Cuchara Valley, Colorado
- Interviews & Photos By
- Nathaniel Minor
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Artist Ariel Penrod of Walsenburg said she's never voted before, and doesn't plan to change that this fall.
"If you're voting, then you're giving away your permission to the game. It's like we're all a bunch of sheep. And it's like, 'there's a f-------mountain lion, or a wolf. Who are you going to vote for?' It's ridiculous," she said. "Politics is like many blood-sucking insects. Poly-ticks."
Jonathan and Beth Evans own the Shalawalla Gallery and Gift Shop in La Veta, Colorado. The couple lived in India, and traveled the world for 10 years before landing in the small town in southern Colorado. Beth said she wants Colorado to provide universal health care, and for that reason she supports Democrat Jared Polis for governor. At the national level, Beth said she's disheartened by how President Trump has dealt with immigration issues.
"Discrimination and racism has become accepted in some way," Beth Evans said. "And I think that's just so wrong."
She's optimistic that Democrats will perform strongly in the November midterms, and be in a better position to stop President Trump's agenda.
Robert White, or Dakota Duke, as he calls himself, runs a gift shop full of t-shirts and knick-knacks in Cuchara, Colorado. The Cuchara Valley, which parallels I-25 between Walsenburg and Trinidad, is Colorado's "best kept secret," White said. He wants whomever the next governor will be to champion tourist-reliant communities, like his, that have been hurt by wildfires.
"The fire took the heart right out of the season," he said, referring to the Spring Fire. "We don't want to be overcrowded like Vail or Breckenridge. But yes, we do need more tourist traffic."
Wild turkeys cross one of the many gravel roads that cut through the mouth of the Cuchara Valley near La Veta, Colorado.
Goemmer Butte, (pronounced "gimmer") is a landmark near La Veta in Huerfano County, Colorado. It's named for the nearby Goemmer Brothers ranch and is made up of trachyte and breccia.
The area is full of ranches, artists and retirees who are often at odds politically — but many residents say they're more than happy to put differences aside in order to be good neighbors.
Lola Spradley, a Republican, is the former speaker of the Colorado House. She's retired now and lives in Huerfano County, one of the poorest in the state. She said she cares a lot about various national policy issues, but they take a backseat because of the state of the local economy. "If you can't pay the bills the rest of it all kind of become secondary," she said.
Huerfano County was once home to many coal mines, but most closed decades ago. Spradley said that's one reason she's concerned about the ballot measure that could severely limit the number of new oil and gas rigs in the state.
"We are living proof what happens when resources run out or resources are not used," she said.
Spradley said the area needs broadband internet access, infrastructure, housing and good education to attract employers. "We don't want handouts," she said. "We want assistance to get where we can be."
Dale Lyons is the chair of the Huerfano County Democratic Party, and has lived in the area for more than 40 years. At one time, the county was home to many coal mines — and many more union coal miners. Politics have changed a lot since then, she said.
"If you won the Democratic primary, you were pretty much going to win the election because everybody was Democrat in this county," she said. "And that has evolved to something different."
President Donald Trump won Huerfano County in 2016. Lyons said she isn't sure what will happen in this year's governor's race. But she's pushing the state party not to ignore its rural members.
"l we have to be mindful that living rurally is not an obsolete notion," Lyons said. "And I think a lot of the people up north might believe that."
Ron Nielsen, a retired state worker, lives in La Veta and volunteers for the local fire department. He said though Huerfano County is only a three-hour drive from the political center of the state, Denver, many in the area feel ignored by the state's politicians — including gubernatorial hopefuls Walker Stapleton and Jared Polis.
"I would ask the political parties why don't they choose somebody with a different view of the state," Nielsen said. "I don't think either of the candidates that are running have a great deal of interest in the outlying areas of Colorado."
Nielsen said he voted for President Trump because he was disillusioned with political dynasties, like the Clinton and Bush families, and wanted to see a change.
"I was looking for a change agent," he said. "My only choice was, 'well, I'll vote for Trump.' I think that's why the county turned turned red; we wanted a change. We wanted something other than politics as normal. If we had a true visionary leader I think we would have supported it another candidate. But we didn't have that."
He's happy with some of the policy changes Trump has made, including renegotiating international trade deals. But he said he'd just as soon leave the rest of the Trump presidency behind.
"I just wish we had a candidate that didn't have the circus around him," he said.
Cindy Campbell moved to Huerfano County from Boulder more than 20 years ago because she wanted a slower pace of life.;
"I live here because I like the way it smells here when I get out of my car," said Campbell, who works at the nonprofit LiveWell. "I like to see the stars at night. I like the fact that we don't have stoplights."
But recently, Campbell said, she feels like the fast-paced growth from the northern Front Range is extending all the way down to her home in La Veta.
"I hear these horrible stories about a 900-square-foot place for over $2,000," she said. "Nobody can live like that. They're going to have to move down the Front Range to even survive. So we'll just grow and we'll turn into Pueblo or the Springs. And it's going to smell crappy here. And I'm not going to be able to see the stars anymore. And that's really hard for me."
Huerfano County's population has risen slightly since 2014 — from 6,389 to 6,662 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And Campbell admitted that there's no reason people shouldn't be able to move to the area, just like she did in the 1990s.
"It just turns me into these really weirdly selfish person," she said. "I'm turning into this person who's like, 'get off my lawn.' It's true. I don't want other people coming here even though I came here for the same reasons."
Maurice Heikes ranches and farms in Huerfano County. He said the area has had a "devastating year."
"First we started with drought, then we ended up with a fire, then we ended up with floods, and then we just had a hail storm," he said. "So we're wondering when the next shoe is going to drop."
As Heikes thinks about who he's going to vote for in November's gubernatorial election, he hopes the two candidates will notice the hardship those disasters have placed on Huerfano and Costilla counties — two of the poorest in the state.
"The tax base in the northern part of the state, with growth, is a lot better than it is here," he said, noting the effect the Gallagher Amendment has local government revenues. "I hope it's someone who can figure out how to sustain a tax base that's at least level for us."
Mary Samarzia is a small business owner who also ranches outside of La Veta, Colorado. She wants a governor that will respect her constitutional right to bear arms, or the "Code of the West," as she calls it, and will also step in to help the area recover from last summer's massive Spring Fire.
"It's too much," said Samarzia, who added that she nearly lost her ranch in the fire. "We need help. And we want to make this place better. It's beautiful down here, and very special."
Samarzia is happy with how President Trump has performed in his first few years in office. "We pray for him all the time," she said. "But we've got to get rid of the agendas and let's look at our country ... I wish more of our senators, congressmen would start working with him."