I remember the first time I laid eyes on the county. A three-hour road trip to the Great Dunes National Park in 2020 brought us to what we now call and hope to call forever our home. At first, the great pinon pines, evergreens, and towering aspens welcomed us, ushering a sense of unparalleled peace, quiet, and adventure. Now, the sign for the San Isabel Forest waves me on as I make my morning or evening commute to the next time-consuming job in the city I take to make my life out here in Westcliffe livable.
To residents of the Valley, sacrifice is not a new concept. Sacrifice looks different for everybody. I knew very well what I was getting into when I purchased an off-grid cabin in Bear Basin; high winds, cold winters, unpaved roads, water well issues, and solar panel upgrades. What I did not bargain for was what seems to be the very first topic of conversation when meeting new residents of the valley; what you do for a living and how you’re going to keep that up year-round.
My skills and schooling as a chemist and at this point christened lab rat all culminated in nearly zero transferable skills out here on the homestead. I wanted chickens, ducks, goats, and dogs to guard them all. I wanted a garden to feed myself and I wanted time to plant that garden. Unlike working in the city, I wanted to belong to myself and the land I owned, and I felt that the closer I was to this untamed, rural setting, the more connected to nature I would be. In many ways I was subject to nature’s mercy, but in many others, I became even more distant from the original dream I set out to accomplish when first moving out here.
All the original excitement and wonder gradually faded as I struggled to find my place in a small town. I tried to consolidate my desires with the ever-present harsh realities of living out here- realities I did not plan on. I wanted to live in a small town, a small community, where I could feel the weight of my efforts and influence reach beyond the site of my own back porch. What I got was a job and apartment in Pueblo that had me occupied three weeks out of the month and without an inkling of time or freedom on my hands save for those seven days I was off of work- and by that time, after living three quarters of the month away from home, home ceased to feel like home. I could listen to the chirp of spring birds in the morning, hike to the top of the hill and look out at the snow-capped Sangre de Cristos, and feel I was growing ever more distant the more I strove to get back home.
I started to understand why people left after their first year, understand why most of my neighbors were retired, and understand that to live here I needed to make a change. The Valley hardly seemed kind to neither the working professional nor the farmer, whose own local market rather discreetly got pushed out of the only Main Street park location due to heavy foot traffic affecting the park’s grass. I thought about downsizing, I thought about selling the animals, and I thought about moving back to the city just to be like the rest of many homeowners in Custer County: a part-time resident. I questioned what that would look like many years down the road. Empty buildings and businesses, not a soul in the winters (save for those driving through to Salida), and real estate offices offering to sell the dream to other city dwellers for a price no one could afford any more, and it dawned on me that this community in time too would fade.
All of the familiar faces I’d come to know would in time fade away anyways. The businesses and restaurants may close, and the people may move- but no one who has lived out here for a while stays and moves out here for any of that. The most beautiful thing about Westcliffe will always be the things most unaffected by civilization, despite our best efforts. The Sangre de Cristo Mountain range glowing soft and lavender on an early winter sunrise, the snow piling quietly on the pines, and the Milky Way I saw for the very first time in my life on a clear, autumn night- these are the things I love the most about Westcliffe. Along with its landscape, the mountains impart a spirit of independence unlike any other I’ve encountered before. This spirit calls us to plant gardens despite hurricane-force winds, raise livestock, and work for ourselves despite never having done it before. Everyone who moves here feels this spirit and knows the struggle. Convenience is not at your fingertips, and there is certainly something I love about telling visitors there is not a Costco down the street.
Even if your respective experiences in the valley are brief, whether you are visiting for the summer from Texas, are a fair-weather resident, or a full-time resident for a short stint in your life, your experience out here will stay with you forever. I have learned to be grateful for every passing year I get the opportunity to stay out here in my cabin in the woods. However fleeting or impermanent, I am beyond fortunate to be able to bear witness to the changing of the seasons. I have learned to love and live in the constant change, knowing now what I did not before. The things I do in my life out here may always change, but the feeling I get from a silent, starry night will always remain.