Hi, y’all. It’s the Tuesday edition of Bar\Heart, the weekly newsletter exploring what it means to belong in America. Thanks for being here with me.
This week we finish our trilogy of stories exploring why one 100-mile stretch of remote valley in southeastern Colorado has long attracted utopian dreamers alongside conservative ranchers.
In Part 1, we met the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, which is raising alpacas and attempting to build a rural idyll for transgender and queer people in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In Part 2, we met sculptor Linda Fleming, who co-founded the artist commune, Libre, here in 1968. Five decades later, it’s one of the longest-running hippie communes from that era.
Both of those groups arrived thanks to a mix of cheap land and serendipity. So in Part 3, we explore what it takes to stay once you’ve gotten somewhere. How do you go about building a life?
Earlier this summer, I walked into Chappy’s Mountain View Bar and Grill in downtown Westcliffe, Colorado, thankful for a place to get a burger and a bourbon. I’d driven down from Denver the day before, and when I arrived, the only place open for dinner was the bowling alley. Food wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exactly somewhere a stranger could belly up to the bar and start getting the lay of the land.
When I was young, my dad was a long-haul trucker and he would occasionally take me on runs. His No. 1 rule of the road? Find out where the locals eat and go there. That’s how you learn about the world and how different people live.
I sat down at the wooden bar, felt the heat emanating off the wood-fire grill, and struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me. I ordered a green chile burger (damn, it’s good to be back in the land of green chile), and we talked about his kids, what it’s like to live in the Wet Mountain Valley, even my life in Detroit. Eventually, he asked what brought me to town.
In many places, saying you’re a business reporter freelancing for the New York Times or even a journalism instructor at Michigan State University might open the doors. Here, I knew better; I’m from a town very much like this one. So I told him I was developing a project on what it means to belong in America. Had he heard about the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, and did he have thoughts on how the Valley is or is not embracing them?
“They’re just stirring up trouble,” he said. Or something decently close to that. I wasn't taking notes, and I was drinking bourbon.
“You realize they were sitting right behind us for the past hour, right?”
“I’ve never met them.”
The push-pull between newcomers and old-timers is, well, practically as old as time in this valley, which spans conservative Custer County (the Board of County Commissioners just voted 2-1 to condemn President Biden for treason) and the slightly less conservative Huerfano and Las Animas counties. The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch is just the latest in a long list of intentional communities(1) that have arrived and then had to figure out how to belong.
And like those that have come before them, the Unicorns have experienced some challenges in the settling-in phase. Someone called the local sheriff to investigate whether the group was neglecting their alpacas. They weren't. Armed trespassers have come onto their land at night, forcing them to erect fences and install surveillance cameras on the property. And the “letters to the editor” page in the Sangre de Cristo Sentinel, one of three local newspapers, has been rife with threats and accusations.
“Where the queer community is on this planet right now, we know that wherever we live there’s going to be a segment — a very vocal and possibly violent segment of the population — that is very, very interested and mad at us,” says Penny Logue, one of the ranch’s founders. “That isn’t the surprising thing. What is surprising is how awesome the people of this valley are.”
Penny asks me where I had coffee that morning, and I tell her I was over at the Sugarlump. They’re nice, she tells me, though they do sell the Sentinel at the counter; but make sure to hit up Peregrine. The roaster and cafe is owned by missionaries, and they’ve been incredibly welcoming and have helped to link the Unicorns to the broader community.
Those connections helped the Unicorns start an odd-jobs service that is busier than they can keep up with — even at their $25/hour rate. Their recycling service is growing, and they’ve been asked to work on a community garden project.
“People have been beating down our doors to help us,” says Bonnie Nelson, Penny’s business partner.
Of course, the county’s labor shortage probably also helps. Many of the local businesses say they struggle to hire workers because the local population is older and there is a shortage of rental housing, which keeps new people from coming.
But whether it’s benevolence or economics or both, the end result is the same: A group of trans ranchers is finding their place in what might seem like a most unlikely place.
“My observation is that, like anyone who moves into a neighborhood, unless something is really manifestly pathological, you eventually get used to the new neighbor,” says Dr. Tim Miller, who has spent his entire professional life analyzing intentional communities as a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas. “People initially fear the worst, but eventually the neighbors figure out it’s not so bad.”
Of course, staying and belonging aren’t quite the same. Most intentional communities don’t stay long enough to belong. They tend to flame out in less than a decade, according to Dr. Miller. But this valley is the birthplace of both the country’s first rural hippie commune and one of its oldest.
