How Creede Taught Me To Be A Coloradan
Locate me on a horse, a skittish Arabian, on a rough tract of land at the foothills of the Continental Divide. I’ve never been on a horse in my life (not counting my infamously terrifying pony ride at Playland Amusement Park, circa 1968), and this horse, which belongs to my new girlfriend, is less than thrilled with my lack of command. She jumps at the sight of a stick, probably thinking it’s a snake, and then tries to buck me off. I hang on, pulling the reins hard to the left, and say something that sounds like “Whoa,” only I’m from New York, so it comes out as “Woe.”
I’m completely out of my element. This horse could kill me if she wanted to. But the air is clean and crisp, and all around me are sage and juniper bushes.
I take a deep breath, settle into the saddle, give the horse a little kick, and we move forward at a steady gait.
I feel happy. For the first time in years.
I’m in Creede.
Creede, Colorado, roughly between Alamosa and Pagosa Springs in the southern San Juans, is just over half a square mile small. A sign boasts of a population of “546 nice folks and 13 soreheads,” but the town is actually inhabited by about 300 nice folks and maybe two or three soreheads. (I won’t name names.) Its population at least quadruples every summer with the happy invasion of fishermen, off-the-grid tourists, hikers, itinerant actors performing at the Creede Repertory Theatre, a few river-rafters and artists of all ilk. Sitting in a fertile valley at 8,800 feet, crescented by the Continental Divide, Creede was my home for only two years, but it has remained, in the 18 years since, a pinned location on my emotional map.
Nobody in Creede right now would consider me a former resident; at best I was one of a series of men that my girlfriend, a serial monogamist, invited to live with her. If they remember me at all, it would be as a happy-acting, sad-looking New Yorker who tried his best to fit in but seemed perpetually out of place. A dark-haired half-Italian among dirty blondes. A 30-something man searching for a new way of living, but no one could say whether or not this new way of living suited him.
Creede came to be because of the silver boom in the late 19th century, and remnants of this boom are everywhere, from the Holy Moses gift shop in town (named after what Nicholas Creede said when he discovered a vein of silver in the mountains) to the abandoned shacks and mine entrances that had somehow been built into the mountainsides. Silver was discovered there in 1869, but it was 20 years later, when rich minerals were mined in Willow Creek Canyon, that the town exploded from 600 to 10,000 residents, among them such unsavory blackguards as Soapy Smith, Bat Masterson and Robert Ford (the dirty little coward who killed Jesse James). When I lived there, I kept trying to imagine 10,000 people in this tiny place – crowding the six-block town and hastily erecting shacks out into the valley, on the uneven granite of the canyon, or even on slats that stretched across the Rio Grande when there was no more space, and then add to that picture drunken outlaws and lawlessness – but I could never wrap my head around it.
Then the Panic of 1893 hit, the price of silver crashed, and just as quickly, Creede was largely abandoned, destined to become yet another ghost town.
Only it didn’t. A few hundred stubborn residents hung on, and their descendants (i.e. the current residents) are just as stubborn, just as hardy as their forebears. They are not criminals, but they are the real Westerners of today – and by that I mean not the “cowboys and Indians” types but quirky folks who love the mountains and whose careers are entirely secondary to their lifestyles. In other words, the opposite of New Yorkers. A common question from tourists (if they understood me to be a native, which delighted me to no end) was, “How do you people make a living in this place?” and the correct answer is, “How do we not make a living?” Creedites are shop owners, horse trainers, waiters, cleaners, professional actors and directors, ski instructors (Wolf Creek Ski Area is about 45 minutes away), shop keepers and clerks, bartenders, baristas, gas-station attendants, ranchers, real estate agents, mine-tour guides, post office clerks, bank tellers, writers and artists (who run picturesque summer workshops), paramedics, guest-ranch employees, handymen or handywomen, and now, once again, silver miners. But what almost all of them have in common is that they are hiding from or have turned their backs on something, whether that something is “the real world” or their troubled pasts, and that they acknowledge the power of the land, in a way that few New Yorkers do. In this part of Colorado, the landscape is omnipresent, calling on you to cut the malarkey and live with integrity. You could successfully avoid this presence by hiding out (one of Creede’s famous residents when I was there was a beautiful former model who was rarely seen in daylight), drinking steadily, or self-medicating. Otherwise, good luck. In Creede, whenever you look out your window or step outside, you run the risk of seeing your true self in an elemental mirror.
Or at least that’s what happened to me.
For the rest of the story see the May/June 2017 issue of Colorado Life.