© 2008 by Orin Hargraves
All Rights Reserved
(This essay first appeared in Creede Magazine in Fall, 2008.)
My Creede pedigree is a bit shallow and not very long – I only really lived there for seven years. But when anyone asks me where I’m from, I always say, “Creede, Colorado”; no other place comes to mind. I am always happy to take the time to explain where Creede is and what sort of place it is, because it matters: my childhood in Creede, even though it is now long ago, had a bigger impact on who I am today than any number of other periods of my life spent in different places.
I didn’t live in Creede till I was six years old, but when I arrived there with my mother and two brothers in 1960, we came with pretty good credentials. My uncle was the postmaster; my grandmother owned the Creede Hotel, where we had already slept in nearly all the rooms on our frequent visits. My great-uncle and aunt owned and ran Cottonwood Cove at Wagon Wheel Gap, where my mother had spent most of her adolescence. I haven’t done the math, but it’s pretty likely that I was conceived in Creede as well. My parents, after their marriage in Creede, lived in an apartment in the upstairs of the movie theater in the building that is today the Creede Repertory Theatre.
From today’s vantage – almost 50 years after the beginning of my years in Creede – those seven years of my life are a treasure. The conventional wisdom today is that moving is disruptive for children because it uproots them from a familiar environment. I don’t remember anything but excitement at the prospect that we would move to Creede, because it was a place that we already knew. Moving there felt like becoming a member of a friendly family that you had only had the opportunity to visit before. No sooner had school begun (I started first grade there) than I was fast friends with all the other kids in town who were my age – all ten of them.
There is also some conventional wisdom – perhaps only conventional prejudice – that living a place as small as Creede begets small horizons, small opportunities, and small aspirations. But what I remember most vividly about my childhood was how huge my world was. The things that were familiar to me, and to every boy in town of my age, went far beyond the confines of home and neighborhood. The town really was the neighborhood; hardly a week passed when you didn’t have an occasion to walk up and down every street of it.
Outside the boundaries of the town was where the big world lay. Mammoth Mountain rose in our backyard, only twenty feet from the back door. Every boy knew the trails that traversed it, and where they met up with each other, and with other trails that led to other places. If the mountain wasn’t entertainment or challenge enough, there was the canyon, or Windy Gulch, or the river, or one of the upriver creeks. We knew all the places that were special to boys and carried the names that we gave them – the school cave, the ice cave, the bat cave – and we could wander as far as our feet or our bicycles could take us in half a day without the danger of running into anything that would worry a parent – even if we did sometimes explore places that we were not supposed to.
From this vantage, the time in Creede seems short – and it only lasted until I’d finished seventh grade, and we moved to Monte Vista – but it’s hard to imagine how more living could have been packed into seven years: they supplied memories that have lasted for this much of a lifetime, and that I will happily carry with me to the end. My childhood in Creede gave me so many invaluable things that have persisted my whole life and that have been a part of me wherever I have lived. There are three in particular.
The first thing is an intimate connection to nature. At the time that this relationship was forming I didn’t have any awareness of it. Nature was our playground, and our only playground; it was like water is to fish. The electronic diversions for Creede kids in the early 1960s were a fuzzy black-and-white TV with three channels, pinball at Gertie’s or the bowling alley, and listening to KOMA on the radio at night.
These could not really compete with the alternatives, liking searching for giant nightcrawlers in the banks along Deep Creek, or cutting down your own Christmas tree after stomping through feet of snow, or swimming in the ice-cold water of Rat Creek behind a makeshift dam. I didn’t realize until much later in life what the great legacy of all that was, but when I finally got it, I was grateful for it and it has enabled me to find a balance in my life wherever I go. The solution is easy: spend as much of your time as you can outdoors, and take an interest in what goes on there, beyond the confined world of human activity.
Another, even more valuable thing that I learned in Creede was community. This was the greatest privilege of being a child in Creede and it, too, was bestowed on me without my knowing it, and without my appreciating it until many years later. Creede was a big family: you rarely passed anyone on the street that you didn’t know, and even if you did, you said ‘hi’ anyway, out of friendliness and respect. You knew who lived in every house on every street, and you probably knew who used to live there as well, and where and why and when they moved. You knew all the eccentric people who lived alone, who was related to them, and who looked after them. On the rare occasions when the fire siren sounded it filled your heart with dread because you knew that if a house was burning, it belonged to someone that you saw every day. If you happened to run into an adult in your wanderings in the mountains, it was never someone unfamiliar; and if you were up to no good, you knew there was a pretty good chance that news of it would get back to your mother before you did.
