A giant resort overshadows a tiny Colorado town

A teacher's perspective of big changes to a small town.

  • Red sandstone buttresses overlook Gateway Canyons Resort.

    Brooke Warren
  • Aggie Wareham, 83, and the author remember their time in Gateway. Wareham has lived there her entire life and was the sole graduate at the school in 1948.

    Brooke Warren
  • A construction worker from Grand Junction works on infrastructure for employee housing at Gateway Canyons Resort that will include a pool, a gym and more.

    Brooke Warren
  • Sun shines through trees on land outside of Gateway that has been bought by the resort.

    Brooke Warren
  • Aggie Wareham, 83, looks through old photo albums, remembering her lifetime spent in Gateway, Colorado.

    Brooke Warren
  • A dirt road extends past discarded household items in the town of Gateway.

    Brooke Warren
  • Birds fly over the town of Gateway, Colorado.

    Brooke Warren

It takes about three natural breaths, in and out, to drive through Gateway, Colorado, if you’re driving the posted speed limit (40 miles an hour) on Colorado Highway 141. Gateway is a spectacularly beautiful place about 55 miles south and west of Grand Junction on the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway. Like a lot of little places all over the West, this backwater spot has no city limits, no ordinary beginning or ending; it is the tiniest of black dots on the map of western Colorado. If you drive through Gateway, you probably won’t see any of the 80 people who live in “town,” although if school’s in session, you might notice a few school vans and pickup trucks in the gravel lot of the tiny K-12 public school, which has about 30 students and four full-time teachers. If you’re there at recess, you might see some of the 20 elementary kids outside playing soccer, using four plastic chairs, borrowed from the principal’s office, for goals.

In 1985-’86, I was one of those four teachers. Gateway was then at the tail end of a classic boom-and-bust extraction economy. The boom times first hit in the 1880s, when copper mining was big, followed over the next 100 years by successive waves of pitchblende, carnotite, vanadium and uranium. In the 1980s, mining and milling were on the way out, though logging and ranching still seemed downright stable as occupations go. When I taught there, most of my students lived on historic homesteads in and around Gateway and the Unaweep Canyon. I can still hear their jokes and talk in my head, still remember the shape of their handwriting on the page, still see their plaid flannel shirts and sunburned faces and, once in a while, their furtive snuff-filled lower lips at the all-school morning meetings. I had little sense of the power and the presence of community when I first arrived in Gateway, no lofty motives for moving there, and only a dim awareness of the kind of toughness and endurance it took to live in a place like that. 

I had come from Pagosa Springs, another relatively small town in southwestern Colorado, where I taught high school English and coached skiing for 10 years before becoming restless. I thought at the time that moving from one small town to another, even smaller town was somehow romantic, an anachronistic adventure, insofar as no one I knew of had taught multiple-year students in a one-room schoolhouse for at least — oh, 100 years or so. To be honest, I also figured that if I didn’t like it, I could transfer to a larger school in Grand Junction after a year. I thought of Gateway as a retro stop on the Pony Express, a frontier outpost, a red-rock desert version of exile in the Aleutian Islands.

My students turned out to be as tough and scrabbly as the ground itself, and although I only had 14 students in grades seven through 12, I learned very quickly how difficult — no, how impossible! — it was to teach eight kids in one room instead of 150 students divided up into tidy sections by grade level. As a teacher, I felt like both an insider and an outsider in the community. I was invited to dinner at almost every student’s home at least once, and I got to know parents and siblings and even dogs and cats on a first-name basis. On the other hand, I was an outsider to the closely interlocked family histories in the community, and I attended the Christmas program, community-wide dinners and dances, and Bible studies as a welcomed but largely detached guest, not truly a part of the tight, fierce web that held the community together.

I’m pretty sure my letters to friends and family at that time were full of pride (at having chosen such an unusual, isolated place to live) and bravado, and more than a little amazement that such a place could still exist in the year 1985. At a baccalaureate service in the tiny church that year, the pastor told the two high school graduates: Don’t count yourselves out because Gateway is small and this school is small. Small things in nature can have great impact, meaning, and strength — like fleas, he said. And flies, and commas. 

I agree about the commas.

