Scott and Robin came in looking for a shower. They were too late, the mark of first-timers.
This was their first full day in town after arriving last night from Parachute, a small town of 1,100 people on I-70 about 45 miles from here. Parachute's slogan is "A Safe Place to Land."
Until this month, they had been employed at restaurants in Glenwood Springs, a resort town another 45 miles upriver. Glenwood is the town where I grew up. It's beautiful, set in a narrow valley with a renowned hot springs. However, there's a shortage of housing at any price.
Affordable housing is an issue all around the Vail-Aspen corridors. Service workers like Scott and Robin can't afford to live where they're employed. That means commuting from places like Parachute, a town that once was going to be the epicenter of the oil shale boom.
Correct that. It was going to be the epicenter of a bunch of oil shale booms.*
Once Robin and Scott lost their jobs in Glenwood, their low rent wasn't such a good deal.
It happened this way, as it often does, a downward spiral that starts with a vehicle that breaks down and can't easily be repaired. They can't get to work without their car and they can't fix their car without work.
Parachute has opened a few legalized marijuana shops but it doesn't have a grocery store. The main industry seems to be serving as a highway rest stop, selling gas and feeding travelers. But those restaurants are mom and pop operations or gas station one-holers. There were no jobs to be had locally.
They were scraping by looking for work in the next town, Rifle, 16 miles away. One day Robin caught a ride there but ended up walking back; no one would stop and pick her up.
A few days ago their power went out. Scott called the power company to find out if it was a general outage. The company said, your power's been cut off. You're behind on your bill. He said, we just paid it 12 days ago. You owe $600, the company said.
How can that be?
They'd made the mistake of paying half the electric bill to a landlord who lived in the other half of the property. He hadn't been paying the bill.
That's when they decided they had to get to a bigger town.
They'd spent the night in their minivan after putting the last of their cash down on a storage unit for their belongings. (The owners let them park inside the gates overnight.)
Their first stop in the morning was the Workforce Center to get a line on potential food service jobs. (Scott is a cook.) Robin applied for food stamps, "though I hope we won't need them. We never have before."
By 11:00 it was too late for a shower before hitting the street to put in applications, so tomorrow they'll be back at the Day Center early. They seemed optimistic.
See you tomorrow, they said.
I'm only here on Wednesdays, I said.
Okay, we'll see you next week.
Or maybe they won't. Maybe this town will be better than the last one and they'll find work quick.
A guy can hope.
*When I was kid in the '50s, there were street signs in the desert, put there by speculators who envisioned a monorail running from Grand Valley (as the town was called then) to the top of the Grand Mesa.
In the late '60s oil and gas producers experimented with an underground nuclear explosion to release oil from the formations in nearby Rulison. That didn't catch on, either.
In the early '80s the big oil producers built worker housing on nearby Battlement Mesa for the next boom that was supposed to happen. The Colony Oil Shale Project shut down suddenly in May, 1982, laying off more than 2,000 workers on Black Sunday, and sending all of western Colorado into a depression that last for years.
The worker housing was later marketed to retirees from out of state. Some of those buyers are disturbed to learn they only control the surface rights to the land. Gas wells have been showing up in the neighborhood again.