October 31, 2013

A Too-Quiet Halloween in the Foothills

As I write, it is after eight o'clock on Halloween, and not one trick-or-treater has come up our driveway (usually by car, I should add).

Last year, a week after a wildfire took out part of the town, we had at least two groups, I recall. And in those instances, one or both parents were volunteer firefighters. Maybe they were showing that they were not defeated.

A year later, the road is darker and less-inhabited.

The fire did most of its physical damage in an hour, and by the time they brought in the Type 2 Incident Management Team and all that, it was already slowing down in spots, running out of heavier fuels.

The psychic damage came more slowly: the never-to-rebuilt houses, the not-even-cleaned-up sites, the abandonments, the deaths, the divorces, the business closings.

Now many small towns, especially on the prairies, have shrunk over the decades. Main Streets are full of empty storefronts. We had far less distance to fall.

When M. and I arrived 21 years ago, there were two churches, a post office, a little grocery store (where you would go if suddenly out of dog food or beer), and a bar-cafe with regular hours.

Now there are two churches, the post office with hours reduced, and a so-so steakhouse that opens two evenings a week.

I would call our community a village, except that in the West, no one but real-estate developers uses that term, reserving it for planned developments: "The Village at Elk Meadows," that kind of thing.

Maybe we are settling toward how Colorado writer Merrill Gilfillan, in his excellent Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains, defined the word "hamlet."
Hamlets have no visible means of support; no schools; no class plays; no historical museums; little public enterprise save the occasional gas station/grocery combination.
Except the nearest gas station is 14 miles away, in the small town of which we are effectively a suburb.

And maybe the deaths and divorces would have happened away. It takes two or three years to sell a house anyway — job changes often mean that people move away and leave the old place empty, paying two mortgages.  Or the heirs dump it cheap.

I certainly would not trade this situation for manic growth. I have been there much of my life.

One landowner — a rich doctor —buys up some of the properties that come on the market for his hobby-ranch empire. He claims to be saving us from rampant development. Really?

For now, the nights are darker. Mostly, M. and I are all right with that. We like the darkness. But sometimes I am troubled just a little bit by the sensation of community dwindling away.

And the irony there is that for at least ten of those years, we were just exurban refugees. We did not really interact with anyone but our immediate neighbors. We worked elsewhere (most people do). It took a long time to develop local social knowledge, even a little.

One family with young children has moved in nearby. We have talked with the father just a little. They are doing the whole chickens thing, and now there are goats. (How will that work out without irrigation?) But their kids did not come trick-or-treating. They too must find the darkness and distance strange and threatening

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