Gail and Dennis Hendricks set out on a quest to find their future, and its rules were simple: Head east, out of the city, and stop at every town along Interstate 70.
It was in Flagler, about 120 miles from their home in Arvada, where they found the “adorable little community” they were searching for, a quaint and tiny town where “everybody’s lawns were mowed” and, more importantly, a place where they could afford to retire. The couple had only ever heard of Flagler from a TV weather report.
The Hendrickses found a “Closed for lunch” sign on the door of the real estate office on Main Street, but as they waited outside, they met a friendly Flagler resident who told them that if they were looking for a rental, they ought to ask for Marie inside the beauty shop. They soon found Marie and quickly agreed to rent a two-bedroom house with hardwood floors and a front porch for $500 per month.
In Arvada, the Hendrickses were paying $1,100 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in a complex with more than 60 units. Rent had recently gone up by $300. Also, Gail fought traffic for an hour twice a day to work in Lakewood, where she was a technician for an eye doctor.
On Aug. 1, they moved to Flagler, where life is slower, friendlier and cheaper, said the couple, both 65. They sip coffee on their front porch and chat with fellow residents walking through town. At the grocery store, people say hello and ask about the wind. Surprising to both of them, Dennis, who grew up in Denver, is happier about the change in pace than Gail, who is from a small town in Nebraska. They miss their grandchildren — but not much else about city life.
“We don’t have a Hobby Lobby, and that makes me sad,” Gail said. “Other than that, they have everything you need here.”
While the Denver metro area is booming and many of the state’s rural communities are fading, at risk of dying even, some Coloradans are migrating the opposite direction. Retirees like the Hendrickses, as well as young singles and families, are giving up on city traffic, the high cost of living and hectic schedules in search of the rural way of life.
Perhaps it’s the widest “Colorado Divide” of all — the pace and feel of life in this state’s cities in contrast to its far-flung towns.
Rural Colorado offers an often idyllic physical and cultural landscape that keeps some natives there forever and lures urbanites who envision their own pastoral happily-ever-after, yet it harbors its own variations of economic struggles, poverty, drug addiction and unemployment.
Consider Jackson County and Huerfano County, two sparsely populated rural areas well removed from Denver’s urban center.
Jackson, where only about 1,300 residents make their home near the Wyoming border, has slowly been bleeding population — yet newcomers have been lured by its seclusion and natural beauty for reasons both aesthetic and economic. They’ve traded in artisan coffee shops for personal espresso machines, and gym memberships for lap time at the Walden community pool and hiking above 9,000 feet.
Huerfano, an irregularly shaped expanse to the south that extends from the Sangre de Cristos to the Eastern Plains, suffered a precipitous population drop — from 17,000 to less than half that — since its 1930s mining heyday. But more recently, it has been building a reputation, and gaining numbers, as an affordable retirement destination that also appeals to younger transplants drawn by its striking vistas and untapped, though often elusive, business opportunities.
Although the rural lifestyle in some ways perfectly conforms to the idealized notion that makes it such a prominent defining characteristic of Colorado, the reality is more nuanced. A simpler, quieter, friendlier existence, often framed by the almost spiritual beauty of landmarks such as Huerfano County’s Spanish Peaks, Jackson County’s Cameron Pass or even the endless grasslands of the Eastern Plains, presents its own set of challenges.
“cheap land in Colorado”
Mike Rosencrans tapped those words into his computer’s search engine and launched the journey that delivered him and his wife, Laura Lee Carter, to their dream home, a compact but comfortable, 1,400-square-foot passive-solar structure near Walsenburg whose picture windows frame the Spanish Peaks in an ever-changing mural.
They sought a change from Fort Collins, where the rat race had worn thin. Something quiet, restful and remote — but not too remote — where they could afford to cash out in the rising Front Range housing market, buy a slice of paradise with money to spare and live a relatively stress-free retirement.
The area has slowly attracted retirees and others looking for a midlife to later-in-life change, and that slow migration is partly reflected in the aging populace. From a median age of nearly 40 in 1990, Huerfano County has aged among the fastest in the state to a projected 55 in 2018. The 2015 median age, 53.5, is one and a half times the state average.
For those seeking an escape from the urban population surge, the county offers splendid relief: Huerfano’s population of a little under 7,000 computes to just over four people per square mile.
