The out-migration of rural youth is one of America’s great migrations–even the history books are calling it that. Younger generations leave because they have a need to feel connected to the great, big world out there. And as that world becomes more connected through the internet, small towns like Walden feel even more isolated. But would they come home if there was more equality in rural broadband?
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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
A few months back, just before the pandemic, I tagged along with my dad to band practice. We show up at his friend Gary Watson’s house. Gary, you’ll remember, was my dad’s first friend in North Park and the guy who invited him to join the Rhythm Rustlers. When I was a kid, my dad played lead guitar. But nowadays, he’s on keyboards. (If you’re reading this, I highly recommend clicking on the play button so you can hear the Rhythm Rustlers jamming!)
Some of my earliest memories are running around underfoot with Gary’s son Wes who was a year older than me, screaming to be heard over all the throbbing amps pumping out country music. Or at least I hung out with Wes until he joined the band as the drummer.
“I played my first gig on my twelfth birthday,” he reminded me.
Now, Wes is the lead guitarist and his dad Gary sings. Their original singer, Leon, died a few years back of lung cancer. These days, the Rhythm Rustlers only play publicly a couple times a year. But back in the day, Wes says the Elkhorn bar filled to the rafters to see these guys.
“I remember your dad playing,” Wes said. “We got up and we played to a packed crowd and he did that ‘Living in the USA’? Chuck Berry? Place went nuts.”
Wes knew that’s what he wanted to do, make music that affected people. So after high school he moved to Fort Collins and joined a popular band called the Marvelous Marmots.
“We had fun. We had a blast,” said Wes, “but unless you really fall into it and get a card for the union, you can’t make it. Last time I played for the Marmots, I made $20 less than the first time I ever played with the Rhythm Wrestlers. And that was 39 years ago. You know, you just don’t get paid.”
So Wes started driving a truck to make ends meet.
“I traveled with a company that did construction work on oil rigs for five years and I was in Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, you know? And it just, I get nauseous when the mountains disappear in my rearview mirror.”
“You got homesick?” I asked.
“It’s home. It’s home,” he said.
So Wes moved back to North Park to live with his dad. Since then, Wes’ health has been steadily going downhill.
“Well, I have diabetes, I have a chronic heart problem that only flares up every four or five years, and I have pretty much my knee to my ankle replaced with titanium. If I had known I was gonna make it this old, I would have taken care of myself!”
“In other words, he’s a wreck,” said his dad, Gary.
“I am!” Wes admitted. “That’s why I’m moving. I’m moving to Cheyenne. And I want to get some good physical rehab so I can walk without a cane.”
The great exodus from rural America sits on the shoulders of people like Wes, and yeah, people like me, kids who grew up in these towns, love them so hard it hurts to see them disappear in the rearview mirror, but somehow find ourselves leaving anyway.
And when we go, we take the music with us.
The last couple episodes, we’ve been talking a lot about migration. About how the West has traditionally chased American dreamers away, and about all the fresh energy that immigrants can bring in, if we can only make them welcome.
But rural towns aren’t making their own children welcome either. It’s another one of America’s great migrations, even the history books are starting to call it that. And it’s personal because I was one of those young people who left my hometown. Almost all my classmates left, many of them never to return. One thing that sent us scurrying was a need to feel connected to the great big world out there. And as that world became more connected through the world wide web, our town felt even more isolated. The internet was slow to arrive here–some people say it still hasn’t really.
All this got me thinking about my own classmates. Seventeen graduated but only five of us still live there. What kind of decisions did we all make in life that could help Walden do a better job of retaining their young people?
So I tracked some of them down, starting with Brandi Hanson, one of my closest friends in elementary school.
You’d think Brandi of all our classmates would have come home. Her family roots here go waaaay back, starting with her great-grandpa Victor.
“He came over when he was 12 from Sweden,” Brandi told me. “And he actually came over by himself and eventually made it to settle in North Park, and started a cattle ranch there.”
For generations, the Hansons were one of the largest families in the valley. They still have a town park named after them. Brandi loved her childhood on that ranch.
Walden’s elementary school
“I mean, our biggest threat was whether we were going to step on a rusty nail because we’re running around barefoot and have to go get a tetanus shot and have to go to Laramie, you know what I mean? We were outside, we were enjoying nature.”
