Rio Grande West

Puma, Panther, Cougar. . . Lion!

“Close enough to hear them purr”

December 10, 2017 in Rio Grande West,The Rockies | Comments (6)


National Park Service photo

By Larry Joseph Calloway

Mountain lions live here in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Colorado. So you’d think Ron Garcia would not be surprised to see one. He’s the longtime manager of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge five minutes from Crestone, and lions are, of course, wildlife. They are unmistakable, with adult males about eight feet long from nose to tail tip and females a foot shorter.

Yet, one evening a few years ago as he left work at the historic ranch headquarters of the refuge Garcia was very surprised. First he noticed a barn door was open. He got out of his truck to close it. The winter shadows were long. Suddenly he saw something move in the dark at the base of a barn wall. It was a full grown lion lying in wait.

Ron Garcia

Not waiting for Garcia, who instinctively reached for a pistol he wasn’t carrying. He knew mountain lions eat deer almost exclusively, and this one likely was waiting for the deer that wander into the cottonwoods at the headquarters — and nowhere else on the flat, watery refuge. It has an over-population of about 3,000 elk, but they are not the natural prey of lions, whose normal habitat is higher ground — beginning with the pinyon-juniper belt where most us live.

There is no record of fatal attacks on people here. And though occasionally a lion will kill a small mammal, in Garcia’s view pets are safe. “Taking a small dog is rare. If they attack one it’s more from fear or hunger.” With all the deer wandering in the Baca subdivision and in town, there shouldn’t be starving lions around.

Anyway, the shadowy lion by the barn that evening padded softly away. (Like this: Garcia showed with his hands like paws.) It was not seen again, and lions are seldom seen on the refuge generally. “Typically when you see one in the flats there’s an issue with the animal — usually a health issue — because the animal is out of its element. It’s the same thing with bears,” he said. (more…)

A Long Time On The Colorado Plateau

What happened there anyway?

July 27, 2015 in El Turista,JOURNEYS,Rio Grande West | Comments (1)

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tucked up in clefts in the cliffs

 growing strict fields of corn and beans

 sinking deeper and deeper in earth

 up to your hips in Gods. . . .


–Gary Snyder


They are long gone, of course, eight centuries gone, but I always think they still own those crooked canyons and sunny alcoves where they built in sandstone and wrote on walls and signed their strange writs with hand prints. After the summer heat we drove to the Colorado Plateau looking for the goners, the absentee owners. We walked their intermittent ways in the sun and sat and read or talked by the lantern in the moon. Like good journalists and good tourists we came back with stories and pictures. There was a house on fire.


House on Fire Ruin, Mule Canyon

As if something still raged. As if it were telling us something.


Self Government, Subdivided

First Of All, Eject All The Lawyers

June 27, 2013 in Rio Grande West | Comments (0)

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The subdivider land rush on Western ranches in the 1970’s, stopped after  a few years by environmentalists, left behind conglomerates of lot owners governed under covenants written by the subdividers. The rule of law — and influence of lawyers — elsewhere does not often apply to these non-profit corporations any more than democracy applies to business corporations. The Baca Grande, carelessly platted on an old ranch in southern Colorado’s arid San Luis Valley, is one such subdivision. But there are many others, such as the more prosperous Eldorado near Santa Fe and Rio Rancho near Albuquerque.

Of about 3,500 lots owned by about 2,900 parties in the Baca Grande, at least half lie undeveloped and hundreds of these are perpetually up for resale or under tax liens. A heavy majority of owners live out of state due to original mass marketing or even out of the country due to sales at military bases in Asia.

Law enforcement depends upon the county sheriff at Saguache, 30 miles across the dry valley (many residents like deputies at a distance), and fire fighting is up to private entities (a slim majority of voters have blocked taxation to fund the local fire district).

Governing has become so variable that the Baca Grande Property Owners Association (POA) is a sort of fight club that cannot even come to agreement on how to elect a representative board of directors. This was the issue at a contentious meeting on the first evening of summer. After two hours of watching the left jabs and right crosses I became more interested in watching for the moon to rise from the astonishing Sangre de Cristo Mountains through the smudged steel-framed windows of the old and often painted association hall.

Confronting each other at a long table were some complaining property owners and the POA board members they have sued, alleging unlawful procedures in the board election last November. A professional parliamentary moderator from the other side of the mountains had been brought in, but the civil exercise accomplished nothing tangible except to clear the way back to district court.

