Town Story: Pagosa Springs
Pagosa Springs doesn’t end at the city limits. The people who live here feel an intimate connection to the river, the forests, the mountains and the ski slopes just up the road at Wolf Creek Pass.
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MOST PEOPLE YOU meet in Pagosa Springs have similar stories. At Goodman’s Department Store, a Western wear shop that’s been a fixture on Main Street since 1900, there’s the story of the store’s safe. Sometime in the early 20th century, burglars from out of town broke in at night to blow open the safe with dynamite. As the intruders fumbled in the dark, one of them knocked the phone off the hook, which in those days alerted the operator that the line was open. The operator deduced that no one should be at Goodman’s so late at night and called the police. The thieves were able to blast off the safe’s door and take its contents, but the dynamite had taken a while to set up, and the criminals were apprehended before they could make their getaway. The Goodman family thought it was funny. After all, this was Pagosa – the safe hadn’t been locked.
The store kept the mangled safe for decades afterward to use as shelves for hunting-license forms, but it’s now kept at the home of Goodman’s fifth-generation owner, Hayley Goodman. She grew up helping her parents in the store, and now that they’re retired, she’s in charge, though she’s quick to say she couldn’t do it without the veteran staff, some of whom have worked there since before she was born.
The 25-year-old Goodman didn’t always think she’d follow in her parents’ footsteps. She is a talented painter – a large mural outside the store is testament to that – and she entered college at Colorado State University as an art major, but when her parents announced they were retiring, she changed her major to business so she could come back and keep Goodman’s in the family.
Some of the people buying cowboy hats at Goodman’s are tourists, but some are actual cowboys from the ranches that dot the countryside here. When ranchers come in to get a new hat, they’ll sometimes autograph the battered old hat they’re replacing and hang it on the wall. Goodman loves having authentic Westerners as customers and friends. “Sometimes they come in to buy stuff, but they usually come in just to hang out,” she said.
Western culture runs deep in Pagosa Springs. Fred Harman, the creator of the 1940s comic-strip cowboy Red Ryder, grew up on a nearby ranch and spent his last decades in a home and art studio on the edge of town. Harman’s home, now a museum, displays his cowboy paintings, as well as an enormous couch upon which his friend John Wayne once took a nap – and yes, visitors are allowed to sit on the couch. The most popular souvenir is a genuine Red Ryder BB gun, famous from the “you’ll shoot your eye out” refrain from the movie A Christmas Story.
These days, there’s also a new breed of cowboy in Pagosa Springs at the headquarters of Parelli Natural Horsemanship. Horse trainer Pat Parelli and his wife and business partner, Linda, are known internationally for their training techniques, which rely on treating the horse as a partner and being sensitive to subtle cues in its body language. The company produces training videos, but it also teaches riders from across the world at its ranch here.
At the end of Parelli training courses, there are cookouts and sing-a-longs that are open to everyone, drawing hundreds of people to Pagosa Springs. Pagosans give the visitors their trademark warm welcome. A couple in town to visit their daughter, who was training with Parelli, once sat in a booth at The Rose restaurant lamenting that they didn’t bring their guitars for the sing-along. A Pagosa man in the next booth overheard them and rushed home, returning with two guitars that he handed the couple. “Take these,” he said. “When you’re done with them, bring them back to the restaurant.”
ON WINTER DAYS with fresh snow, some Parelli employees might show up to work at noon – no one wants to miss a powder day at Wolf Creek Ski Area. Owned by the Pitcher family for three generations, Wolf Creek gets more annual snowfall than any other ski area in Colorado. It’s the beloved hometown ski slope for people in Pagosa Springs, including the large community of retirees, many of whom belong to the Gray Wolf Ski Club.
The club has been around for 30 years, but one of its favorite traditions began in 2009, when Will James decided to hike to the top of Alberta Peak and ski back down on his 80th birthday. A dozen friends joined his trek, bringing along a cake and a bottle of Grand Marnier in a backpack. There’s now a trophy with the names of all the Gray Wolf members who’ve done this expedition on their 80th birthday.