The rural West has been seeing a steeper and steeper decline into despair, especially among white men. But when a Vietnam vet’s mental breakdown threatens the safety of Walden, the small town has a response that neighborhoods everywhere could learn from.
[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
It was early in the morning after a big snow in mid-December 2016. Donald Trump was just elected a few weeks earlier. The whole country was in turmoil. Even for people who supported his election, there was just this feeling of fear and distrust. A feeling seeping down into the nooks and crannies of our country, even into places like my hometown of Walden, Colorado.
One of my dad’s best friends is a guy named Gabby Hayes. I’ve known Gabby almost my whole life. He’s another one of the old gang that worked in the oilfields together in the 1970s. Well, Gabby is a Vietnam Vet, struggles with PTSD and with some serious addictions. And all this national turbulence, it didn’t sit well with him. One day, under the influence of a mix of pot and pharmaceuticals, Gabby found himself at the post office with a rifle in his hands.
“I was tripping. I was tripping,” he told me. “It was cold as a bull digger’s behind. And I went into the post office to get warm. And I was tripping. There was a guy trying to get in there and get that rifle. And I poked him in the face. There was no face there, but there was a window.”
Gabby busted out the windows of the post office with the butt of the rifle and then ran into the street, confused and out of control.
“Yeah, it was quite shocking for the whole town,” my mom recalled. “He broke out the windows of the post office, which is federal. He went into the River Rock. Somebody told me he held a gun to their head. He just went on a rampage downtown.”
After the post office, he went next door and busted out the windows of the bank and then ran across the street to the cafe.
This is from a police report: “The person who called…stated that the person with the weapon shot out the windows of the front door of the cafe and had pointed the weapon at her from the front door. This person…who had a weapon was in the hotel and was running around upstairs but couldn’t get into the cafe now.”
Gabby threw a chair off the balcony, breaking the windows of a car below. Now, Gabby, our old family friend, was an armed and dangerous man on the loose.
“Yeah, Gabby has always been—and IS—sort of a threat to society,” my dad admitted.
But it’s not just any society. It’s a small town, a struggling town with lots of struggling people. Maybe it looks like proof the Wild West is still alive and kicking, a ghost town in the making, gun fights on the streets and all that. But looking deeper, I started to see a different picture emerge.
So far in this series, we’ve been looking at the causes of dying towns. But it seems like it’s time to take a look at the effects. Effects like the mental health troubles of those left behind. Because the rural West is seeing more and more deaths of despair: suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, lung cancer, diabetes. And especially by White men.
Men like our family friend Gabby.
Gabby Hayes never knew his real dad, but his stepdad was a piece of work.
“Rhett Hayes was a hateful son of a ps-ps-ps. Beat on Mama a lot. Beat on me a lot.”
Gabby wanted out of East Florida. So before he graduated, he’d already signed up to join the army.
“Soon as I finished high school, I was on my way to Georgia. ‘Here kid, give me that guitar. Take this rifle. Get your butt in that truck.’”
In Vietnam, he became a forward observer sniper, the toughest of the tough, and stuck it out for three tours. But he admitted he’s haunted by things that happened there. He doesn’t talk about the war much, but he did tell me and my dad this one heartbreaking story. He remembered hiding out in the jungle when a young woman and a middle-aged man suddenly ran at him from up a hill, and they were carrying something suspicious in their arms.
Gabby’s reflexes kicked in.
“Ain’t no son of a bitch going to throw a goddamn bomb in my lap,” he recalled thinking. “Before I even knew it, I put them down. The bag that girl was carrying was full of black silks, and the bag he was carrying, it had them leaves, them tea leaves–they wrapped their food in it. Well, they weren’t running at us, they were running to us because they were running from the sons of bitches we was looking for.”
He’d killed both of these innocent civilians. And that impulse to reach for a gun before he thinks, it was something he’d been trained to do.
After the war was over, Gabby came back a wounded soul. But that’s when he found Colorado’s northernmost big valley: North Park. One of his first jobs was as a logger. Back then, they still used draft horses to move the logs. It reminded him of life in the Daniel Boone books he loved to read as a boy. It was early summer, a beautiful time of year.
