I was introduced to Cortez and Montezuma County 42 years ago on a little venture to To-hell-you-ride while living in Flagstaff, another small town. Telluride could have been bought for $500,000, more or less, and the seller would have laughed all the way to the bank.
I came up here to hunt and fish on vacations with my boys. Later in my life, while getting ready to retire with my second wife, we wound up here again. We had searched Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon looking for a place with the four seasons (but not too severe in either heat or cold) where she could garden, with mountains, forest and a small-town atmosphere. Picky, weren’t we?
I didn’t know it then, but Willetta had been through here many times with her first husband. One day I mentioned that I knew of a small town in Colorado we should look at called Cortez, and she told me she’d been there many times, coming through from Texas en route to other destinations, and whenever she hit Mancos and Cortez, she felt she had arrived in paradise.
So we hooked up the Airstream and headed for Cortez to find some land. We located at a trailer court and were treated magnificently by the young couple who owned it. I took off back to the company I worked for while Willetta searched for a place. I called most every night to get her reports.
One day she phoned my office, excited as all get out, to ask if I could be home this weekend, as she had found her place. I say “her place” because I have found that a happy wife makes a happy home. So I made arrangements to come home, and we drove down M Road to the end, then turned on 22 Road, got out and walked across an open field, seeing neither light poles nor fire hydrants. I kept wondering where my lady was taking me. We trundled through the cedars and down a path to the edge of a canyon with a stream.
When she told me the acreage, I said no, no, no. But when she turned back from the canyon’s edge and put her arms around me and said this was her dream, I melted like a soft ice-cream cone. It’s not wise to wake a person from their dream. So we purchased 360 acres of piñon and cedar with a canyon and stream and two acres of garden area. Put a cardboard box (double-wide manufactured home) on the edge of the canyon until we built our home (that never happened) and settled into Valhalla.
Sadly, in the years that we have lived here (she is still with me every day, even though she has passed), I have seen our area slide backwards, partly because of jealousy and lack of teamwork. Cortez, a place Willetta loved and was active in, has become a company town with money flowing out instead of in. Our downtown has some local retail, but not the diversity it had in the old days. Instead, the corporate black hole on the east side sucks in all the customers. The company store and its brats, the dollar stores, are never good for community or consumers.
Cortez and Montezuma County were settled in the late 1800s. A hundred years later, this was a great small community with thriving local businesses providing most any thing one needed in a friendly atmosphere with clerks who went out of their way to serve you. Those have been replaced by big boxes staffed with employees who have a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude. Who can blame them? They’re barely scraping by on the wages they earn.
I realize some of this is the way of the world these days, but I also believe we need stronger leadership to help counter these trends. We need big ideas to advance and spread our agricultural base. We need to develop value-added products we can sell locally and outside of the area. We need new industries with jobs that pay well. Instead, all we hear are plans to pump up tourism – what will that get us but more restaurants and more waitressing jobs?
I feel lucky to have lived here in Cortez’s golden age. I may not live to see it, but I hope this area will someday experience such a time again.
Galen Larson writes from Montezuma County, Colo.