The lawyerless homegrown lawsuit had been dismissed (“without prejudice,” the plaintiffs kept emphasizing) by Saguache County District Judge Martin Gonzales on the basis that it was not timely. One reference must have been something, one of those non-binding statements of purpose, that the Colorado Legislature inserted in the uniform code called the  Common Interest Ownership Act (CIOA). It says, “The general assembly finds and declares that the cost, complexity, and delay inherent in court proceedings make litigation a particularly inefficient means of resolving neighborhood disputes.” It goes on to say the associations are “encouraged” to adopt mediation rules such as the one under which the June meeting was called.

Diane Dunlap, the leading plaintiff, declined at the outset of the meeting to give away their case because their lawsuit, in her words, “is very much alive.”  She also objected to the board’s hiring of the moderator, Mary Anne Tebedo of Colorado Springs, who served 18 years as a Republican in the legislature.

But Dunlap was not shy about asserting the main point:  that the election of three board members at the annual membership meeting last November was invalid for numerous reasons and, therefore, the three should step down and acknowledge everything out of the ordinary that they have done since taking office last January is null and void.

The three are Russell Schreiber, Matie Belle Lakish and Diana Moats. But it was board member Treat Suomi, elected previously, who emerged as their  spokesperson.  He said most participants agree that the election procedure “is something that needs to be fixed.” He invited everybody to work together “so the next election we have will not have all these problems and not cost all this money.”

Bruce MacDonald, a plaintiff, responded, “We have three board members that were not duly elected, and that’s the primary dispute. I don’t hear anything about what is to be done about it.” Repeating this several times later, he said it wasn’t enough just to say “we’ll get it right next time.”

The problem here, as elsewhere, is the lack of clear legal guidance in how to elect people to take the heat of governing an unincorporated rural subdivision. The association bylaws say: “Any vote for the election of directors shall be by written ballot in a form to be prescribed  by the board.” But they go on to say, “The vote allocated to a lot may be cast under a proxy duly executed by the lot owner. All proxies shall be in writing.”

The CIOA says, “Votes for contested positions on the executive board shall be taken by secret ballot” and that the ballots shall be counted by uninvolved and objective volunteers.

Most of the votes in the November election were by proxies — Dunlap called them “hybrid proxies” — submitted  directly by mail or indirectly through people attending the annual association members meeting. The plaintiffs argued in the special June meeting that the election process was flawed by lack of respect for the secrecy of the ballot and transparency of the counting, but they were not specific, except to point out that the Colorado Springs company to which most operations of the association have been outsourced took the ballot box home. Suomi said the company, Hammersmith Management Inc., merely examined the paper for “alterations” and found none.

Another objection mentioned by the plaintiffs was that board members arrogated to themselves the authority of a nominating committee. Association bylaws say candidates “must have been nominated by the nominating committee or by petition with 25 signatures.” Schreiber said the problem here was that nobody in the community wanted to serve on a nominating committee despite numerous requests for volunteers.

Tebedo intervened often, sometimes telling Dunlap to hush up and Schreiber to speak up, but her greatest challenge was the plaintiff Nigel Fuller. Standing and pointing an angry finger at a man in the audience, he said, “Why is Bill Short here?” Fuller said his target was not a property owner and was, in fact, a lawyer.

Tebedo said, “Why does that make a difference? I’m not sure I’m going to recognize him.” She suggested Fuller should confront the man at recess. But Fuller persisted, saying, “Why is Bill Short allowed?”

Tebedo said there was no provision for questioning anybody in the audience. Lakish said, “It’s a public meeting.” Fuller remained standing. The man still did not respond. Tebedo said, “People here are allowed to listen.”

Dunlap entered the fray, saying, “He’s a lawyer for the defense.”

Tebedo said, “Why does it disturb you?”

Dunlap said, “He’s only here because he’s the lawyer for Treat and Russell.”

Tebedo called a recess, during which there were no fist fights. The meeting resumed, covering the same ground as before. The moon eventually rose.


Minutes Of A Crestone Meeting

The Case For Economic Sustainability

November 10, 2011 in Rio Grande West,U. S. Politics | Comments (0)

Baca Grande Membership Vote Update.  See Baca Blog. . . 