“Those mountains where the quaky trees first blossom up and their leaves are darker as the others come. But then there’s that blue line–somebody told me, ‘Oh, that’s timberline.’ But it was still ice cream topped, snowed. I mean to tell you what, it looked just like my Daniel Boone dreams. And you couldn’t run me off with a stick,” Gabby said.
But it wasn’t long before the trauma of his past began to catch up with him. When Gabby got a job in the late seventies working on the same oil rig as my dad, one of the first things my dad recalled about him was how he got into an ugly argument with a guy on another crew.
“One of our crew guys comes to me and says, ‘We put Gabby’s gun in your truck.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, really?’” My dad laughed, remembering it. “So I’ve got this gun in my pickup truck so Gabby doesn’t shoot somebody.”
The Mountain Man
But Gabby’s love for North Park’s mountains helped him feel better. In the early eighties, he decided to set up camp in the woods like a true mountain man.
“I had maybe watched Jeremiah Johnson once too often,” Gabby told me. “I was hiding. From what I don’t know, I don’t know. You gotta understand, honey lamb, I was a brand new civilian after ten years of that army insanity.”
Only problem was, he didn’t have a vehicle. So he hitchhiked to a nearby phone booth and called my mom.
“He’d call up and want cigarettes,” she said. “So I’d have to drive out there and you go past King’s Canyon and back in the hills and it was wintertime in North Park. I mean, it gets 50 below in North Park!”
My dad remembered that time too. “At one point he just got sick of being out there and his mental state deteriorated. And the story was that he went down and got some guns–five is what I remember–in one of the cabins there. And that got reported somehow. And so Sheriff Swayze and Deputy Cure went up to apprehend him. Basically, he’d stolen guns. And so, as they were approaching his camp, he told me, I could have dropped them both. …But he didn’t.”
“But he thought about it,” I couldn’t help but point out. And, also, the cops didn’t drop him. Especially back then, it was easier for a White guy to make it out of a situation like that alive. If he’d been Black or Latino, it might have turned out differently.
Afterward, my mom wanted to teach him a lesson. So we baked him some oatmeal raisin cookies and she took me and my little brother and we delivered them to his jail cell.
“So that he would be embarrassed because here’s these little kids seeing him behind bars.”
Gabby has no memory of those cookies. But I do. It’s a very vivid memory for me, seeing this guy I considered a kind of uncle, locked up. Other kids thought of prisoners as bad guys. Seeing him taught me a different kind of compassion. I knew Gabby wasn’t bad, he was just broken. He’d served our country and now he was hurting.
The Cowdrey Store
And it’s this brand of radical compassion that led my parents to open their doors to lots of people like Gabby about a decade later.
By this time, it was the early nineties and I was in college, but came home in the summers to work in the hunting and fishing camp my parents had bought in the teeny-tiny town of Cowdrey at the north end of North Park. Cowdrey was definitely ghost towning. They were debating whether to close its post office but its school had been boarded up long ago. The Cowdrey Store is a historic building, the one and only business left in town. And out back is a string of cabins we rented out to hunters. A lot of the time, though, local people like Gabby lived in them. They were tiny, but each cabin had a kitchenette, a warm little heater and a view of the Medicine Bows.
“Dan Hillhouse lived there and Jim Graham, and other people. And they would do work for us.”
Work to pay their rent. Few people paid in cash. One older couple, Doris and Russ, helped run the store for years. Dan was the resident fly tyer, keeping the fly fishermen in wooly boogers. Jim Graham was an elderly cowboy struggling with emphysema from a lifetime of roll-your-owns. Now Jim is long dead. So is Russ, also from cigarettes. And Dan, the fly tyer, became addicted to meth and went to the county jail for several years for possession of narcotics and guns.
Unlike the others, though, Gabby always paid his rent in cash.
“He was getting a lot of money from the government because he got hit by that Agent Orange,” my mom said. “And he never did any work for us, except coming in with a gun when I need him to protect me.” She laughed but there was a sad note of irony in it.
Small Town Despair
My parents ran those cabins during a time when North Park was declining fast, and that era offers a window into the despair that was taking a grip on the county. It wasn’t just the Cowdrey cabin renters that were suffering. Rural despair was on the rise across the rural West.