“Mike always knew it was going to be perfect,” said Carter, who chronicled their adventure in a book and continues to blog about their new life. “I was worried. I thought it felt awfully rural at the time, a little scary, like way out there.”
The biggest fear, though, was the financial risk. With home prices continuing to rise after they sold in Fort Collins, they realized that this was a one-time leap of faith. Even now, they figure they could never begin to recoup their investment — an estimated $290,000 to build their new home — if they had second thoughts and tried to sell.
Economically, there was no going back.
But they found that, in their early 60s, different turned out to be better. The silence was soothing. The dark sky revealed previously unseen magnificence. The sunrises moved Carter to take up photography.
Rosencrans has plenty of room to plink tin cans with his air rifle outside the garage and ride his minibike on the dirt roads when he isn’t indulging his artistic side, evidenced by the sculpture he crafted from the remains of a nearly two-centuries-old piñon tree outside the bedroom window.
Overall, the experience has been transformative. Both live with disabilities but feel that their health has benefited from the change to a rural mind-set.
“I didn’t know I was this kind of person,” Carter said, “until I got here.”
The real estate market ticked upward in 2014, said Arica Andreatta, the owner of Code of the West Real Estate in La Veta who grew up in Walsenburg, left for college and started her career in the Denver metro area, but then returned. The past six months have been particularly exciting.
“Mainly, the change has been Walsenburg, low-end homes in desperate need of being rehabbed,” Andreatta said. “I haven’t seen a year like this ever, where we can’t keep lower-end properties on the market.”
Her buyers? Mostly people from Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs — retired or work-from-home types who have a lot of equity, buy something smaller and bank the rest for either early retirement or just a nice, comfy cushion.
Some have arrived unexpectedly. Rural Colorado wasn’t even Patty Madigan’s first choice when she sought an alternative to Denver’s city life.
Her research first led her to Guatemala, where she enjoyed a climate of “eternal spring” and a scaled-back cost of living. It was nice for a while, but then homesickness set in.
“I think I just wanted to go back and be with my homies,” said Madigan, now in her early 60s and winding down her career in web design.
She returned to Colorado in June, began a broad search for inexpensive property and stumbled on Walsenburg, about 160 miles south of Denver along Interstate 25. In September, she closed on her $75,000 house, a modest, green-stucco structure on a corner lot just a few blocks from downtown.
She invested in some electrical work and did a little touching up. In fact, she bought a second house, which she plans to improve and put on the rental market. Madigan, who grew up in Denver, was looking for a place that had “enough people, but not a lot of people,” and enough over age 55 that she wouldn’t feel entirely out of place.
Walsenburg checked all those boxes.
“My intention,” she added, “is this is the last move I’m going to make.”
At 6 p.m. one day, Aubrey Lykins rounded up trash in a large plastic bag, flipped the cardboard window sign to “Closed” and turned the lock on the front door. It was the end of her shift at the Serendipity coffee house on Walsenburg’s Main Street — one of three jobs she works to make ends meet.
She didn’t expect to move back to Walsenburg.
Lykins, 27, grew up here from about age 6, when her mom sought a change of scenery from Virginia, pointed a finger at a map of Colorado and landed in Walsenburg. But after high school, Lykins got an associate degree from Trinidad State Junior College and left for Ohio.
Tragedy brought her back. In April 2016, her 20-year-old brother, Mason, was killed in a car wreck on U.S. 160. She came to help her mom through the difficult time but soon realized the depth of her roots in a community that rallied to support her.
Lykins embodies the ambivalence that characterizes some longtime Huerfano County residents and their affinity for the rural lifestyle: She loves the small-town atmosphere, loves the proximity to the mountains and loves that when she phones her burger order to local landmark George’s Drive-Inn, they recognize her voice.
And like many longtime residents, she feels an almost mystical connection to the region’s geography.
“My whole life,” she said, “I’ve heard that any time you’ve been away for a long time, and you see either Greenhorn or the Spanish Peaks, you know you’re home, there’s a comfort that washes over you. You feel like you’re in a safe place, far enough away from all the weird things that are happening in the world. You’ve got higher ground. There’s something unique and magical about this land.”
Then she pauses.
“It’s also kind of like a black hole that sucks you in,” she says, “and spits you out.”
