Mountain View Near Ridgway, Colorado
Like many other baby boomers born somewhere west of the Mississippi at a time when thriving small towns still dotted the Great Plains, I grew up in a small town. It was, as people often said, in the middle of nowhere.
After decades of city life in the US and Europe, I live on a mountaintop between Ridgway and Ouray, Colorado - high in the middle of nowhere.
I started out life in southeastern South Dakota, where there are certainly no mountains. Or hills, for that matter.
My hometown was on the only hill in Hutchinson County. When I looked out at the world beyond the ground under my feet, a world that existed only in my imagination, I saw nothing but farms and fields – a tiny patch of the vast North American steppe stretching to the horizon in all directions.
Another difference: trees. Outside our town there were no trees except for the shelterbelts planted during the Dirty Thirties. By 1938 some 80,000 trees were planted in windbreaks across the Midwest thanks to FDR who used emergency funds to make it happen. The idea was to use the power of the state to prevent erosion and protect farmsteads and livestock from blowing snow.
Anybody who's ever experienced a winter blizzard on the upper Great Plains, knows that "snowfall" is a misnomer. Snow does not fall in South Dakota, it blasts you like a steady barrage of birdshot from the barrel of a 12-gauge. To my mind, shelterbelts are one example of a good use of state power. We can all come up with plenty of bad examples.
We had nothing to compare to the abundant wildlife in Ouray County, but we did have pheasants. Lots of pheasants. "The pheasant capital of the world!" – or so it was said.
And jackrabbits. When I came of age it just so happened that there was a great population explosion – of jackrabbits. We bagged a lot of 'em and got 50 cents apiece from the latterday fur traders who came through town every so often during the winter months. Oddly, we didn't have deer in our county or adjacent ones in those days. And, of course, no elk, bears, wild cats of any kind, or even wild turkeys.
But beyond these obvious differences, the rhythm of life in Ridgway, Ouray, and other small towns on the Western Slope still resonates somewhere deep down, a place in the DNA of my memory perhaps, although I really can't say for sure. Or is it just my imagination?
I'll leave it to you to decide what has changed and what, if anything, remains the same. Here's the way life in a small town was (or the way I remember it).
First, we didn't a need watch. At 12:00 noon and 6:00 p.m. every day the siren sounded. That meant it was mealtime and everybody headed home. Not for lunch, mind you, but for dinner or supper because the only time we had "lunch" was between meals. Dinner was NOT a meal to be eaten in the evening. That was supper.
Second, when you went out the door in the morning, your mom didn't ask you where you going or when you were coming home. Bicycles didn't have gears and no helmets were necessary. Nobody was telling you what to do but you couldn't get away with anything. There was a natural right to be safe and free as a child. Everybody knew everybody so nobody dared harm you and you couldn't get away with anything beyond a bit of mischief.
Third, the "welfare system" was local – my mom always gave the clothes my sister and I grew out of to poor families or single mothers (often the same). I would see other younger kids wearing a shirt that no longer fit me. In one case, a shirt I'd worn many times had a bullet hole in the pocket. Fortunately for me, the boy wearing the shirt had taken the bullet (a .22 short) but the bullet had hit the breast plate and he miraculously was not killed – in fact, he'd not been seriously injured!
John H., one of my little friends, had no father or mother. He was raised by his three older sisters, one of whom ran the local movie theater as a part-time job. The front row aisle seat had been removed so the aisle seat behind it had no obstruction. That was John's seat. Mine was right next to his.
John committed suicide in his mid-30s. Among my schoolmates and boyhood friends, John was the second to die. The first was killed in Vietnam. If it happened to anyone in town it happened to everyone, it touched all our lives in a way that hearing about some tragedy on TV doesn't.
Fourth, equal opportunity was not some pie-in-the-sky piece of legislation or state-imposed public policy. Everything was open to everybody – music, sports, speech and drama, you name it. If you lived on the farm, it depended on your parents. Some farm kids had to head home right after school to help with chores – for them, extracurricular activities were often not an option.
Fifth, doctors made house calls and didn't ask for proof of insurance or pre-payment before treating patients. I know of one little hamlet that had no doctor but one of the residents was a registered nurse. Her name was Florence. (No, not Nightingale.) Her house functioned as the local free clinic and the only one in town. She was often paid in kind with fruits, vegetables, eggs, fresh dairy products (direct from the cow) – and gratitude. She died recently having lived into her 90s but people there still remember her, and smile.
Finally, business was synonymous with Main Street. There was no WalMart, strip mall, or McDonald's. Big box stores and fast food franchises didn't exist. Every business was owned and operated by a local resident who paid local taxes, supported local events, and served on local boards and committees.
My dad ran a hardware store (one of three in town) and served as secretary-treasurer on the city council. My best friend's dad had a Ford dealership and was president of the school board. His major competitor, the Chevrolet dealer on the other side of the street, lent him money to help him stay in business.
The Chevy dealer turned out to be my future father-in-law. He was one of the only Democrats in town. That didn't stop him from running for mayor, and winning. He later repaid the townsfolk for patronizing his business by single-handedly raising the money to build a retirement home.
That world is fast disappearing. Even so, it still exists in quiet out-of-the-way places like Ridgway, Colorado. A place thousands of travelers - many in motorized homes or cars towing campers - pass through in summer, or bypass altogether on Highway 550. Most are heading for the white knuckle ride otherwise known as Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton. That's a thrill, to be sure, but they'll never really know what they missed.
A Street in Ridgway, Colorado
Note: A slightly different version of this post originally appeared in my column in the Ouray County Plaindealer (December 1-7, 2011).