“Certainly one of the newest changes we’ve had is drugs,” Lynette Telck, Walden’s one and only doctor, told me. “For years, we never saw it, or there was that little handful over there that you knew did it and you didn’t have to worry about it. You avoided it and it wasn’t an issue. We are seeing drugs, they are playing a significant part, they’re being seen by EMS and Fire, they’re being arrested. Which is hard because we don’t have the facilities to handle that. And so that’s been a challenge for all of us: sheriff’s department, first responders, the clinic, everything.”
But it’s not just drugs. Even more people die from alcohol: drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, liver failure. Coloradoans die from alcohol-related deaths at higher rates than almost any other state. And the highest suicide rates are in the American West, especially in its small towns.
“The problem is, if we have one, it affects everybody in the community,” said Lynette. “And the numbers look bad because if you have one person per capita it really makes it look high. We definitely have the depression and the ranchers, the ones that aren’t going to ask for help, the ones that just deal with it. And the risk of suicide is much higher.”
Lynette understands this depression up close. She grew up on a ranch here. I remember when she was two grades behind me in school. Her family has been here generations. Growing up, we had a fantastic town doctor, Doc France. But after he retired, for years the town only had a part-time nurse practitioner. Until, that is, Lynette came home. So this decline of her community into despair, Lynette feels it. She cares about her patients in a way few doctors are willing–or may be able to.
“You know, a lot of small rural areas are really struggling because [doctors] don’t want to go back there,” Lynette said. “It’s not easy, you’re alone, you may be on call all the time, you don’t have a lot of extra support and a lot of people don’t want that responsibility or don’t feel comfortable with that, knowing that they’re responsible for everything.”
It’s a heavy burden, serving as a caregiver in a declining small town. Maybe that’s one reason Walden doesn’t have a full-time mental health clinic.
“I commute from Grand Lake so it takes me an hour and 15 minutes to get there in good weather,” said Walden’s part-time therapist, Tamera Gildenzoph. “So it’s 113 miles round trips for me.”
Three days a week Tamera drives up a curvy canyon and over Willow Creek Pass to see clients at Walden’s Mind Springs Health Clinic. Man, that road gets bad in a snowstorm! She tells me why there’s so many deaths of despair in small towns like this one.
“Why there’s higher suicide rates in rural areas is because of the limited access to mental health services. And then the high levels of some substance use and greater availability of firearms is a huge issue and reduced access to timely health care and emergency medical services, once again is a huge issue in areas that are isolated.”
It’s just way easier to get your hands on a gun in small towns. Everyone hunts, ranchers use guns to defend livestock, guns are just always around.
“Because the more deadly the means for the attempt is, the less time you have to work with a client and help them think of other options,” Tamera said.
Tamera is doing what she can to help people in Walden. The VA is letting her see a couple veterans now. And she’s going to start serving as a school counselor as well since there’s no one else to do that job. And she’s been seeing more immigrants who need mental health services.
“And we can actually get an interpreter on the phone to help us speak with people who are Spanish speaking. So that’s been very helpful. I’ve actually used that on some crisis calls,” she said.
And sad to say, but that’s maybe one way the pandemic has helped small towns: it’s forced the healthcare system to work the bugs out of telehealth. Both Tamera and Lynette say they’re relying on it more than ever before. But in North Park, telehealth has its limits.
“Some people are great with that, you know, the young ones, they talk on the computer and do Facetime and all that stuff. The older ones, it’s a little bit harder for them,” Lynette said. “They may not be able to turn on the computer, log onto the website, so certainly that issue can be a problem.”
And this county has more people over 90 per capita than any other in Colorado. Talking to people, they kept telling me about this inability to change, this downright resistance to change–and how it’s all tangled up in the despair happening here.
“I Think It’s A Community That’s Stuck Right Now”
Tina Maddux grew up in North Park and, like lots of us, moved away straight out of school. But when she came back she noticed the community seemed more depressed. And even scarier, she said people had started to calcify around the idea of this new reality.