I remember that, running around on that ranch with Brandi. But then, in the 1980s farmers and ranchers were hit by a series of hard times: bad droughts, high interest loans, low property values.
“I don’t know if it was, like, financial stress leading to divorce, or divorce leading to financial stress or where all of that came in. But there started to be a few divorces, my parents included,” Brandi said.
Generations of Hansons had ranched in North Park, but by the mid-eighties…
“Between the insurance and the banks, they ended up basically confiscating the land,” she said. “We even toyed around with lots of ideas to try to save the property, like turning it into a dude ranch or, you know, what could we do? Could we board horses?”
Brandi moved with her mom to nearby Fort Collins. After graduating from college with a degree in math, Brandi ended up following her mom down south and eventually got married.
“And then as soon as we got married, he got laid off. And when he got laid off, he looked for jobs, wherever, and wherever ended up being Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”
Which is where Brandi still lives. Now she’s a PE teacher and a single mom. She wishes her daughter could grow up like she did. She said over the years, lots of the Hanson kids have tried to return to North Park. Some of her cousins return for summer jobs. Brandi wanted to live closer to her family too.
“I had really wanted to be back there with them. But when I tried to go back, it was really difficult to find a job, housing,” she said. “So it’s almost like once you leave, even if you want to go back, it’s really difficult to do that. And honestly, I’ve tried to go back several times since, and something has always kind of become a roadblock to it.”
No Try, Only Do
“It’s definitely a lifestyle choice,” Matt Shuler told me. He’s another guy from our class. Now, he’s the editor of the town paper, The Jackson County Star. I caught him on a Wednesday packaging up the newspapers to deliver around town.
“Which is funny, because a lot of the people that are our age that lived here, a lot of them are looking back, like, man, I wish I could go back,” Matt said.
“Right, well, I just talked to Brandi, and that’s what she said,” I told Matt. “She’s like, I’ve tried and tried to come back to Colorado. Can’t find her way back.”
“There’s trying and then there’s doing,” Matt said. “Yoda even said, there’s no try. Only do.”
And Matt would know something about taking Yoda’s advice. Matt was the class president, on all the sports teams, married his high school sweetheart, then went off to college to major in chemistry.
“We moved to Fort Collins for a while and I managed a lumberyard in Greeley until they shut it down. And then one night, we’re going to Walmart. I asked Michelle how her day went. She said, ‘Oh, pretty good. I quit my job and we’re moving back to Walden.’ I said, ‘Have you thought this out? Because…’ ‘No, I’m just telling you.’”
So they moved back. And Matt said they made it work the way lots of small town folks do, a little of this, a little of that. I found out exactly how true this was when his phone rang. Still wrapping papers with rubber bands, he answered.
“Hello?” Matt said.
“Hello, this is Lee Jolly,” said an elderly voice over the speaker phone. “Are you still cutting hair off and on?”
“Yeah, mostly off, but I can get yours done maybe this afternoon, if you got time.”
“I got time.”
“How about four o’clock?”
“Four o’clock sounds good.”
“All right. We’ll see you there. Thanks, Lee,” Matt said and hung up.
“Did he say cut hair?” I asked, confused.
“Yeah, I’m the only barber in town.”
“And you have no hair,” I pointed out, helpfully.
That’s because I work on my own. Anybody wants a reference, I just take my hat off!
But cutting hair didn’t make as much money as Matt had hoped. He made breakfast burritos on the side, all the time sitting on the school board. Then he heard that Jim Dustin, the current mayor, wanted to sell the newspaper.
“I got ahold of him and said, ‘you got any takers?’ Just kind of being friendly and asking him but all the time thinking about it. And I finally said, ‘well, I’ll buy it but I ain’t gonna pay you what you want for it because I don’t want your buildings. I don’t need them.’”
It surprised people when he bought it because he always struggled writing papers in school. Our fifth grade teacher Sarah Carlstrom gives him a hard time about it.
She just kind of giggles with me and says, ‘Well, you try hard.’ Yeah, I don’t write well, and I dang sure don’t talk good. And some people enjoy it. But some people, it drives them batty,” Matt admitted.
