Town Story: Buena Vista

Buena Vista Lives Up to its Name

Mount Princeton is a dramatic backdrop to Buena Vista neighborhoods.

Joshua Hardin

It has become something of a tradition. Every five years, a certain Denver newspaper will call the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce to ask why the town insists on mispronouncing its name – why do locals call it BEW-na VIS-ta rather than BWAY-na VIS-ta?

Kathi Perry, the chamber’s executive director, has the answer down pat. Buena Vista means “good view” in Spanish, she’ll explain, and while Buena would properly be pronounced BWAY-na in that language, the town wasn’t named by Spanish speakers. The person who came up with the name was a woman of German extraction, Alsina Dearheimer, who’d picked up a smattering of Spanish from her first husband, a language professor. When she proposed the name for the town in 1879, Dearheimer insisted it be pronounced BEW-na VIS-ta to echo the first syllable of the English word “beautiful.” Some people simply call the town B.V. or by its nickname, Bewnie, to avoid controversy.

Folks might argue about Dearheimer’s pronunciation of Buena Vista, but everyone agrees the name is fitting. If anything, “good view” is an understatement – “postcard-perfect view” is more like it. Just southwest of town, Mount Princeton rises dramatically from the flat land of the Upper Arkansas River Valley, flanked by fellow 14ers Mount Harvard and Mount Yale. These are the snow-capped peaks that people the world over imagine when they think of the Rocky Mountains. The mountains aren’t the only things here that are beautiful to behold. Rafters and kayakers revere the stretch of the Arkansas River that flows through Buena Vista, the self-proclaimed Whitewater Capital of Colorado.

Boaters share the river with fly fishermen, and many buy their flies from David Kelly at the Hi-Rocky, the Buena Vista store that sells flies for 98 cents. The price hasn’t changed in three decades, though Kelly said he might have to raise it to keep pace with the times – “I might have to charge a dollar.” Just like its perpetual 98-cent flies, the Hi-Rocky, a combination souvenir shop and sporting goods store, has been a constant in Buena Vista for generations. The store is such a local landmark that when Kelly told a banker he was thinking about tearing it down and building a bigger store, the banker refused to loan him the money to do it because he couldn’t bear the thought of seeing the old place go.
Kelly’s job is to help people catch fish, but before he bought the Hi-Rocky from his parents in 2001, his job involved throwing fish out of helicopters. Working for the Colorado Department of Wildlife, Kelly and a chopper pilot would fly from mountain lake to mountain lake, swooping low over the water and dumping out bags full of baby fish to restock the trout population.

When lunchtime rolled around during one flight, the pilot asked Kelly where he wanted to eat. They were flying over Buena Vista, and Kelly saw a restaurant he liked right below them. As far as he knew, there was no ordinance that said you couldn’t land a helicopter in a restaurant parking lot, so they dropped in for some grub. No sooner had they landed than a police cruiser screeched to a stop beside the helicopter. The officer thought something was amiss, but when he saw that it was Kelly emerging from the chopper, he shook his head, waved and drove off.

Minus the part about the helicopter, that’s a fairly typical Buena Vista story. People here know each other, they look out for each other – and they’re constantly waving hello to each other. If they’re not friends, they’re friends of friends. And if they truly are strangers, they quickly remedy that Laurie Benson and Cheryl Richmond were strangers when they spotted each other walking on opposite sides of Main Street, each toting a baby girl. “What are you doing?” one of them shouted across the street. “Going to the park,” the other replied. They decided they’d go together. Now, 10 years later, they’re best friends, and their families now operate neighboring businesses on Main Street.

Laurie and Joel B

enson run the Buena Vista Roastery, a coffee shop that has become the hub of Main Street – at any given moment it seems like half the people in town are inside, and though a few folks are on their laptops, most people appear to be engrossed in conversations with old friends. The Roastery is the perfect place to take the pulse of the community, which suits Joel, as he also is Buena Vista’s mayor.

Earl Richmond is co-owner of Colorado Kayak Supply, or CKS. When the kayak shop opened on Main Street in 2004, it was the first new business to open there in years. Richmond has persuaded a lot of other people – including the Roastery’s Bensons – into opening shop on Main Street, too. The thoroughfare, which had been overshadowed by nearby Highway 24 for decades, has come into its own of late. Most recently, outdoor-gear shop the Trailhead relocated to Main Street from the highway. Kayaking has become so popular in Buena Vista, thanks in part to CKS and its annual Paddlefest celebration, that it has spawned a whole new neighborhood – South Main. Main Street used to be a simple east-west street, ending in the east at the Arkansas River, but now it jogs south into South Main, a collection of newly built houses intermingled with shops and a boutique hotel, the Surf Chateau.

The neighborhood was willed into existence by siblings and professional kayakers Jed and Katie Selby, who sold the first plots to paddling buddies. Over the last decade, South Main has grown from a neglected riverfront into its own thriving community within a community, with the new Buena Vista Whitewater Park – a manmade kayaking course in the river – just a stone’s throw away.

Eddyline Brewery opened in South Main in 2009 and later opened another brewing operation in the heart of town, giving Buena Vista a destination for craft beer tourists, as well as a great brewpub for the locals. There seems to be a natural synergy between beer and kayaks, as many of the people working at Eddyline first came to Buena Vista because of the river and stayed because they couldn’t find any reason to leave.