“People had molded to and accepted who this had become,” she said. “And now it’s almost like there’s a mindset that to become something different is impossible, and they’re afraid to try. And I don’t know if fear is the thing or what it is, but they don’t want change and they don’t want things to move forward. And I think that it’s a community that’s stuck right now. “
Tina recognized that the need was enormous and that few town leaders were willing or able to step up. So she did it herself. She started a nonprofit here called Restorative Resources Programming House.
“In most communities, they have social services agencies, but then they have nonprofits and private agencies that create that accountability and that working together that makes it work. We don’t have that here,” said Tina. “Or I guess we didn’t until I started. And so we do a lot of things. I do drug and alcohol testing, I work on re-entry programming, I work on family reunification programming, whatever it takes. I mean, you name it, I’ve got an entire list. But how that works is I reach outside of the community. We have to learn to be friends with our bigger communities, you know, instead of seeing it as a threat, or that there’s a lot of false pride that we don’t need that. Well, we do, for our communities to be healthy and thrive.”
800 Registered Voters
But Mayor Jim Dustin said it’s not just resistance to change that’s keeping North Park from solving a lot of its problems. He said the county is so small that the rest of the state just doesn’t take the county seriously.
“We were contracting with the Visiting Nurse Association and they treated us like we weren’t even there,” he said. “We had a child that was obviously being abused. The school complained to social services 19 times about this child, cigarette burns on his arm. They had to go to court to get this child away from the parents. The sheriff finally intervened and went and took the children. That’s nothing peculiar to a small town, but the lack of resources is.”
Jim Dustin said he feels like North Park and its problems just don’t make it onto the state of Colorado’s radar. And he has a sneaky feeling why.
“There are no votes in a small county. We have 800 registered voters. And we’re lumped in with Boulder County for a state representative that has 50,000 voters! I’m surprised the gal ever comes out, which she does about once a year.”
The mayor said there’s one list, though, that the state finally put Jackson County on–the one to get a new courthouse. It’s this absolutely gorgeous stone building constructed in 1913. But, he said, it’s not a good place to hold criminals.
“We had a guy escape the jail. He’s kind of a funny guy. He was an escape artist. And if he could drive a car, he would probably be free today, but he doesn’t know how to drive. So every time he escapes, he steals a car and wrecks it,” Jim said, laughing.
And actually, remember Robert Symonds in episode two? Our family friend who cut off his fingertip? A few years back, he actually came across this same guy broken down on the side of the road. Not realizing he was an escaped convict, Robert pulled over and helped the guy get the car running. He said the guy seemed like he was in a serious hurry. That’s when the sheriff showed up.
“But they brought him back and he showed the sheriff how to pick the lock. He said ‘I was overjoyed when I saw those big old locks here because I knew I’d be out the next day.’” At this point in the story, we were both laughing our heads off. “Yeah, the state architects came down there and they said, we’re moving you to the top of the list. So we’re getting a new courthouse.”
One Cop, 1,628 Square Miles
Recently, I visited the basement of that old courthouse. They’ve remodeled the place so I couldn’t quite figure out where the jail was or where we’d taken Gabby his cookies. I talked to Sheriff Jarod Poley. He’s a young guy who grew up in a small town in Alabama. His wife is a nurse and they have small children they plan to homeschool. For all these reasons, he said, it’s working okay for his family to live here. But it’s not an easy job, by any means. His purview is the whole county.
“It’s 1,628 square miles. So it definitely takes some time,” he said.
“Yes, we found, depending on the call type, generally, there’s just one of us on at a time. And we’ve had response times up to three hours if we’re in another part of the region of the county here. And a call comes out at the opposite end of the county, based on dirt roads and weather, it may take two-three hours to get to.”
Only one cop at a time covering a county almost 1,600 square miles. That’s bigger than the state of Rhode Island! Sheriff Poley said he wishes the budget would allow him to hire a few more officers.
“I have just reached maximum capacity with the positions I have open. And I’ll be requesting more with this next budget here,” the sheriff said.
“How many would you feel like you’re needing at this point?” I asked.
“I would love to have four more, but I think two would probably be the best request at this point.”
And now, with winter coming on, he expects police work to get even harder. Because that’s when depression hits hard in isolated mountain towns like Walden. I remember that feeling living here. It’s like a sledgehammer coming down.