By Larry Joseph Calloway

The anti-government passion that animates politics nationally was echoing off the walls at Jillian’s studio, where I have experienced yoga classes, a Sufi zirka, a feng schui talk, a sales pitch for ionized water, and such. Crestone is not where Republicans bother to campaign. It voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in both the primary and general elections three years ago.

But here before about 50 residents on folding chairs the speakers, backed by PowerPoint slides on a big screen, were saying we cannot depend upon government – federal, state, county – for relief in the coming upheaval. The main speaker was Vickie Helm, known to most of the gathering, whose only apparent motive in organizing the discussion was to inspire the community to work toward what she called “economic sustainability.”

That title does not convey the spirit of the gathering, just as speaker probably is not the best word for Helm, who was more like an evangelist than economist. She ran back and forth placing imaginary buckets under imaginary sudden leaks in the imaginary roof until, panting and exhausted, she made her point: namely, we’re running around containing leaks without realizing the roof is about to cave in.

OK, call it the sky. Call her Henny Penny. It don’t matter to her, I thought. “In a short period of time we’re going to be going through the same thing that Greece is going through,” she predicted. In other words, our national sovereign credit card is maxed out. “The inconvenient economic truth is this: the United States is broke.” There will be inflation and devaluing of the currency, but no more funding (federal, state, local).

She said somewhere in Kansas a school board proposed charging parents $40 a week to have their kids bussed to school. (I guess that board would never consider a small general tax increase for the general welfare. Oh, no! Forget the communal spirit that used to prevail in rural America if it costs money. Similar problem in Crestone, I thought:  Here an emergency services district to replace the endangered private fire department was created by a thin margin of voters this month, but a peculiar switch of only about 20 of the voters defeated the tax to support it.)

What if everything collapsed by natural disaster or by bankruptcy of the various corporate entities that sell services here but don’t care about the community? Who ya gonna call?

How to weather the coming storm? Up flashed some PowerPoint points:  Support community businesses. Community businesses support each other. How many folks in the audience had businesses? A dozen raised their hands, and she had them stand up. How many would like to learn how to make money on the internet? Two dozen hands went up. “If I get nothing else across to anybody, it is this: The most important thing is where you spend your dollars.”

And, Helm proclaimed the importance of supporting the non-commercial collection of community efforts she called “infrastructure.” Namely, that unfunded Crestone Emergency Services District, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, the various youth programs (thank you, Lisa Bodie and others), the food bank, the charter school (building under construction), the newly consolidated library district. These things, to me, are signs of a young and enthused community with a spirit of American volunteerism.

To the infrastructure she added two information-age essentials that bind the community to itself and to the world: the Crestone Eagle, a successful monthly newspaper in a time when mass circulation dailies are falling like trees (and saving some) and, the fledgling effort to bring high speed internet to this digitally disadvantaged rural area.

Internet. Now here was a cause worth urgent consideration. Cheered on by some in the audience, Mayor Ralph Abrams of Crestone took the floor. He has been working for a year to create a community internet company, and he said it’s going to happen – to begin to fire up in the next few weeks. The company, which he will head, is called Crestone Telecom. It will bring in high-speed internet service with state of the art equipment.

This was the most hopeful project to come up at the meeting (not to dismiss the many undeveloped suggestions for green technology) because it is concrete and ready to go. Problem: the effort is being undermined by a distant corporation. In a word (or maybe two), FairPoint. The sudden unannounced competitiveness on the part of a phone company with more apparent interest in the bankruptcy code than digital engineering is a good preface for the concept economic sustainability. This is probably going to be a test of standard corporate capitalism versus Abrams’ community capitalism.

Further, the year-long drill that Abrams and company were put through by the USDA in applying for a grant under a program that was cancelled at the last minute (budget problems?) is a good case history in support of the argument that we can no longer depend upon government.

Discouraging, this distrust of corporate America and American government (might as well add the corporate media). I stood to say that for reasons of practical politics including the obvious intent of some Republicans to purge all political opposition by driving the economy into the ground, I could not endorse the increasing cynical distance from government. I grew up as a student of the New Deal, which saved America from some of the terrible mistakes made elsewhere (Germany, Italy, even Russia where the mistake began) in reaction to Great Depression I. But that was long ago in a different world.

Anything on the bright side?  Jeff WishMer, a bright young man who works for Chokurei Farm Store, married with a home in the Baca, received a warm applause when he stood to include home-grown food in the infrastructure against the Collapse. He is running for the POA board against an incumbent, Robert Garnett, who opposes the new EMS district and almost anything else that might cost money. WishMer is being criticized by some of these oldtimers because he has said he hates the POA, at least the way it is.