Drop City formed outside of Trinidad, Colorado, in 1965 as, essentially, an art installation. By the early 1970s, it was gone. The grand art experiment collapsed under its own visionary weight. The idea of a place to live collectively and make art became a place overrun with people just dropping out.
But just an hour up the valley, the experience was very different. In 1968, Linda and Dean Fleming, along with friends, formed the Libre artist commune, where everyone had to be self-sufficient and build and maintain their own homes on 360 shared acres. More than 50 years later, they are still there.
Like the Unicorns, their initial reception was mixed. “When we first got here, all the local families were interested in what we were doing and really liked us and came to our parties,” Linda Fleming told me. “There were some people who hated us and hated the fact that we existed at all. They were the kind of closed-minded people who didn't have a sense of what we might have in mind and didn't want to take the time to look. They were just reading what was in the newspapers.”
But the locals also helped them learn to irrigate and other tasks that critical to survival in this rugged landscape. Today, the Libre-ians who stayed or who return regularly are now some of the valley’s “existing residents.” They own local businesses, have intermarried with the existing families, helped develop a medical clinic and taught in the schools.
Will the Unicorns be a brief, high-profile moment in the culture, like Drop City, or a lesser-known but more impactful community, like Libre?
Either way, what I find interesting is that this one place manages to cradle trans women raising alpacas, a wave of new Amish immigrants, ranchers, hippies, cowboys and everyone in between.
“There is a mix between freedom and obligation to the community around you,” says Jordan Hedberg, who grew up in Custer County and is now the owner and publisher of the Wet Mountain Tribune and a grass-fed beef rancher. “That’s what we’ve always had. That’s why this valley has always been so great for these groups. We tend to leave them alone. We will include them, but we aren’t here to tell them what to do. We just don’t want the government or anyone to fuck with us.”
I've always thought this area is one of the most beautiful in the country. But I didn’t know until I started studying Libre and the Unicorns how special it is. Over the centuries, it has been a borderland and the heart of a geographic and cultural frontier. It has “belonged” to crowns and governments and settlers — sometimes several at a time — and sometimes to nobody.
“The further south you get, the more separated from the rest of the state you end up feeling,” says Dr. Jonathan Rees, a professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo. “You can read whole history books on the history of the state and not hear about anything happening south of Colorado Springs.”
So I want to tell you a bit about it. To do that, I pulled together information from history texts, oral history projects, obscure publications from the Bureau of Land Management, and even masters' theses. I’ve spent hours pouring over topographical maps of the area, trying to see how treaty lines and borders changed this area. (I even created a timeline of events, starting in 1300 and moving to modern day. It’s not complete or perfect, but it gives us the shape of things.)
Here’s my light-speed history of the region.
In the beginning, the very land that Unicorns now tread was a buffer zone separating more urban, pueblo-dwelling tribes of Indigenous people, mostly to the south, and the hunting tribes, such as the Apache and the Utes, that ranged across what is now Colorado and beyond. It is said that because the winter weather is so much more temperate in this valley than in the surrounding areas, multiple tribes would over-winter together peacefully. In essence, they are the first intentional communities to live here.
When Spanish explorers push into the area in the 1500s, they establish a European presence and begin trading with the tribes and setting up small encampments. But Spain neglects its new northern frontier, and her mortal enemy, France, arrives and throws down some flags, as Eddie Izzard would say, and claims everything West of the Mississippi for herself. Then, as in any good telenovela romance, Spain takes it back.
But not for long! In 1803, a 27-year-old United States buys what is known as the Louisiana Territory (see map below) from Napoleon, who needs some fast cash for his wars. Plus, we really want the Port of New Orleans. (That might, in fact, be the last time the feds care about NOLA.)
What does this have to do with our Unicorns? Their home is on the western edge of the Louisiana Purchase. That’s right: The new boundary line between America and Spain shoots straight up the 100-mile valley that cuts along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains before heading northwest toward Canada. The new border puts the Unicorns' land squarely in the United States, but their neighbors across the valley floor are still Spanish.
Things are changing fast, however. In 1819, the U.S. and Spain redraw the borders in the Adams-Onis Treaty. Spain gets everything south of the Arkansas River and west of the Continental Divide, up to the 42nd parallel. (See map below.) Now we're Spanish again. Salud, Spain!
Oh. wait. Hi, Mexico! In 1821, that country gains its independence from Spain and claims the northern Spanish territory — including California, Nevada, Utah and our valley — for its empire.
But, as any child can tell you: Finders keepers, losers weepers. Fifteen years later, Texas declares itself an independent republic from Mexico and lops off a section of the Mexican empire, including our tiny section of Colorado, as its own. Naturally, Mexico disagrees. They fight it out and eventually Texas wins. But for a minute, we’re Texan and Mexican(2).