That sentiment reflects frustration with what she describes as a segmented population of haves and have-nots. She has seen friends die from drug abuse amid an opioid crisis that has hit Huerfano County hard since 2002. The county’s poverty rate hovers at 18.5 percent (one and a half times the state’s figure), with a $31,000 median income (about half of the statewide number). The county unemployment rate, at 4.6 percent, is the highest in the state. Walsenburg is even poorer, with affluence generally gravitating toward tiny La Veta, 15 miles west, and up to Cuchara — areas where the population skews older and richer.
“It’d be great if we could just be a team and community as a county, instead of segregating ourselves, which we so often do,” Lykins said. “Regardless, I’m here and I’m happy that I am. I’d like to see the town make it.”
How that might happen and what it would mean for the county remain open questions. Huerfano County could see the cannabis industry produce many more jobs. Locals talk about how a private prison may eventually reopen and provide another avenue for employment, while art and music festivals, a series of horse-endurance rides on private ranch property and continued tourism also add to the mix.
But Lykins also broaches an idea usually reserved for the shifting urban landscape.
“Gentrification is a real fear in this town,” she said. “Because it’s affordable and on I-25, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t kind of blow up. I just want to see locals jump on that bandwagon before a bunch of Boulderites and out-of-towners try to make it a fancy-schmancy little mountain town.”
For some, the allure of rural life is a matter of degrees.
Sarah Jardis and Aaron Vasholz had watched the ski industry push Eagle County from a very manageable 13,000 residents in the early 1980s to about four times that size, making it the second fastest-growing non-metro county in the West. The couple carved out productive careers there — she in her family’s mortgage business and he in the hospitality industry.
But for years, as life in the burgeoning Vail Valley became more crowded and hectic, they had thought about leaving for someplace with a slower pace that offered more freedom. But neither one wanted to leave the state.
“We drove every two-lane road in Colorado,” Vasholz said, “just to see what’s available.”
In May 2016, those roads led them to a secluded property about six miles outside of Walsenburg — 160 acres of rolling hills covered with piñon, conifer, juniper and the occasional ponderosa pine. The old homestead features two houses: the original that now serves as a short-term rental and another that’s the residence for Vasholz and Jardis, who works part-time as a real estate agent.
A few steps from their front door, a garden area surrounds a large domed structure they call the Earth Ship — but which actually steps down into a modified walipini, an underground greenhouse that facilitates year-round operation of the couple’s fledgling business, Ideal Gardens. Now in their mid-40s, they have already started selling plants and produce at farmers markets around the area and hope to capitalize on the movement toward sustainable food sources.
The purchase of the homestead, from owners that had been there for 25 years, seemed less like a business transaction and more like a passing of the baton as they became caretakers of a property that launched them on a new lifestyle.
“It’s a slower pace of life,” Jardis said, “and in some ways, there’s this nostalgia for small-town living and a rural community, where you know the majority of neighbors or just haven’t met them yet.”
One recent Norman Rockwell moment: They ventured into town for a scaled-down Parade of Lights while a line of residents stretched down the block to see Santa and a screening of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at the revamped Fox theater. Then Vasholz and Jardis, along with some friends from out of town, stopped off at an antique store and enjoyed some pool and a drink at the StarLite Inn — the nightcap to a picture-perfect tableau of tradition and rural ambiance that encompasses all seasons.
Another moment: “We posted about the Fourth of July picnic on Facebook,” Jardis said, “and a friend responded, ‘Where did you move, Mayberry?’”
Jardis also found a local connection in Gretchen Sporleder Orr, a fellow Dartmouth grad, who along with her husband, Brian, owns the county’s weekly paper, the World Journal. Long ago, Orr did what many young people do — she left to launch her education and her career. But after several years away, she found reasons to return.
Although Huerfano County stands as one of only two Western counties that, since 1980, have gained population while simultaneously losing minority residents, mainly young Latinos who have migrated to cities, Orr describes a diversity that figured strongly in her decision to return.
She had gone off to college and then taken a job in publishing in Boston before following an exodus of young people getting back to nature. Realizing she could buy a house in her old stomping grounds for less per month than she paid for parking in Boston, she made the move in 1989.
“Part of it was family,” she said of her decision, “but also I loved the way it was when I grew up here. The multiculturalism was really fantastic, the kind you’d find in a large city, where you can rub elbows with people from all sorts of different cultures and lifestyles, religions, sexual orientations, all of that stuff. I thought this is the perfect place to come back and raise kids.”