But if Matt hadn’t bought the town paper, it might have folded. And it’s one thing I’d add to the “what-makes-a-town” list. Yeah, you need a school and a post office, but you also need a newspaper.
“It gives everybody the same thing to bitch about,” he told me and we both laugh hard because it’s so true.
He said one of the most popular parts of the paper is the Old Time News where he re-publishes stories from issues past.
“It connects them to something,” Matt said. “Almost like a smell during Thanksgiving or Christmas. You smell a certain food and it reminds you, takes you back to one of your most favorite memories in your life. Well, that’s what local papers have the ability to do to some folks.”
He also doesn’t charge for obituaries because a death is big news in a fast shrinking town like Walden.
I help Matt load the papers into the trunk of his car and we head out to deliver them. At the grocery store, he counts out a stack of papers. The cashier greets him while loud country music plays over the speakers.
“How much is the paper now? A dollar? I remember when it was 25 cents,” I told him.
“That’s because you’re old,” he seemed to take pleasure in telling me.
While we’re out and about, we drive past the place where the town recently demolished my childhood home.
“And this is where our house was right here. Right there. It’s gone. Totally gone,” I said from the passenger seat.
“Well, you can buy the lot and build it back,” Matt said. “Want to buy a newspaper?”
“No, I want you to keep doing the newspaper, is what I want to happen,” I said with a laugh. But I wasn’t laughing inside. That makes me nervous when Matt talks about selling the newspaper. It makes everybody nervous. His writing might drive people batty, but because Matt moved home, Walden at least still has a paper. More than a lot of towns can say. Matt said Walden needs to think about how to grow so people like him can make it work.
“Growth is either going to happen to us or with us. And I just hope we’re active participants as residents instead of watching it from the sidelines.”
And the most likely folks to want to protect that identity are kids who grew up here. Matt doesn’t want North Park to become the next glitzy tourist destination. Tourism jobs are low-paying and seasonal. But he said if North Parkers are going to have a say about that, they need speedy internet so people can move here, businesses can grow here. And kids like me who can bring our jobs anywhere might come home.
“Yeah, how is the internet these days?” I asked him.
“It sucks. It’s, well, it’s better than nothing, but it’s real close to it.”
Matt said you can’t participate in Zoom meetings very well and streaming is iffy. He said it’s time the internet was treated like any other utility.
“Hell, right now, internet is way more important than the highway. They’ve got a buzzword for I can’t remember it, because I’m not very politically correct. Broadband equity, which I think is a joke because there’s nobody in rural Colorado has any equity.”
A Line Of Sight
Jackson County Commissioner Danny Manville and I sit at a table at his bowling alley, the 10th Frame, on Walden’s Main Street.
“The unfortunate thing about it is that we have the fiber. We have more than enough fiber coming in here. Can’t use it,” Danny told me.
“Because CenturyLink won’t let anybody have it. That’s what it comes down to.”
Danny is another guy who grew up on a ranch here, moved away, but migrated home in his later years and is now stepping into leadership. He said, for years there’s been no competition to prod CenturyLink to get all their fiber turned on.
Fiber optics are hair-thin strands of glass or plastic that conduct information in the form of light speedily wherever people need it. It’s an underground spiderweb connecting data centers to homes and businesses everywhere. When the pandemic hit, most people thought, “wow, good thing we have the internet to keep us connected!” The rural poor, though? Um, they weren’t thinking that. A full quarter of rural America can’t get the internet at all. And on Indian reservations, it’s even worse–a third of people living on them can’t get it. When the pandemic hit rural places, life got harder: kids sitting in the school parking lot to do their homework, elders who can’t see the doctor because the only option is telehealth, employees who can’t participate in zoom meetings. And it’s places like North Park that really illustrate the technical issues. Up here, there’s only one main line of fiber coming in. So the further out you live on what’s called the last mile, the more sluggish your internet.
“The problem is when you look at Jackson County, we’re up north and we’d just have one line shooting straight up to us and going nowhere else. But that’s kind of how we get–I hate to say it–get treated up here. We’re off the beaten path, we’re isolated,” said Danny.
