantee it, I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Diane Sylvain

Diane Sylvain has been in Paonia considerably longer than she can remember or account for. She works as a copy editor for High Country News, edits and writes for a local church bulletin, and hopes to one day get back into her art studio, if she can ever hack a way through all the cobwebs.