But living 60 miles from anywhere was not easy, and I ended up taking another teaching job in Grand Junction after the year was over. I thought at the time that Gateway would always be there for me to visit, to come back to. But the Gateway I knew began to change in about 1995, when John Hendricks, of Discovery Communications fame, bought a ranch outside of town and then gradually began to purchase other ranch properties up and down the Unaweep Canyon and adjacent to the Dolores River. Longtime Gateway residents looked at these acquisitions with little suspicion, at first; this seemed to them a bit of a lark, much more puzzling than threatening: Why would a guy like that want to live here when he could live anywhere? In addition to the whiff of celebrity, Hendricks brought some much-needed improvements to the community in the form of a wastewater treatment plant and grass for what had been a school playground composed of dust and tumbleweeds. He also worked with The Nature Conservancy and the Mesa County Land Trust to set aside some of his acreage for conservation and historic easements.

By 2005, however, John Hendricks’ influence on the Gateway community took the shape of an incredibly luxurious, upscale eco-tourist resort complex called The Gateway Canyons Resort and Spa, which currently features three restaurants, two high-end hotels, swimming pools, and a host of eclectic activities, including a monster truck-driving track, a skeet and trap-shooting range, an auto museum, and a vacation package called a Curiosity Retreat, which provides not only world-class amenities, but also lectures and forums on a host of intellectual topics.

The Resort, together with all of its associated facilities and programs, exists in stark contrast to the town of Gateway, which is located about half a mile north of the development. On a visit during the last week of August — a warm Saturday afternoon in what should have been peak season — the Resort itself was eerily empty; although there is exquisitely planned space for at least 500 vehicles, there were no cars in the hotel and restaurant parking lots, and no people other than ourselves wandering about. There were just 14 cars and motorcycles in front of the Auto Museum and a few more outside the Adventure Center; no one was checking in at the desk, although the clerk told me that the Resort was often full to capacity. But by and large, on that afternoon, the entire complex seemed to be weirdly quiet.

The Resort has just completed a large-scale renovation project in which its hotel offerings have been updated (hence the going rate of $599/night, which is at the low end of the pricing structure) and its restaurants expanded (the Paradox Grille offers less-expensive fare, while the Entrada is strictly high-end). In addition, the Resort moved one of its commercial ventures, a gas station and convenience store called the Outpost, from Resort property into the actual town of Gateway. A woman I talked with in the Outpost explained that the store really “needed” to be separated from the Resort, so that the Resort did not have to deal with highway traffic — Harleys, Subarus, stray bicyclists — and could concentrate instead on Resort customers, who have less prosaic needs than gasoline and hot dogs.

When I compare Gateway Canyons Resort and Spa to the community I knew, it’s hard to escape a sense of loss, of disconnection, of head-scratching disbelief at the material phenomenon that is the Resort. In a paradoxical way, the Gateway of pre-Resort days was also a puzzle, a place out of time, because it was so isolated, so unbelievably small. It’s hard for me to reconcile these two very different places and think of them as one, because they’re not.  

When the Resort was in its planning stages, John Hendricks told the Mesa County Commissioners that he wanted to “revitalize” the town of Gateway and help it get back on its feet. Ironically, however, what I see when I go back to Gateway now — to volunteer at the school or visit with friends — is not a town that is being revitalized, but a community that is slowly being erased. The Gateway cemetery, for example, which has existed for almost 100 years, is now located on Resort property, and those who live in Gateway must ask for permission to visit it. And plans have been approved for a new “luxury” residential subdivision, which falls within the Resort’s intended sphere of commercial influence but which violates the spirit of John Hendricks’ promise that “this corner of Colorado would be preserved as nature had created it” even as the Resort grows and changes.

Here’s the thing that saddens me: As of February 2015, the school teeters on the brink of closure; there are four fewer students in 2015 than there were in 2014. Meanwhile, because it’s good for business, Resort facilities and attractions are packaged and marketed without ever mentioning the town of Gateway at all. In newspaper articles, and particularly in photographs of the area, the community of Gateway — both the one I knew and the one that is there now — is simply no longer visible. But even if visitors to the Resort can’t see it, my Gateway is still there, tucked like a strand of windblown hair behind the curve of the river and the bend in the highway.

Maureen Neal teaches in the English­ department at Colorado Mesa University.­

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