Meanwhile, I imagine, the, like, 12 Spanish-French-Mexican-American people living in the valleys of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are like, cool, cool, whatevs. Just because it matters in Coruscant doesn’t make it mean shit out here on Tatooine.
And the Indigenous tribes are just looking on like, Wear whatever crown you want, but Do. Not. Fuck. With. Us.
I'll note here that this history is that of the colonizers, rather than the Indigenous peoples. That is, in part, because I'm interested in how the shifting borders and cultures arriving change the area.
Things get busy in the 1840s. Mexico thinks it still owns everything, and it gives out land grants to its citizens as a way of laying human claim to its property. And Mexico did not come to play. The government gave away more than 8 million acres alone along what is now the Colorado-New Mexico border. That includes granting Cornelio Vigil and Ceran St. Vrain approximately 4 million acres — which is bigger than Connecticut but smaller than New Jersey.
More than a century later, a couple of New York City artists named Dean and Linda will build Libre in the footprint of this land grant, with some help from one of Cornelio's descendants. And later, some Tenacious Unicorns will appear.
But in 1845, the United States annexes Texas, much to Mexico’s chagrin. That, of course, sets off a whole shit show of boundary fights and territory creation. It gets real ugly for a while but eventually ends with Texas becoming a state and the U.S. securing the disputed territory up to the 40th parallel, otherwise known as the top of California, Nevada and Utah. At least we know who to pay taxes to now.
But just when we think we’ve sorted out our identity and can fire our therapist, prospectors strike gold in Colorado, bringing all kinds of newcomers to the Rocky Mountains. Tales of the Wild West convinces the U.S. government that someone needs to control the wildlings. So, in 1861, with the Civil War starting back East, the feds carve the Colorado Territory out of the existing Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and Utah territories(3).
That decision also allows Kansas to join the union as a full-fledged, free state. But, course, there is a snag here in the sliver of southeastern Colorado that includes our valley. A delay between the ratification of the two agreements means that for one month the area belongs to nobody. It is neither Kansas, which had its own shiny new-state boundaries, nor Colorado Territory, whose boundaries had not yet been ratified.
So maybe, just maybe, it’s in the DNA of this area to just throw up its hands and say, sure, come on in y’all. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Indigenous people. In 1864 the territorial government issues a proclamation forcing the original inhabitants of this land onto reservations and says its A-OK to shoot-to-kill anyone who resists.
Do you need a break? Ok. Why don’t you put your phone down and we can sit on that and be mad together. Then come on back and we’ll get to the 19th century.
Things go topsy-turvy again down here when silver is found near Westcliffe in 1872 and the first coal mine opens near Walsenburg in 1881. The booms bring intrepid prospectors, businessmen and families into southeastern Colorado. And this isn’t an easy trip. Despite the railroad tracks starting to crisscross the West, they haven’t made it here yet. In fact, most of the railroads initially skip Colorado. They come through to the eastern plains and then veer north to Cheyenne or south to Santa Fe rather than try to traverse the Rocky Mountains.
“It’s easier to get around the northern part of the state in the mountains than in the southern part of the state, especially around where you’re talking about,” Dr. Rees from CSU-Pueblo reminds me. “The mountains down here were pretty impenetrable for decades and decades. Train travel was very limited and most of the tracks that are built are designed to get minerals out of the mountains as opposed to getting people up there.”
But settlers want to come and secure the 160 acres promised in the Homestead Act of 1862. One of the first organized groups to show up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain valleys arrives in 1870 and is known as the Colfax Colony because Vice President Schuyler Colfax gives the 90 German Lutheran families — about 350 people — transportation and military escort from the Midwest into the area. Shortly after, the Georgia Colony arrives from Union County, Georgia.
These intentional communities — what else would you call a group of families traveling together with the idea of making a new life? — have mixed experiences. Within five years, the Colfax Settlement fails and its families scatter across the state and further West. Meanwhile, much of the Georgia colony remains and the surnames of the settlers can still be found in these valleys.
But while white Americans are just now manifest destiny-ing across the country, Hispano-Anglo settlers had been arriving in this region since the 1830s and 1840s, primarily coming from what is now New Mexico. These settlers were often sheepherders who brought their extended families and communities and built large plaza style developments near creeks. That allowed them to create a central square with a mercantile for trading and give each of the family members access to water for crops and animals.
That is very different, culturally and aesthetically, from the white homesteaders and cattle ranchers who came embodying the Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian farmer: one man and his nuclear family working their plot of land. Navigating that difference, the lone wolf versus the community, has, in some ways, been at the heart of American experiment. When do we need the community for the greater good, and when do we express our freedoms?
