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  • Writer's pictureRichard A. Jones

Walking the Same Ground: Glimpses of Community

Updated: Nov 3, 2023


WALKING THE SAME GROUND

“COMMUNITY”

A couple of years ago some friends said to me, “you know, there are books about the mining and ranching history here, but nobody has written much about the valley over the past 50 years. Why don’t you do it?

Out of that conversation, I began writing a series of personal memories and stories titled Walking the Same Ground. It is about life in the Vally for Barb and me over the past nearly five decades.

I know that for the few valley natives who are still living here, 50 years do not qualify Barb and me as old timers, however, I want to offer a brief thumbnail sketch of Westcliffe as we have known it.

No names have been changed to protect the innocent. Mainly because none of us are innocent. The people mentioned here, and many more, are all guilt, I believe, of being a genuine community.

One disclaimer or warning—Mark Twain once said, “When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I am getting older, and soon I shall remember only the latter.”

***************

Almost a half century ago, there were only about a thousand people in Custer County. This amounted to a little more than one person per square mile. Westcliffe had one restaurant, five churches, no chain stores, no dentist, and no bank.

No one seemed to mind that Otto Elze had a junk yard behind his Main Street home, or that the game warden, Dan Riggs occasionally brought deer and elk meat to the school lunch program.

The town Christmas tree sat in the middle of the intersection of Main Street, Third street, and Highway 69. Everybody just slowed down and drove around it.



***************

Besides flat tires and broken windshields, Driving in Custer County had a few other unique nuances.

I wonder how many conversations I had, over the years, with Ben Kettle, Bud Camper, Harvey Rusk, or Jack Geroux sitting in our trucks taking up most of the county road. I never heard anyone honk a horn or cast a dirty look. They waved, and like the town Christmas tree, they just slowed down and drove around us.

Myrtle Cody occasionally left her car running in the middle of the road while she ran back into her house for a “minute,” (or thirty minutes). And like the town Christmas tree, everybody just slowed down and drove around it.

***************

Jean Rusk told me of the time that Francis Kettle was parked on the north side of Main Street, and Jean was parked on the South side of Main Street. When Francis backed out she ran into the back of Jean’s car. She got out and said, “Oh Jean, I’m so glad I hit somebody I knew.”

The Department of Motor vehicles used to send an examiner to the courthouse once a month to renew licenses. One day, I happen to be there with Harry Vandenberg, or Harry Van as he was “semi-affectionately” called.

Harry couldn’t read past the top line of the eye chart, much less the required line to pass the vision test. The examiner told him, “Ok Harry, stay in the county and don’t drive at night,” and gave him his license. No one complained. We all just moved over a little to the right when we saw that grey jeep coming, and we let Harry pass.

Norma Salameno lived about nine miles north of town, and she didn’t have a car. So, the school bus picked Norma up and brought her to town with the kids. No one worried that she might sue the school if something happened.

John Comstock’s green pick-up rarely saw 35 miles per hour on Highway 69 between Texas Creek and Westcliffe. If you couldn’t catch an opening on a dotted yellow line, then you might as well have settled down and enjoyed the scenery.

In the 1970’s, traffic was very light. Once, when Highway 69 was still a dirt road in the South end of the valley it took me three hours to hitch hike from Medano Pass to Westcliffe. Other than the one that picked me up, I saw only one other vehicle in that three hours.

Traffic was so light that people would stop to watch if there were five vehicles in a row, and it was usually assumed that there had probably been a funeral.

***************

Today Main Street is gift shop, art gallery, and restaurant which caters to a tourist economy. Back then, Main Street was gas station, grocery, and hardware, because Westcliffe was primarily a ranching community and so…

…It was once very common to encounter cattle drives on county roads. Sometimes I was on a horse helping the cause. Other times I was uninvolved and just driving in a vehicle. Either riding a horse beside one of the cowboys or rolling down the car window, moving slowly through the herd, it was a good time to catch up on the weather, the hay crop, calving, family happenings, and valley news.

***************

In 1970’s Westcliffe, there were unique, but unwritten Business protocols.


Jennings’ Market wasn’t open on Sunday, but that did not keep Herald from opening up to get someone a quart of milk if it was needed.

When you held up an item, told Bill Falkenberg the price, and then walked out of his hardware store, it never crossed Bill’s mind that you might not pay for it later.

