Good morning, y’all!
Today I have Part 1 of a story about hippies, artists, tenacious unicorns, conservative ranchers and a rural valley in southeastern Colorado where they all choose to belong.
“We drove into the valley and fell in love. You come out of Hardscrabble and the valley opens up in front of you and it was just like holy shit.”
That’s Penny Logue, and I know exactly how she feels. We’re sitting together in her dome in rural Colorado, and she’s telling me about the first time she ever drove over the high mountain pass, known as Hardscrabble, into the Wet Mountain Valley.
I just made the same trek into the valley to visit Penny and her business partner, Bonnie Nelson, at their alpaca and sheep ranch, known as the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch. I grew up in rural Colorado, so mountain views are NBD. But this particular valley, as the vista opens to reveal the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is otherworldly.
“And then we hit Westcliffe, and it’s just like, Holy Quaint Preserved Piece of Western History, with Shakespeare in the Park and, like, three coffee houses,” Penny says. “We kept checking our cell phones and it was like, shit, it’s reading a signal.”
That's not always the case in the high country.
Westcliffe sits in Custer County, one of the most remote places in an already remote state. Just 4,704 people, as of the 2020 Census, live in this chunk of rugged mountains that covers 740 square miles — about the same size as the combined sprawl of Dallas and Fort Worth.
It is home to a solidly conservative-voting population; Lyndon B. Johnson was the last Democrat to win the county’s presidential vote. One-third of the population is over the age of 65, and just 2% of residents are Black. (To be fair, Colorado is just 4.6% Black.)
All that to say, Custer County might seem like an unlikely place to build an idyll for transgender and queer people. But it is part of a 100-mile-stretch of valley — from Westcliffe to the north and Trinidad to the south — that has long been a hotbed for utopian dreamers.
I began emailing with Penny and Bonnie in early 2020, interested in why two trans women decided to build a ranch here. Since then, their story has swept the Internet.
All that media coverage of trans ranchers taking on the Old West has been good for selling wool yarn, dryer balls, T-shirts and other merch that Penny says keeps the ranchers in hay, heat and food.
But here’s the thing: The Unicorns are just the latest in a long history of intentional communities drawn to this strip of wilderness that runs along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. (Pink highlight area on the map.) In fact, this is the birthplace of the country's first hippie commune.
A quick note on the phrase “intentional community”: It is an academic term for a group of people who choose to live together and share resources because of a unifying idea or value. They are often colloquially called “communes,” but that tends to imply hippies or left-leaning groups while ignoring other types of utopias, such as religious settlements, cooperative housing, and even right-wing militia compounds.
And, of course, Indigenous peoples, primarily the Apaches, Comanches and Utes, formed intentional communities on this land for hundreds of years. Even Jamestown, Virginia, was technically an experiment in communal living.
In 1965, a group of artists started Drop City, the country’s first hippie community, on an arid six-acre goat farm outside of Trinidad. (Spot #5 on the map.) Clark Richert paid $450 for the land; his co-founders, Gene and JoAnn Barofsky, covered the price of a water hookup; and they began constructing geodesic domes out of scrap materials. The trio, who met as art students at the University of Kansas, created “drop” art by literally dropping painted rocks off a University parking garage. Now they were going to "drop” art into rural America. By the early 1970s, the experiment was over.
Three years later, Dean and Linda Fleming, artists from New York City, and a friend from Drop City, formed Libre on 360 acres just 25 miles from what is now the Unicorns’ land. More than 50 years later, Libre is still inhabited, making it one of the country’s longest-thriving intentional communities.
Libre and Drop City acted like a beacon, drawing dozens more communities to the area and into Northern New Mexico. They also proliferated across the country, especially in Vermont, during the 1970s back-to-the-land movement and cultural reckonings over civil rights and Vietnam.
Meanwhile two other significant occurrences created a draw to the area. In 1969, Dr. Stanley Biber, a small-town doctor, performed one of the country’s first gender-affirmation surgeries in Trinidad. So many people came to see him over his 40-year career that “going to Trinidad” became a euphemism for the procedure. And in the 1980s, Maurice Strong and his wife, Hanne, declined to develop land in the San Luis Valley (spot #7 on the map) and instead donated it to spiritual leaders of all faiths to build retreats for their followers.
What, I wondered, makes this slice of rural America so damned popular with seekers and other groups looking to build something new and deliberate? What makes this place so special that it can cradle the hopes of so many (primarily White) utopian dreamers? Can everyone belong here?
