Years ago, small towns like Walden, Colorado were vibrant. Street dances, a health food store, a movie theatre, the works. At least, that’s how host Melodie Edwards remembers it from her childhood. Now it’s shrinking, part of the “ghost towning” of the American West. But can communities like Walden find a way to survive? Or will Melodie’s parents be forced to move away, like so many others?

 

 

[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]

 

You Can’t Eat The View

The Great Ghost Towning of America

 

In the old spaghetti Westerns, towns just dry up for no good reason, fill up with ghosts and blow away with the tumbleweeds. Like that old Gene Autry film Rim of the Canyon. He ends up wandering into a dead town where a young woman is living all alone.

AUTRY: You know, Miss Lambert, you shouldn’t ride out here, not alone. Three convicts escaped from prison yesterday. They could be headed this way.

LAMBERT: I’m not afraid. The ghosts of Marnith Flat will look out for me.

A town full of ghosts. Sometimes when I go back to my own hometown, it kind of feels like that. When I was a kid it was a bustling town of 950. Now? Down to 600. Boarded up storefronts, my old elementary school crumbling in on itself, the population growing older and older. In those old movies, towns croak out of nowhere. But for my town, it’s been long and tortuous to witness.

My mom, though, she says it was a happening place when we moved there in the early 1970s: “It was entertaining. There were things to do there. There isn’t anymore.”

But it’s not just my town. Small towns everywhere are shrinking, turning to dust. I’ve started thinking of it as the great ghost towning of the American West.

But what’s causing this decline? Are the same forces that made ghost towns back in the olden days causing it now? Or am I just revealing my provincialism asking these questions? Maybe America has just outgrown its rural tendencies. Maybe small towns are like bloomers– frumpy, old fashioned, best left in the attic. Why should anyone care if rural America is taken over by ghosts?

Well, I love my hometown so I decided to find out.

This season, ghost towns: a history of how they form, and whether some of those same olden day forces are still causing small towns to shrivel up. We’ll also explore some of the brand new problems hurting small towns. But how some towns, against all odds, still muster an incredible rural resilience that’s helping them survive. We start with the story of my own home town of Walden, Colorado.

 

The Good Times

 

Mom and Dad and Balloon: Carol and Jay Edwards during their hitchhiking years.

 

Everyone thought my parents would never settle down. Through most of the 1960s, they hitchhiked zigzags across the U.S. and Mexico. Before I was two years old, I think we’d moved a half dozen times, easy. The key, my dad says, was not owning much stuff.

“We moved from Michigan to Lamar, [Colorado], with the horse in the back of the pickup and a U-Haul trailer. We had all these books, that bookshelf, my dad’s desk and all, whatever. My inheritance.” He laughs at this because his father’s beautiful carved wood desk is all the inheritance he got from his father, the minister.

But then, my dad ended up getting a job working for a sawmill in this forgotten backwater of a little town called Walden in one of Colorado’s big valleys. There’s South Park–you know that one from the cartoon. But there’s a Middle Park and a North Park too. They run like vertebrae up the spine of the Continental Divide. Walden is smack dab in the middle of North Park.

Just my dad moved there at first. “Yeah, I had the horse jumped up in the back of the pickup, no trailer or anything, I had stock racks for it. So when I got here I had a horse in the back!” he says with a laugh. “I stayed in the Chedsy Motel and maybe I just went to the restaurant, I probably just asked around– and whoever it was that I talked to, sent me out to see Gary Watson.”

Gary was another sawmill worker who let him board the horse on his land. It turned out to be a lifelong friendship. A friendly place, my dad thought. But it wasn’t totally love at first sight for either of my parents. My mom says, for one thing, she expected more trees.

“We drove into Walden and it’s like a junkyard on the edge of town coming in from the south,” my mom remembers. “And Walden is in North Park, which is just flat every direction for 20 miles any way you’d look. Sagebrush hills and that was it.”

But even my mom admits there was just something about the place. It grew on her.

“I did find a house right away on the edge of town. And it had a nice yard, big yard for the horse. So I got so I really liked it because it was small. And it has the view from Walden any direction. It’s the Continental Divide, going all the way around from the west to the south to the east. So it’s a beautiful place actually.”

And I’ve got to say, my mom knew what was cool back then. She was a hippie but in sort of a Willie Nelson kinda way? Like, cowgirl boots and a big belt buckle and tons of turquoise jewelry. Straight black hair down to the middle of her back and parted in the middle. And so I trust her that, back then, Walden was hip.

“When we moved there in ’74, there was a lot going on,” she says. “So there was an art supply store, there was a health food store. There was a hardware store right on Main Street, next to the post office.”

“Yeah, I remember the ice cream parlor and toy store,” I say.

When Jay came to Walden, Gary Watson let him board his horse on his land. They became lifelong friends and have played together in the Rhythm Rustlers for 45 years.

“Yeah, there was a movie theater. You kids would go to the movies on Saturdays. And your dad immediately started playing music with the Rhythm Rustlers.”