“Well, one of the things that you’ll find with a small community like this is we don’t have like movie theaters, things for people to get out and go do,” Sheriff Poley said. “So one of the biggest problems we’ve run into is when it gets cold for a long time, people get bored. And if they have medical conditions that don’t cooperate with the weather, unfortunately, some of those revert back to drinking alcohol or something of that sort that’s just something to do.”
Sheriff Poley said North Park’s isolation has almost attracted drug trafficking. Smugglers use the highway as a backdoor route to get from I-80 to I-70.
“So we have a lot of people pass through and, unfortunately, leave narcotics and, as they go through, they make their distribution.”
And those drugs lead to all kinds of crimes that really entrench the despair in the community.
“On the methamphetamine side is where we start seeing the actual criminal activity of burglaries, criminal mischiefs, damage,” the sheriff said.
Used to be, people didn’t lock their houses or cars in Walden. Now even my parents do. A spate of burglaries in town on the homes of senior citizens really scared them. And it’s made them less trusting of their neighbors. That trust, that’s one of the hallmarks of the small-town lifestyle. But now the country is torn apart with partisanship and misinformation. Without trust, that feeling of isolation, the one that eats at you in the wintertime, it isn’t just geographic. It climbs into your head and lives there.
“We Care About You”
But there’s signs of hope that Walden is hanging on to that community trust for dear life. Case in point, Gabby’s rampage on Main Street. My mom made a really good point about how the former sheriff, Gary Cure, talked him down.
“In any other town, he would have been shot dead. But not not in Walden. No. Gary just went and said ‘No, here, Gabby, you don’t need to do this.’”
In the police report, Sheriff Cure described de-escalating the scene. He and some of the other officers had gone into the hotel to find him.
“We then proceeded up the stairs to the top where we could see down the hallway to the guest rooms,” Sheriff Cure wrote. “I saw Hayes standing in the hallway with something in his hand but could not tell for sure what it was. I yelled, ‘Gabby’ and he turned and looked at me and then turned back toward the east and said something like, ‘There is my sheriff and he will take care of you.’ Hayes then turned around and came toward me.”
“There’s my sheriff and he’ll take care of you.” That’s what Gabby said to himself. He was relieved to see a cop he recognized. Gabby is bipolar and takes lots of medications. But when those meds fail him, he cries out for help in the only way he knows how.
“Well, nine different kinds of meds. Yeah. seven for my physical well being and two of them are to keep me from looking over there at you and seeing Mr. Hyde,” Gabby said.
There’s no doubt that Gabby is alive today because he’s a White man. My mom’s sense is that he’s also alive because he lives in a small town. Sheriff Cure was one of those officers that went out to his mountain man camp and arrested him decades ago when he stole five guns. He knows Gabby, has been managing Gabby’s mental breakdowns all his career. Not something a veteran would have the benefit of in a big city. In the debates over how to fix policing in this country, one idea that’s gaining traction is to bring back the neighborhood cop, someone who lives there, shops there, sends his kids to school there. Someone who gets to know the community intimately. My mom said that’s the kind of policing Gabby benefited from.
But I’m not sure the neighborhood cop paradigm always holds up. In the small college town where I live–Laramie, Wyoming–a few years back, a Latino man with mental health issues was killed by a police officer and it was a guy he actually went to high school with.
In the hotel lobby, Sheriff Cure took the wine bottle out of Gabby’s hands and put handcuffs on him and took him to jail. With two previous felonies on his record, Gabby wasn’t supposed to go near guns. Another veteran might have been sent to prison for that. But instead, the community immediately called in the town’s mental health therapist. Instead of prison, she recommended he go to the closest VA psych ward in the region. It’s clear up in Sheridan, Wyoming, a five and a half-hour drive away. Gabby was gone for a few months. But his return to Walden wasn’t as a criminal.
“When you came back, Stacy had fixed up your house and stuff,” my dad said.
“Oh God, did they ever,” said Gabby. “They painted the whole interior and they put stuff in there that I didn’t have. And they found a box of pictures and made one of them That’s Stacy Golibith that organized the remodeling of Gabby’s house while he was gone. Stacy is the manager of the River Rock Cafe and Hotel, the place where Gabby shot through the door and barricaded himself.