Distrust of government is in the American grain. I became atuned to it not long ago when I went searching in rural North Carolina for family roots. My father’s people were subsistent farmers (and, some of them, moonshiners). These Scot-Irish folks were responsible for the Whiskey Rebellion and many other insurgencies in our history. They’re still around. Take Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., the writer-soldier who won an astonishing victory in 2006, defeating an incumbent Republican to give Democrats control of the U.S. Senate. My grandparents on my father’s side were born just 70 miles over the mountains from his grandparents.

Webb has proposed that this Scot-Irish minority, southern in origin but without a history of slavery, has a lot in common with the African-American minority, which goes back almost as many generations. Together they could form a populist force that would revive the Democratic party and its historic principles, particularly in the Republican South (which includes Texas).

Similarly, it occurred to me that the communal sentiments expressed at the meeting in the yoga studio might be wedded with the anti-government sentiments of those  angry folks who seem to support the Tea Party. They might want a divorce, I supposed, once they realize they are being used by corporately funded professional politicians to defeat the many and strengthen government in the interest of the few. Perhaps  Crestone is not that far from Kansas, Dorothy.









Is It Really All About Money?

A Report On The First Public Forum By Organizers Of The Proposed New Emergency Services District

June 23, 2011 in Rio Grande West | Comments (2)

Sheriff Mike Norris, who for two decades has encountered every imaginable hazard in Saguache County, has one big fear. “Fire scares the hell out of me,” he told the first public forum on the proposed Crestone Emergency Services District.

“One of my biggest fears has been fire in the Baca,” the sheriff continued. That fear almost became a tragic reality on June 16, when an arsonist started fires 30 minutes apart at South Crestone parking lot, North Crestone camp ground and the Karmapa stupa road. The last one was positioned to flare upslope in thick forest. “One shift in the wind would have been a catastrophe,” Norris said.

Quick response by trained volunteers with six fire departments – and by neighbors including Steve Smilack near the stupa road – quenched the fires at one acre each after Norris issued an “all call.” Criminal investigation of these and two more fires about an hour later near the town of Saguache is under way.

Norris was not a scheduled speaker at the forum, and he had no position on creation of the district, but he said he was there to support the community’s volunteer emergency responders. One problem the new district would attack is the different radio channels and dispatch centers used by the Baca Grande and Crestone fire departments as well as the ambulance service. “It makes sense for everybody to be on the same page,” Norris told the gathering.

Baca Grande Fire Chief Ben Brack, the lead speaker, said in dire emergencies “communication is always the first thing to break down.” (A disparity of radio frequencies contributed to the deaths of fire fighters at the Twin Towers.)

The proposed district is a common-sense solution to several other problems, including the tort liability of the strange private department owned by the Baca Grande Property Owners Association and the subsequent possibility that surrounding governmental departments will be prevented from assisting it in the future.

Still, the new district has its vocal opponents. Their problem, expressed in anger, was a basic distrust of government and resistance to any new taxes – consistent with the Tea Party movement. Christine Chandler objected to the tax increase (offset in part by reduction of POA dues) that will affect only property owners while others get a free ride. Another opponent, Steve Winn, implicitly threatened a law suit, asking, “What court can I go to?”

Many in the crowd of more than 50 Crestone-Baca residents supported Norris’ remarks with descriptions of the horror of wild fires. Some told stories expressing gratitude toward the community’s trained volunteers.

Chandler, on the other hand, wasn’t afraid of no fire, implying that Norris and others were using scare tactics to get the district created. At times screaming to be heard, she said she experienced the Mission Ridge fire at Durango a half dozen years ago and it involved explosive ponderosa stands, while here, in her words, “We’re in the desert.” Longtime fire fighters who understand the pinyon-juniper environment here were obviously astonished by this remark.

For most of the crowd the issue was not about money. Mark Jacobi, who served many years as Baca fire chief, said statistical thinking about finances doesn’t mean much when a fire gets going. “You can grouse about the money but everybody knows the incredible commitment of the volunteers,” he said. “When you talk about taxes keep in mind how much these people are giving for free.”

Brack in his opening remarks said in 61.5 square miles with about 750 houses and a summer population of perhaps 1,000, the  response to all hazards including medical emergencies falls on the shoulders of 45 regular volunteers – “a core group of people who work for the benefit of all.”

