In a desolate place, will a modern pioneer last?

There are many ways a determined outsider can transform a place.


A few weeks ago, I visited the Eagle Rock Shelter, a nearby archaeological site on the Gunnison River. According to the scientists and students from Western Wyoming Community College who have spent the last few summers excavating it, small groups of people lived here on and off for 13,000 years, even as the landscape changed from pine forest to today’s sagebrush and tamarisk. That’s hundreds of generations — mind-boggling in a place where locals now brag about having fourth- or fifth-generation roots.

Illustration by Sarah Gilman

The shelter offered easy access to the river, a southern exposure that made for relatively warm winters, high bluffs from which to spot friends and foes, and the reliable presence of a dietary staple — rabbit.

Cisco, Utah, the setting of this issue’s cover essay by longtime High Country News contributor Sarah Gilman, lacks such obvious amenities. In fact, it’s about as hardscrabble a place as you can find in the modern West. That’s partly what attracted Eileen Muza, Gilman’s 34-year-old protaganist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is trying to make a go of it there. It’s a classic Western story: Will she stay for a year or two and then vanish like yesterday’s sheepherders, oil drillers, filmmakers and railroad workers? Or is she a true pioneer, someone who will dig in and create something new and lasting at a time when many Western communities are becoming warped by too-rapid growth?

Paul Larmer, executive director and publisher
Brooke Warren/High Country News

I’ve never doubted that a determined outsider can transform a place. Ed Marston, HCN’s publisher from 1983 to 2002, accomplished exactly this. He and his wife, Betsy, who still works at HCN, moved from New York City to tiny Paonia, Colorado, in the 1970s, abandoning careers in academia and public television to embark on an unlikely journalistic path.

Through his fierce writing and editing, fired by original thinking and an eagerness to challenge power, Ed not only influenced a generation of aspiring journalists, but also tens of thousands of citizens and officials and the way they think of the West. Even as he called out corruption and mismanagement, Ed insisted that the region could be something more than a resource colony for the rest of the country. And he always believed that we could learn to work across our cultural divides.

After he retired, Ed dug into his chosen community, serving on the boards of our electric co-op and other nonprofits, running for public office and investing in local real estate. Early in the morning on Aug. 31, Ed died suddenly from complications related to West Nile virus. We are still shaken, and we are deeply saddened.

In an upcoming issue, we will explore Ed’s legacy in more depth. In the meantime, we’ve gathered some of his writings here. I recommend reading them; they remain as incisive and original as the remarkable man who wrote them.

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