Those questions only get more intense as the valley fills, quite literally, with workers from around the globe, all speaking different languages, and looking for a better, or at least new, life.
If we think of Detroit as a place that surged in the early 20th century due to a great in-migration of labor to work in Henry Ford’s factory, then the silver and coal mines of Southern Colorado were a precursor.
There is so much ore to be mined that Colorado Fuel and Iron imports labor and has to build entire towns to house them. By the beginning of the 20th century, there are nearly 9,000 men working for the mines in Trinidad and Walsenburg, and the company towns and camps stretch deep into the Sangre de Cristos. According to a history of the area published by the Bureau of Land Management, this the nationality roster for one mine:
“While newspapers of the period make much of the peaceful and progressive nature of the town populations, reminiscent accounts reveal a volatile social climate where potential violence smoldered just beneath the surface,” according to Robert A. Murray’s “Las Animas, Huerfano and Custer: Three Colorado Counties on a Cultural Frontier A History of the Raton Basin.”
CF&I — whose primary stockholder was John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil — stokes those sentiments to keep the groups from unionizing for better working conditions. At the time, Colorado coal miners died at nearly twice the national rate, and they were only compensated for the coal they pulled up, not the “dead” time spent going down the shaft, tunneling or laying track to get the ore out. They also demand an eight hour workday and to get paid in cash-dollars, not scrip that was only good at company stores.
But CF&I can't stop them forever. In 1903, the workers come together and strike. That effort is short lived, but it is also a precursor: In 1913, more than a thousand miners will strike for nearly a year despite being evicted from their company-owned housing and forced to live in tents with their wives and children through a brutal Colorado winter.
On the morning of April 20, 1914, gunshots rang out in one of the makeshift camps and tents were set ablaze. Some say it was the armed miners who started it. Other accounts say it was the Colorado National Guard, who had been called down to protect CF&Is interests. When night fell, two dozen were dead, including 11 children who burned to death in a collapsed tent. For ten days, attacks and riots rage. In the end, 66 die in what is known as the Ludlow Massacre, which Wallace Stenger called “one of the bleakest and blackest episodes of American labor history.”
The strike wore on for another seven months; in the end the workers got very little in the way of concessions. But it is known as a seminal moment in the American labor movement.
After a hundred years of massive change, the history of the valley quiets, like a spring snow has fallen and muffled everything. The mines will begin to close once cheaper, cleaner natural gas becomes available in Texas. The Great Depression is nearing. Some families who came for the mines will stay and build lives. Mix and marry. Others will leave. The population will dwindle. The boom times become ghosts. Isolation settles in until automobile starts to bring tourists — and new dreamers.
Half-a-century later, a new group of hippies will find their way here. And then again, another 50 years later, a group of Tenacious Unicorns will take up residence.
Over the centuries this place has had to make way for new people, new ideas, new ways of living. It has held independent loners, such as the trappers, and communal dwellers such as the early Hispano-Anglo settlers. Progressive minded miners and union activists, such as Mother Jones, have lived here, and Doc Holliday passed through town. People from around the globe lived next to Black families recently freed from slavery. Ranchers have tried to eek a living out of these hills. I don't know many other ares of the country where this multitudinous mixing has happened. And it plays out, today, as a place where a group of trans and queer might be able to build a home.
“You know,” Penny says, “we try to meet as many people as we can in the valley. We just get out there and shake hands and meet people because I think it's a lot harder to hate face to face. Especially out here, we're all having the same experience. We all lose lambs every year. We all watch livestock thrive or not. We're all in it together.”
But there’s time for jawing about the past and big ideas later. There are chores to be done on the ranch, whether you are a trans woman with alpacas or a newspaperman with cattle. The new lambs need tending, and the Penny and Bonnie still need get back over Hardscrabble Pass and into Canon City for supplies, which is at least a two-hour drive round trip. Then there's evening feeding to be done and their own family meal to make.
The phrase intentional community is a more 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.
But you might not want to tell that to old-timers in Colorado, who tend to hate Texas as much, if not more so, than than California.
Funny thing about that: For as long as I’ve lived in Colorado, we have joked that we’d be happy to give the eastern plains to Kansas and Nebraska because they are so culturally and geographically different than the rest of the state. The better joke would be: We’d like to give it back since much of eastern Colorado originally belonged to those two territories.
Thanks for sticking with me as I explored my interest in this small place in the world. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please tell a friend or share on social media. If you are reading this in your inbox, you can find a shareable version here.