That Sunday's walk was a long one. I hadn't set out to trek so far, but the day was cool and windless, the hay fields a palette of autumn hues, the Anthracite Range patched with purple shadows cast by clouds. My feet and back felt good.
So good, that when I arrived at my usual turnaround spot along the County Road, I blew past it. "What the hell," I thought. "I'll keep going, maybe shoot for the Go Away house, or Mill Creek Ranch, or maybe, if there's time, all the way to the He is risen place.
I hear people say they walk to clear their heads. For me, it's the opposite. Ideas and imaginings otherwise crowded out by the worries and obligations of daily life pour in. Walking frees me to indulge those ideas, let them rattle around a bit. Walking also slows me down enough to notice my surroundings.
On a bike, or in a car, I'd have missed this sign. I also might not have noticed that the Go Away house had changed. It's a beautiful home, stone and stucco, with impeccable landscaping, wildflower beds and a nicely manicured lawn smack in the middle of real ranch country, clearly built, and owned, by well-to-doers. Above the front porch, a swinging sign, iron silhouettes of happy cowboys on horseback. Below them, stamped through the black metal in bold, see-through caps: GO AWAY!
On this day, I discovered new rich folk had occupied the place-- and friendlier to boot. The sign was still there. Same happy cowboys. Same black iron. But the unwelcoming message had been replaced. It now said, "Hough-D!"
The Hough-D house made me smile. Though the path was familiar, the walk suddenly felt new. It got me thinking about the people my friend Delaney calls, "fringe characters," unique individuals who travel a different route than the main drag. We'd recently lost a couple of our most fringe here in town. One was a homeless man we all called Cowboy. (Hey-- it's a cowboy kind of place.) He was a friendly chap with a bad back and tendency to self-medicate, which got him into occasional trouble. Another was a quirky, antique bottle collector with an infectious smile and over-the-top personality who loved the mountains, and especially relished sliding down them. We called him Shredwin. They're both gone now, and it doesn't feel right.
Not all the fringe characters are so obviously fringe. In towns like this, creativity and resourcefulness are keys to survival. Many who live here exist in that nebulous space between outsider and mainstream. We've chosen this place and this life, eschewing what we were lead to believe we were supposed to do in favor of something different, because we are different. As the saying goes in such places, we're all here because we're not all there.
So, what does it mean to be a "fringe character?"
Fringe characters are...
...the brilliant artist who builds giant, kinetic sculptures. He's known for making you think hard about words and how we use them, versus what they really mean. To recreate doesn't just mean to play, he says, but to re-create. Matter matters.
...the researcher/philanthropist who has proposed creative ways to fill the growing workforce housing shortage for over 20 years. Commissioners once rolled their eyes as they dismissed his ideas. Today, tiny homes and container structures are popping up in communities all over the country and around the world, including here. He was, and still is, a man ahead of his time.
... the much beloved historian, now in his 80s, who still skis the backcountry and runs the sage hills to the continental divide.
...sisters-- one who dispenses kindness and wisdom from behind the cash register of a lunch counter, while the other builds you a sandwich made of love, melty-cheese and whatever else soothes your psyche to makes your day a whole lot better, no matter how it's going.
... the fellow who holds down an important public-service job by day, directs and performs in local theatre productions by night.
... the thrift store clerk who sports copious strands of Mardi Gras beads and assorted bling every day, somehow pulling that look off perfectly.
... his coworker, who dies his hair orange whenever the Broncos make the playoffs.
... the woman who writes operas, performed at the local university.
... the good humored shoe store owners who will schlepp a dozen pairs in and out of the mysterious "back room" to get you the perfect fit.
... the poet-professor ghost hunter and his healthily-skeptical wife.
... the fellow who shows up to the City Council meetings to advocate for more electric car charging stations, better recycling options, or green building initiatives.
... the local singer-songwriters, poets, potters, painters, jokesters, actors, playwrights, and storytellers who make life delightful.
...the woman who stuffs envelopes as a volunteer for a local non-profit.
... the local farmers and ranchers who feed the community.
... the donors and volunteers at the local food pantry who do the same.
... the neighbor who drives a stranger 140 miles round trip for radiation treatments.
... the neighbors who rally to catch your dog when the pooch has gone rogue.
... the kids in the local heavy metal band.
... the picking circle outside the guitar shop that spills into the street on Sunday mornings and fills the air with bluegrass. (Honestly, who needs church when you've got bluegrass?)
...the ex-cop who captures the surrounding landscape with oil on canvas.
...the photographers who grab perfect light at dawn to catch the raging river, or cast rocks, sage and juniper in brilliant contrast against the brightening day.
... the people who live in the He is risen! house.
... the well-loved environmental lawyer turned teacher who survived a tsunami and came home to tell the tale, a pleasure to chat with in the deli section, but who suffered in a way we all missed. He slipped away from us one day, alone, near the banks of the river.
...the people with signs in their yards that say, "YES ON 6A" or "NO ON 6A," or who, back in the day, proudly displayed their signs supporting Bill Owens for governor.
...the people who modified those Bill Owens signs to read, "ill omen," instead.
...folks who advocate for positive change.
...folks who like things just the way they are, thankyouverymuch.
...the chef who strives to craft the perfect bowl of Pasta Puttanesca.
...the best detailer in town.
...the young man living in his van along the Cochetopa writing his memoir. He's young, but it's already a doozy.
...the music shop owner who, after some tinkering in his garage, invents a brand new style of guitar.
... the people who turn out for the annual town clean-up, or the lighting of the Christmas tree, or to stroll the streets for First Friday Art Walks.
...the marbles coach.
...the couple who rescues ranch animals past their working prime.
...the fellow who re-crafts a sign to hang over a doorway, replacing Go Away! with Hough-D! and the people who commissioned him to do it.
...the local ranchers with the twisted sense of humor.
Fringe characters are you and me. They're anyone who adds elbow grease, color, function, fashion, innovation, creativity, spritely conversation, or fun to make life a little sweeter in a small town. Or, in a big town, for that matter.
Of course fringe characters have always come and gone. But lately, in my town, it feels like more departures than arrivals, and that's a worry. They leave for all sorts of reasons of course-- to be closer to family or to retire someplace with a shorter winter. They leave because they die. They leave to realize a dream they can never realize here. Papaya farmer. Boat captain. Oceanographer. Homeowner. What's tougher to take are those who leave because, as good as they've gotten at cobbling a life together with bailing wire and duct tape in this far-away town, they've hit they're tipping point and can't do it any longer. Their rent went up another $200 again this year, or their place has been turned into a VRBO. The audacity of un-fringiness overtakes them. They long for luxuries, like reliable, long-term shelter. Health insurance. A single job to pay the bills instead of four. Or they realize that the job they love and do well here pays a whole lot more in places that cost a whole lot less, and where life could be whole lot easier. The grass really is greener sometimes.
With each departure of a fringe character, we lose a little of our collective soul.
Will my town go the way of so many, forsaking its fringe characters for the almighty dollar, losing its community character in the process? Maybe. Change, like fall, is in the air, though it feels more like the acrid, thick smoke of a raging wildfire. You can smell it. Feel it. Taste it. There's a sense of unease, an ill omen. We're OK, but something's off.
Change happens. There's no stopping it. It's how we respond to it that matters. That, they say, the ability to adapt to change, is resilience.
In my experience, whether, whether folks stay or go, commit or blow, the most resilient among us are our fringe characters, especially the ones who take long, mind-blowing walks.
Stay fringe, my friends. Stay fringe.