Rocky Mountain Valleys of Southern Colorado


Rolling hills, mountain views, plenty of sunshine and history that blows through the wind—it is no secret as to why the peaceful residential mountain park of Garden Park Valley, Colorado is a primetime destination for a variety of people. As an area with a breadth of significance in its scope, whether gathered through one’s physical observation, planted in the minds of the townsfolk or literally embedded in the rocks and streams, this Rocky Mountain valley is a classic example of a constantly changing cultural landscape with great potential for study.

In this ethnographic report, I will examine cultural changes resulting from the subdivision of ranchland in the valley of Garden Park, with a particular focus on the shift from traditional “Old” West homesteaders and rancher culture to “New” West subdivision/exurban and amenity populations, and how this shift in populations over a span of decades has been affecting the dynamic of the region’s people. I plan to reference the following questions: How have the cultures changed through time in the relatively isolated region of Garden Park valley? How has that affected the residents, older and newer? Does the mixing of traditional culture with new amenity culture in this small valley today create tensions, imbalances, or perhaps the opposite? Does the influx of new residents, seasonal or retirees, affect the type of social bonds formed?

Without a doubt, a landscape dominated by people of one or more cultures is certainly intriguing on many levels, especially one as remote as Garden Park valley. However, its interactive yet individualistic way of fostering the creative genius, social development and imagination of all residents involved is a unique trait that is of particular interest to me, and demonstrates my decision to interview two couples in the valley, both from extremely different walks of life, in hopes to discover what makes their community lifestyle tick today.

My first interviewees moved into the region just a few years ago, particularly in the Cooper Mountain subdivision that was once a part of the enormous Innis Ranch. Just a quick, scenic drive up a dusty pebbled roadway brings one to the adorned mailboxes of the now 19 sub-dividers of Cooper Mountain, all arranged neatly before the entrance. One in particular caught my eye with its decorated front of big brown bear paws—this of course, belonging to the Blackwell’s, as Dan Blackwell is popularly referred to by residents as, “Bear-claw.” Before my first interview with Dan and Debi Blackwell, I noticed that the 35-acre parcel they owned was quite some distance away from any neighbors, as I could only point out medium-sized specks resembling houses from their front porch. Unintentionally, I subconsciously assumed that the Blackwell’s preferred their privacy, possibly being on the lower social spectrum in the valley of Garden Park. Boy, was I mistaken?

Both former teachers, the Blackwell’s moved into the region about a decade ago for retirement purposes, after having previously lived in a very involved neighborhood in Wyoming. The undeniably social Blackwell’s are both from small ‘hick’ towns in which relations with neighbors were as important as familial interaction. However, they cherish the mountainous environment for its seclusion and peace, so, not surprisingly, they were interested in living in a community type atmosphere while having enough space to themselves.  In addition, the youthful couple is of the permanent amenity residential group in their subdivision, which affords them the opportunity to be active in the valley. They became very close with a few neighbors in the Cooper Mountain area, going on hunting trips with each other, having children over to play often etc., which gives it a small-town vibe. In fact, the entire downstairs level of their beautiful remodeled home is reserved for neighbors and guests!

Furthermore, as hosts of the annual Christmas party, their home is known in the valley as a social hub for many special occasions – but not as frequently as they’d like. For instance, when asked about a common communication topic between residents, usually it consists of brief talk about family gossip, what’s going on at their places in terms of the environment (as in the recent beetle infestation), but comments regarding the newest subdivisions always arise, mostly with a negative connotation from the latter. Ironically, even in the partial seclusion of their subdivision from the rest of the valley, the Blackwell’s do not feel detached from the community, yet they have noticed a bit more animosity due to more and more ranchers offering up land recently, further down the valley.

Interestingly enough, when they ever feel disconnected from older ranchers in the valley, they begin to consult them for questions regarding water issues, weeds, or practically anything environmentally related, and have started leaning less on their friends in the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and Forest Service with questions, which evidently come up often. “You name it, they’ll know about it!” exclaimed Bear-claw Blackwell, of the older residents. Whether it’s learning about issues plaguing the area or tips on conservation techniques to further their resource use, the Blackwell’s have broadened their horizons immensely since living in the area, thanks to the wise families from generations past in the valley today.

