How one part of Southwest Colorado seeks to reclaim the bounty of yore through agriculture and cultivation

Cows meander through fields lying fallow: alpine snowpack keeps the lowing animals rumbling through rolling desert country this time of year. Emboldened deer crunch old apples under leafless, gnarled trees. In the distance, a jagged ochre ridge saws to the horizon: the La Sal mountains gaze towards us, silently, deferentially.

Sixty miles from the nearest stoplight, the West End of Colorado corners Montrose and San Miguel counties into the towns of Norwood, Naturita, Nucla, Bedrock, Redvale and Paradox. The region’s slogan, “Many Towns, One Community” belies its varied past.  

Known for years as a hub of extraction — first of vanadium, uranium and coal, then later as manual labor exported to wealthier towns up-valley, the West End might be refreshing its approach to survival. Instead of relying on external benefactors, the communities — more than ever — are turning inward to reinvest in their future. 

west end colorado paradox valley farming agriculture
Looking out among the agricultural lands of Paradox Valley in the West End of Colorado, with the La Plata Mountains in the background.Tiona Eversole

THE FOUNDING OF THE WEST END COMMUNITIES 

The C.C. Company was organized for the purpose, primarily, of building a ditch to enable its members to secure homes as a result of, or by their own labor, and on completion of the ditch, a community established to engage in such enterprises as may seem advantageous.” F.B. Logan, Altrurian 1901 

With the founding of Piñon in 1896, West End settlers bought into the concept utopia. Part of a broader movement of communal societies founded in the wake of 1893’s economic crisis, “small groups… elected to remove themselves entirely from [the capitalist] system in favor of a more communal lifestyle in which they could support and rely upon one another,” writes Madison Basch for Colorado Virtual Library. 

Many of the transplants migrating from the Midwest by way of Denver imported a mindset framed by modesty, pragmatism and hard work. A massive labor of economy and love, founding members of communities known then as Piñon, Coventry and Cottonwood dug the ditch and erected the trestles that would provide water for (hopefully) decades to come. They planted hectares of apples, pears, peaches and grapes. Barns were raised, and children were reared in the idyllic yet difficult country life many so often romanticize. The West End, for years, blossomed

Yet the rise and fall of mining, plus boom-and-bust cycles for skilled labor tested this area’s “frontier spirit.” The West End, colonized by European settlers, unknowingly continued a legacy devoted to water and abundance that the U.S. military had attempted to quash in the generations of Colorado Natives preceding the region’s settlement.

THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE WATER

In seasonal Ute travels, bands “returned to the same springs, creeks and rivers to ensure that we had enough water for people and horses …” noted the exhibits at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose. 

The naturally functioning San Miguel River (and her sister river, the dammed-yet-still-wildish Dolores River) have hosted humanity for over 10,000 years — memories and traces still found in ancient buildings, structures and art. Petroglyphs and pictographs of pre-colonization life in the West End’s fertile yet harsh environment remind visitors and locals alike: life out here can be beautiful.

Water is precious in the Southwest: West End settlers had labored for its use — even while the Southern Ute had to fight for their rights only recently to receive an allotment that treaties granted over a century before had promised. With the federally-ratified Brunot Agreement of 1874, Ute bands didn’t just lose their water, land and mineral rights in the San Juans; they also “forcibly relinquished [about four million acres of] land to the US government,” and were relocated to arid lands far from their ancestral homelands, according to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

In writing of water in his 1986 classic novel, “Cadillac Desert,” Marc Reisner notes: “It was one of those details that dwell in a special kind of obscurity reserved for the perfectly obvious.”

west end colorado apple core core project nucla post office
Documentation of the ancient apple tree living adjacent to the Nucla Post Office.Apple Core Project

APPLES AND THE FUTURE

The obvious steps to the future lie nestled within nuanced complexities of “The American West and Its Disappearing Water” — many of which tie back to the 19th centure doctrine of Manifest Destiny, “the ultimate commodification of land as property, possession and conquest,” according to Diné (Navajo) Park Ranger and archeologist Adesbah Foguth of @Native_Power_Rangers on Instagram.

These complexities created the communities that brought many of our foremothers to this land. If, in 2020, our society struggled, collectively, to reconcile its identity and reevaluate its values, 2021 challenges us: how will we show up for the things we believe in?

The West End’s Apple Core Project promotes fruit tree preservation through mapping, identifying, grafting, planting and documenting heritage apples, and reorients the region towards the abundance of yore.

In their work reviving legacy apple cultivars, founders Jen Nelson and Mel Eggers both echo the desire to “create healthier food systems (and) wholesome communities.”

Nelson spoke of her desire to personally reestablish sovereign food systems, honor the hard work of our predecessors and incorporate a work-play balance into daily life. Eggers nodded, and partner Bodie Johannsen remarked: “this is about figuring out a plan to just make it all happen.” 

All three spoke of leaning into the spaces we intentionally create, looking to a modern-day visualization of community that lets us continue to work the land in a way that’s healthy, systemically, at the same time as looking forward to how we share it with others.

As children scampered behind them, the three apple farmers looked wistfully to the jagged horizon: “this is about honoring the land.”

Maybe it’s the revitalization of a collective community consciousness for wellness and prosperity that sparks joy within residents new and old. Honoring the past, however we understand it, is important to us all. 

Whether there’s something in the water, the sand or the sun, the West End’s allure is undeniable. The biggest challenge to those who are drawn to it? Learn to honor the past. Elevate the area’s abundance. Invest in the community, and make your time count.

The people, as much as the land, don’t forget.

For more information on Native American food sovereignty, watch “Gather.”

DANI REYES-ACOSTA saunters between the mountains and the desert: as a freelance brand strategist, educator, and mountain athlete, she thinks we can all have a say in how we build community with others on this planet. Find her on Instagram as @NotLostJustDiscovering.