The Henrich kids had a drive through fishing worm business. You drove around Bill and Anita’s driveway, took a box of worms from the big mail box, and left the money in the Velveeta cheese carton. I’m pretty sure the number of boxes and the amount of money came out pretty close to even.

Evie Miller’s little variety store sold everything from toys to kitchen items and socks to fishing worms. When children came into the store with cash in their pockets, the toy they wanted always seemed to cost the exact amount of money they had. Generosity was one of Evie’s strong points, and the monetary benefit always came out in favor of the child.

Once when Jean Zeller’s son, Jay was about four years old, they were leaving one of the stores when Jean noticed that Jay had taken something. She explained to Jay what stealing was and told him that he would have to return it. With a confused look on his face, Jay said, “But mom, I held it up.”

***************

One December night in 1978, just before Christmas break at school, we had a home basketball game. I was coaching the girls, and our game was over, so when the pay phone rang in the hallway, I picked it up.

I don’t remember who called, but the voice said,“Donnie and Linda’s house is on fire. Get everybody out there to help.” And he hung up. He gave no last name—We would know. He gave no directions—We would know. It wasn’t a question, and it wasn’t a suggestion. Someone we all knew was in trouble; nothing else needed to be said.

(The fire was at Donnie and Linda Campers which was the old Ula school house.) I went into the gym, announced the situation, most of the gym cleared, and we met in the parking lot to carpool to the fire.

***************

In those days, it seemed as if our lives became woven together, both unintentionally and on purpose. We saw the same people in Jennings’ market, at school plays and ball games, in the post office, on main street, or in Susie’s cafe.

It was a time when a No Trespassing sign was about as rare as a paved road. We only dialed four numbers on the phone, so we knew almost everybody’s number. And most of us were on a party line, so we knew almost everybody’s business.

Sometimes, you knew more about people than you really wanted to know. As someone has said, “In a small town, the idiosyncrasies of one are slammed against the sensitivities of another.”

Over the years, we gathered, branded, butchered, ate, fenced, fished, hunted, hayed, agreed, disagreed, worshipped, laughed, and cried—Together. We were a community.

Yes, times are different now, and I realize that the details of what I have said can’t be duplicated. During hunting season back then, every pick-up in the school parking lot had a gun in the back window with the doors unlocked. Today, we would all be arrested. But this is more than just nostalgia; there is a moral to the story.

True community does not often come through large planned events, surveys, or forums. It is not the product of common interests or conformity of thought. It does not often happen at all by aiming at it directly. Community comes to us peripherally. Usually, it simply overtakes us as we walk the same ground—Together.

Genuine community is shaped organically by the intertwining of lives in very ordinary and daily ways. It is nurtured by shared work and play, shared joy and pain, shared memories and stories (and telling those stories as we are doing tonight). good conversation, and compassion given and received. It is forged out of the daily encounters and the relational nuances, of life lived—Together.—And there are no short cuts!

In this little out of the way place called Westcliffe, Colorado, Barb and I have tasted genuine community. A few of our old friends are still here, but most of them are gone now. I have had the privilege of speaking at the funerals of a fair number of Kochs, Campers, Rusks, Colemans, Comstocks, Gerouxs, Kettles, and DeGrees.

We have been blessed to share this journey with four, and in some cases five, generations. It is with humility and gratitude toward all of them that we say, “Thank You.”

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fullmermellen
Apr 05, 2023

I am old enough to have a bushel of memories laying quietly in the depths of my forgetfulness. Why do I feel an urge to share them …thanks for the joy you shared With an old woman.

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clgh
Apr 02, 2023

Dick, We came to the valley in 1980. We have also seen the change in "Community" since then. Seems like more and more there is less community. Thanks for the great views you expressed. Was very interesting and eye opening. Craig Lewis

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amyp1957
Apr 02, 2023

Please publish your Walking the Same Ground as a book, Dick.....we would all love it and buy it! ❤️

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lorisutter64
Apr 01, 2023

This is heartfelt and amazing. wow I’m sitting here reading this flooded with memories of spending my teenage years in the valley. Memories I hold close to my heart and cherish like no other. Mr. Jones you should write a book this is incredible. I can’t wait to read what you post next what a treat!!! love love. Lori sutter

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terryskaggs
Apr 01, 2023

I am so glad you started this blog Dick......enjoying every one of your writings!

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