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for people who care about the West

Migrations, old and new

Humans have always trekked paths to new places.


I noticed them immediately: A couple in their late 50s, with salt-and-pepper hair, enthusiastically poring over the menu at my favorite coffee shop in HCN’s hometown, Paonia, on Colorado’s Western Slope. Clearly, they’d never seen it before.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Oh, we live outside Denver, but we just bought a house and we’ll be moving here permanently next year,” said the man.

“I just love this place,” the woman added. “It’s so quiet, and it’s still affordable.”

It won’t be for long if people like you keep moving in, I thought darkly. In recent months, stories of “outsiders” snapping up local real estate for more than the asking price have become common. Traffic has become just this side of annoying. Our town, once dominated by agriculture and coal mining, is absorbing a new population, mostly aging Anglo baby boomers from the West’s burgeoning cities. It’s unclear how they will reshape the community, but change is obviously afoot.

Of course, who am I to complain? I’m also an aging baby boomer, and 25 years ago I was the spanking-new outsider who was going to ruin the place. The truth is, very few of us are from here. Even the ranchers who cite multiple generations on the land were outsiders 150 years ago. They came after the government forced the Ute people, who had lived here for thousands of years, onto reservations elsewhere.

Major human migrations are a fact of history. Perhaps none has stirred the imagination more than the sudden, seemingly mysterious “disappearance” of the people of the Four Corners area. Centuries ago, an estimated 25,000 people farmed, hunted and raised turkeys around Colorado’s present-day Mesa Verde National Park. Then, over a few decades in the 1200s, they left. Where they went, and what happened to them, has long been the subject of intense scientific inquiry. In this issue, correspondent Krista Langlois reports that researchers are paying new attention to some previously overlooked evidence — the oral histories of the Puebloans living along the Rio Grande River hundreds of miles south. Though not everybody agrees on the narrative, the Puebloans say there is no mystery: They have always known that they are descended from the people who built Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings. They still feel a deep attachment to that landscape.

Paul Larmer, Executive Director and Publisher
Brooke Warren/High Country News

It’s hard for me to imagine what a thousand-year connection to a place feels like, let alone 100 years. As I say goodbye to the couple at the coffee shop, I wonder how deeply rooted any of the millions of us streaming into and out of the West can ever be. Then again, the people of Mesa Verde pulled off a dramatic, successful relocation in a matter of decades. Maybe we modern-day immigrants can do so as well.