The Sun Shines on Everyone in the Wet Mountain Valley

Rain. Finally, a good, drenching rain temporarily floods the streets of Westcliffe. I slosh through puddles from my car on the way into Sugarlump, where certain coziness and coffee a-flowing are a foregone conclusion. *Pause here for gratitudinous (yes, it’s a made-up word) rain dance.*

It’s been a long time since I last found myself seated in a local coffee shop. There’s a certain magic to it, especially on a stormy day–as though the soul settles more deeply into the body and sinks into a longed-for stillness.

Growing up in Southwest Kansas, annual family visits to Westcliffe meant the unequivocal promise of such peace-abiding sensations. Every summer, highway 400 to 50 was nearly a straight shot west from Dodge City, and soon the mountains rose up like some heavenly presence on the edge of the sky. Once we hit the desert-y hills of Pueblo, we knew we were nearly home–or at least, what felt like home to us.

When at last the spiriting air of the Wet Mountains poured into our vehicle, a mysterious hush would settle over every one of us, mind, body, and soul, embodied throughout that week spent embraced by the arms of the Sangres.

Now, as a working member of the Custer County Community, I rarely have the privilege of partaking in the ease of a tourist’s approach to the valley, though I will never forget the enormous value of it in my young life. The gift of this rainy, coffee shop afternoon feels like a kiss of comfort from my childhood. I even remember days visiting here before Sugarlump and stuffing my face with rock candy sticks and peanut butter, chocolate fudge from Grandma’s House across the street.

A lifelong dream realized, now I truly can call Westcliffe, “home”. After what seems like eons of talking about it, my family took that long stretch of highway west for perhaps the last time (save those occasions when we return to Kansas for visits). My youngest sister and I are currently bunked together with our parents in their home with another sister and her three children just down the road. Two others are a short distance away in Colorado Springs and Buena Vista, and the final member of our crew spent the winter through fall of the 2020-2021 season here with us. Home, indeed.
However, it still feels short of a miracle that I’m here at all. I work hard at a landscaping and gardening job while supplementing odd jobs in surrounding towns and online. Thus far, I have found it next to impossible to afford my life here and still have yet to find appropriate and affordable housing in the area after years of searching.

As with most mountain towns in Colorado, the housing market and discrepancies of financial demand and liveable wage, among other issues, present ongoing obstacles for young people like me to remain in Custer County (especially for those of us, like myself, trying to pay debts to the Department of Education and other student loan lenders). Many of us are the hands and feet of this community, but the lack in our foundations means also that so many of us come, stay for a brief time, and realize quickly that we have to leave–one of the reasons my employer has had trouble remaining fully staffed, as have many others like him in the valley. These are some of the pressing topics I’d like to discuss with you here on the Valley Strong blog.

That brings me to the “why” of my being here, telling you my life story. My name is Laura Stephens, and I am a lifelong fan of and advocate for the rare and highly distinctive gem that is the Wet Mountain Valley. I am 36 years old, a singer/songwriter/musician, a poet, a writer, a sister, an aunty, a nature and conservation enthusiast, and one of the many dreamers in my generation of a future spent in community, sharing life and resources in greater connection to the earth and to the plants and creatures that inhabit it. I hope someday to have a small plot of land where I can raise my own food, live simply off-grid, and provide refuge to people and animals in need. I also dream of having a venue for musical collaboration and performance where people can come together to shake off the heavy burdens of our time, share healthy meals, and just love each other and life together.

Some friends of mine at Valley Strong have a similar vision of community, in which people from all over the valley of every distinct variety, can come together as one. To that end, we decided to unite in our efforts toward cultivating that vision and create this blog. We will invite discussion of topics relevant to the people of this valley and of the times we live in. Through interviews and even, perhaps, guest posts, I hope to provide a lens into and new and comprehensive perspectives of the vast array of people living here together for the common purpose that we all love this valley from a profound place within ourselves.

Throughout our history, but especially in these pandemic years it seems, we people of planet earth have appeared to grow more and more divisive. Friendships of decades are broken and families split apart by political and religious disagreement. Even as we work to gain a culture of respect toward the singularity of every breathtakingly unique and extraordinary human soul, we seem to be growing more and more identified with and focused on our differences rather than the commonalities between us. For young and middle-aged adults coming up in the world, this means the ground on which we stand feels shakier than ever. Rather than in the spirit of cooperation and unification, we are trying to find footing in a landscape where being right and having power take precedence over provision and care for all.

We, and perhaps our community, our country, and our species as a whole will not survive under these circumstances, which is why it is so important that we come together rather than pull further apart. There is always common ground for the human race, no matter your background, religion, race, etc. We find it in the things we long for, the things we’re afraid of, the things that make our lives abundantly worth living, the things that make it so difficult that at times we feel like we can’t go on, the simple pleasures, and things as primal as even the joy found in a baby’s laugh or the comfort of a loving embrace. I hope to be a voice for these things, for the ways that we are all alike, even amidst our beautiful and complex differences.

As I sit and appreciate the gift of a rain I know we’ve all been praying for in each of our own inimitable ways, this reality of how we seem to be sharpening our differences in a defensive stance against one another comes more clearly into my mind. Like the Wet Mountain Valley, the rain is an equalizer. As the mountains loom, unconquered and majestic above each and every one of us, as the sun gives its gift of warmth to everyone without distinction, so the rain falls on every human being without discrimination, on both the “just and the unjust.” May we be the rain and the sun and carry the spirit of the Wet Mountain Valley within our hearts for every one we meet.