A few years ago, if anything happened to that one line, the internet all over the county was down for days. There wasn’t a lick of redundancy, something you’ve got to have for reliable internet. So in 2016, Danny found a way around CenturyLink. He reached out to a Nebraska guy he knew with VISTABeam, a telecommunications company that specializes in bringing broadband to rural places. The company did a search for a tower across the border in Wyoming in hopes of finding a line of sight to the water tower in Walden.
“So he did check it and it had line of sight to our tower. So that was huge, because now we found a wireless path into Jackson County. And he said that they would be interested in working with us and bringing service projects to the county. So then we began working with them,” Danny recalled.
VISTABeam used wireless radio transmissions instead of fiber. It meant they could bring internet to a much wider swath of the county, even some remote ranches. And as soon as they had the water tower hooked up, wouldn’t you know it, CenturyLink started upgrading their services. But CenturyLink still refuses to let VISTABeam use their fiber, even though it was installed with taxpayer dollars.
“When they’ll flat out tell you you’re not a big enough market, well, then why not sell that infrastructure and pull out of here then? I mean either do a good job of what you’re doing, or don’t do it at all.”
But by now, VISTABeam was forging ahead. They started applying for–and nabbing–big state grants to expand that service. Danny says, because VISTABeam keeps upgrading to better technology, internet speeds are trending up.
“It has improved a ton over what it was in 2016,” Danny said. “Now, back when we had CenturyLink, the max that anybody ever got, we did 10 meg speeds. We could possibly get, (but depends on how much traffic you know) 50 meg now. So, I mean, that’s a huge increase.”
50 megabytes, heck, that’s the speed I have in Laramie, the small college town where I live. But by comparison, the best parts of Denver get speeds 20 times faster. They’re so fast they get a whole new word for it–a gigabite, or one thousand megs. So yeah, the internet in North Park still has a long way to go to catch up with that. There’s talk about the electric company starting their own telecommunications project like some other small towns. That seemed feasible last year when the oilfields were cranking up here, but now it seems dubious. But Danny says he’s not giving up. He’d love to see his own children move to North Park–especially since they work for Microsoft and are already working from home. But he’s not sure they could do it quite yet.
“Young people are really attached to their internet devices,” he said. “If they can’t have that here, they’re not going to move here.”
But those young people, they aren’t just surfing the net; they live and work on it. So to keep and attract them, North Park has to be laser-focused on fixing its internet.
Vessels Of American History
After talking to a county commissioner, it was clearer than ever that Walden’s brain drain was all knotted up with its bad internet. But I still didn’t feel like I understood some of the wider sociological reasons for why towns are bleeding youth or how they could staunch that. But then a book called Building a Resilient Twenty First Century Economy For Rural America came across my desk and a lot of bells started going off in my head.
“My vision of taking advantage of modern information and communication technology will allow rural areas to become vibrant and become economically independent. Geographically, not only stable but vibrant, resilient and growing.”
Don Albrecht is the director of the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University, and the author of that book I just mentioned. What he says about growing frustration in small towns really reminded me of Walden’s story.
“The average male is making less money now than they made in 1973 in constant dollars” Don told me. “And so, you know, just gradually over time throughout the country, you can see it in rural areas everywhere, whether it be in the South, whether it be in Appalachian West Virginia or here in the West, there’s just growing anger because they’re working hard, but they don’t see any way out.”
And Don says both political parties are to blame.
“I think both parties have been seeking to get reelected and where the majority of Americans live as urban areas, and so they’ve been shooting their policies towards them. And so I don’t think either party has done, frankly, I don’t think they’ve done much of anything that’s going to benefit rural America,” Don said. “I think both parties would really benefit if they sat down at the table with some rural people and just had a better understanding of what their issues were.”
Don understood all this because he watched his own small town in southern Utah go through it.
“This was a farm town, and as agriculture mechanized, we needed fewer people and so the population is just getting smaller and smaller and smaller.”
Just like how kids in North Park used to be able to trust they’d get jobs as loggers, miners, oilfield workers. Don said, technology has taken away such jobs, giving them to machines.