The river draws paddlers of every description, as Jill Van Deel, manager of the Central Colorado Regional Airport just outside of Buena Vista, can attest. Crown Prince Salman, next in line to be king of Saudi Arabia, once showed up with his entourage after rafting the Arkansas. He chatted warmly with Van Deel, then took his private jet for a short flight to Aspen. Not long after the prince left, Van Deel noticed he’d left his backpack and wallet in her office, so she flew her own plane to Aspen to return them.

While Aspen draws a jet-setting crowd, the pilots who fly those jets often come to Buena Vista’s airport after dropping off their passengers in Aspen. Not only is there a lot more – and cheaper – hangar space in Buena Vista, the town has perfect flying weather. Pilots call the town “the Blue Hole,” because even if clouds cover the nearby mountains in every direction, the skies over Buena Vista always seem to be clear.

It’s not just pilots who notice this. People in Buena Vista say they’re part of the Banana Belt, an area that’s routinely 20 degrees warmer than surrounding communities. On Feb. 7 and 8, the town hosts its second annual Banana Belt Days – if the weather’s mild enough to have a festival in the middle of winter, why not take advantage of it?
Though Buena Vista doesn’t have any ski areas, it i﷯s a short drive to Monarch, Ski Cooper, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain, so some skiers use the sunny town as a base. Skiers also come for the hot springs, both the swanky Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort and the folksier, laid-back Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa closer to town.

Recreation is big for Buena Vista, but not everyone who comes here chooses to do so. The town’s biggest employer, the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, sounds like a less-than-ideal place to spend a holiday. Having a medium-security state prison on the outskirts of town doesn’t faze the folks in Buena Vista, which recently was determined to have the state’s lowest crime rate, with zero violent crimes committed in 2012. There are even some perks to having a prison handy, as inmate work crews help do things like clearing snow from town sidewalks in the winter.

Buena Vista is a magnet for people who think differently – people like Dawn Jump. She grew up in a Colorado cattle-ranching family, and her seven brothers all continued the clan’s cow-punching ways. Jump’s brothers thought she was crazy when she announced she was forsaking cattle for goats, but they probably don’t think that anymore. Her Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy has become famous for its goat cheese, which has found a market in places like King Soopers and Whole Foods.

Jump got her first goat when she was 10, purchasing it with $35 in pennies she loaded into her mom’s old purse after emptying the coins from an antique gumball machine. Her first youthful attempt to milk a goat was disastrous. “It’s very difficult when you have no clue what you are doing,” she said. Jump somehow coaxed a small amount of milk from the animal and tasted it. “It was god-awful,” she said, laughing and cringing at the memory. She later found out that was because the goat had been eating bitter weeds, and that better-tasting goat food meant better-tasting milk. After moving to Washington to start her first goat dairy, she returned to Colorado in 2007 to launch her goat-cheese operation in Buena Vista, which she runs with help from her daughters, Sadi and Jewel, and a crew of up to a dozen. Along with a creamery, corrals and pastures, Jump built a custom-made cave – it looks like a medieval catacombs – in which to age her cheeses. Visitors can tour the dairy and creamery year-round to pat goats on the head and taste award-winning cheese, though people should call ahead to schedule during the winter.

Because people in Buena Vista are so interconnected with each other’s lives, people take it hard when tragedy strikes within the community. Tragedy hit especially hard in 2013, when a massive rockslide buried a family while they hiked a trail near Mount Princeton. Parents Dwayne and Dawna Johnson, their eldest daughter, Kiowa, and their nephews Baigen Walker and Paris Walkup, were killed. The sole survivor of the slide was the Johnsons’ daughter Gracie, then 13, who was saved when her father pushed her out harm’s way at the last moment.

Buena Vista was heartbroken. The Johnsons were one of the most popular families in town, and Dwayne and Dawna had been nurturing influences on hundreds of young lives as coaches at Buena Vista High School. In the immediate aftermath, people organized every type of fundraiser imaginable for the Johnson Family Fund, from garage sales, to silent auctions, to an event at Eddyline Brewery, where Dawna had worked since it opened. Within the first month, the fund had garnered $50,000 in donations. Some of Gracie’s classmates organized a separate scholarship fund towards her college education, raising $40,000.

When the tragedy’s anniversary neared in September last year, high school principal Brian Yates wanted to do something to bring the town together, not just to remember the Johnsons but to celebrate the personal connections that mean so much to everyone in Buena Vista. Yates pitched his idea to town government: Close down Main Street for a community dinner. No speeches, no agenda, no promotions, just neighbors sitting down for a shared meal. The plan got instant approval.

Anonymous donors paid for 700 pounds of pulled pork, and 223 community members each volunteered to sponsor a table, bringing side dishes to share. Each table had eight chairs – six assigned seats and two open spots so people could mix and mingle. High school students volunteered to set up the tables, arranged in two parallel rows that stretched down two city blocks. Simply amassing 223 tables was a logistical coup, with churches, schools and VFW posts loading up all the tables they could find and dropping them off for the event.

The dinner exceeded even the grandest expectations: In a town of 2,700 people, 1,700 showed up. “There’s something special about looking down the table and seeing 1,700 people sitting down with you,” Yates said. As friends and neighbors said their goodbyes that night, they were already talking about doing it again this year.

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