I would sit on a red barstool and sip my Roy Rogers through a straw -sometimes my mom was the bartender. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the swing dancers through the haze of smoke, my dad on stage playing lead guitar. Every once in a while, he’d step to the mic and sing a Chuck Berry song and the crowd would just lose it. I’d get one soda pop and then I had to go home with the babysitter. Because those dances, they weren’t for the kiddies. Only a true wild western town knows how to throw a dance like that.

“It would just get packed whenever there was a dance,” my mom recalls. “And then, when we first lived there, there were dances at least once a month. And so, there was a big music scene there. Everybody loved the Rhythm Rustlers because the lead singer was from an old pioneer family. He was friends with everybody. And so people would just pack in. I mean, there’d be fights and it was like, so typical Western.” She laughs, thinking back on that time. “With cowboys coming in from the ranches to celebrate on Saturday nights. I mean, I heard that at one time, some of those guys rode their horses into the bar.”

“Into the actual bar?” I ask to verify because that’s just hard to believe.

“Yeah, your elementary school teacher, Sarah’s husband, yeah, he did that.”

The thing was that back then, small town folks had money to blow on a Saturday night.

“It was easy to live there. It was just easy,” my mom says. “I mean, there was the resource-based economy. Your dad worked at the sawmill and he also worked out on ranches and he worked on drilling rigs.”

And my dad worked for years as a logger.

“At the time we moved here,” my dad says, “there were like three coal mines going on. The mill was roaring away, so logging was going on, and then the ranching community. And there was optimism and there was money flowing through the town.”

Enough money that my parents kinda settled down, at least for a few years. They bought a piano and then a house. A color TV? No way, they were still hippies. But my mom got a job as the editor of the local newspaper. My brother and I sang in the church choir. I circulated a petition to stop the moose hunt. Nobody signed it, but still, I was a big fish in a little pond, I could do stuff like that. It was easy to participate in civic life in such a small town. I learned early and well the value of democracy on a microscale.

But then, of course, my parent’s urge to wander started to gnaw.

 

A Strange New Element

 

We ended up moving away to a nearby city for a few years. My dad worked in a factory as a machinist. He wore a bowtie. He hated it. He says it was because, unlike his co-workers, he knew another life.

“And those guys were, I will say in that regard, unfortunate. They never worked outside. They didn’t know what they were missing,” says my dad. “They had a life, family life, and the weekends they went camping, they went hunting or whatever. And it was apparently enough for them. And, you know, just the work itself. You know, I don’t have what they call a conventional personality, which is what that type of work is. It’s conventional-personality work.”

In my dorm in college one night, my mom called. She said, “Hey, guess what? We’re moving back to Walden!” I wasn’t surprised. My dad wanted to go back to roughnecking in the oilfield. And they decided to open a fly fishing store/bakery/used bookstore on Main Street.

But this time, things just weren’t the same in Walden.

This time when my parents moved back to Walden, the sawmill that lured them there was shuttered, and that meant no logging either. The mines shut down. Barely any energy development was happening.

In the West, we expect a certain amount of boom and bust. But this was different. Because now there was this other strange new economic influence.

“Rich people have been buying up North Park,” my mom says. “A rich guy bought all the buildings on Main Street and another rich guy bought all the ranches. So, there is no interest in entertainment and you know, stores and things in town. Nobody cares about that.”

At first, everybody was excited. This wealthy businessman from Oklahoma, Jim Moore, had bought the old movie theater, was going to fix it up and host local shows. Then he started buying businesses that were still up and running: the ice cream parlor, the sporting supply store and even the dancehall.

“Oh, that is a sad story, the Elkhorn, I love that place.” My mom shakes her head, remembering it. “The people just went under and [Moore] got the Elkhorn for a bargain basement price because the people who had it got foreclosed on. And nobody else stepped up to keep it going and he’s not doing anything with it.”

But it wasn’t just Main Street. We all started hearing about another wealthy businessman buying up the family ranches in the northern half of the valley. It didn’t take long before the number of kids in our school started to shrink. They moved the elementary kids into the high school then went to a 4-day week. Us locals, we didn’t know what hit us. Before we knew it, much of the private land had been consolidated into the hands of a few very wealthy people.

 

Flight For Life

 

By now, I’d graduated from college. I moved back to Walden to write a hiking guide about my home mountains. My hope was to introduce outsiders to the beauty of this place so maybe they’d move here. Some part of my mind must have seen the writing on the wall already. Or in the expressions in people’s faces. Rural despair was setting in. A close family friend started using meth, then went to jail for it. Old people we knew died alone, abandoned by their families. Colorado has one of the top ten highest rates of suicide in the country, mostly in its rural places, including North Park. Drunk driving killed people we knew. Lung cancer, liver failure. People we loved were dying. They call these deaths of despair and that’s what it feels like.