She added: “The best thing I ever decided to do is move back here.”
Most recent transplants to Walden had a prior connection to the alpine town, a reason, however small or long ago, that drew them back up the winding, mountainous road to far northern Colorado.
It’s not a place people tend to pass through, past Granby and up Colorado 125, gradually climbing higher as mountains give way to scrub brush and cattle ranches. Walden, where Main Street drifts with snow and locals measure time in winters, is the “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado.” There’s a drive-thru liquor store on the no-light Main Street. “Welcome Hunters” banners flap on business fronts.
The area is North Park, Colorado’s northernmost basin, where there is fewer than one person on average per square mile. (The other basins are South Park and Middle Park).
Look east to the postcard-perfect view of the snow-dusted Never Summer mountain range and west to the Mount Zirkel Wilderness of the Continental Divide.
Walden, however, is a mix of beauty and poverty — the charm of the Antlers Inn and the mountain-town classic Stockman Bar, alongside boarded-up storefronts and run-down buildings with peeling paint.
“Whichever way you come into town, it looks like poverty,” said Colleen Conroy, assistant administrator for Jackson County.
Conroy, who grew up in Denver’s northern suburbs, moved to Walden in 2012, where her morning commute to the annex of the columned courthouse, wrapped in Christmas garland this time of year, is three minutes. She ice-fishes for trout on weekends and wheels tomato plants into a friend’s greenhouse for the long winter.
Conroy’s connection to Walden goes back to 1990, when her 21-year-old brother was killed in a car accident when she was 11. As her family grieved, and her parents worried about her, they thought it best to send her to Walden for the rest of the summer to live with family friends. “The people were wonderful. That’s what I remember,” she said.
Tim and Heather Oberbroeckling moved from Westminster to Walden in July 2013, fed up with traffic and crime. Their daughter was 6 when the body of 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway, who was abducted on her way to school, murdered and dismembered in 2012, was found about a mile and a half from the Oberbroecklings’ home. They counted three times that their daughter’s Westminster school was put on lockdown in the span of a few weeks.
Heather’s connection to Walden was her mother, who was born there. As a girl, Heather spent summers with her aunt on a Walden ranch. But it was Tim, a hunter, who wanted to move there. Heather resisted for years. “There wasn’t a Target,” she explained.
Now Amazon is her “new best friend,” and she finds herself pausing in the City Market in Granby to inhale the smell of fresh produce, something rarely found at Walden’s tiny grocery store. She learned to stock up on milk and freeze it for later.
But instead of dropping her daughter off at her mom’s house at 6 a.m., hitting the Starbucks drive-thru and commuting an hour to work in Littleton, Heather works from home billing for Walden’s medical clinic, and her daughter, now 11, can walk the few blocks to school. “I don’t feel as stressed, and I don’t feel as tired,” Heather said.
Tim opened North Park Plumbing and uses his free time to hunt everything from ducks to moose. The Oberbroecklings’ fifth-grader raises rabbits and pigs in 4-H, plays on the basketball team and has just 19 kids in her grade.
Jodie Douthit also had to be persuaded by her husband, Alan, to move to Walden, a common theme among the women in town. Jodie grew up in Walden, graduated from high school there and left town “with no signs of ever coming back.” But after 13 years in Berthoud, where she was an assistant vice president of a bank and Alan worked for the water district, Jodie caved. “He wore me down. I said no every year for about 10 years,” she said. Their kids, who were 7 and 10 then, didn’t want to go.
Their first trip to the Walden grocery store, which has since improved, was a memorable one. “The eggs were frozen. The cheese was moldy and the ice cream was popping out of the containers. My kids were like, ‘Why did you make us move up here?’” Jodie said.
That was almost 10 years ago. Time off now is spent hunting, fishing and hiking. One of their daughters had to give up softball (there aren’t enough interested girls in Walden to keep up a team) but took up competitive shooting.
Alan works in logging and Jodie works at the school, which has 188 kids from preschool through 12th grade. The school’s enrollment has steadily declined over the past two decades, and hiring teachers is difficult.