“You go into a coal mine these days and it’s not guys with a pick and shovel in a little light on their hat. It’s somebody with a computer, looks like he’s playing video games operating these vast machines that are scratching and digging the coal out and putting it on conveyor belts. And these trends are going to continue. The number of jobs in these, what I call the goods-producing industries, it’s going to continue to decline because technology is going to continue to improve,” said Don.
Which sounds like doomsday for small towns. But Don said even as technology took away jobs, it can also bring them back.
“With modern information and communication technology, it is now possible for somebody to live in a rural community and market their products or market their skills globally. And so I think that the COVID pandemic has just made this even even more apparent. There are millions and millions of Americans who are working from home. Okay, if you’re if you’re working from home, why can’t this home be in rural Wyoming? Why does it have to be in Silicon Valley, California, where the job is?” Don asked. “Why does it have to be in New York or where the bosses or the company is? Why can’t you live in one of these beautiful Western communities and do your work over the computer like you’ve always done?”
I can hear the commercial now. Live in Walden! Flyfish on the headwaters of the North Platte in the morning and get your work done in the afternoon! Don said this change in the economy would benefit cities too because they wouldn’t be so crowded and polluted if the population spreads out more. And Don told me this other thing that is so important. He said small towns are valuable as vessels for American history.
“Some of these are great places to live. They’re home,” he said. “I grew up in a small rural community in southern Utah. That is my home. That is where my roots are, it is where my parents and my grandparents and my great-grandparents are buried in the local cemetery there. My family history is there. I don’t want this place to die. I love my hometown.”
And it’s this feeling of home that could most easily lure young people to return. But Don said none of his vision is possible unless small towns have reasonably good internet.
A North Park Lady
One of my classmates, though, she’s kind of a poster child for how to successfully live a 21st-century lifestyle in a rural place.
A few episodes back, my parents and I went to a reunion at a beautiful cabin with a bunch of my dad’s oilfield buddies. On a hot day in September, I drive back out there but under very different circumstances. The mountainside across the highway smokes from a wildfire that’s actively burning across thousands of acres. Our family friend John Symonds is now married to one of my classmates, Amy. They just returned home today after being evacuated for days. As we climbed the big log staircase up to her art studio, she said she hasn’t even had time to unpack all her equipment.
“Well, yeah, when we got evacuated, John was like, ‘don’t you want to pack up your tools?’ And it put me into a meltdown situation where I was like, ‘I don’t even know what I would take.’ But I’m so glad he said that because I wasn’t going to. And I did spend a half a day packing up my whole studio.
“But this is my workbench and I spend a lot of time here. Yeah, normally, I have, like, my big light and my Dremel tool and some saws and all that kind of stuff. And you know, I just work with a lot of stuff. I work with leather. I work with fur, I work with metals, I work with porcupine quills.”
Amy grew up on that mountainside that’s now on fire. Her dad was the caretaker of an old mine. For most of her childhood, Amy’s family lived a backwoods lifestyle. She had to snowmobile out to catch the bus. When she was 13, they moved to Walden and her dad became the county judge.
Then she graduated from high school. “Were you like, Oh, I’m gonna settle down in North Park?” I asked this with a hefty dose of sarcasm in my voice.
“Oh god, no. I wanted the hell out of here so bad,” Amy said. “I think I left the day after I graduated, literally, like, got up in the morning, threw a bag in my car and left and went to Fort Collins.”
But you can take a girl out of North Park, but you can’t take North Park out of the girl. She found a job as a server at the famous music venue Mishawaka. It’s a curvy half hour drive from Fort Collins, way up Poudre Canyon, and she lived in a cabin with wood heat. But she started to feel bad about not having an education.
“And so I decided to get a real job and learn about computers. Which was stupid, I was making probably $300, $400, even $600 a night bartending. But I was like, I need to grow up. And so I got a job that I had to be on the computer all day. And I learned from an amazing woman about Excel. And so I did that until I got knocked up.” Which has me laughing my head off again.
John wandered into the bar she worked in and I remember them falling for each other hard. Now that they were going to be parents, she wanted to raise their son like she’d been raised. When she moved back, Amy opened up a vintage Western clothing store in a tiny space, then she moved into an even bigger space. It was so successful she even opened a shop in Steamboat Springs and called it Calamity Pass Trading Company.
