The six county San Juan Region is a place where the spirit of Colorado not only lives, but thrives. It is a place of coal mines and cowboys, of hiking and hemp. It is inhabited by people who are proud, resilient, and welcoming. And it is this vastness and diversity that make succinctly answering the question, “What makes the San Juan region unique?” such a difficult task. Difficult, but not impossible.
This October marked the first time I visited the San Juan region of Colorado. As a first year Fellow at El Pomar Foundation, the westward journey was a rite of passage—an opportunity to immerse myself in the region, deliver merit grants on behalf of the Foundation, and meet the community leaders I will be working with over the next two years through the Regional Partnerships program. Traveling from Gunnison to Paonia, Montrose to Ouray, Ridgway to Telluride, I encountered a Colorado I never knew, yet spoke to me like an old friend. Winding along the road was a journey with a diverse landscape and people exuding the unbridled spirit of Colorado.
During one hour on the road, I found myself in the middle of an arid moonscape dotted with sagebrush; the next, in the damp breath of a fern forest. Mountains and mesas give way to each other in a cycle that spins like the remaining cottonwood leaves along the Uncompahgre River. Postcard pastures hold fiery pumpkins, corn mazes, idyllic cabins, and too many happy cows to count. Then there are the towns.
Not so much founded, but settled, the towns of the region spread out among geographies so diverse it seems the wind blew them there. Ouray, clinging between ruddy cliffs and sheer stone walls, stands in contrast to Paonia, which spreads along the North Fork of the Gunnison like the squash and grapes of its surrounding hills. Gunnison’s buildings cling together for warmth in the heart of a grassy valley, while Telluride commands its natural cul-de-sac below Bridal Veil Falls. Despite the distance between them, the residents share an unspoken understanding for nature’s beauty and providence.
Coming from all stations in life, the region’s leaders are ranchers, business owners, bankers, teachers, health advocates and journalists. They are community conveners, connecting nonprofits in Gunnison, remodeling opera houses in Ouray, and helping immigrant children take the stage to act. They serve their cities with solidarity, supporting each other’s coffee shops, fundraising campaigns, and ideas. These people, even in the face of obstacles like mine closures and winter snowdrifts, are united in their efforts to invest in future generations and the towns they call home.
At the end of my immersion trip, I reflected upon my encounter with the San Juan Region, the remarkable leaders who serve on the San Juan Council, and the collaboration made possible by the Regional Partnerships program. Giddy with gratitude and anxious to tell my co-workers about the experience the following morning, I suddenly remembered a question posed to me before I departed, “What makes the San Juan region unique?”
Six hours west of Colorado Springs, along a winding pass between Ridgway and Telluride, pull your car to the edge of the blacktop civilization. Among the October leaves in the shadow of Mt. Sneffels, listen. Closely. You may find after a moment, the answer comes from within:
Garrett Mayberry is a member of the Fellowship class of 2015. He serves as a regional Fellow in the San Juan region, which includes Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray, and San Miguel.