In fact, that’s where we’re now sitting, talking as Gabby drinks one glass of wine after another even though it’s morning.
“God, she literally adopted me,” Gabby said. “This is fact. If it wasn’t for Stacy Golobith, I’d most likely went under some years ago because I wouldn’t have been able to keep track of all those medical appointments and stuff. And she did everything but grab me by the earlobe to make sure I got to every one of them.”
But it’s not just Stacy that’s watching out for Gabby.
Running Errands with Curly Rose
“If you don’t mind, I need to hit the post office,” Gabby told my dad.
“Do you want to walk up there?” my dad asked. “You give me that and I’ll take the dog and I’ll go around the block and I’ll pick you up in front of the post office.”
I was tagging along as my dad took Gabby and his big blond labradoodle, Curly Rose, around town to run errands. Gabby walks with a cane now and it’s hard for him to get around. We headed down to the Dollar General store that moved in after the grocery store closed here.
“I’m supposed to get something else and I can’t remember what it is,” Gabby said, wandering the aisles.
“There’s a dog in here,” my dad joked.
“That ain’t no dog, that’s my daughter,” Gabby joked back.
The cashier greeted the big dog. “What are you doing, Curly?” then asked Gabby, “You need cigarettes again?”
“Yes, please, a couple packs of those blue ones. If you ain’t got the blue ones, okay, give me the red ones. I don’t give a hoot. I’d smoke a chain if I could light the son of a bitch.”
Curly Rose barked to get more attention from the cashier. She bent over and said in a high-pitched voice, “What are you doing? Come here. Hi baby, hi baby.” Curly Rose did a full-body wag now that she had her attention.
After Gabby got his cigarettes, we headed to the liquor store so Gabby could stock up on wine. Then we took him to the post office and delivered him back home.
Afterward, I asked my dad, why? Why does he go to so much trouble to help Gabby?
“I mean, why do you do that? Why do you help him when he could be dangerous?”
“Because he’s my friend, that’s why.” I could hear in my dad’s voice that he was getting teary. “He may be dangerous. But, you know, it’s better that he’s dangerous with me, where I might be able to neutralize him or deal with him. He’s asked me before, do you think you can take me without a weapon? You know, it’s kind of a threat, but on the other hand, not really. So, better me than going downtown and breaking up windows in the bank.”
A Good-Hearted Guy
As small towns shrink, it’s like trying to bail a sinking boat. Fewer and fewer resources available to help when things get rough. Tina Maddux, the community advocate, was right when she said the town is stuck and is now almost proud of its self-sufficiency and has forgotten how to ask for outside help. But there’s this one thing that small towns might be able to teach the rest of the country: how to not throw people away.
“He’s just a good-hearted guy,” my dad explained. “He wants the best for people. But he doesn’t always do the right thing, but he mostly does the right thing, and he tries to do the right thing. And when he doesn’t do the right thing, it can be pretty bad.”
Lately, Gabby’s been giving away all his prized possessions. Recently, he gave me a telescope, a really nice one. The military trained him in astronomy so he could find his way navigating by the stars. I didn’t understand why he’d give it away. But my dad says, Gabby’s been talking a lot about dying. He says all his hard drinking and drugs, it’s taken a toll on Gabby’s body. But even after all his mistakes, Gabby will still leave a hole in this community when he goes.
“Walden’s taken good care of you,” I said to Gabby when we were sitting at the cafe.
“That is the truth, that’s the truth,” Gabby said.
“We care about you,” my dad said.
“You know what? It’s like–I don’t even know how to say such stuff.” Gabby paused, trying to come up with the right words. “But it’s part of a bond and you know you’re indebted to half the citizens in North Park.”
I can see my dad bracing for yet another one of his friends’ deaths. The question is whether Gabby will make it through yet another one of North Park’s long, hard winters.
Thanks to Peter Parolin and Anne Mason with Relative Theatrics. Also, thanks to Sheldon Williams for some of the music. And thanks to the Wyoming Arts Council for providing space and time to write this episode.
Ghost Town(ing) episode art by John McNamis
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