Heard around the West

  • The latest thing in antlers

    Elizsabeth McKabe


Whoever owns Bongo Billy’s Café in Salida, Colo., must just love kids. A sign by the cash register announces, "Unaccompanied children will be given an Espresso and a free puppy."


So much for the mystique of the Old West. Mega-millionaires are putting their pricey ranches on the market, reports the Wall Street Journal, because "the remoteness and roughing-it that once seemed so alluring can get tiresome." Don Lucas, a venture capitalist from California, said he hoped that buying a ranch in Montana would bring him closer to the land. Instead, he found the ranch so isolated that mail took a week to arrive and newspapers came a day late; he had to fly in his friends, he said, "just to have people around." But selling these elaborate spreads won’t be easy. What the Journal calls the "celebrity-range rage" that began in the 1980s has succeeded in jacking up prices of large Western ranches; now, it’s almost impossible for anyone but another wealthy person to buy in. Actor Rick Schroder, for example, wants $29 million for close to 15,000 acres in Colorado, singer Carole King is asking $19 million for her 128-acre place in Idaho, and businessman Leon Hirsch hopes to find a buyer willing to spend $21.9 million for his 17,000 acres, cows included. In Colorado, cable-company executive Leo Hindery Jr. hopes to sell his 1,400-acre ranch as well as the 17,000 square-foot "main house," but, he admits, "It’s a big bloody place. Finding a buyer could take awhile."


Real estate sales in ski resort towns, meanwhile, are hot, hot, hot. The Aspen Times says last year’s sales in Pitkin County broke records at $2.24 billion, up 40 percent from last year. A lot of the growth was in "fractional ownership," or time-share condos. The Vail Daily says Eagle County topped that with $2.8 billion in real estate sales last year, also a new record.


The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power features a moat and a 50-foot waterfall at its headquarters, and inside, drinking fountains abound. But as the Los Angeles Times reported last month, the agency still spent $31,160 over the last two years on bottled water from a company called Sparkletts. The story provoked additional outrage after an agency spokesperson tried to explain that bottled water went mainly to workers in places where potable water was unavailable, such as the Owens Valley. "That comment drew hoots from a letter writer who pointed out L.A. has been getting most of its drinking water from the Owens Valley for 100 years," reports the Inyo Register. But there was more. It turns out that the water agency also spends $500,000 each year to produce and mail a color brochure to residents "about the quality of tap water." And, the Los Angeles Times noted, the city of Los Angeles itself had a yen for non-tap water, buying about $89,000 worth of bottled water for employees during the last two years. As the Inyo Register put it, "L.A.’s version of Watergate leaves a bad taste."


Could Gov. Bill Richardson be running hard for the Democratic nomination for president? Just a thought, since the managers of all 70-plus motor vehicles bureaus in the state were ordered by fax to post the governor’s picture, reports the Albuquerque Journal. Not exactly true, said a spokesperson for the agency, though the memo said, "All offices that do not have the picture of the governor up in the office will need to contact Gloria Garcia in the director’s office right away." It’s just that some bureaus wanted a larger picture of Richardson than the 8-by-10-inch portraits available, the spokesperson said, and the memo explained where to get one.


Singer Willie Nelson, 72, a longtime supporter of farmers and working people, is also an environmentalist and outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq. Now, he’s blending those interests by investing in biodiesel, telling the New York Times, "It seems like that’s good for the whole world if we can start growing our own fuel instead of starting wars over it." A year ago, a firm called Willie Nelson BioDiesel was born, with the singer-activist basing the business at a truck stop he owns in Texas. His product is called "BioWillie,"and it blends 80 percent diesel fuel with 20 percent restaurant grease, or other animal or vegetable oil. You can find BioWillie at 13 gas stations and truck stops in four states, and recently, its price was just 4 cents more than conventional diesel fuel. Nelson says he won’t get rich with BioWillie, but "I hope somebody makes money out of it; I’m sure they will."

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated for this column. E-mail Betsy at [email protected]

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