But this sadness has affected my parents in very different ways. Now they’re both retired and in their late seventies. A few years back, my kids visited for Christmas. In the middle of the night, my mom got up for a drink of water and felt dizzy, couldn’t breathe, felt nauseous. She fainted. My dad found her collapsed on the floor. It wasn’t the first time, either. These events of hers look just like a heart attack. Even the EMTs think she’s about to die. But the nearest hospital is over an hour away across mountain passes, no matter which way you drive.

That night, my kids stood by as the EMTs put their grandma on a helicopter and flew her away.

“Well, I have to be hauled out in an ambulance and that is just embarrassing, really, because it’s a small community,” my mom says. “The people that are doing the ambulance service are people I know really well. Here they come into the house and start listening to my heart and cutting off my shirt, which I have still never forgiven Jim for doing. That was my favorite t-shirt!” She laughs, always making everything a joke. “Being hauled out in a helicopter? No. And they never did figure out what was wrong with me. I guess it’s just anxiety, which you think isn’t anything but apparently it’s a major thing because I faint and throw up.”

Anxiety. She thinks it might have to do with the fact that, ever since they sold their fly fishing store, she’s felt no sense of purpose living in Walden. Everything’s gone. She just sits in her chair, reading mystery novels all day long.

That was, until recently.

Last year, she bought the house next to door to me in Laramie, Wyoming, a small college town an hour away. Now she’s taking Tai Chi classes. She’s in a writing group. And her anxiety has improved. But here’s my dad’s answer when I ask if he’s willing to move away from North Park for my mom’s health.

“Well, I’m not sure. You know, neither one of us really wants to sell the house. But I’m going to have to move away from here. I don’t want to say they’re going to take me out feet first. I’m going to do whatever needs to be done. Right?”

And if he does move, then he’s contributing to the ghost towning of Walden. So my dad is having a hard time leaving Walden. He wants my mom to be closer to a hospital, he really does. But he also feels this compulsion to stay. Because, like, who would take care of his old roughnecking buddy Gabby whose addictions are worsening with age? What would happen to the Rhythm Rustlers? Who would clear off the hockey rink after a nice hard freeze?

And then there’s just this other thing that he can’t say goodbye to. I talked to him about it while he built a fire in his woodstove, piling in logs he cut from the forest with his own chainsaw.

“When I was talking to my mom today about what it is that she loves about this house, she says it’s the view.”

“The view,” he agrees. “You live here for the view. You know, the whole thing about living in the West, you can’t eat the view. Nope, you can’t. But you can’t live without it.”

Jay Edwards with his good friend Jake Heflin who taught him how to break a horse and who shared his love for country and western music.

You can’t eat the view, but you can’t live without it. That about sums up my dad’s reasons for staying. He doesn’t like the house next door to mine in Laramie because he thinks the view is terrible. It’s actually not. Laramie has some of the most beautiful skies anywhere. But he’s like a wine connoisseur, scoffing at everything but the finest.

“You can walk down to the river though,” I cajole him. “And [my daughter] Kai went for a run the other day and saw a beaver climbing out onto the bank.”

“Well, that’s goody goody for you,” he says. He’s just as bad as my mom about making jokes in the middle of a serious conversation. “But I can look out here, I can see the horses out there running when they’re out there. And I can see the eagles over in their nest when they’re there. And I can look out there and see the moose. See the eagle fly right by our window. You know, they like this ridge here, just to fly by.”

“It is pretty amazing,” I agree. The Zirkles, that’s the mountain range that fills the view from his picture window. As we talk, it lights up lavender and gold. I’ve hiked almost every inch of those mountains.

“Laramie doesn’t get sunsets like this. That doesn’t happen in Laramie. Wyoming is not as pretty as it is here. Sorry, I know you live there.”

“I would be happy to live here but I can’t live here,” I remind him for the millionth time.

“Yep,” he says. “It’s a tough, rough sport up here.”

 

That Ain’t Happening

 

Small towns are the gatekeepers for America’s wildest places. And small town folks, they take that role seriously. It wasn’t the job my dad loved. It was the place. But there’s one big problem with that view he loves so much. There’s now an oil and gas field in it.

Before the pandemic, before gas prices nosedived, the valley flashed with flaring and flood lights across most of its southern end. That expansion gave locals jobs. But now that’s all dimmed. It’s not the first boom or the first bust North Park has ever had. My family stayed in North Park because of an oil boom in the 1980’s that gave my dad a career in roughnecking.

The question is, will this new bust cause Walden to slide deeper into hard times?

“So do you feel like the boom that is going on here right now, how is that affecting the community? Is it helping?” I ask my dad.

“Well, it would have, yeah, it has been helping because people have jobs, they have good jobs and make good money. They certainly don’t want anything to go away. But it’s going away because oil was down 30 bucks and that ain’t happening.”

Next time on our Ghost Town(ing) series, we’ll visit North Park’s oldest ghost town, Teller City, that had a silver boom in the late 1800s, and find out how it’s all part of a long history of boom and bust in the American West. We’ll also ask whether Walden’s energy development will fix what ails it, and how those booms, they just never quite pan out–if you’ll pardon the pun.

Ghost Town(ing) episode art by John McNamis

Music
Blue Dot Sessions