“I was really, I guess caught in that dichotomy of being raised in Walden. ‘Oh my gosh, would I do better if I was somewhere where people were better or more interested in this stuff.’” said Amy. “And so I really wanted to try to do it in Steamboat and see if I was successful. But I didn’t want to move to Steamboat. No way.”
So she commuted 60 miles over Rabbit Ears Pass every day for years. The rent was ten times what it was in Walden but she had no trouble covering it. She even started making her own mountain man-inspired jewelry and art. Finally she couldn’t hack that drive and closed up. In the meantime, Amy discovered Instagram.
“But yeah, Instagram, changed my life, 100%,” said Amy. “So when I started being able to photograph things, and put them online–I also love photography, and I had never had experience or time to explore that. So I really got into both. My Instagram and social media was just as artistic for me as my actual art. I loved both sides of that.”
And Amy’s art is pure North Park. In her studio, she showed me some.
“I do a lot of these little knives. I do a lot of designs on those handles. The antler ones that I usually do are all packed up. But mostly I burn antler knife handles and make a little fur sheath for them to go in. And these are Altoids [tins] and I burn them in the campfire outside and get them to where they’ve got a nice patina on them. And I bang out the Altoid label and I metal stamp them with little designs and make like a little rugged jewelry box. Oh, and this little wall hanging is made of bullet shells and twigs. And then I do little hand burned designs and it’s like a little wind chime.” Then she turned and walked across the room. “I should show you this. When Ben Clayton passed away and Frannie was trying to clean out all their stuff so she could move on, he gave me all of Ben’s bullet shells. So this is like a third of what I have. Now I’m opening a trunk that’s like two-feet tall by three-and-a-half foot.”
When she opened the lid, I couldn’t believe my eyes. “Oh my gosh.” We both started laughing.
“You know you’re in North Parker if you’ve got a trunk full of bullets!” Amy said.
She once had a show at Urban Outfitters in Malibu with her painted cow skulls. And she works with a local trapper to get wild skulls and furs. And all of it sells gangbusters on Instagram and Pinterest.
But that’s not the only way Amy has moved her career online. Since they bought this house, they also rent three cabins decorated with her art and vintage stuff on Airbnb and other websites.
“Yeah, those have been going really good for the last five years,” said Amy. “I have been booked all the time. So the COVID thing definitely affected us, we had to shut down for a while. And that was terrifying and scary with the finances. And then when we opened back up, we got even busier. Because all of the people want to come up here and get away and do that where they can get away from people, isolate and social distance. And it’s worked out really great.”
But Amy says the internet out at her place is truly terrible.
“You have to make trips into town to do anything,” she said. “That takes a lot of broadband and yeah, so you have to have your project all put together, go to town, find somewhere to sit, you know. So when I do my website, I have to do that a lot of times. I’ll have all the pictures, I’ll have everything ready to go and I’ll drive to town and go sit at my friend’s house and do my work. Because if I do it out here, it takes hours.”
Her drive to town for better internet? It’s twenty freaking miles! But Amy puts up with that because for her, this is home. Finding stones for jewelry on her walks in the hills, working as a bartender by night. If small towns want to grow, the best place to recruit is from their own ranks.
Amy and I, we have the same idea of our best selves.
“All the ladies I know have two, three jobs. Like, they all know how to like frickin’ rope a cow and type on the calculator at the bank. One of my favorite stories is Barbara Roberts who lived way out in the boonies. And she would, she was like 60, she would ride her snowmobile, like six miles out to the highway, in her snowmobile suit at night. Then she’d get to her car, she’d spread her snowmobile suit on the ground, put on her pantyhose and her fucking dress and go to Women’s Club.”
“She was a North Park lady,” I said.
“Yeah, a North Park lady,” said Amy. “And so that is definitely the kind of person I want to be.”
A North Park lady. I still aspire to be one of those myself. My own plan is to complete my migration home after my kids graduate and begin their own. I dream of spending all day, every day in my home mountains. But I have to admit, the sooner they get those internet speeds up to muster, the sooner I can make it happen.
Ghost Town(ing) episode art by John McNamis
Blue Dot Sessions