CSS Inspire – Why some Coloradans are cashing out of the Front Range and seeking their rural happily-ever-after – The Denver Post


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.”

Dennis and Gail Hendricks have coffee ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Dennis and Gail Hendricks have coffee outside their home on Dec. 12, 2017, in Flagler.

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.

Walsenburg, in Southern Colorado, is the ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Walsenburg, in Southern Colorado, is the county seat and the most populous city of Huerfano County, seen here on Dec. 20, 2017.

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.”

[ Related: Colorado’s population could increase by nearly 3 million people by 2050, according to forecast numbers ]

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.”

Aubrey Lykins, 27, works on chores ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Aubrey Lykins, 27, works on chores at home on Dec. 20, 2017, in Walsenburg.

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.

Elaine Vigil cleans a table at ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Elaine Vigil cleans a table at George’s Drive-Inn Burgers, a restaurant she has worked at for more than 20 years on Dec. 20, 2017, in Walsenburg. Vigil was born in the small, Southern Colorado town.

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.”

Aaron Vasholz works on raising plants and vegetables on December 20, 2017 in Walsenburg, Colorado. Vasholz and his wife moved to 160 acres outside of Walsenburg, in Southern Colorado, to get away from the hustle and bustle of Eagle County.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Aaron Vasholz works on raising plants and vegetables on December 20, 2017, in Walsenburg.

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.”

Aaron Vasholz and Sarah Jardis moved ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Aaron Vasholz and Sarah Jardis moved to 160 acres outside of Walsenburg, in Southern Colorado, to get away from the hustle and bustle of Eagle County.


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