“You offer the job three, four, five, six times before you find someone who will take it,” Jodie said. If a man applies for job at the school, you “sell the town to the wife” because experience has taught Walden residents that “it’s the wife who usually needs convincing,” she said.
Probably best not to mention that at more than 8,000 feet, there are 50 frost-free days per year.
“There’s country, and then there’s 8,700 feet and eight months of winter,” said Jackson County bison rancher Jim Beauprez, son of former congressman and Republican gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez.
To break up the long winter, there is the annual ice-golfing tournament, where golfers hit tennis balls into ice holes drilled into a frozen reservoir. And there’s more than one ice-fishing derby. Every June, the rodeo and pioneer days draw hundreds of people, many of whom are returning to their hometown.
Chad Carlstrom, in a sweatshirt and baseball cap at the River Rock Cafe, is a sixth-generation Walden resident who returned home after several years in Windsor, where he ran a financial services office. “I was tired of what I was doing every day,” he said. “We were tired of the rat race down there. Here, it’s very down to earth. There are no fancy people.”
Carlstrom knew Walden needed a store to process game meat for hunters, so he opened one on Main Street with a childhood best friend. He also builds houses.
That’s the thing — there’s plenty of economic opportunity in Jackson County for those willing to work for it, residents say. The unemployment rate in Jackson County is just 1.6 percent, lower than the state average.
Carlstrom’s wife, Chrissy, is the school principal. And their son has just 12 kids in his class, where he is the only boy. Now 16, a basketball and football player, it “depends on the day” whether he enjoys spending all his class time with teenage girls.
Joe Brand, a park manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, brought his wife and three kids from Highlands Ranch three years ago to fulfill his dream of working in an alpine zone. His children love their new life, raising chickens and participating in 4-H. Brand is comfortable enough now among his fellow townsfolk that he called the local paramedic at home the other night after one of Brand’s kids fell out of bed.
Kids in Walden play outside past dark and, in the summer, meet up with their poles at the pond. Since everyone knows everyone else, no one gets away with much.
“The good news is that everybody is in your business, and the bad news is that everybody is in your business,” joked Brand.
“It’s kind of like the ’70s up here,” said Jamie Brown, who owns Zirkel Liquors drive-thru, Great Divide Tannery and a Culligan water franchise with her husband. She’s also a school administrative assistant and runs a tourism website at waldencolorado.com.
“It’s nice to turn the kids loose when they are 7 and know they are spending the day fishing in a safe place a few miles from town. I love the village mentality.”
On a desolate stretch of I-70 nearly to Kansas, a sign among the blowing weeds spells out a town’s plea.
“Got land. Got water. All we need is you.”
While Flagler isn’t giving away free property to just anyone willing to move to the flat lands of eastern Colorado, the town will cut a deal: If you’ve got a business idea, a manufacturing plant or a factory that will create jobs, Flagler has three 160-acre plots to give away.
Town clerk Doris King has fielded hundreds of calls in the past few years, but Flagler has closed no deals since it first offered free land. A bird-seed packaging plant. A solar-panel manufacturer. A chicken slaughtering and packaging house. They all came close; some even put up earnest money but, in the end, decided on another town.
Just a few weeks ago, an artist called to inquire, and one woman wanted to use the land to create an affordable cemetery for veterans, charging only $200 per burial plot. The flaw in her proposal was that a cemetery creates few jobs. One man wanted to open a roping arena, but his plan had the same problem.
Flagler, population about 600, purchased the land in 2005 from a rancher who was going into foreclosure, then sold 10 acres back to the family. It’s clear from the town website that Flagler would appreciate a few more residents. It boasts an “excellent school system that has an indoor swimming pool,” two convenience stores with fuel, a “very nice 9-hole golf course,” several churches and a flower shop.
The average home value in Flagler is about $100,000, far more affordable than the state average of about $250,000.
Many of the town’s newest residents are retirees — like intrepid seekers Gail and Dennis Hendricks — not business owners. Nevertheless, they inject new blood into the community as a reminder that, just as many rural Coloradans pull up stakes and high-tail it to the city, some still head in the opposite direction in search of a better life, bridging the Colorado Divide.
“They can sell their home in Denver and come out here and buy a home for a little bit of nothing,” King said. “It’s just a laid-back lifestyle.”
Use the graphic below to explore county-level data for home values, income, poverty and population in Colorado from 1980-2016.