Addressing the town-country animosity evoked by the opponents, Brack said, “We share the roads, we share the stores, we share the views, and we share the emergencies. Why make it more difficult to deal with those emergencies together?”

In response to the suspicion that the town, with a population of about 135, will enrich itself by merger with the larger, richer Baca subdivision, former Mayor Kizzen Laki said the town is “perfectly happy doing what it’s doing,” and has no motivation except to help the Crestone and Baca volunteers work together better. The town now is part of the Northern Saguache County Fire Protection District, but Crestone will have more local control in the new district. Besides, she mentioned, she has friends and family living in the Baca.

As to the opposition fear – apparently greater than the fear of fire – that the district organizers will indulge in runaway tax increases, several in the audience were reassuring. Vince Palermo, known for doing his homework on local issues, reminded that the fire district board cannot raise taxes. Any mill levy including the initial 16 mills must be approved in a special  election.

The final note fell to Adam Kinney of Crestone, whom the even-handed moderator Matie Belle Lakish called upon last, noting he had quietly raised his hand several times. He told how when someone irresponsibly set a fire on his property, his home and wife and children were saved by selfless volunteer responders. He told how in another emergency they extricated his son from an oven, where he had become trapped.

“I trust you with my home. I trust you with my family. And I will trust you with my $250 a year,” he said.

The Rural Utilities Service Is No REA

And Obama Is No FDR

June 6, 2011 in Rio Grande West | Comments (0)

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The Crestone community, despite its international reach, is isolated by an apathetic internet service provider. The Fairpoint Communications system is a klunker, and the small-town phone company has no announced intention to update it.

A 1937 REA poster by artist Lester Beall

Crestone-Baca  is not on an equal footing with most of the nation in the category of  affordable high-speed internet service. This affects visitors from around the world trying to make reservations at the spiritual centers, home businesses trying to market their handicrafts and other goods, or local people simply trying to place internet orders, communicate with each other, and read a few  blogs. The saddest result is the competitive disadvantage the outdated system here imposes on young people growing up in the digital age.  (more…)

Bird By Bird

That’s the word. . .

March 25, 2011 in Rio Grande West | Comments (0)

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BIG BIRDS:  Thousands sandhill crates rested at the Monte Vista refuge in March during their annual migration north.

Canada geese, crane in background









SONG BIRDS: I went to a Crestonian poetry show where Diane Barstow and Matthew Crowley among others performed. I said, Oh I get it now (after 47 years). Poetry is performance! So I rushed home to become a poet and all I could find for instructions was Anne Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird.” (more…)

SunCatcher Noise May Sink CO Project

Health, welfare, safety, etc. But what if folks just don’t want it?

December 9, 2010 in Rio Grande West | Comments (1)

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Pilot SunCatcher plant (slv renewable communities alliance photo)

It would be a noisy Space Age intrusion in one of Colorado’s last pure Old West landscapes, and more industrialization would  follow it into the northern San Luis Valley.

Except for a couple of protestors yelling about jobs, most of the estimated 150 people in the packed crowd of Saguache County ranchers, retirees and quiescent Crestonians raised their voices against it.

The applicants antagonized them with a trust-us-now, ask-questions-later attitude. Their scientific experts failed to prove they had spent much time, if any, at the site. Aware they will have to make a decision in a few weeks, the Saguache County Commission sat in silence except for the chairman’s angry attempts to hurry things along. (more…)

Hiroshima Day

Sixty years later

August 6, 2010 in Rio Grande West | Comments (0)

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The dome at Peace Park, Hiroshima

(Note: I re-posted this for the 65th anniversary. It was written five years ago.)

I went up to Shumei for their monthly sampai the other day – it was Sunday morning, that’s all I knew. There are days in these strange Sangre de Cristo Mountains when without warning I am felled by subtle meaning. (more…)

In The Hard Heart Of The Sangres

Some Mountains Are Manly, Some Not

July 22, 2010 in Rio Grande West | Comments (0)

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From 13,546: Willow Lake and the Crestone fourteeners

Unamed summits in Colorado  are usually identified by a number reflecting altitude, and I have a thing for lovely 13,546. She stands poised and modest out front of the sharp toothy Crestone fourteeners. Around summer solstice the sun rises from her slender left shoulder. (more…)