Although they are considered to be of the newer resident bunch, the Blackwell’s still have the same concerns as most others do in the area, particularly with the influx of tourism and recreation to the region. For instance, they frequently worry about site seers and just how they should maintain their relatively large amount of land. They even put up a gate out of fear for people tossing out cigarettes, vandalism, etc. “More people have been coming out in the summer to rock climb or take the Gold Belt Tour, some even bunkering up to camp for the night. It’s a nice change of pace for a relatively quiet valley, yet it raises concerns,” mentioned Debi Blackwell. These frequencies from year to year act to bond the older and newer residents in a way, no matter what their differences may be.

One couple that has noticed more cultural changes in the valley than any other are the Chess’s, one of the oldest homesteading/ranching families still residing in the valley. Taking over the family land in the 1960s, the Chess’s once owned 46 cows (only 3 today) and were among the 12 ranching families in the valley. Considering people as the greatest change they’ve noticed in the valley throughout the years, the Chess’s find it much more difficult to connect with others in the area today than in the past, as work and social interactions are not interconnected anymore. For instance, the Chess family would frequently get together with other ranching families of the valley such as the Shoemaker’s or Innis’s, to have big ‘sorting’ sessions of cattle, which would almost always result in full days and long meals spent together. In addition, marriages connected their family and homestead to others in the valley, which brought many families in the region significantly closer, even economically.

Bud Chess noted that working with a new population is frustrating, as they are unfamiliar with the area and its challenges/advances, and seem to be altering the traditional western feel of the valley, especially in terms of relationships. For instance, Betty Chess with her kind demeanor noted that it is better just to ‘wave at them all’ as they pass by, because she is never sure if they’re neighbors or not. In turn, with the mountain parks becoming more popular and greater development occurring, there seems to be less interest in conservation. Subdivisions demand water and the drilling of wells, which are ridiculously expensive, as the shortage of water is apparent. Sometimes, according to the Chess’s, it even starts neighbor versus neighbor arguments, due to ignorance of the current environmental system. According to Bud Chess, “Now, we’re protecting the houses instead of the forest!”

Although people coming up to gamble at casinos and whatnot brings much more traffic to the roads, the Chess’s have been connected to newer residents because of their growing interests in the valley’s wildlife and landscape. In truth, Betty Chess worked for the Conservation District while Bud started the Weed Board, which has given them many opportunities to implement weed/plant tours and teach the newer residents. Lastly, the future certainly concerns the Chess’s in various ways, but the changing times have motivated them to look forward to creating visions of the future and have helped them figure out how to alter the land and their situations for their specific needs.

While actually speaking with the residents allowed me to gain much first-hand information about my interest area, the participant observation wrapped many of the themes of my research together, even offering plenty of new, exciting insights. Although this past summer afforded me quite a few opportunities to interact with the residents, it was at the field camp barbeque that I noticed the most interesting connections between the differing cultures. Without a doubt, Bud Chess, walking around with me teaching of native plants in the area, or Bearclaw Blackwell showing off his adorned backyard where most residents come for cookouts, were invaluable experiences and helped me understand each resident in their own way. But we, students, decided to host a barbeque at camp, where all were welcome for free food and laughs, offering residents a chance to socialize.

Nonchalantly, I stepped back to help cook the burgers, while I was really just watching the valley residents interact. First, I was immediately surprised by the absence of awkward introductions, expressions, etc. – it was as if these folks were distant family! Bud and Betty Chess were very jovial and excited to have conversations with the new Cooper Mountain residents and retirees, much to my surprise. Moreover, I noticed body language to be an asset to those in attendance, as Debi Blackwell would delicately laugh on Betty’s shoulder as they talked of family. Also, although there were separate tables, it was a fairly even mix of cultures at each. I did see, however, that the newest retirees in the area who live farther south in the valley retreated early, perhaps to skip conversation and retreat to their solitude. Either way, it was extremely interesting to see the residents interact, regardless of age, experience, work background or social status. The good vibes were everywhere, sparkling with hope for the future.

