Southwest Colorado, in the season between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, can seem like a different country. Traffic is noticeably worse because the roads are busier and because more of the drivers are visitors who are appreciating the scenery or looking for signs, restaurants, motels and gas stations rather than keeping their eyes on the road. Those restaurants, motels and gas stations are busier, as are other businesses whose goods and services appeal to tourists.
It is tempting to think of the summer visitors simply as The Others. Their defining characteristic is that they are just visiting. What they want from their experience here is different from what locals want, in part because locals need to earn a living, and tourists are here not to earn but to buy what this unique region has to offer.
They are not all alike, though. It is instructive, every so often, to consider what brings them here, partly because that helps to break their otherness down into recognizable groups – also because it reminds locals of the positive aspects of living here.
Visitors come to see Mesa Verde or the other archaeological sites of the Four Corners, to drive around the San Juan Skyway, looking up in awe and down in terror, to ride the narrow gauge, watch the rodeo, see the Native American dancers and experience what they think of as the Old West.
They come to cycle on mountain roads and desert trails, hike in the forests, climb mountains, fish in the rivers and lakes. They come for the gorgeous scenery, the relatively clean air, the cool summer evenings. For some of them, especially those from coastal cities, the interior West seems nearly as foreign as the moon. Others come because they remember some version of it and want to recapture good memories, share it with their children, see how it has changed.
Some fall in love and start looking for real estate. Some decide it is a great place to visit but it is too “something” – too high, too dry, too cold in the winter, too isolated, too small – to consider as a permanent home.
It is not for everybody. No place is. But it is pretty darn good, and looking at it through visitors’ eyes helps those who see it every day to regain an appreciation.
At least once a year, residents ought to try to see what visitors see. Is the signage helpful? Are the roadsides clean? Are the people who live here friendly? What does the town look like at midnight and at 6 in the morning? What is there to do on Sunday evenings? Does this seem like a thriving place? Are the residents happy?
A 15-minute reality check is useful. A common local mantra is, “By gosh, if it is good enough for us ...,” but “good enough” needs to be differentiated from “what we really want” and also from “what we have had for so long we do not notice it any longer.”
Equally informative, though, is a moment spent remembering that visitors have spent an entire year saving money so they can spend a few days in the place where locals are fortunate to live all year. When life here grows difficult, as it does everywhere, one quick question usually provides an attitude adjustment: “Would I want to trade places?”
Tourist traffic is a reminder that vacationing here is a privilege. Looking up at those mountains every day is a much better deal.