With a real smile on my face for the first time in a week or more, I hopped onto the California Zephyr at Chicago’s Union Station after my grandmother’s funeral. I was headed to Colorado, Telluride specifically. Scott was already a day ahead of me. Baz picked him up in Grand Junction and got Scotty set up with rental equipment after speeding back to town. When my train finally pulled into Junction, Baz and Scott scooped me and we watched our Butler Bulldogs take on Joakim Noah and the rest of the defending national champion Florida Gators in the Elite 8 at a sports bar close to the train station.
I’d been wearing my BU shirt for more than 24 hours and, following the heartbreaking loss and the drive to Telluride, I really needed a shower. But when we walked from the car to Baz’s apartment, and snow puffed up off the ground with every step, and the stars glinted in a deep purple night sky, and the ridgeline silhouette drew the precipitous union of heaven and earth, I needed nothing, nothing at all in this world but to be exactly where I was.
That was March 2007. By October, I had an apartment and a job in Telluride. Scott had the same in November. The ski trip that previous spring had done something to us. When we ascended through the aspen trees on Lift 10, Baz told us about the town, the people, the culture, and life in the mountains. The hook set in deep. “We should be around people like this, live life like this, live in a town like this…well, why not this town?” Mountain town livin’ does something significant to the quality of my life.
Psychologists say that where we call home is a part of our self-definition, not just who we feel we are but how we evaluate our worth as an individual. We have an innate longing for community and desire to be a special, contributing member of that community. We seek belonging and distinction. Small towns offer this in bulk. A 2003 paper authored by doctors Stephan and Rachel Kaplan, entitled “Health, Supportive Environments, and the Reasonable Person Model,” links a person’s behavior, well-being, and mental health with their choice of home. The Kaplans contend that small town living makes people more cooperative, reasonable, helpful, and satisfied. The deep sense of belonging acquired from small town social interaction and community and the role the outdoors plays in the mountain town way of life enhance mental and physical health. Basically, mountain town livin’ equals happy.
Last Friday, I hiked to a lake on Indy Pass with a deflated Red Paddle stand-up paddleboard on my back. I split a bag of chocolate covered almonds with my friend Xan and we SUP’d around the tiny lake as sun shower droplets made the water’s surface dance with expanding circles. It’s was magical and relaxing and a great way to start my weekend. Now, I’m not saying that one can’t SUP in a metropolitan area. Denver has lakes, so does St. Paul, so do a lot of cities. But there’s something about outdoor activities and outdoor culture that make more sense, feels a lot better, and seems at home in a mountain town. Say you live in your truck or car in and around Jackson Hole. You’d be considered a passionate, thrifty mountain person. But anywhere east of the Rockies and you’re just homeless, friend. Your parents would lose sleep with worry and your grandmother would surely not sing your praises at her weekly bridge game. See what I mean?
Yes, there are numerous and obvious mountain town detractions. Groceries cost a fortune and the price of a gallon of milk fluctuates like gasoline rates. Liveable wages are, ahem, tough to come by. Having one job is scarcely an option. Having a career, even more rare. And housing, much less buying a home, is a total junk show. Exposure to other cultures, an eclectic friend group, more than a handful of restaurants, art; these things are tough to come by. But ya know what I really like? A three-hour long post office run and the Main Street conversations with neighbors that make any “town chores” take nearly half the day. I love watching films in our one room movie theater and the fact that the kids behind the counter at the coffee shop greet me by my first name. I love that I live in a hugger’s town. And well, the out-the-front-door access to the mountains ain’t too shabby either.
Mostly, living in a mountain town helps me feel like the bricklayer of my future, rather than a victim of it. After college, I fell into a metropolitan track that seemed inescapable, a white toast urban predestination. I worked a job I wasn’t truly invested in. I bar hoped in the city on the weekends, played some men’s league lacrosse and co-ed softball. I thought I was going to marry an Irish gal from my hometown, buy a house and have a litter of little ones, gain a few million pounds, get in over my head financially, and figure “it” out at some point down the road. I felt like I was watching my life rather than building it. But then Telluride happened and I became an active member of my story. Everything changed and changed for the better. For me, mountain town livin’ offers me the richness of experience, the possibilities of adventure, and the connection to community I felt eluded me in Chicago. And I think it’ll do the same for you.
My car has been parked in my driveway for more than a week without moving. There’s been no traffic on my street all day, except for a couple of folks walking their kids to school and headed to a mountain bike ride or a trail run. I’ll ride my 1970s Schwinn cruiser to the pizza joint tonight, grab a few slices and a root beer float, and grub on the curb while I watch the sunset paint the sky tangerine above the mountains that cradle my town. I’ll talk to some folks and we’ll smile and we’ll laugh. We’ll talk about skiing and how excited we are for winter. We’ll make plans to get into the mountains together and stick to them. They’ll ask me things about my life that only a true friend would know to ask about or care to. I’ll cruise back to my little pad that I rent for too much money and I’ll take a deep, contented breath and I’ll feel damn good. Because I’m home and so are you.