I decided to ask Dr. Tim Miller, a man who has spent his entire professional life analyzing intentional communities as a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas.
“I don’t know,” Dr. Miller says, laughing. “I haven’t spent much time thinking about why they choose the locales.”
But he has two theories, one romantic and one practical. His first: “Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico is one magnet area probably because of the mystique of Northern New Mexico. It’s always attracted writers and artists: Mable Dodge Luhan, D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O'Keeffe. That mystique probably helped some people move toward it.”
His second: cheap land and serendipity.
When I visited Penny and Bonnie, I asked if they knew about Libre and Drop City and the history of intentional communities. Did the writers of New Mexico convince them they would be at home in the Wet Mountain Valley?
“In the beginning we knew nothing,” Penny says.
“It was, literally, we just need to get out of this place, and this is the one that would work,” Bonnie adds.
Neither the Wet Mountain Valley nor this piece of land was on Penny and Bonnie’s radar when they started looking for a new home for the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch in late 2019. They just needed cheap land, quick.
“I grew up cis-passing in a rural community, so I have knowledge,” says Penny, who was raised on a farm near Boulder, Colorado.
But many trans people don’t. They haven’t grown up around farming and livestock, and not every neighbor is going to be accepting. So it can be a challenge to find a safe, welcoming community that will show trans people how to build a life in rural America.
"That is a bridge that tenacity crosses, and that's what we're about,” Penny adds.
But why Alpacas? “They're adorable,” she says. “I mean, they really are magical critters. If you spend time with alpacas, it does something good for your soul.”
In 2019, she brought her dream to fruition. Bonnie — who uses ey, em, eir -- pronouns — joined Penny later that year after hearing about the ranch on Twitter. Ey left a job in New York as a home-healthcare aide, packed the car, and drove out with eir partner, Skye. The two quickly integrated and Bonnie became business partners with Penny, handling the financial aspects of the nonprofit.
But in late 2019, Penny and Bonnie found themselves in a dispute with their landlord. They thought they were in a rent-to-own relationship; the landlord, they say, changed his mind. Suddenly they needed to move themselves, the collected Unicorn family, and all of their critters.
Moving sucks when it’s just you and your belongings; it sucks twice as bad when you have a short window to find a new place that can also accommodate all of your livestock and the equipment needed to raise them. (Trust me, I know.)
They started looking anywhere in Colorado that was cheap, and initially found 90 acres near New Mexico. But that deal fell through. And then another. And then another.
“We found some promising pieces of land,” Penny says, “but everything that we were finding, of course, had a prefab home on it.”
That often happens in the West: People buy property and put a prefab home on it because that's what they can afford. These homes are not, however, cheap or easy to finance. Most mortgage lenders don’t often write loans for prefab homes, which can mean anything from a trailer to modular homes that are built on site. So you need cash.
If you choose the more expensive route of having a modular home assembled on site, you can get a loan. But it’s a construction loan, which requires 20% down — far above the 3.5% required for a traditional mortgage backed by the Federal Housing Administration — and often higher rates. If all goes well, you should be able to convert to a traditional mortgage when construction is finished. But a lot of people learn the hard way during the financial crisis that should doesn’t always happen.
So when a real estate agent called them with a lead on 36 acres with a dome house for under $250,000, they agreed to go see it even though they weren’t familiar with the Wet Mountain Valley.
The next morning, they found themselves driving over Hardscrabble, dipping into Westcliffe and through the valley that would become home.
The house was smaller than they envisioned. They’d hoped for enough living space for people to come and learn and heal, whether that is queer youth reconnecting with the land or people needing aftercare following gender affirmation surgery. Or, really, just anyone who needs to get away from all the bullshit that the world can heap on queer and transgender people.
But the property had solar and wind power and the inspector said the systems worked. Plus, they figured, they could always add on. The Unicorns moved in three months later, just as the pandemic began to lockdown the world.
The next morning, the systems started failing. The 30-year-old water pump drew so heavily on their solar battery that it drained the reserves in just four hours, leaving them powerless and waterless.
It turns out, there was confusion over the inspection. Penny realized that the person who came out merely confirmed that the systems turned on, not whether they had longevity or needed updating.
“Part of the origin story of the name was realizing that we needed to be incredibly tenacious in order to be able to do this,” Bonnie says. “And it does seep into everything we do in a large way.”
What happens next? Can that tenacity help the Unicorns co-exist in their conservative surroundings? And how have all of those other communities fared?That’s next week on Bar\Heart.