Of course I have not found this sort of community anywhere else I have lived, but what it gave me was an understanding of why you need community and what things make it work. In all of the places that I have lived, for short or long periods, I have set about right away forging the connections with people that I know I will need to sustain me there; the community that I enjoyed in Creede is always the model.
The third thing that I learned from a childhood in Creede is the hardest to define: the value of freedom. Like the other two treasures from my childhood, I did not appreciate this one fully until much later in life, and even now I reflect on it often and continue to realize what a privilege I enjoyed. This was a gift that came from both the place and the time. Now the world is changed: I think no children growing up today, even in Creede, have the opportunity to explore as wide a world as the one that existed there, up in the mountains, 50 years ago.
There are probably some folks alive today who, if their memories serve, would note that it was a little too much freedom at times. In retrospect, it seems to me that boys then had the freedom to go just about anywhere, and try just about anything that came into our imaginations. Not because nobody was looking after us, but because everybody was looking after us. There were boundaries but we didn’t notice them until we were standing on them, or trying to climb over them, and the safety net was huge: it extended all around Creede, as far as any of us dared to wander. Knowing that it was there gave us the confidence to test our limits. Child psychologists focus on the years before adolescence as a make-or-break time when children develop their ability to do what they need to do: to be industrious, devise and carry out goals, master practical skills. I wouldn’t have said so at the time, but I think now that the opportunity to explore so widely early in life formed the basis of my confidence that I could do whatever I set out to do.
One result of all that freedom is that I’ve made a life that now doesn’t often include Creede. It doesn’t seem quite right to me that I let so much time pass between my visits back. Every time I am there I tell myself, and I assure everyone I see, that I will be back soon. But then years pass. Life makes demands, the routine I have created for myself keeps me tending to regular rounds, and a return to the mountains falls off the radar. My native Western accent is now all but obliterated by education and living in so many other places, but once in a while someone detects a trace of it, and this is so gratifying to me: it is an emblem of the part of my life that I value most, and I am happy that any part of it still shows.
Most of the time, I content myself with visits to a Creede that I still manage to see fairly often: the Creede of my dreams. Sometimes this Creede is a town that I could describe to anyone who has been there and they would recognize it. At other times it is a Creede that no one would know: it contains strange buildings, odd creatures and trees, streets and pathways in places where none actually exist, or going to places that don’t really make sense. Peculiar things happen in this Creede: people appear in it from later in my life who did not know me as a child and who have never been there; and the dead often return, living and breathing like the rest of us, with particular things to say and do. This is a Creede that others would not know, yet in my mind I know that this place is Creede, as well as I know that my hand is at the end of my arm: the thing that is never absent is that sense of being enfolded by the mountains, the certainty that if you look up you will see the Snowshoe, or Bulldog Mountain or Mammoth Mountain or the cliffs of the canyon. This is a Creede that I make unscheduled but fairly regular visits to, and I am always happy, upon awakening, to have been there again, and to have heard the ever-present roar of the creek in the flume -- it's always there if you stop to listen.
When I look at where I am today, I see that basic choices I have made, after sampling from an extensive menu, are in many ways a reflection of what I started out with in Creede: I live surrounded by nature, with a 700-acre forest across the road where I walk often. I have few neighbors but I’m on friendly terms with all of them, and we take care of each other as much as we need to. Most of all, I am lucky enough to have preserved – as often as not by conscious choice – a degree of freedom in my life that keeps me feeling most of the time that I am not fenced in. Spoiled? Perhaps.
Or perhaps just never grown up properly. But I feel a strong continuity today from those childhood years, so long ago, and I think it is largely because so much good fortune smiled on me then that I enjoy what I have today.
I expect there’s a good chance that the patterns of living I’ve fallen into will continue – they say that’s what happens when you get to middle age – and the upshot of that is that, realistically, I’ll probably only see Creede a half a dozen more times or so. No matter: it has left its mark. There’s a big part of it that never leaves me, and if any part of me is left to wander the earth at the end of this road, the real Creede is the place where I will return.