As much fun as it was hearing the Garden Park valley residents’ stories and living through the experiences from the perspective of the new westerners and old westerners, there is much more to the topic than meets the eye, as the situation parallels many others across the globe in an anthropological context. Without a doubt, dramatic transformations have been occurring in many rural areas as of late whether social, economic or demographic, especially in this high-altitudinal area of the United States. According to (Winkler et al., 2007), “the Inter-Mountain West region offers an excellent example of this distinction, as many of the region’s rural communities have experienced substantial population growth resulting from the in-migration of a new kind of rural resident” (p. 478). Truly, urbanite residents are craving areas rich in their own resources, peace and quality-of-life factors, on top of their attractive means for big businesses and tourism.

With this fact relates the prevalent concept of ‘culture shock,’ which is defined as “feelings of alienation and helplessness that result from rapid immersion in a new and different culture” (Nanda & Warms, 2011, p. 54). Although this term may be used to describe the isolation, alienation, and loneliness an anthropologist may experience when placed in a new culture, it is equally relevant to the experiences of both the older residents in the valley with the influx of a whole new amenity/subdivision culture, and the newer residents getting a taste of the traditional mountainous experience of the West. For example, in my interview with older rancher residents Bud and Betty Chess, they were mostly shocked with the change from a close knit community of just a couple of families to dozens within the span of a few years, and the technology (cell phones, etc.) that came with the urbanites. They simply wanted to keep the area the way it was. In addition, the seasonal residents of the valley may only stay a few months at a time to avoid the shock that could come with completely transitioning their lifestyle.

Next, one concept I feel greatly emphasizes one of the driving points of my research is the domination of ‘ecological functionalists’ in the valley, or those who were and may still be dependent on extractive resource management in the landscape (ranching, forestry) over those who are interested in non-commodity traits and do not look at the environment as a livelihood. There is an absolute gap in the subdivision residents and the older ranching families in terms of their reasons for moving to the valley, which for the ranchers was primarily to make a living, and the newer amenity residents for retirement reasons or the lure of the mountain beauty.

While the concept of ‘ecological functionalists’ is defined as “a theoretical perspective that holds that the ways in which cultural institutions work can be best understood by examining their effects on the environment” (Nanda & Warms, 2011, p. 83), this viewpoint is characteristic of the ranchers, as they are concerned with the way subdivisions are altering the ecosystem. To illustrate, the Chess’s have to truck their water in, as their well recently ran dry. However, some new residents in the valley drill new wells for their water, which leads them to believe that they have no concern for the drought in effect. Overall, functionalism in Garden Park valley in terms of the environment helps to keep society stable and running smoothly.

After having interviewed and studied the Garden Park valley in the Rocky Mountain region of Southern Colorado culturally from generation to generation, I cherish my reflexive situation as an observer and researcher. A blessing in disguise, this position allowed me to be totally unbiased and direct my focus to specific needs, generating opinions from the residents through questions of interest. Overall, I do believe my research questions would have to be answered with the fact that the newer subdivision residents are absolutely altering the cultural landscape that has defined the valley for generations, in a mixed bag of positive and negative balances of people and values.

However, just as people change with time and environment, values change according to the situation. Therefore, I think that the two separate cultures thriving in the valley today will continue to thrive, while eventually bonding over a couple main concerns in the community or environment as a whole, while putting the values of the older families in the valley first. This ethnography experience has opened my eyes to each cultural group and individual as being their own unique bubble of significance mixed within their experiences among the valley of Garden Park, the future beaming with promise.

Reference List

Jennings, B. M., Krannich, R. S. (2011). Bonded to whom? Social interactions in a high-amenity rural setting. Journal of the Community Development Society.

Nanda, S. & Warms, R. L. (2011). Cultural anthropology (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Schnell, S. M., Sorenson, C. J., Larsen, S., Dunbar, M., & McGrogan, E. (2004). Old west & new west in Garden Park, Colorado. Montana: The Magazine of Western History 54 (4): 32-47.

Winkler, R., Field, D. R., Luloff, A. E., Krannich, R. S. & Williams, T. (2007). Social landscapes of the inter-mountain west: A comparison of ‘old west’ and ‘new west’ communities. Rural Sociology 72: 478-501.